5/11/2005 0 Comments
If Imola was the weekend for car problems throughout the grid, then Barcelona was a problem weekend for everyone else in the paddock. Someone at Formula One Management - maybe it was Bernie Ecclestone, maybe it was a flunky trying to justify his existence - decided that GP2 shouldn't have a media centre, which meant anyone wanting to cover the series, or even work in it, was going to have a lot of trouble indeed.
All of the teams used the media centre for issuing press releases, getting fast internet access, or just to having a desk to sit at, with a computer, and work in peace - a peace that was shattered as soon as the journalists started to arrive.
"This is ridiculous!" a German bellowed, reeling as though wounded. "How am I supposed to work if I can't get the internet?"
"I can't plug my computer in!" a Spaniard moaned through the permanent haze of cigarette smoke he generated. "I can't even power it!"
They were beaten to the Mr. Cranky Barcelona title from afar by a British journalist who couldn't get to the accreditation centre because the guards said he didn't have a pass to get there; when he tried to explain that he needed to go to accreditation to pick up the pass to get there, they shrugged confusedly and pointed to a car park a few miles from the circuit where he was allowed to go, prompting a lengthy diatribe during which the word 'bastards' was the most flattering.
The man who had to deal with all of these complaints and more was Stephane Samson, the GP2 head of communications. He sympathised - he's a former journalist, and he wants the press to cover his series, after all - but there was little he could do other than agree, as it was out of his hands. Stephane walked around the paddock all weekend, his dark eyes constantly on the verge of infinite sadness, his facial hair the exact midpoint between stubble and a beard, wondering if anything else could go wrong.
You get the feeling that what GP2 needs most, is to install a bouncy castle; no one can be cranky after a go on one of those.
"It's perfect!" Stephane laughed, his eyes shrugging off the jacket of melancholy, creasing with mirth at last. "If any journalist has a problem I can tell them five minutes on the bouncy castle before they complain to me - after that they'll forget the problem!"
It would help out with any stroppy drivers - any racing incidents and they're into the castle for ten minutes.
"I'm going to have to talk to Bruno about this - I think I want one for myself just to get rid of the stress!"
Bruno Michel, boss of the series, has a lot of people saying "I'm going to talk to Bruno about this" - he could probably use a bouncy castle himself. It would certainly make team principal meetings more interesting.
But the Barcelona sun would be a close second to a bouncy castle in the restorative property stakes - orange and high, the sun in Barcelona gets into your bones, warms you more than the temperature would suggest, makes you feel ready to keep going no matter what happens. Scott Speed obviously thought so - he would be sitting outside of his truck, by himself as usual, but without a shirt for a change, iPod strapped to his thin arms and, when he thought no one was looking, he would start throwing hand shapes and silently rapping along with his songs under the gentle, golden glow of the sun.
They all take advantage of the sun when they can - with their engineers working on the cars there is little for the drivers to do other than sit around and chat, talk about anything or nothing with the others, to keep drinking from their ever present drink bottles and to wait for time to ebb by until they can sit in their cars again, to do what they are here for.
Ernesto Viso in particular seems attached to his car - he can always be found in the BCN (the team, not the city) area doing something to it, whether it's applying and reapplying stickers, running his finger along a gurney flap or cleaning some non-existent dirt away from the sidepods. Away from his car he's a tiny, bouncing ball of muscle, all shoulders and arms and strident pacing around the paddock, but when he is with his car his features soften, his hands unconsciously reaching out to stroke her, to touch her.
It's probably why he seems so outraged when there is something wrong with his car: on Friday he had a problem and was distressed, stating forcefully that they couldn't find out why the engine was not working properly before taking a closer inspection of the offending problem. The next morning he was beaming, radiant - a re-map of the engine solved the problem, and the car was perfect in his eyes once more before the race.
Adam Carroll is the opposite - he spends most of his time away from his car, in the hospitality unit, walking the paddock, talking to the other drivers, making new friends. He doesn't have a huge budget for racing - the British drivers seem to struggle in that respect, and it must be doubly hard to find money to go racing in Northern Ireland - but he's making the most of his time, enjoying himself as much as possible.
"It's great here, isn't it?" he said on Thursday, he soft brogue lilting as he stared out from behind his ever present dark glasses. "And the food is brilliant - I had a kilo of steak last night!"
Carroll is small and wiry under his thatch of blond hair, more junior surfer than racer. How could someone his size eat that much? Where could he put it all?
"Don't worry about that," he smirked as he reached for his phone, "I've got no problem putting it away if it's there! Look." He handed over his phone, which had a photo of a very large steak indeed, before moving on to the next shot showing a bare bone on the plate and nothing else. "I couldn't get that at home, so I've got to eat it while I'm here!"
Carroll's teammate Giorgio Pantano doesn't spend much time in the Super Nova area either - if he's not driving then he spends the rest of the day in the hospitality area in the front seat staring at the Formula One drivers circulating. Free practice, qualifying - whatever it is, he's there, watching every lap with his sunglasses on, his eyes hidden but his memories of racing in the big paddock fresh and raw on his face, across his slumping body as he watches the screen.
It's a sea change from last year, when he would be always smiling, always happy to stop and chat to anyone before stepping back onto his motorised scooter and zipping from end to end of the Formula One paddock, where the results weren't coming but he was living his dream and racing in front of the world, even if he was behind almost everyone else.
The only other person who could understand his predicament is Gianmaria Bruni, who also stepped down from Formula One to GP2 to restart his struggling career, to prove to everyone that he is better than his results showed last year. Bruni had a tough season at Minardi, with an underfunded team and an old car to race, and towards the middle of the year he looked like a man who would rather be anywhere else than where he was.
This year Bruni looks like a new man, back with a team he loves and a team boss who has taken his own unfulfilled dreams (Paolo Coloni came second in the Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort before a collection of problems drew time on his own racing career) and uses them as incentive to help push the man he sees as his little brother to the top.
The uncommunicative, doleful Bruni of last year has been replaced by this year's cheerful, enthusiastic version, a man who is confident enough to walk around in loose shorts and a fishing hat before jumping into his car, setting top times and winning a race and then return to the paddock to rightful acclaim and the hugs of everyone in his team.
His enthusiasm is infectious - even struggling teammate Mathias Lauda is happy for Bruni, and the pair can be often seen talking about the track, about qualifying, about anything that comes to mind. They are good teammates - Bruni knows that Lauda is not a threat to him and is happy to help him out in any way he can, while Lauda is glad just to be racing and wants to learn everything he can about the car and the tracks.
"It's my mistake - I was just a bit shit on that corner," he said after qualifying, during which he'd spun off while on his hot lap, losing a potentially decent time in the process. "I know everyone thinks I'm crap, but you've got to remember that I've only been racing for three years - most of these guys have been racing since they were three."
Lauda, sharp and angular in both word and appearance, is very much his father's son in all but racing results, and straight to the point when looking to the reasons for his lack of them. "I'm not good enough yet, but mostly because of my lack of experience. Look at that race - Gimmi's raced on full tanks all last year, but I've never done it before. But I'm improving - give me time and you'll see."
Like Carroll, Lauda is friendly with most of the drivers; Coloni has the best coffee in the paddock, and there will always be other drivers coming around for coffee and a chat with the Austrian; but unlike Carroll the talk won't be of the battles they've had on track. On Saturday evening he was over in the DPR pit talking to Olivier Pla and Ryan Sharp, the Scot standing back slightly as the other two were discussing their fight earlier in the day, hands rolling back and forth from lock to lock as their bodies rolled around them to describe the spins they both endured.
Sharp mostly stayed out of the conversation, not just because he wasn't involved in the fight but also because his shy, reserved character dictated that he does. Small, dark and quiet, he has a particularly Scottish reserve, the type that suggests he doesn't talk unless he has something to say, added to a shyness that ensures it. He's aware of it, and he knows it's not ideal for a driver who has to deal with the media, but unless he is talking to someone he knows, Sharp looks like a man constantly wanting to pull the words back into his head, to rearrange them into another order before releasing them to the world.
But it's a price he's willing to pay to live his dream, one of many. After winning the Renault V6 series last year he was awarded a Renault Megane as a part of his Championship prize and, after deciding that he would be in GP2 this year, he wanted to get some testing in a relevant car to give him some experience with a more powerful machine. With the Megane on the way but little left in his budget after signing with DPR, he realised the only way to get some good testing miles was to test in an old Formula 3000 car.
To this end he sold his existing car, secure in the knowledge that its replacement was just around the corner, to pay for the test. It went well, but a problem with his prize meant the new car didn't arrive until the week before he flew to Barcelona, necessitating the usurping of his mother's car just to get around. Annoying, he felt, but the test went well so it was worth the short-term pain.
And pain is something Sharp understands. He threw his back out after Imola, with a throbbing stretch of muscle across the middle of his back giving him no end of trouble for a week or more. The only time it didn't hurt was when he was sat in his car, with his racing seat holding his body in position and relieving the strain on his back. It meant he had a weekend off from pushing his car up the pitlane with his mechanics, but he would still get out the vacuum cleaner to dust off his car after every session.
He is the diametric opposite of Juan Cruz Alvarez who, when asked what he hoped for from his season, in the GP2 television interviews at the launch, said: "lots of girls, and maybe a few points." Alvarez is the life and soul of any group; at the autograph signing session arranged for fans at the track, he was the one who remained last to chat to the fans after the drivers left, pretending to sign for each of the drivers before drawing breasts on their pictures.
Despite his good natured humour he was to provide the most serious moment for the series so far - on Saturday he ran wide before the final turn and hit the wall with enough force that it actually broke the safety cell. "It was a big one," he said later. "I was a bit dizzy when the marshalls helped me out of the car, and they said 'do you want to go to hospital?' and of course I said 'no'.
"Then they said, 'do you want some water?' and I said 'sure', grabbed the bottle and started pouring. But then I was wondering 'why can't I taste this water?' and I realised I still had my helmet on! They said they thought maybe I'd better go to the hospital!"
He was in the paddock the next morning, dancing around next to his truck to amuse his friends while he waited to race again, and was back doing the same after the race while Carroll was storming around the paddock, fuming after an accident with Nelson Piquet spun him out of a certain second place. Piquet apologised immediately after the race - the two are friends from a year of competing against each other in British Formula Three - and then wisely stayed out of his way for the rest of the day.
Carroll wasn't so much annoyed with Piquet - racing creates accidents, after all - but rather reserved the full brunt of his anger, and more than a few choice swear words, for the stewards who declared the incident the blame of no one, leaving him feeling like he'd been mugged.
Across the lane Jose Maria Lopez was on cloud nine - after losing a podium the day before he had taken his first win in the new series. Lopez is small and friendly, always ready to talk when asked, but beneath his amiable facade resides an intense racing personality that was entirely unable to forgive him after the previous race for making a small but vital mistake, which lost him points in the Championship.
On Sunday afternoon, though, he had found a way to absolve himself, to expunge the anger and allow himself to enjoy the moment, as well as pushing himself back up the points table. He was still enjoying it all hours later, after GP2's press officer Will Buxton had declared: "I need many drinks after dealing with all of the journalists this weekend - I've got a ticket to Coulthard's party and we're going."
The party, held in the heart of Barcelona, was in full flow, with a number of the GP2 drivers running around like mischievous kids let lose from their parents, all following the lead of Lopez, in his element and lost in the elation of a race win. In Formula One a race winner seems to have consigned it to the past by the time he's finished the television interview, but Lopez was clearly still reveling in the moment and taking his friends along for the ride.
"Have you tried the iced vodka yet?" asked a passing Mathias Lauda, his soon to be missing shirt already undone. "They've got two ice sculptures which they pour vodka through before you drink it from the bottom - come on." At the end of the room stood two sculptures - one male, one female, relatively anatomically correct - surrounded by a shirtless Lopez, Piquet and Xandi Negrao.
A lot of vodka was drunk, a lot of dancing was done, a lot of foolish statements were made with more bravado than sense. Walking out of the party, the sun was just starting to make itself known on the horizon along one of Barcelona's long avenues as Lauda, his shirt long since evaporated, went looking for a car. "That was a good night," was his brief judgment. "DC knows how to host a party."
"Make the most of it," I noted. "Formula One isn't usually like that, and this might be as good as it gets."
"Pfft," he scoffed, draping an arm across my shoulder. "We haven't even been to Monaco yet - this was just a warm up."
He then walked towards the road, stumbled over and rebounded without even noticing while he hailed a cab from the other side of the plaza to take him home.
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