Last year, Saturday afternoon in Monza, I walked through the gates and out of the Formula One paddock on my way home when I spotted a familiar face sitting on the kerb peering back in behind me. Sitting there alone, completely ignored by everyone walking past was the man who had won a dominant race earlier that day, who had a comprehensive title in his back pocket, who had just finished his last race in the junior categories and was looking for a way in to where I'd just left.
"Hey Tonio," I said, watching Vitantonio Liuzzi as he looked up from the mobile phone he was fiddling distractedly with. "What are you doing sitting here in the gutter?"
"Ah, ciao!" he smiled, standing up to shake hands. "I'm waiting to see if Peter can get me a pass to go into the paddock - he told me to wait here for him."
"You just killed that race today - you'd think that would be enough to get you in there."
"Yeah, for sure - I think so too! But it's not so easy, unfortunately."
Formula One comes from another world, an alternate universe to the one we live in, a planet were a million dollars is a bargain, where the colour of the inhabitants' clothes are more important than their personalities, where their every word and deed is beamed into our homes every other Sunday to be dissected and cross examined for a meaning, even if it has none at all.
Peter Collins, Liuzzi's manager, has done his job, and done it well - he has taken a promising young Italian karter and put him into that world, placed him at the heart of a new Red Bull team which, with their new uniforms and PR approach and giant motorhome that rises for three floors from the centre of the paddock, is the new centre of this other world. Last year Liuzzi would wear one outrageous outfit after another, would make amusing comments to no more than a few smiles; now millions of people around the world will dissect everything he says, everything he does, because he is racing in Formula One.
But just two hundred metres from this alternate universe exists another, one that is a part of our world, one where the inhabitants do effectively the same job as their grand neighbours in their translucent bubble of a world, one which goes about its work without all of the attention, without all of the fuss.
So close, so far. Same place, slightly different time. This is the world of GP2.
This world was being set up when I arrived on Thursday to Imola - the gate wasn't yet in place in the swaying wire fence, and the series' press officer Will Buxton was still setting up the media centre, removing long strips of plastic coating from the carpet, peeling them from wall to wall. When he saw me he smiled broadly, shouted a greeting and came over to give me a hug, to welcome me in.
Will is a small bundle of nervous, joyful energy, a compact package of twenty different emotions, all fighting to get out at once. His dark, curly hair seems to form itself into a mohawk of its own accord, and when he smiles, which is often, his dark eyes twinkle with mischief.
We caught up on each other's movements since we'd seen each other last, months ago in that alternate universe somewhere and, with nothing else to do, I got to work helping him set up the media centre, carrying the tables and chairs into place until the job was done.
All around us the teams were doing likewise; wheeling the cars out of their trucks, setting up awnings and putting down floors and connecting electrical cables and setting up their coffee machines. With the centre set up, Will took me around to meet some people, the ones whose world I was about to cohabit.
The first person we met was Rebecca, Nelson Piquet's press officer and another refugee from the world up the road. Rebecca is overwhelmingly tiny, as though someone formed the smallest package necessary to power her giant smile and unleashed her on the world.
"Any time you need anything from Nelson, just come and see me," she said, looking slightly nervous behind her smile as she did so. Piquet has had a tough time from the British media over the last few years, whether for not being British or merely for being his father's son, and I wondered if this was why he tends to steer clear of the media.
"He's just a little shy really," she smiled. "He doesn't mind if people write bad things about him, as long as they're accurate." Piquet didn't seem too shy to me, other than the usual reticence people have when speaking in another language than their own. He carries himself with a certain self-confidence, an inner belief which I'd been led to believe wasn't there.
But he's a racing driver - all the good ones have that, and some of the others as well, for a while. What they look like, when he and teammate Xandi Negrao stand around in their big black sunglasses, is a pair of actors from the sixties when they still made movies about racing, the foreign guys that James Garner or whoever would have to compete against, for the woman, for the race.
The other guy who is most similar to the pair is BCN's Hiroki Yoshimoto, who has the attitude of a rock star, which probably comes from the fact that he's a singer in a rock band back home in Japan. But the attitude may come from his speed rather than his extra-curricular activities - at least three drivers admitted to me that he was way faster than they expected, and that doesn't happen much in racing.
The rock and roll life doesn't get in the way of his racing one - when the helmet comes on he is intensely focused, concentrating on pulling more speed every time he's in the car. The two lives come back together afterwards - back in the paddock after running off on his first lap in qualifying his racing head came out ("it was my mistake") mixed with his rock one ("I feel like punching myself in the head!"). And then it was over, and he was already looking forward to the race ("I'll just have to overtake a lot, get eighth, and then start from pole in the second race").
The nature of GP2 means every driver needs to focus intensely on his job - everyone has the same car, so the differences come more from the driver than they do in Formula One, where the cars make the biggest difference in performance - but they have more time to themselves to do so, without the distractions of the media, of the Paddock Club and the sponsors, of the hype and nonsense that goes on up the road.
It's clear to see this in the paddock when the cars are on track - the teams are cut to the bone, so if you arrive ten minutes in the paddock before a session you find yourself in a ghost town, with every team member in the pitlane. And when you are up there with them, you can witness the intense focus first hand - the drivers who are always ready to make a joke or clown around downstairs have their race faces on, will give you a nod of recognition and then pull the visor down and head out on track.
It's the team bosses who are probably a little easier going, because they've seen it all before, because it's not them that the fans are focused on, because they can be. Racing Engineering's Alfonso de Orleans Borbon is a good example of this: in any other walk of life he would be unusual at the very least - he's the cousin of the king of Spain, he speaks eight languages, his university roommate is now a famous Hollywood director - but here he's just the boss of a racing team, the guy people ask for advice or a quote, and he obliges us all with the same smile as he peers over his ever present sunglasses.
With his nose permanently pointing towards his phone ("the journalists in Spain would call me all the time, so I told them to text me instead and I will answer them as soon as I get a chance") he will hold court in front of his truck, telling me anything I want to know about the team, interspersed with shouts in French or Spanish to the various people on the team before returning to his American inflected English until I have what I need. Alfonso is the living embodiment of multitasking.
The man next door is an entirely different prospect. When I introduced myself to Paolo Coloni, the first thing he said was "do you want a coffee? Come around out back." He peered at me with his jet black, wolfish eyes as we chatted and then, deciding I was alright and not one of those 'others', he said: "so - what do you think about this problem we've got today?" and launched into the first of at least six conspiracy theories for the weekend, all the time smiling wickedly as if to say 'maybe I mean this, maybe not'.
He's not the only one, though. Racing is all about conspiracy theories, all about preemptive excuses for a lack of performance, because everyone knows that Driver A is fantastic and is only beaten by Driver B because of The Powers That Be / he's cheating / they're letting him cheat / they're screwing our team and not them. If it wasn't for theories and excuses, there would be a lot more losers than winners, and no one wants to see that; better to entertain with a preposterous story than admit to being a loser. They all do it.
But they all do it differently, which keeps it interesting. I'd just walked out onto the front of the grid for the first race with Will when a particularly evil sounding car shot out of the pits - I turned to see Nicolas Lapierre headed towards Tamburello, completely oblivious to the fountain of oil spurting high into the air behind him until his car stopped just out of sight of the pitlane.
I pointed it out to Will, who dropped his shoulders and slumped back towards the pits, knowing that another technical problem was manifesting itself in front of the world. I walked back to the Arden pit to ask, but their team boss Mick was already shaking his head and saying "don't know yet - we're not going to know until we get the car back."
After the race it was the subject of much discussion - the polesitter doesn't normally drop out of a race like this, and everyone had a theory.
"It's human error," said one guy. "We had the same problem in testing - they've dropped the car on the oil pipe."
"No way," said another. "That doesn't just happen - they must have been playing with the engine."
"These things happen," came a third view. "There are always problems with a new car, and that's just one of those things."
All were pleased, of course - their drivers all moved up a spot, which remained unsaid throughout.
Arden were less forthcoming: "It was ... a problem," said Christian Horner's dad, watching over things in the small paddock while his son was working upstairs as Red Bull Racing's sporting director. He has the same reluctance to say too much to the media as his son, the same awareness that words can come back to you, albeit with a smaller dose of the paranoia that affects everyone in Formula One.
"A problem?" I asked. "Really? That oil wasn't supposed to shoot out like that?"
"Okay," he laughed. "It was ... a problem with the oil systems."
"Really? I guess that's why there were so many marshalls throwing quick dry around then. Good to know they're on the job, really."
"Alright, alright!" he laughed. "I don't want to point the finger at anyone - let's just say it was a problem in-house, and leave it at that."
For what it's worth, I figured it was human error when the car was being prepared, but ultimately it doesn't matter what it was because Lapierre was out from pole, and that's all that counted.
He was out again the next morning, after another problem on the car stopped him starting with the grid, allowing him a few laps from the pits before pulling back in a few laps later ("yet another GP2 bug," said Mick, answering before I asked). I walked back to the paddock with the driver after the race, along the pit entrance and past the singing Spanish matadors, enthusiastically serenading us all under a low hanging duvet of malevolent grey clouds with a song glorifying the strengths of Fernando Alonso from the centre of a sea of red shirts.
Lapierre doesn't seem like a driver when you first meet him; only the overalls and helmet in his hand point to his occupation. It's only when you ask him something about the car, about his driving, about the track that it comes out - the intense focus as he works through a lap in his head, as he describes a technical problem, as he stares into the near distance or into your eyes as he does so - it's then that you realise this small, smiling, soft spoken Frenchman does this job that we watch on television, that we think would be fantastic but secretly know that we could never do to that level.
He was talking me around the lap, telling me about the kerb here or the camber there that you have to watch out for, and I was watching his focus as much as listening to him - as he spoke he was right there, driving the lap in his head as he described it, his eyes staring ahead until he came to a turn. And then it was gone - Yoshi went by sitting on the back of a trolley being towed by his team, and he smilingly flicked a V sign with his fingers as he went, halting the lap in a fit of laughter.
His car had broken down before both races but Lapierre was still smiling, still keeping his head up: "Yeah sure, it's a shame for me because the weekend didn't work out so well, but I got two points for pole and two points for fastest lap - it could have been worse."
As if on cue Scott Speed scowled by, a beanpole thin streak of gloom with his usual black cloud hovering just above his head. Speed had a slightly better weekend to Lapierre - podium in the first race, stopped first lap in the second - but the difference in personalities was marked. Timing is everything with Speed - he seems to be either really happy (early in the morning, before his race) or really, really pissed off (standing at the Sauber pitwall stand I could feel the heat of his rage before I saw him - turning around to ask what happened was answered by a terse "no idea" and an invisible sign lowered in front of him which said "do not approach, at all" which even his team observed).
But that's the thing with racers - they do what they need to do to race, to allow themselves or their drivers to get into the cars and drive faster than anyone else. If they've got to work themselves up into a righteous rage, they'll do it. If it takes a discussion of the favouritism of others or fifteen minutes spent looking at the differences between their car and their teammates with a journalist in tow or painting an anime animal on their helmet for luck or anything else, that's what they'll do.
You forgive them for all sorts of things, you indulge them when they do it, because they are doing what they truly want to do and so few people in life actually do that, let alone allow you in to witness it, and because, right here and now, they are closer to that alternate universe, that ultimate goal, than they've ever been, and to get there they have to perform. They do what they have to do to perform, because it's what racers do, because they all want to be the guy sitting on the kerb at the end of the year looking into the Formula One paddock, waiting for his manager to get him in.