They came from all over Europe, from England and Italy and Spain and from just slightly up the hill to the public garage that was to be their home from home for the next few days. They came by plane and truck and car and motor scooter, they came in and plugged into their teams, they shook hands and smiled and looked at their cars and wondered what the next few days would hold for them.
They came to Monaco, and Monaco is different to anywhere they had raced before, even if they'd raced there previously. Every Monaco weekend is different from the ones that came before.
It was also different to the Nurburgring, a week and a world away, a return to the normal life of a driver closing in on his dreams but still unknown outside of the specialist press, unknown and therefore incomparable to those twenty drivers the world tunes in to watch every other Sunday, those drivers whose every action during those two hours is dissected and examined for flaw or genius.
In Monaco the sun shone down on the coiled, bundled wires of road in the Principality, the famous streets that wound back and forth around houses and hotels and buildings like an overambitious version of the Mousetrap game, while sunglassed people swarmed the streets, enjoying the sea breezes and oblivious to the combined efforts of the teams setting up racing cars in an enclosed car park at the base of the cliff pushing the Palais Princier towards the sun.
At the Nurburgring the sun shone down too, oppressing, relentless and without relief from a cooling breeze, baking the sweltering mechanics and engineers who didn't need the climactic harassment on top of the lack of lead time, a factor of running back to back races in consecutive weekends more than a thousand kilometres apart, not including a return to base in between.
The contrast between the two events couldn't have been more pronounced. In Monaco the GP2 hospitality unit was set up on the second floor of the garage, open to the elements on two sides and overlooking the harbour, the yachts, the casino and the sea; at the Nurburgring it was back to the heat enhancing white tarpaulins, surrounded by team trucks and a track carved out of a mass of trees standing with their backs to the circuit as though ashamed at their lack of shade.
In Monaco everyone arrived on Wednesday because of the traditional Friday rest day, which was to be anything but for the GP2 paddock. The teams got down to work with their cars, many of the mechanics wearing team fleeces against the cold of the carpark ground floor, the florescent lighting rigs overhead bleaching everything pale green and washing out the various colours of their uniforms.
The drivers spent their time elsewhere - there was nothing for them to do and plenty of time to do it, and most of them took advantage of their team scooters to investigate the town, to crawl around the track with the race weekend-heavy traffic or to buy some sunglasses under instruction from a girlfriend or to just take in the sun. The ones with ties to Formula One teams - Heikki Kovalainen at Renault, Scott Speed at Red Bull, Adam Carroll at BAR, Nico Rosberg at Williams - made their first of many trips to the F1 teams' areas, to see and be seen at the most important paddock of their young lives.
At the Nurburgring the schedule was back on track, the fleeces were off along with some of the shirts, and parts of the Formula One world was hemorrhaging into GP2 - the paddock overlooked the serpentine section of the track flowing from turn one, and the photographers were keen to take advantage of the photo opportunity. Word leaked out and more people arrived, photographers and Formula One staff jostling for position during the Formula One session alongside the GP2 drivers, all watching for the right line to appear among the many run, ahead of their own time on track.
The drivers were mostly split down the middle in Monaco - about half had raced at Monaco before, and most of the others had been to Macao. Those who had raced there weren't too worried, and those who hadn't thought that Macao was probably harder, or at least publicly. But all of them were slightly anxious - Monaco is the one race that everyone has heard of, the one race that, if they win, allows you to say "yes, I won in Monaco" quietly and know that anyone will know what that means.
And it's the race everyone wants to come to. Nelson Piquet lives in Monaco, and his sister and mother were ever present as expected, but there were also hordes of Piquet Sports shirted Brazilians milling about outside of the car park, all of them buzzing with anticipation of something they couldn't name. Hiroki Yoshimoto's manager had also taken the opportunity to fly over, at great expense, a number of his driver's sponsors, to soak up the atmosphere of Monaco and to see their investment in action. They weren't alone in taking advantage of the event for potential financial gain.
A week later and a country away the drivers were given a reprieve; when the money is in the area the teams get tense, worried that they'll say the wrong thing and insult the wrong person, or otherwise getting annoyed at the intrusion into their programme, at the bodies getting in the way when they are trying to work. Without the disturbance of sponsors the mood lifted, and the drivers were back to making jokes with each other and their teams, throwing water over each other and not worrying about hitting someone who would get upset.
And they can always escape to the cars. In Monaco, with so many different series running over the weekend, the programme was tight - the free practice session was at 9.00 on Friday morning, nominally a rest day and therefore scheduled to be over by lunch, with qualifying run almost immediately afterwards. It meant that any off track excursions in practice, no matter how minor, would probably keep them out of qualifying or, at best, at the back of the grid.
It was the most well mannered practice session yet seen in the series - Olivier Pla was fastest and Xandi Negrao was the only man to find the barriers - and everyone was well placed for qualifying. Everyone, that is, except for Yoshi, whose crew had worked through most of the night to sort out a problem in the engine only for his car to stop at the swimming pool section of the track on his installation lap.
Worse was to come - his crew were unable to sort out the engine maladies and he couldn't run a single lap in qualifying. Eventually a plan was hatched by BCN boss Enrique Scalabroni: Yoshi's teammate Ernesto Viso was to set as good a time as possible and then return to the pits, where his crew would replace his seat with Yoshi's, who would then attempt to qualify in the closing minutes of the session.
The plan came to nothing when Viso hit the wall heavily at St. Devote, crushing any chance his teammate had of being on the grid for the race - without a single lap of the circuit under his belt he would be uninsured, and therefore unable to race.
He was, needless to say, gutted: "I was told that if I could have done even one single lap then I could have joined the race, so I'm really pissed off - I missed out by about 300 metres! I just haven't got the words to describe how I feel - I came here to this place that I've loved since I was really young, and now I'm not allowed to race. It's just stupid."
Piquet was distraught too. After a better than expected practice in his first ever session at his adopted home circuit his hopes of a good grid spot were crushed under the wheels of Can Artam's wayward iSport car on the downhill approach to Mirabeau. Artam was unrepentant afterwards, possibly the only person in Monaco who believed that Piquet was at fault, while the Brazilian, resigned to his fate after eventually finding his way back to the paddock, could only raise his usual shy semi-smile when told what Artam had said about the incident.
Compared to the Monaco drama, qualifying at the Nurburgring was uneventful. Giorgio Pantano topped the time sheets before a few drivers spun, bringing out the yellow flags, which blew out the promise of Monaco poleman Kovalainen and the ART drivers' best laps. It was as though the drivers had sated themselves on qualifying dramas a week earlier, and were keeping their powder dry for the races to come instead.
The Monaco merry go round continued spinning - Mathias Lauda had new sponsors on his car, and he and team boss Paolo Coloni were on yachts every night of the extended weekend, passing from party to party and making every minute count. Paolo had his jacket stolen on the first night in a bar, losing his credit cards and mobile phone in the process, but was making up for lost time with the replacement phone the next morning.
"I was really pissed off after they stole my jacket," he noted the next day, "but how can you stay upset here? There is so much happening all the time - it's like magic." He swept his arm majestically towards the harbour before smirking, his eyes twinkling with Italian mischief: "And of course, there are many beautiful girls here, which makes it all better!"
Even the Racing Engineering crew, normally one of the more sedate teams in the paddock, were making their presence felt, becoming a constant at the Stars and Bars restaurant at the end of every day, Alfonso leading them through the crowd each night to their regular table and a sizeable meal overlooking the Formula One paddock before moving on to the Rascasse bar for a quick drink among the mass of fans.
The Nurburgring doesn't give much opportunity to go out, even if you have any desire to do so. Outside of racing the teams didn't get up to much, and a week on from Monaco that was the way they wanted it. On arrival at the airport Paolo Coloni found a journalist who shared his birthday in the car hire queue, sneaking up behind him to sing Happy Birthday in front of a collection of bemused Germans before drinking a coffee and going in search of his car for the trip to the track.
Ultimately what both weekends came down to was the racing, and with most of the car problems sorted out for many of the teams, the drivers came into their own. In Monaco Kovalainen was on pole and looking set to take an easy win - Arden were showing why they were the pre-season favourites, and the Finn was living up to expectations by storming out to an early lead and running an inch perfect race until the pitstop.
Which was when it all fell apart - the left front tyre wouldn't come off and the stop was destroyed, giving an early stopping Adam Carroll the opportunity to be just ahead on track when Gimmi Bruni came in, perhaps just one lap too late. Carroll, as aggressive in the car as he is easy going out of it, was forced into taking very defensive lines to deny the fast charging Italian, and he ran wide just after the swimming pool, glancing the wall and bending his steering column, but he soaked up the pressure for the final ten laps to lead Bruni and Rosberg home, all three split by just one second at the line.
Carroll's small red face afterwards betrayed a fierce fight between joy and sheer relief - he has never had a strong budget to go racing, relying instead on ability and hope, and a win in Monaco went a long way to proving that hope was not misplaced.
There were smiles all around at the Nurburgring - with the focus back on racing after the distractions of Monaco everyone worked hard to make sure the races filled the gap, and their efforts were rewarded by two fine events. A combination of over revving and extreme temperatures removed a few drivers from the grid before a big crash at turn one took out a few more - Borja Garcia appeared to forget how to brake and speared into Carroll, and the resultant mess removed five cars before the safety car was deployed.
"That was a bit of a PlayStation moment," said one observer in the paddock immediately afterwards. "It looked as though he was using the other car to get him around the corner - if Carroll wasn't there Garcia would be in Luxembourg by now."
"I don't think that's true," Alfonso cut in. "That corner points towards Belgium, actually!"
It all played into the hands of Kovalainen, starting from seventeenth after losing his fastest lap for taking it under yellow flags - he was up to seventh at the end of the first lap and was in quickly for an early stop, giving him the ability to set his own pace when the race restarted. Pantano was slow at the front, chewing through his tyres at an incredible rate and holding up the pack, and came out behind the Finn, while the only other man with a chance at the win, Gimmi Bruni, had his race destroyed by a slow puncture, giving him an evil handling, slowing car and handing the win to the delighted Kovalainen, making up for the lost win in Monaco.
Before the race there was a rare distraction for a few of the drivers - Lauda, Rosberg and Carroll were the second participants in a signing session for the fans. The Spanish signing had been a success despite itself - there was little order with a huge number of people swarming all around the table, but the German signing was, predictably, more ordered, with the fans forming themselves into an orderly queue and waiting for their moment as Will Buxton handed out the portrait cards as they neared the front.
The signing was held in the Bridgestone enclosure, and the drivers were told not to give out the company's hats placed in front of each driver. With so many people asking for hats to be signed, a large number of them red Michael Schumacher caps, confusion was inevitable - someone in front of Rosberg handed a Bridgestone cap to him to sign, and he obliged.
"Wait a minute," Carroll commented from the end of the table, "we're not supposed to give those out to anyone."
"Oh, so it's like that now," Rosberg shot back, a smirk creasing his face, "you win one race in Monaco and now you can tell us all what we can and can't do, huh?" Lauda laughed despite himself as Rosberg sat in the middle looking pleased with himself, and they all got on with the business of signing caps with other drivers' names on them.
The second race started as the Formula One paddock was filling up with people no longer having to worry about qualifying, with the unpopular second session having been scraped at last. The timeslot that had been Formula One's domain in those countries that showed it was now GP2's, and it was the perfect race to introduce the series to a wider market, the kind of race that had people stumbling over adjectives in an attempt to describe how good it was.
It was perhaps even, as one open mouthed journalist later claimed in stunned admiration, the best race seen in the last twenty years.
Bruni was on pole and lived up to expectation by storming away into a commanding lead, while behind him there was chaos - Viso pulled a Garcia move on Lauda at turn one, while a lap later another four cars came together at the same spot, handing Neel Jani second place in an ill-handling car. Jani, all dark eyebrows and bloodhound eyes out of the car, was on fire, driving a firm but clean race, never weaving but leaving a car width and nothing more on the outside into every corner.
Behind him a snake of cars was forming - Piquet, Rosberg, a fast charging Clivio Piccione, hoping to make amends for his accident in his home race after looking so fast a week before, and Super Nova teammates Pantano and Carroll, all looking in vain for a way by the man in front of them as the tyres came in.
The race turned on its head on lap sixteen as Bruni, far ahead and cruising, suddenly slowed with just sixth gear - his pursuers were quickly by and the top six were now split by a second and a half. The ensuing laps took on the appearance of choreographed mayhem - at almost every corner someone looked, or drove, inside the car in front, each car pitching and bucking madly as it's driver fought for traction with armfuls of opposite lock.
Jani somehow held on to the lead for a few laps, his car almost impossible to control with a badly flat spotted tyre, while behind him positions were changing at almost every other corner. Eventually the pressure became too much - Piccione, who was in second at the right time, was through after Jani went just one wheel's width wide, and he gleefully left the pack to their own devices. It was the beginning of the end for Jani, who ended the race in the pits with suspension damage from the deflating tyre after proving his worth once again.
Piccione was rightfully ecstatic after taking the chequered flag, his body a ball of pure joy. He was easy to find back in the paddock - you only needed to follow the smell of slightly stale champagne to his team's truck, where he stood being high fived and slapped on the back by everyone in the area, beaming back at them and talking back in top gear.
"It was amazing!" he laughed out loud. "I think the way these cars are built you have a lot of overtaking opportunities, and this was my best race ever, for sure - if you think Formula One is boring, then you should look at us!"
No one could begrudge him his moment in the sun, not even Paolo Coloni, who had suffered so much bad luck over the weekend: "My friend, I am so sad - a crocodile walked out in front of Gimmi's car, and he ate the whole gearbox!
"But what a race, huh? It was bad luck for us, but it was amazing to see."
On Sunday in Monaco after the Formula One race a number of the GP2 teams were still hard at work, setting up their cars for the Nurburgring rounds just a few days away - time was of the essence, and any time spent there would help them soon. The results rewarded their effort.
On Sunday at the Nurburgring everyone sat down for a relaxing lunch before packing everything away and heading off for a deserved break - every team was packed up and gone as soon as they possibly could be, the sooner to get back to their various homes across Europe, to put their feet up after the back to back races, before the ones still to come.
All of the teams, that is, except for Racing Engineering. Their truck was the last sign of life in an expanse empty but for a dark blob across from their truck. It was Carroll's bent and broken sidepod, the result of the pounding received by Garcia in race one. With the truck packed a mechanic emerged, looked all around him before sheepishly picking up the damaged panel and placing it gently into the back of his truck, closing the back door and driving out of the circuit and heading right, towards Spain.