July bled into August as everyone in the GP2 paddock was given a rare week away from the action, a chance to rest and rebuild themselves before the heat of Istanbul scurried around the corner to greet them, to introduce them to a circuit they had never seen, a track which until they arrived was nothing but data and numbers on a computer screen.
The reality of the place only made them more eager to begin their work. A long, undulating circuit, a fresh strip of asphalt winding up and down and around hills of orangey brown dirt, a collection of blind corners and fast sweeping bends connected by long straights stretching up and over the rises in the terrain sat still beneath them, waiting for what was to come.
"This circuit is awesome," raved Ernesto Viso, fresh from a few tours on a quad bike with his engineer. On track he had clowned around, running up on two wheels and laughing at those following him before looking intently at each corner, to see and feel its shape and direction. "It goes up and down, up and down, around the blind corners and into the wide straights. I can't wait to get to the race."
It was a feeling shared throughout the paddock, and a fleet of scooters, quads and flat bed vehicles ran around and around the circuit all Wednesday and Thursday, another chance to feel the place before the coming storm of qualifying.
The heat they were expecting didn't hit them as hard as they feared while sweltering in the unbearable pressure cooker ambience of Budapest, with the clouds in Turkey sitting out on the periphery watching and waiting, an anthracite threat just on the margins of their vision staying out of the way until everyone knew what they were doing.
Practice came and went in its usual blur, qualifying too, and Nico Rosberg edging Scott Speed for pole in the first race while Heikki Kovalainen was thirteenth on the grid, low even by his usual standards. Arden had spent most of the year struggling with qualifying but being strong in the races, and if Kovalainen wondered how much easier his life would be if they sorted out the qualifying problem, he wasn't going to admit as much.
The Finn held a five point lead in the Championship before the first ever race on the new Turkish circuit, and still held it when the cars were wheeled back into the paddock, the sky bleached white and shining. Rosberg had stormed off into the lead but was unable to shake Speed off his tail, who ran into the white and red car, bending its exhaust and damaging the gearbox, while Kovalainen was unable to push up past tenth place at the end of the race.
But in between these two facts lived the best race yet seen in a series full of best races. Any circuit with blind corners and hills is going to cause accidents when races are run at full tilt, and the wide expanses of asphault meant that overtaking was inevitable too.
It meant that Hiroki Yoshimoto could run fast, furious with himself for a mistake that pushed him back to nineteenth after overtaking a number of cars, and overtake them all again to claim eighth on the day and pole for the next. It meant that Speed and Jose Maria Lopez could lose out with their pit strategies and still climb back into the points, and that Nelson Piquet could be fast but still have to give up a podium to Borja Garcia, the most improved driver in the second half of the year, because there was just no way to hold him back.
And it meant that Alex Premat and Giorgio Pantano, at the front of the pack after the second safety car returned home when Gimmi Bruni and Nicolas Lapierre's cars were removed from the front straight, a three cars into one corner incident prompted by over-enthusiasm and brain fade by the Italian, could streak away at the restart and push each other at every corner for fifteen laps and be separated by just three tenths in the Frenchman's favour at race end.
The Championship rivals were content after the race, relieved not to have lost anything to each other, and went about their usual routines of interviews and debriefs and dinner, never crossing paths as though their worlds didn't intercross, as though they were two equal magnets which push rather than pull. And as day gave way to night via a blazing sunset, all fire orange and red and purple, the clouds streaked across it like a lattice, like the fans outside the fences pushing to get a little closer, to see.
And the next morning they covered the wide open sky from horizon to horizon. Rain was inevitable, and it started just minutes before the start, prompting a change in strategy for everyone on the grid.
The front row was Yoshimoto's alone at the start after Adam Carroll stalled on the warm up and was dropped to last place, but a slow start meant that Speed was able to power by into the lead running up the hill. The Japanese driver was on his tail almost immediately and looked clearly faster, pushing past at one stage but cannily ceding the position after spying a yellow flag, and was through on a rapidly drying track just as Speed was called into the pits.
Kovalainen was the impetus for the move, having stopped two laps earlier from the middle of the field, and his lap times showed that it was the perfect time to have done so. The Finn now led everyone who had came in for tyres, and it was simply a case of waiting for them to all follow suit and trail back on track after he had passed the pitlane.
One by one they came in, all bar the faded red BCN cars of Yoshimoto and Ernesto Viso, which now circulated half a minute up the road from Kovalainen and ran nose to tail. Someone in the team had decided that the time difference was enough to hold on, but with them now giving away eight or more seconds a lap it was too late to bring them in, and they were stranded.
The Finn blew past the BCN pair effortlessly, originally thinking they were backmarkers before being told by his team that it was for the lead of the race, and was eight seconds ahead of a steaming Carroll, now returned to his second place after an astonishing drive from the back, and rival Rosberg, who hadn't featured much in the race but was in the right place when it counted.
There were more clouds lingering over the paddock in Monza, this time emotional rather than physical. Clivio Piccione was skulking around the front of the Durango pits on Thursday, looking unwilling to go out the back as an invisible wire of electricity seemed to suspend itself between there and the Coloni truck.
"It looks like I'm going to have a new teammate" he stated dryly, a sardonic half smile playing itself on his face and the rumour mill was off and running as Bruni, on the insistence of his manager, had quit Coloni and was said to have signed to drive with Durango despite Ferdinando Monfardini, sobbing quietly out back after being told of the deal, having a contract for the full season.
"This is why I don't deal with the Italian teams," one driver's manager stated. "You never get this sort of thing happening with the British teams, and it never surprises you when the Italians implode." Everyone else would stop to hear the latest gossip, smile to themselves and then get on with their jobs, waiting for it to all blow over.
Paolo Coloni was livid, his usual smiling fa?ade a storm of emotions as he walked back and forth along the paddock, talking to team bosses and series organisers and then back again. It was clear that he was not going to give in and let Bruni go without a fight, but with the driver refusing to drive for him from wherever he was hiding it was a stalemate.
Until, in the afternoon, news filtered out that Toni Vilander, a Finn who drives in the Italian Formula 3000 Championship and was in Monza as a guest of close friend Kimi Raikkonen, was going to be given the drive. The Finn smiled behind his enormous sunglasses, mouthed the expected words of thanks, and sat in the sweltering heat as the Coloni mechanics poured hot foam around him in the cockpit rather than getting dressed for the Gonzalo Rodriguez awards, to be held later that evening.
The awards are usually held at the end of a long season, but with a change in the Formula One calendar there was still plenty of racing ahead of them. The teams were grateful for a night off, a chance to let down their hair together before getting back to it. That it was all for charity, and that charity was in the name of a man who half of the teams knew from when he raced among them a few years ago before his untimely death, was the icing on the cake.
It was a great night - they watched videos of the season, cheering and laughing at the various moments thrown up in a season of great racing, they ate food and applauded politely when expected. Kovalainen won an award, Rosberg won another one, Carroll won two but would have swapped them for results, and ironically Bruni won one for most entertaining driver, which brought a laugh from the audience and a dark cloud over Coloni's head as he sent someone up to collect it in Bruni's absence.
Back on track the next day the Championship battle recommenced in earnest, with Kovalainen and Rosberg fighting tooth and nail for any track advantage in practice and qualifying, both won by the former just a tenth ahead of the latter, with Speed slotting into third to keep the Championship symmetry in place.
With ART generally the fastest team in the paddock of late, Arden had clearly found a solution for Monza to get onto their pace, and the pair were more than a second faster than Speed. Rosberg might not have been happy about it - "lucky for him I was there with him, otherwise it would have looked suspicious!" he half joked after qualifying - but for the title fight the script couldn't have been better. What everyone now wanted was a straight fight between the two, and race one wasn't going to disappoint.
Kovalainen streaked away as the lights went out before slowing again for a full course yellow, the result of mayhem further back in the grid as a number of drivers came together in a scrap for the same piece of road. One lap later and they were off again, with the Finn pushing hard once again and his rival fighting back after being jumped at the restart by teammate Premat.
A few corners later and the ART drivers came together violently, with Premat being launched towards the barriers on the right of the track directly at a group of marshals. The quick reflexes of one of them saved his friend from certain injury as he pulled her back behind the rail, which the Frenchman struck before pinballing back across the track with a badly broken car.
Rosberg shook off the impact and set off after his rival, cutting his lead to almost nothing and setting up a grand fight for the win. After the pitstops the order was still in Kovalainen's favour, but Rosberg stuck to him like glue and pushed everywhere to try and force a mistake from his adversary.
The pair ran almost side by side for most of the race, and despite Kovalainen's car looking more than a handful and sliding all around the track he managed to hold off Rosberg to win by a second as the chequered flag fell, was more than twelve seconds ahead of third placed Nelson Piquet and half a minute up the road from teammate Lapierre in fourth. Rosberg squeaked the fastest lap, and the two points that came with it, and the pair remained just nine points apart in the title chase.
With the Championship momentum moving towards Rosberg previously, it was clear that he was going to have to up his game in race two push it back in his favour. Race two started behind the safety car the next day, the lights malfunctioning after an overnight storm, with front row starter Neel Jani outdragging pole man Monfardini, who was having his best weekend ever for Durango despite the political row surrounding him, at the start proper, and pressed on to build up a gap he knew he'd need later in the race.
Further back Rosberg was dispatching drivers with ease, clearing Piquet and Lapierre as though they weren't there and moving up, while Kovalainen struggled to keep up and eventually ran off track. The pair became embroiled in big battles - Giorgio Pantano and Monfardini for Rosberg, with Kovalainen stuck behind Carroll, Piccione and Juan Cruz Alvarez - with both eventually finding their way through into second and fifth respectively.
With every point being priceless at this stage of the season the pair were also fighting each other, and Scott Speed, for fastest lap in the closing stages of the race. Rosberg was all over the back of Jani for the lead on the final lap but ran out of time, finishing less that 0.5 seconds behind, while his rival crossed the line almost alongside Monfardini but was unable to get by in time, while Speed won the fastest lap contest before losing the two points to Rosberg for changing his tyres during the race.
Just days later and almost everyone arrived at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, the gap in the Championship now down to six points in Kovalainen's favour. Rosberg, however, was in an immensely positive frame of mind, joking and laughing with anyone as he rode a strange, tiny wheeled bicycle around the paddock for laughs, while Kovalainen kept out of sight and planned his strategy with his team.
He had held a speed advantage over Rosberg in Monza, the theory went, but how was he going to maintain it at a track he had never raced on, in the wet, without the benefit of his Monza settings? In free practice he was second only to Rosberg, but the gap was a whole second in a heavily rain affected session.
Qualifying suffered from even worse weather and Bruni, finally in at Durango as he and Coloni sniped at each other to anyone who would listen, had the winning ticket in the lottery by being on track when conditions were slightly better than awful to take pole. Kovalainen managed to come home fourth, but Rosberg suffered a sizeable accident at the top of Eau Rouge, damaging his car and pushing him down to eleventh on the grid.
Premat stormed past his fellow front rower Bruni at the start on a dry track but under a menacing-looking sky, with Kovalainen slotting in behind the pair and hoping to stay out of trouble - as long as he stayed ahead of Rosberg he would be fine, and starting seven spots ahead should have guaranteed it.
Rosberg needed to think differently if he was going to get ahead, and the first of four safety car periods gave him the opportunity to do just that. The race was almost immediately yellow flagged for two stalled cars on the grid, giving the teams almost a whole lap to think about strategy. The rain had started once again, but it wasn't yet heavy enough to go for wet tyres - the question was whether to risk dry tyres and hope the rain doesn't worsen, or wait and hope for a downpour.
ART lost a certain win due to poor pitstop strategy in Magny Cours, and weren't going to make the same mistake again - they brought Premat and Rosberg in, far enough apart on track to make two stops in succession, with Piquet, Viso and Speed joining them. Kovalainen, now second, did what most race teams at the front of the race do - stay conservative and hope that it works.
Bruni hit the wall solidly after losing the car through Eau Rouge a few laps later while trying to stay ahead of Kovalainen and with the rain increasing the only reason he didn't come in under yellow was that he would lose out to the early stoppers. What was needed was enough rain to bring them all in for wet tyres, handing him an advantage over those who had stopped, but Speed was the only one back for wet tyres out of the bunch.
The gamble failed - Kovalainen had to come in towards the end of the race, along with Lopez and Carroll on the same strategy, and the win was gone. Behind them for most of the race, Piquet was now leading after an incredible drive in tricky conditions despite a regrettable collision with Premat at La Source, from which the Frenchman was unable to continue, and took his first win for the year ahead of Viso and Rosberg, who had squabbled between themselves for position before Rosberg's engineer told him to think of the Championship.
Kovalainen, livid with how things had worked out, tried to push past Mathias Lauda for eighth on the final lap to at least take Sunday's pole and salvage something, but the move didn't work - he spun helplessly off track and back to fifteenth for the following day, a disaster that may yet be the deciding moment of the Championship. Rosberg was handed the lead, the first new leader since Kovalainen won the opening round in Imola.
Race two was delayed after damage was inflicted upon the armco in a support race, during which the heavy rain just got heavier, filling the Belgian air with a fine mist that refused to disperse. When they finally got underway Carroll streaked away from pole position, with the rest of the pack held up behind a slow Xandi Negrao. One by one they struggled past - first Garcia then Speed, Rosberg, Viso and Alvarez - but it was too late and the race was effectively over.
Viso was on a charge, looking for his second podium just a day after his first, and fought his way up to third before, on lap nine, touching the white line at Eau Rouge and catapulting into the barriers. Just thirty seconds later Yoshimoto, looking to get past a slow Bruni at the same spot, was baulked by the Italian and thrown into the barriers before bouncing back into the middle of the track, right in front of a storming Jani.
There was nowhere for the Swiss driver to go - his team heard him say "there's a car ahead" before a long, long scream and then silence. The pair came together in a chilling collision, tearing both cars to shreds as they hit the barrier opposite Viso's stricken car and hurling debris all across the circuit.
Yoshimoto was unscathed, but Jani briefly lost his vision and stumbled around blindly until the marshals caught him, taking him back to an ambulance and a visit to hospital. He returned a few hours later to collect his belonging, battered and bruised but putting on a brave face after an accident that reminded everyone present of the other, darker, face racing can unexpectedly put on.
The race was red flagged before being cancelled completely, with the results moved back before the accidents. Carroll won from Garcia and a reinstated Viso, with Rosberg picking up a point for fifth with the scores being halved as the race didn't reach three quarter distance.
It was enough - Kovalainen failed to score anything after finishing ninth, and Rosberg was the first man to break a hundred points in the season with 102, three ahead of his rival.
After finding out that everyone had survived the carnage Rosberg was ebullient, laughing and joking with his team as they celebrated winning the team Championship while Kovalainen answered questions from journalists with a few words hissed through tight lips - for the first time this year the pressure was on him, and it was the worst possible time for that to happen.