They were back under tarpaulin in Imola, the teams setting up the temporary covers off the side of the trucks as the drivers went out to look at the track that would be their home for the next few days. They went past the pits without a second glance; that's not their home anymore.
But maybe. Maybe one day.
They circulated the track, learning the shape and undulation of each corner, of each section of track. Javier Villa was out with his team, his engineer and mechanics; Nelson Piquet and Xandi Negrao doing laps on a scooter, Xandi at the helm. No one could doubt Nelson's bravery, at the very least.
The Super Nova drivers had a familiar face with them as the circulated on their flatbed truck; former driver Giorgio Pantano was back for his local race, his long rock star locks and deep tan betraying his time on the beach, his time away from the track. Giorgio was giving the current drivers the benefit of his local knowledge, and both Jose Maria Lopez and Fairuz Fauzy were all ears.
Giorgio took the wheel of the flatbed, talking non-stop as he did. No one batted an eyelid.
"The new Variente Alta kind of sucks," Nicolas Lapierre agreed when asked about the changes later, echoing the common perception in the paddock. "If you got it right across the kerbs last year you could get a run on the guy in front - now it's just one line, follow the leader."
Giorgio wasn't the only former driver back in the paddock: Nico Rosberg dropped by on Thursday afternoon, his first time back since moving up to the big paddock. It was a break from the constant workload of Formula One for the likable German, a chance to catch up with his old team, to swap jokes and not have to worry about watching his every word, an opportunity to relax for half an hour and be himself again.
The next morning and everyone was at the track early for free practice - the first session on a green track under mazy, bleached Italian skies.
Lewis Hamilton was the quickest man in the session, followed closely by Ernesto Viso and Nelson Piquet Jr. Gimmi Bruni sat ominously in fourth, the Italian allowing himself a small grin of satisfaction. He was brimming with confidence on home soil, the ex-F1 driver hoping to make the most of local knowledge and the undeniably impressive strength of his new team to make a point at this, the first weekend back infront of the eyes of the big paddock.
And then it was hurry up and wait; the engineers and mechanics set up the cars while the drivers sat around, looking for something to do.
"So how does the blog work?" Adam Carroll asked during lunch. "I read it the other day. Can they just put anything in there?"
“Pretty much,” came the reply, “as long as it’s true and interesting.”
Nelson Piquet just sat there, smirking at Adam's concern.
"Well I'm not saying anything ever again around here anymore," stated his press officer Rebecca Banks, laughing warily. "That's not for the blog, either."
Giorgio sat immediately in front of the big screen TV to watch the F1 sessions, just as he had done all last year, watching the lines taken all around the circuit and making jokes about the guys who made mistakes, but with nothing to apply it to later he gave up and went back outside before the session finished.
Patrick Friesacher was in the paddock too. The likeable Austrian was networking with the GP2 teams, reacquainting himself with those he had driven for in F3000, his smiling demeanour belying his fervent desire to get back behind the wheel of a racing car.
In qualifying Lewis Hamilton set the early running, looking set to put his ART team back up to the front of the grid, but Jose Maria Lopez and Gimmi Bruni started fighting for the top spot, with the Italian claiming the first pole for Trident Racing after Lopez spun off in the closing minutes of the session.
If Friday seemed long, Saturday was even longer as everyone arrived early in the morning to avoid the usual traffic, but with race one moved back to 4.00 there was little to do but watch the F1 sessions and talk. The new coffee machine was working overtime as anyone not working on a car looked for something to do.
Nelson Piquet had an early start, a 9am appointment with the British media keeping the hospitality unit buzzing. Gimmi Bruni had a 10am meeting with the Italian media, but his table looked sparse in comparison to Nelson’s. Gimmi grinned throughout, trying not to look disappointed. The look he held afterwards left you in no doubt as to his intentions for the afternoon. “I’ll show them” it said. “I’ll remind them all.”
Neel Jani was back in the paddock to catch up with his old team; with his Friday drive over for another week at Toro Rosso he took his first opportunity to return to GP2 as an F1 driver.
"The new motor home is amazing!" he gushed when asked about his new life. "I've got my own room in there, with a PlayStation and music and everything!"
"I'll have to come and check it out at the Nurburgring," former boss Alfonso de Orleans laughed. "I'm a beta tester for Sony, so I get to try out all the games before they come out!"
"You must be way busier up there than you were here though," stated GP2's Will Buxton.
"Yeah, they keep is pretty busy," Neel agreed, "but the worst thing is all the girls: they keep taking photos of me with them and put it on the website, and then my girlfriend rings me to ask who all these girls are with me!"
"Too many girls?" laughed Giorgio. "That's not a problem: that’s why we're driving!"
Before the race Gimmi was confident of a good result. "Sure, we should be able to get some big points; all we've got to do is get the pitstop right. Maybe even a win, but I just really want to get some good points and a podium."
"We can get a good result for the team today," said a visibly nervous Alessandro Alunni Bravi, Trident team boss. "We've got a good team, but we're still new."
He needn't have worried: at the start Gimmi tore off like a man possessed and looking to dispel the demons, heading the grid through turn one and effectively leading for the rest of the race. Behind him Lewis Hamilton had a point to prove too: after two poor starts he needed to show what he could do, and his fast start put the Briton all over the rear of Gimmi and fighting for a way past on the first lap.
Unfortunately for him the start was too fast: Lewis was going to have to come in for a stop and go penalty for jumping the start.
Lopez was in the wars though, dropping down the order before stopping completely at the end of the first lap with hydraulic problems. His Renault Driver Development team-mate Lucas di Grassi was moving up from last place on the grid, the result of his team running non-standard skirts on his car: despite the tight nature of the Imola circuit he was up to 12th on track by lap seven.
But on lap eight he undid all that good work: he crashed heavily into the barriers at Villenueve, losing his rear wing and tyres, which were flung on track infront of an innocent Olivier Pla. The debris brought out the safety car and prompted the top nine drivers to pit.
Unknown to most spectators Lewis was coming in to serve his penalty, with most teams thinking they'd been blown away. In the pits.
The ART pilot, now thinking he was last despite coming out of the pits ahead of the race leader, followed the two Campos drivers past the safety car after they'd been waved through, and he scampered around the track once again to take his actual pitstop, this time actually coming back out behind the rest of the field as they crawled past. The timing monitors had him leading the race by almost a lap despite Gimmi controlling his nerve to lead the pack away when the race restarted, but a few laps later Lewis was back in the pits for good courtesy of a black flag penalty for overtaking the safety car on track.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Marco Codello, GP2 series Director of Operations, after the race. Marco sits in the pace car alongside Bernd Maylander at every GP2 race, and seeing Lewis scream past was without doubt the most unexpected thing he’d come across. “I’m going to have to change my pants now,” grinned the Italian. “Seriously, Lewis was flying!”
While Gimmi pushed hard up front only Nelson, now up to second after a good stop, could run at his pace without quite getting on the Italian's rear wing. With a few laps remaining and another podium seemingly in the bag, the Brazilian's car started to slow, allowing the Arden pairing of Ammermüller and Lapierre through to fill the podium as Trident celebrated their first race win ever in only their second race weekend.
Sergio Hernandez meanwhile was another in the wars, the Spaniard retiring from the race with dehydration. The TV cameras had zoomed in on medics attending a Durango in the pits, and in the GP2 hospitality unit, the assembled masses watching the race were full of concern.
“God, is that Monfardini?” someone shrieked. “I hope its not his nuts playing up again.”
“Get with the program!” came the response. “Monfa’s driving for Dams now.”
Sergio looked exhausted, and had to be lifted from the car. But he was back on Sunday morning, ready to race again.
Looking back on the race, Nelson Piquet was in philosophical mood. "I'm still leading the championship," he said later, lying down and staring, unblinking, at the roof of the truck, "it could be worse." Like every racer ever in that position, he didn't believe it.
"What does this win mean for the team?" Gimmi grinned as he walked around the corner, his team chanting his name as they waited for their star to sit in the middle of the photos in waiting. He gestured towards them, laughing. "Look at them!" The champagne was only seconds away, again.
Heikki Kovalainen was back in the paddock for dinner, making a bee line for hospitality boss Christian, who put his usual huge plate of pasta in front of the Renault driver.
"What's the matter Heikki?" someone asked, "don't they feed you enough up there?"
"No, and the food is better here anyway!" he laughed, looking around the fast filling room. "And the people are a bit nicer down here too."
Most of the mechanics were bolting their food down as the sun dropped outside: a number of on track incidents meant they were in for a busy night rebuilding the cars, with Lopez, Carroll, Fauzy, Gommendy, Filippi and Monfardini among the many with work required. Some of the Super Nova mechanics stayed at the track until 04:30 to get the work done, putting off most of their sleep for another day.
"Gentlemen, we had an overly eventful race yesterday," Charlie Whiting told the drivers the next morning in a specially arranged extra briefing. "I'd just like to remind you that racing is supposed to be a non-contact sport." Suitably chastened they returned to their teams, who were yawning behind the cars as the lined up awaiting their slot in the pitlane.
Up front the BCN pair of Yoshimoto and Glock filled the front row, with the former annoyed at losing a podium the day before after speeding in the pitlane and the latter upset at his inability to stamp his authority on the series so far.
Both made good starts in race two to lead the pack around, but di Grassi running into the back of a stationary Adrian Valles on the grid left debris strewn across the front straight and the pack needing to follow the safety car through the pits until it was clear again.
At the restart it was clear that BCN had work to do: Ernesto Viso and Nelson Piquet blew past the pair and were not seen again until the end of the race.
"They were just too fast," a miffed Yoshimoto noted after the race. "There was nothing I could do about their pace."
"It feels fantastic, amazing!" former teammate Viso laughed out loud, hugging everyone in sight after claiming his first win in GP2. "This is so long overdue. I always knew I could win in GP2, and I have never given up even after the bad times last year. This team is fantastic!" he stated before going off to find someone else to wrap his arms around.
But all was not plain sailing. As the safety car had been sent out in the race, a number of drivers were still caught up in the moment, fighting for position. Viso had been one of them. Under investigation by the Stewards, the paddock hummed with uncertainty as everyone waited to hear if Ernie would have his first GP2 win taken from him for passing under yellows. But the iSport team held steady ground. Viso had radioed the pits under safety car to tell them he thought he might have passed Lapierre after the safety car had been deployed. His team had checked with FIA representatives in the pits and had been told Viso’s position was legitimate. Having heard the arguments, the Stewards passed their judgement and Ernie kept his win and the pressure levels lifted.
One driver who was feeling the pinch however was Michael Ammermüller.
“Hey, do you know where I have to go and pay this?” he asked.
“My fine. I got a ten place grid penalty for Nurburgring and a $3500 fine for taking Alex off under the safety car. I didn’t mean to do it, I just got caught out with everyone braking so much harder for Villeneuve than I expected. I feel bad for Alex and for me. We could have had a great race. But that’s racing, I guess. One day you’re on the podium, and the next you’re out on the first lap.”
Michael walked off to find the Stewards, and as the race results were confirmed there was just time to bolt down some lunch before packing everything away in the trucks, with Durango and Campos in more need of a broom than tools to do so. With the trucks full to the brim there was just time to watch the start of the F1 race before the exodus for the airport began, led by Nelson:
"Hey, see you later; see you in Germany."
He strolled off with Rebecca behind him before, smirking, he stopped: "By the way, that's not for the blog."
They arrived in groups of twos and threes, a steady drip feed of people funneling into the building under the remains of the mazy Valencian sun. It felt like a sort of homecoming, like the old gang was getting back together after years apart. It felt right.
It was the launch of the 2006 GP2 season at the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, and everyone was circling each other, seeing if the old lines still work, seeing if things had changed. Nelson Piquet Jr's sense of humour was still intact: "Winter testing seemed to go well - how did it work out for you and the team?" the opening line of a season preview interview. "Good" he replied without expanding at all, a smirk creasing his face at the inevitable sigh. Here we go again.
Adam Carroll ambled over as the actual interview concluded, his boxer's gait unchanged by his time away. "When can we eat? I'm starving." Adam, a man so enamoured by food he has been known to take before and after shots of a steak he enjoyed with his phone, would win gold for Britain if eating was an Olympic sport. He is always hungry, in life as much as in racing.
The great and the good of the motorsport world arrived at the launch, with Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore just two of the 600 or so guests filling the grand hall. The launch, a grand Formula One style event in contrast to last year's more modest show, was going off without a hitch, but there was one man who couldn't enjoy it: GP2 communications guru Will Buxton.
"Is everything alright here?" the small bundle of kinetic energy asked on one of his many circuits around the hall. "Is everyone enjoying themselves? Are there any problems I can sort out?" Assured that all was fine, he pinballed off to put out fires that didn't exist elsewhere. He finally breathed after the fireworks finished to signal the end of the night.
But it was at the track the next morning that everyone could re-establish their old relationships with each other. An early start, with qualifying beginning at nine, meant everyone was straight down to work, the session over and the teams working towards the race before most of the fans had arrived.
The band Without Grace were there though, having gone out to a nightclub after playing earlier in the night at the launch. They had gone straight from the club to the track, but sunglasses all round meant no one could tell. Walking along the pitlane they were like kids, in awe at the work going on all around them.
They walked up and down the pitlane, noticing the things that the regular members of the paddock take for granted. "Those guys have flames on their race suits!" said one. "That's so cool!" "That guy is royalty?" asked another. "I never would have guessed." "I can't get over how fast they do everything," enthused yet another, "they make it all look easy."
But it was almost time for the first race to start, and the band had to reluctantly make way for the main event as engines were fired all along the pitlane. The teams made their way out to the grid, going into autopilot as they run through their checks as the clock ticked down.
Back in the paddock that old familiar nervous tension was climbing, and no one was feeling it more than Rebecca Banks, Piquet's press representative. "Oh, I'm so nervous," she squealed, squeezing the hand of anyone nearby. "Was it always this tense?"
"He's on pole," came the reply. "He's in a better situation than most of last year." As the engine note increased so did the pressure from her hand, until the lights went out and she almost jumped out of her chair, as though the level of her stress would directly improve his chances in the race.
It may just have worked – Nelson was fast away from the grid and easily leading by the time they all made turn one, a lead that he gave up only momentarily during the pitstops. New boy Lewis Hamilton, by contrast, had a poor start, but he fought his way up to follow Piquet across the line at a distance on the final lap, just ahead of fellow debutante Adrian Valles.
It was the latter who got the crowd on their feet at the end of the race – both he and his team Campos Racing are from Valencia, and it was the first podium for either in GP2, much against expectation. In the middle of one of the stands by turn two was a brass band, and they played for the next hour straight, to the delight of the rest of the crowd who danced along in their new hero's honour.
It was a perfect podium for the first race – Piquet the experienced driver expected to shine this year on the top step, Hamilton the young challenger on one side of him, and Valles the local boy made good on the other. The Brazilian made a token spray of champagne there before dropping the almost full bottle to his team, a sign that he knew how much their efforts had contributed to him being there.
On the podium Piquet played down his emotions, looking calm and assured as he collected his trophy, but backstage in the paddock he was thrilled, having achieved what he set out to do with a perfect start to his season after so much disappointment last year. It was as though a heavy weight, invisible to everyone else but abundantly obvious to the Brazilian, had been taken off his shoulders, as though he could feel the sun on his body again after years indoors.
The paddock was well and truly back into their routine – the teams were in their post race strip down of the cars, the journalists and drivers were deep in conversation about the race that had just happened, everyone with a job to do and glad to be back and doing it.
Down at the far end of the pitlane new team Trident were getting into their stride – their first race ever was already history, and while they had mixed feelings about the result (Gimmi Bruni in the points, Andreas Zuber out of them after a coming together with Nicolas Lapierre) there was a noticeable feeling of pride swelling their chests – they'd come to prove their worth in one of the strongest championships in the world, and it was clear that they'd done just that.
Later, as the mellowing sun slunk behind the surrounding hills and the moon made its first tentative appearance, the car park began to thin out as everyone but the mechanics started to make their way back to their hotels. Will, once again in charge after recovering from his efforts at the launch, arranged a group of journalists, driver representatives and, of course, the band, herded the group into the old centre of town in search of food.
Valencia, being Spanish, wasn't ready to eat until after 10.30, but the scenery was fine and the conversation was bubbling along as everyone got used to being with each other again.
"It's like the first day of term, isn't?"
"Yes, except we didn't have centuries old castles and motor racing at my school."
"Really? You must have gone to the wrong school then."
"Clearly I should have worked on my sponsorship a bit harder."
Promises of an early night came and went like a gentle Mediterranean tide, but no one cared much – with the drivers safely tucked away in bed the night was presenting her wares to everyone else, and a latish start to the second race meant the relative luxury, in racing terms, of being able to sleep in until 8.30.
With sunglasses in place the paddock was refilling the next morning, everyone wallowing in the extravagance of being the main event and having the big paddock to themselves for once. Ironically all that space meant everyone stuck together in front of the pit doors in the main complex, joking and clowning around as the clock ticked down to the second race.
Before the start the traditional photoshoot was organised on the grid for all 26 drivers, who were then surprised by the arrival of a large truck to carry them around the grid to show them off to the crowd. It was a little Formula One moment in GP2, and several of the drivers were notably excited at the prospect of emulating their role models. Out in the crowd the brass band were back and blowing up a storm, and almost all of the drivers were excited to be out in front of them, particularly Valles and Javier Villa, who had signs held up in their honour.
Nonetheless, one driver who was less than thrilled with his weekend was Alex Premat; his first race back hadn't gone to plan and he wanted people to know it wasn't his fault. "My brakes were gone," he told anyone who'd listen the previous afternoon. "The pedal dropped twenty centimetres! Come and look for yourself." And while it didn't quite drop as far as the amiable Frenchman suggested – his foot would have been outside of the car if it had – there was no question that there was nothing left in his brakes when you pulled the pedal towards you.
Unfortunately race two was no better for him, as he retired a few laps in with yet more problems. Having just missed out on pole after Ernesto Viso, now known as Ernie to his very English team iSport, who overtook him on the final lap, Premat was phlegmatic about his second retirement after the race.
But Viso was unable to capitalise on the advantage he had, after rookie Michael Ammermueller blasted by him at the start of the race and into the beginning of a massive lead that never looked like changing. The Venezuelan had no time to worry about it, as he had Lapierre all over the back of his car on the tight and twisty circuit for the entire race.
The nature of the circuit meant that the usual GP2 dogfights were limited in number, as no one quite had the space to push past the car in front of them. One exception to this rule though was Adam Carroll, who had blasted past a number of cars in race one and was intent on repeating the performance in the second event.
It was a masterful drive, but it was all over when he just got caught out by an early braking Valles, and the Ulsterman's car was up and over in a flash before hitting the gravel trap and pitching into a series of lurid rolls. He was soon out of the wreck to a roar and a standing ovation from the crowd, which he acknowledged with a laugh and a wave, putting a smile onto the face of team boss Alfonso de Orleans on the pitwall, who presumably hadn't thought about the repair bill yet.
"That's the first time I've rolled in 14 years of racing!" Adam laughed afterwards. "I was just up and over, I saw the sky, I saw the ground, over and over. I bet that makes the end of year highlights film!"
At the end of the race Ammermueller was a clear winner, rendering the cheerful German driver fairly speechless at the thought of winning in his first weekend in GP2. Viso held a clearly faster Lapierre at bay to claim second, while the Frenchman was pleased to have taken a podium after qualifying in a lowly 21st position after a troubled first session. Piquet had managed to push up to fourth to hold onto his championship lead, while Hamilton confirmed his promise despite another poor start to finish in the points once again.
Everyone was soon on the move once again, with the teams already breaking things down and packing things away during the race to facilitate an early exit. "That weekend just flew by," Lee noted at the airport, keeping an eye on her charge Adam, who was unable to stand still in the queue, as she did so. "I can't believe how quickly it went by."
"Sure," came the reply, "but it's racing – there's no point in doing things slowly, is there?"