The truck turned up at midnight and sat waiting at the gate, its driver taking the opportunity to rest after a long drive from England. He was waiting for someone to come and allow him into the circuit and to claim his cargo, and he didn’t have long to wait. The large, heavy boxes were unloaded under the sodium glare of the paddock lighting, manhandled off the truck and inside the bus at the heart of the temporary structure there, and finally the driver could start his engine once more, drive the truck up the hill to the car park, switch off the engine and sleep.
The cars were on track once again early the next morning, but no one had high hopes for the session: the rain had arrived overnight and sat on top of the track, a permanent, track-shaped mist squatting over the circuit as the cars ran around, throwing more liquid into it, making it more solid.
No one was more annoyed at the inclement weather than Giorgio Pantano; the popular Italian had been called up the day before to drive for FMS and, despite his familiarity with the car from last year, the changes made to the 2006 version would require time to familiarise himself with everything. “I was a little bit unlucky in qualifying,” he would later concede, “because we didn't have a chance to test earlier on the slick tyres.
“I know the car hasn't changed that much, but still there are different tyres, there is more power on the car, and the braking is different. It’s not so easy to learn quickly on a race weekend.” Alex Premat was the quickest man in the gloomy conditions, just ahead of ART teammate Lewis Hamilton and Franck Perera.
Returning to the hospitality unit afterwards, the drivers were in for a surprise: the boxes that had arrived overnight had been transformed into an enormous new structure for the press conference, the same size and shape as the one used in Formula One. It loomed whale-like over the area, and every driver started to fantasize about what they would say if they were to sit in the centre seat later in the day.
While testing the sound system the engineer needed a constant conversation to test the levels, and a bored journalist sat at each of the microphones to help, making up an impromptu press conference as he did. “I was up to third at the start,” he said from that chair, “and was looking good until Gimmi [who had just walked into the room] didn’t see me and decided to make my life hard.
“I finally got past him and into second [slides across to that chair], right behind Ernesto [who was laughing at Gimmi’s confused face during the commentary]. Obviously he wasn’t hard to get past [Ernesto laughs even harder], and I was leading the race. I came in for new tyres, but unfortunately I got stuck behind Giorgio [then being pointed to by Ernesto], who was really slow. I don’t know why he was so slow though: what happened, Giorgio?”
“Ah, the car was just shit!” he bellowed into the cordless microphone, generating more laughter from the drivers as they waited to watch the first Formula One session.
Out in the paddock the teams were using what little they had gleaned from the session, along with data captured during winter testing at the circuit, to set up the cars for that afternoon’s qualifying session. Nelson Piquet Jr was one of the few drivers to be happy about the wash out, stating: “I prefer it to be like this than if it was dry in the morning actually, because it just makes everyone a little confused, and they don't know what to do.”
The Brazilian was keen to stamp his authority on the weekend after a race meeting from hell just days earlier in Germany; he had scored just two points for pole before destroying his tyres while fighting his way back through the field after a poor start in race one, and two wins had brought Lewis Hamilton level in the championship; he was willing to take any small advantage that passed his way.
The sun came out just after free practice, and the strong Spanish sun soon dried the circuit. Qualifying never looked like being wet, despite the constant threat of a flock of clouds high overhead. And so it proved: in the warm, dry conditions in the late afternoon Hamilton just pipped Piquet and Premat for pole, with Gimmi Bruni and Adam Carroll lining up behind the trio.
Unfortunately for Pantano he was due to line up last on the grid, after an accident on his second lap put the Italian out of the remainder of the session. With just one lap under his belt on the new tyres Pantano went into turn one too deep, ran over the gravel and into the wall, but worse than that he injured his arm as he did so.
Holding the steering wheel hard to the right while trying to slide through the gravel and back on track he clipped the wall, causing the wheel to spring back around and spraining his arm, while the shift paddle also gouged into his hand. When he finally made it back to the paddock he was sporting a serious looking cast on his arm, which he picked at incessantly throughout the weekend until it was finally all gone on Sunday afternoon.
Hamilton, Piquet and Javier Villa were the first three drivers to use the press conference facilities, for pole, championship lead and locality of birth respectively. All three were unfazed as members of the media sat down to grill them, and it was seemingly over in a flash.
It wasn’t until they returned to their teams that they found out that six drivers had lost their two fastest times for setting a quick lap under yellow flag conditions, including Hamilton and Bruni. Piquet was now on pole, and Carroll would line up just behind him in third for the next day’s race one.
It was good news for the Ulsterman’s Racing Engineering team, who had been struggling to get the maximum out of the car earlier in the year but now looked to be a roll back towards the front. But the good news wasn’t to last: the next morning, while practicing pitstops on the slightly damp asphalt in the paddock, team manager Thomas Couyotopoulo fell awkwardly while holding the jack and landed on his knee, dislocating it. The team would need to pull one of their mechanics into the pitstop for what would be their most important stop so far this year.
That afternoon the autograph session was for the Spanish drivers: Adrian Valles, Felix Porteiro, Sergio Hernandez and Javier Villa duly lined up in the giant Bridgestone tyre in front of the now race mad Spanish crowd, almost all of them wearing Fernando Alonso clothing. Several hundred autographs later and it was all over, with the drivers holding onto their Bridgestone caps as they stood up.
“What do I do with this?” Sergio asked.
“You should put your phone number on it and give it out to a cute girl!” laughed the GP2 representative there.
“Great idea! You can give it to my grid girl this afternoon!”
Later that afternoon the teams lined up in the lane behind the Formula One paddock, the cars queued as everyone walked over to the toilets for a last minute stop as a myriad of horns and cheers indicated the crowd’s delight as Alonso claimed pole on track. They were held there for an age before being directed to the holding pen next to the pitlane while Alonsomania erupted all around.
The drivers walked round and round, all hand slaps and small talk, laughter emanating from the ones expecting little from the race while the others stood alone with their thoughts. “I’ve just had a look at the grid,” Hernandez grinned. “Keep my hat for tomorrow, please!”
Lewis Hamilton’s dad looked tenser by far than his son, who was swapping stories with his team as he waited for his moment in the car. And they were all just waiting, waiting, waiting for the fever to end, 15 minutes standing still an eternity ahead of a race.
Finally they were let loose, a few minutes sitting on the grid before the lights went out. Piquet made a storming start from the front, leading Premat and Carroll into turn one as Hamilton fell backwards from fourth to eighth as the field screamed by to complete their first lap. A drastic strategy was needed, and his team brought him in for his stop next time by.
The move meant he needed to run qualifying laps until the leaders came in, and Hamilton duly provided them. So fast was he that when his teammate came in, more than ten laps later, the Briton was ahead on track as he came back out, and everyone waited to see where Piquet and Carroll would re-emerge.
Piquet knew what was needed, and he had run comparable lap times to Hamilton: he came out ahead of the Briton, while Carroll’s super fast stop brought him out just behind. But both laps had been too quick: Piquet was soon handed a drive through penalty for speeding in the pitlane, while Carroll had to come back in because he had been unable to find his team first time through.
Ferdinando Monfardini was the only man not to have stopped, but his pace was so good compared to his pursuers that he had no need to rush in. Hamilton was second, and with the fast flowing corners of the Barcelona track discouraging any meaningful attempts at overtaking he now looked a certainty to claim his third win in a row, ahead of his teammate and Michael Ammermüller, who had Clivio Piccione all over his rear wing but was steadfast in defending his line.
Piquet was seemingly the only man to work out the secret of overtaking, carving his way through the field as he tried to salvage something to replace the lost win. He had worked his way up to fifth by the final lap, an astonishing display of bravado as he watched his championship lead slide away from him.
But on the final lap Premat, who had been sitting on his teammate’s sliding tail for lap after lap watching the Briton’s tyre performance fall away, thought he saw a gap at La Caixa, putting his nose up the inside and hoping for the best. Hamilton gave him enough room, just, but Premat needed a little more and the pair collided, with the Briton spinning helplessly around as the Frenchman sailed through for the win a few corners later.
Hamilton was the next man by, followed by Ammermüller, who had lost Piccione at the last corner as the Monegasque spun off through the gravel as he made a last ditch attempt at a podium finish. The move promoted Piquet to fourth, a useful collection of points by scant recompense for his efforts in the race. Returnee Pantano finished tenth, having been overtaken on the final lap by Viso after wearing out his tyres.
There was to be more heartache for DPR after the race: Olivier Pla, who had battled gamely to collect a point for eighth and the second race pole, was declared to be underweight after a heavy contact with a kerb had drained his car of water. When they refilled the tank his car was a kilogram over the minimum required, but it was too little, too late.
Andreas Zuber was another man in the wars after his wheel disconnected itself from his car, pitching him into yet another retirement.
“I thought you promised you’d have no more bad luck last week,” a journalist stated back in the paddock.
“Yeah, I know: I’m so pissed off!” he shot back despairingly. “We had a bad stop and then lost a wheel nut on the front, and that was that. But if I win in Monaco, I won't care." His mechanics would be working late into the night to get his car repaired for the next morning.
The teams lined up in the laneway once again early the next morning under a photographer's favourite conditions: bright sunlight with deep, long shadows. Most people there had arrived not long before forming the queue: the circuit had urged fans to arrive early to ease congestion, offering a free breakfast and MotoGP on the big screens as an incentive.
The teams sat once again in the holding bay, watching the race along with the crowd as they waited to be allowed into the pitlane. “Hey, can I have that hat now?” Hernandez asked as they waited. “I think I’ve found someone to give it to.” They were finally setting up in there as horns all around the track indicated that local rider Dani Pedrosa had claimed another win, to the joy of the bike crazy Spaniards.
“Who is going to win today?” one journalist asked another as they sipped their coffees back in the paddock and waited for the race to start.
“Viso from Piquet,” came the reply, “and Negrao will stall again.” And so it proved: Viso had a strong start from pole as his fellow front row starter stopped beside him, slowing up Tristan Gommendy behind him just enough to allow the ART pair to fall in behind Piquet on the first lap, and the four drivers finished in that order, split by just over two seconds as the chequered flag dropped. Pantano finished seventh after losing the fight for the final point to a charging Monfardini.
“The race wasn’t too difficult,” Viso claimed afterwards, “I just did my job and the car was very good. I developed a bit of a gap between Nelson and me, and after that my only target was just to win the race and stay in front of him. I knew I had a few tenths in my pocket that I could use whenever I wanted, and I used them in the mid race when Nelson started to get a bit closer to me, and that was it.”
But it was Piquet who was smiling more broadly that the race winner: he had held onto his championship lead by two points over Hamilton, and although it was a slender lead, it was enough for now.
The Nurburgring is always the track with the least distractions, with the fewest things to do outside of the track, and therefore the circuit where everyone seems to work the hardest. It’s human nature: even when people are at work they will still have half an eye out for a diversion, no matter how much they enjoy their job, and for most it’s only when there’s nothing else to do that they really devote themselves to their work.
Not that the Nurburgring was completely devoid of distractions: there were a number of very attractive girls in the paddock, roaming up and down in a pack like predators looking for prey.
They gave the various mechanics a few minutes of amusement: they would see the girls walking past, nudge the guy next to them and make a comment in their various languages and share a laugh, while the girls would studious ignore them, looking instead for the drivers. The mechanics would soon be back to work, the drivers being hidden away out the back with their engineers, and the pack would circle away once again.
It was all forgotten early on Friday as the cars lined up in the lane behind the main pit complex for free practice. Once released they went looking for any grip they could find on the green track, with Jose Maria Lopez setting the fastest time ten minutes in while working on his set up for the tricky circuit, while Nicolas Lapierre and Adam Carroll were within a tenth of his time at the end of the session.
Nelson Piquet Jr was left fuming when a problem on his car left him stranded on the side of the road after just two laps. After the session his car was back in the paddock, but its owner wasn’t: when a journalist went looking for the Brazilian he was told by the team manager: “Nelson is out taking a walk at the moment; he’ll be back in a little while, but he needed to take a bit of time alone.”
Pechito’s lap time was all the more impressive considering that he was feeling wretched all weekend: he’d picked up the flu earlier in the week, and out of the car he was struggling badly. It didn’t seem to have any effect on his driving though, and the Argentinean’s engineer Pat Coorey was grinning broadly during the debrief, feeling that the bad luck which had plagued his side of the garage in the first two rounds might be coming to an end.
Another man who knew about bad luck was Trident’s Andreas Zuber. Austrian by birth, citizen of Dubai by racing licence, amusing by nature, the bespectacled driver was entertaining anyone who would listen after the session.
“What did you think about the track?” he was asked by a passing journalist as he sat sunning himself on one of the team’s flight cases.
“It’s great!” he laughed through his omnipresent Oakleys. “But you have to watch out for the top chicane; I tried to ride the kerbs, and halfway through I realized it probably wasn’t a very good idea: I flew!”
“You were quick through there?”
“No, I mean I actually flew, about two metres off the fucking floor! I landed and thought okay, maybe I won’t do that again. It was a lot of fun, though!”
Meanwhile in the hospitality area Adam Carroll was back to work straight out of the car: a media breakfast had been set up for the British Formula One contingent to meet up with the engaging Ulsterman, and they were primed by coffee and mini bottles of champagne with straws. It did the job: the dozen or so journalists were charmed by his easy going nature and dry line in humour, and it was clear that positive press was forthcoming. All he needed now was a result.
That would have to wait for the time being, as he was shipped off with Lewis Hamilton and Ernesto Viso to an autograph signing session at the giant Bridgestone tyre in the merchandise area. All three donned their bright red caps (although Viso was slightly reluctant to do so, having just acquired an oversized cap that he was inordinately proud of) before sitting down and signing everything put in front of them, posing for photos and putting on a show for the fans.
The drivers always seem to enjoy the signing sessions: who wouldn’t like having a number of people show their appreciation for what you do? But mainly it feels like the signing is the main course before the desert of the quad bike ride back to the paddock, and it’s one that every driver has a sweet tooth for. Lewis won on Friday and, with his rivals standing on either side and two GP2 staffers hanging on grimly behind him, he ran at a qualifying lap pace to get the bike back in record time, all four wheels sticking to the tarmac around the corners only because of the combined weight on top of them.
And then the real qualifying session was on, the drivers were released, and they were back to where they wanted to be. Franck Perera stunned everyone in the pitlane by setting the fastest lap early and holding on throughout the session, with an incredible 21 drivers within a second of his time. It held until the closing minutes, when Piquet came back and set a time almost half a second quicker: no one had any answer as the emotional clouds seem to part around the Brazilian, letting the sunshine in. “Of course I’m happy,” he noted afterwards; “I only expected to be in the top six.”
“I’m thrilled!” Perera laughed back in the paddock, the line of hair from mouth to chin, one of the reasons why so many confuse the Frenchman for an Italian, vibrating in time with his laughter. “I didn’t expect the front row at all, but I’m really happy to be back where we were in winter testing; it means we’re back on track.”
“Third again,” Hamilton stated. The third time he’d taken the position in as many sessions. “At least we’re consistent.” Maybe he’d spent more than he meant to on the quad bike.
He’d done better than Lucas di Grassi again, although no one was very surprised by that. Lucas had been having a torrid time in the opening rounds of the GP2 series, and 21st was all he could manage in qualifying. Despite the crashes, despite the baptism of fire, the genial Brazilian was just happy to be given the opportunity to be in the paddock.
Except when it came to checking his emails, that is. “What’s going on with the internet?” he asked everyone at his table after dinner in the hospitality unit. “Why can’t I get online?”
“The internet has been randomly crashing all day,” came the reply. “You should know all about that.” There was silence at the table until Lucas roared with laughter, allowing everyone else to follow suit. “Yeah, it’s so slow,” he snorted. “It’s even slower than me!” before leaving the rest of the table in stitches as he talked his way through his crashes in Imola. A driver who can laugh off the down moments is going to be stronger than most in the good times: when his car works don’t be surprised when di Grassi flies.
And then it was Saturday, and the long drag through to the first race. Roly Vincini was in the paddock to support his former driver Adam Carroll, and rumours abounded that he was providing engineering support for the weekend.
“He’s got a new engineer every week,” said one paddock wag. “First Gary, then John, now Roly: it’s like Big Brother for engineers. I wonder who he’ll have in Barcelona?”
“Well I hear Mike Gascoyne is at a loose end these days,” came the reply, “maybe he’s next on the list.” Vincini just laughed it all off, stating that he was here just to support his former drivers (Ernesto Viso having also driven for the larger than life Formula 3 team boss) before disappearing to do whatever he was there to do.
With the sun shining brightly overhead most of the paddock would congregate at the far end of the laneway to watch the Formula One sessions at what is the best vantage point on the circuit, everyone sunning themselves and pretending not to look at the girls as they smoldered behind their sunglasses. They were joined there by a number of Formula One personnel, notably those from Toyota, as well as a growing number of photographers, all looking for the perfect shot. Everyone talked and laughed easily together, another communal moment in a paddock that never needs an excuse to talk to each other.
But it was never going to last, and the coming race focused everyone on the task at hand later in the afternoon. The teams pushed their cars out into a laneway between the GP2 paddock and the main pits, lining them up side by side while the last minute routines started, with drivers running off for a last minute toilet stop and then waving to the guards to be let back in. Eventually the engines were fired up, that high pitched scream as one after another woke up, and then they were off towards the track, with some drivers doing practice starts on the way and others unable to as rival mechanics walked slowly in front of them, accidentally on purpose.
The start of the race was held for a long time: too long for the front row starters, who bogged down as the lights went out and the second row blew past them. Hiroki Yoshimoto was the first man into turn one, but it only lasted for two corners: “That was maybe my race highlight; I led the race for two turns,” he dryly noted afterwards.
It was Hamilton who walked away, building up a strong lead before the stops so as to be still leading when they’d shaken out. And so it proved, except that he was hit with a drive through penalty for speeding in the pitlane. Most other drivers would have seen that as the end of their race, but the Briton keep pounding out fastest laps before taking the penalty, coming out second behind teammate Alex Premat and then hunting him down, overtaking and tearing away, eventually winning by 20 seconds.
Joining the ART drivers on the podium was Adam Carroll, his third place bringing home his first, long overdue, points of the season to the delight of his team. The Ulsterman had driven a fine race, starting from seventh and then fighting his way up after his stop and claiming third from Lopez on the final lap. Notably not on the podium was Nelson Piquet, who had ended his race in the wall after his tyre delaminated, the end result of a brave but ultimately futile effort to fight back after his poor start meant the Brazilian flat spotted his tyre badly trying to muscle his way past Lapierre.
Lewis got the call to come up to the Formula One paddock, and he had an audience with McLaren boss Ron Dennis before having a special interview for ITV’s Formula One broadcast the next day. His first GP2 win was already gaining him platitudes in the main paddock and interest in his home country, with Dennis later pointedly refusing to rule his young charge out of the fight for the free race seat next year. The young driver took it all in his stride before strolling back to his own paddock, where his father was excitedly waiting to hear the latest news.
The girls were back for dinner, giving the drivers something to fight over other than a race, with the large South American contingent making fun of each other in an attempt to make themselves look better in comparison. As usual there were some Formula One drivers enjoying the relative peace of the smaller paddock, this time Mark Webber, Jarno Trulli and Robert Kubica, and they just watched the younger drivers and smiled at the antics.
The next morning and everyone was waiting for the signal to head off down the lane as Lewis strolled over to join them, casually taking his helmet out of his father’s hands and getting into the car just before they moved off, an outward signal of his inner calm.
Starting from eighth he had lowered expectations, and then went on to destroy them: moving unremittingly through the grid he was only troubled by Carroll, who held third place until he flat spotted a tyre and had to concede, and Yoshimoto, who was defending the lead with all he had until a new line put Hamilton alongside him on the front straight, and then an early brake and a slight push to the left meant the Japanese driver had no choice but to give best.
Hamilton was on the top step of the podium for the second time in 12 hours, and his team went ballistic.
“Ehhhhh marjeek! Marjeek Looweees,” the French mechanics screamed from below the rostrum, and his performance had certainly lived up to their nickname Magic. Even his teammate had to concede the point: “Good job,” Premat said afterwards as the two hugged, “you know, for an Englishman that wasn’t bad!”
Joining the ecstatic Briton on the podium was Nicolas Lapierre and Jose Maria Lopez, the latter claiming his first podium while feeling at his worst, and making up for the disappointment of the final lap from the day before. Piquet hadn’t finished once again, pulling into the pits after flat spotting one again, and the drivers on the top two podium positions had cut his lead in the championship to just one and two points respectively.
And then it was all over and the teams started their pulldowns, as everyone in the various teams asked each other whether they were going directly to Barcelona or would have a day at home first. The drivers were out immediately: the ones with an affiliation in Formula One went there for the main event, while the others watched the start from the end of the paddock before heading home, leaving the mechanics behind to clean up and the girls to take off in search of better pickings.