"God, its so hot," the mechanic said as they all trudged around the track on Thursday in Magny Cours, the heat rolling in like an anti-breeze. On and on they walked as their driver led the way, seemingly unaffected as everyone else wilted around him. "This heat is killing me."
"It's not the heat that hurts," came the reply, "it's the humidity."
"I don't care what it is; it sucks. We've got to come to the middle of nowhere to race; the least they could do is keep the temperature down."
To say it was a bit hot was like saying Italy did okay in the World Cup. With nothing to do but keep their fitness levels up during the month off it was obvious that the drivers were going to watch the football, and the Italian community in the paddock were gleefully showing their joy at the result to everyone else: that the next race was held in France was just an added pleasure for them, the parmigiano on the pasta.
By Friday the football shirts were off but the flags were everywhere: Durango had theirs flying from the radio antenna towering high over their truck, while FMS flew theirs from their mobile workbench as they rolled up to the pitlane, while both teams, along with the Italian drivers all along the paddock, put the tricolore or the four stars (or both) on their cars as everyone else in the paddock tried to ignore them.
Which they mostly managed to do during free practice, as everyone set about preparing the cars as best they could for qualifying later in the day. After half a season and a timely test during the break in Paul Ricard the drivers knew pretty well where they were with their cars, and they all managed to stay on track and pounded out as many laps as their programmes would allow. The half hour was over in seemingly half the time, and Adam Carroll found himself at the top of the timesheets as he returned to the pits, fractionally ahead of Hiroki Yoshimoto and Nelson Piquet Jr.
The undiminished heat of the day hung around for qualifying like the last slurring guest at a party when all you want to do is sleep, dropping heads just when they need to be held high: the syrupy, sticky rubber from the Formula One cars was still on track, and everyone in the pitlane needed to take advantage of it while they could.
The drivers were tumbling over each other to get out on track, with the mechanics circling round and round their cars to make sure they were in the best shape to do so. And then they were out, scrambling to be the first man on track or, when they failed, trying to build as much of a gap as possible in front of them without letting anyone past before the start of the first flying lap.
Jose Maria Lopez won the one lap race to pole, his first in the series, with Timo Glock and Giorgio Pantano just a tenth behind him as they continued to circulate, working on the race set up now rather than hoping for an improvement in time. And when Luca Filippi failed to stop in time to avoid the rear of Lucas di Grassi's Durango the session was effectively over as they waited for the French marshals to remove the remains.
The usual quick guys had been caught out by traffic (Piquet and Carroll) or been slightly off the pace (Hamilton), and although they improved their times overall on their second sets they were destined to line up behind the top three, albeit within two tenths of the pole time. As the top three sat in the press conference at the hospitality centre they were already thinking about the challenge to come from behind them. Lopez, at least, put a positive shine on the thought: "There are many people and very quick drivers, and its very difficult to get a win.
"But I know its always easier if you start in P1 than if you start in P18."
"Are you going to the concert?" was the common refrain all along the paddock as most of the team bosses swooned at the idea of the Roger Waters / Pink Floyd gig happening that night. The drivers were all bemused at the idea, but were generally polite about it. "Well, they're not really my kind of thing," said one before adding, a trifle rashly considering his boss was next to him and keen to get going, "but my father used to be a big fan of them." Despite the driver apathy, the bosses joined those from the senior paddock for a great show, putting the stress of a race weekend behind them for a few hours.
Over the weekend there was more for the drivers to do than usual, with three signing sessions along with the usual visit to the Paddock Club. Ernesto Viso made a point of keeping the door of the minivan open as he got a lift to one of the singings, hanging out to get as much breeze as possible despite the injuries he was carrying. "I fell off my mountain bike," he explained as he showed off the scabs on his arm and leg, redundantly adding: "I was maybe going a bit too fast."
But his injuries looked second rate compared to those of Lucas di Grassi, who came off his racing bike at 50 km/h while training with the other RDD drivers. The irony of a sponsor injuring a driver ahead of a race was not lost on others in the paddock, even if the man himself, with a seriously bandaged arm and leg and a pronounced limp, failed to see the humour in it.
But on the bright side, his injuries did mean he could stay in his air conditioned truck all day rather than walking to the Paddock Club with some other drivers, only to be ignored by a number of rich people as GP2's Will Buxton interviewed them and struggled to be heard over the sounds of the F1 paddock below and the jangling jewelry in the room.
The inescapable heat lay over the pits like a duvet as they prepared for the first race of the weekend, but the usual pre-race calm descended to help them blot out anything other than their jobs. The drivers left their pits to line up one or two at a time just out of the pitlane, revving their engines and producing that odd, burnt orange smell from their exhausts before releasing the brakes and taking off in a haze of tyre smoke, and then running back around, through the pits and squeezing in another practice start, before heading off to form up on the grid for the race.
Then they were off, snaking around and around each other like commuters released from their train, and it was Lopez who led from the front when they got to the first corner, with Pantano and Glock forced to slot in on his tail. Carroll and Hamilton were right there behind Alex Premat, who got a great start to move up to fourth; he needn't have bothered overtaking the pair though, as Hamilton ran up the back of Carroll at the Adelaide hairpin, and both men were forced to come in for new wings, front and back respectively, ruining their chances of points and podiums for the weekend.
Hamilton had seemed fairly remote all weekend, as though the pressure building outside about him, which he had successfully ignored thus far, had suddenly hit him all at once after filming a commercial in the McLaren over the prior week. "It was just one of those days really," he conceded afterwards, on the way back from the F1 paddock, "we all have our ups and downs. It's a shame - we got the fastest lap, but a small mistake cost us dearly.
"Adam went into the corner fine, but I just clipped his rear tyre, went up, and then landed on his rear wing. I apologised to him for ruining his race, but that's racing."
Piquet was the first man to run an unforced pitstop, coming in on lap seven to try and get a jump on his competitors after a slow start had dropped him down the grid. Lopez, Pantano and Premat came in together a few laps later but re-emerged in reverse order after a sticking wheel ruined the Argentine's race. Piquet, who had been putting in qualifying laps in clear air, had jumped them all, and Glock was the last of the pacemen who could destroy his cunning plan.
The German was in one lap later, strangely being tailed by teammate Viso, and the Venezuelan's race was shot by ill communication between pitwall and cars. Glock didn't care much though: he was first of the drivers to have stopped, and with Piquet on his wing he made a diving pass on Olivier Pla at the hairpin, a move the Brazilian could not emulate. Breathing space had opened up between the pair as they waited for di Grassi and Xandi Negrao to finally pit and hand over the lead in the race.
Further, the move on Pla disadvantaged Piquet more than Glock had hoped for as Piquet could do nothing in the tight, twisty section at the rear of the track, allowing Premat to lunge up the inside at the final corner, launching himself off the kerbs and waiting to see if Piquet would think of the race or the championship. The latter prevailed, and the Frenchman was promoted effectively to second.
Di Grassi led strongly for a number of laps, staying out until his tyres finally forced him in on lap 24, when Glock was finally handed the lead, extending the gap back to Premat slowly but surely every time around. Piquet's tyres were falling away, with Pantano behind him also losing out in a titanic battle with Lopez, who was determined to claw something back from the race.
As the laps melted away Lopez ate away at the gap to Piquet, now actively falling backwards against his rivals due to the early stop, and it was only a matter of time until the South Americans came to blows. Inevitably Lopez joined first race winner Glock and Premat on the podium a few laps later, with Piquet finishing just out of the top three after a strong drive in the French heat.
"It's never easy to race 41 laps in these cars around Magny Cours," the happy winner noted after the race, "but after Silverstone I had a pretty good feeling for the car and with iSport, and we had the chance to go to Ricard to test for two days. It's helped us out today and, in the end, it was maybe a little bit easier for us."
Asked if his team made the right call in getting him in early, Piquet reflected: "It was because I gained a lot of track positions, but it wasn't because at the end of the race I had no tyres, so it balanced out. What would have happened if I'd stayed out in traffic? I would have had tyres at the end, but I would have lost a lot of time in traffic.
"But two races in the points - tomorrow a podium would be great - and I could be six or seven points ahead of Hamilton over the weekend, and maybe just ten points behind him. And it's his team's home race, so that's okay…"
After the race the gates to the paddock were thrown open once again to the public, but unfortunately no one told the security guards, who were less than keen to provide admittance. Nonetheless there were still a number of locals who negotiated the human roadblocks to wander up and down, most of them showing their allegiance by wearing Alex Premat hats and shirts. Durango, who had been playing the Italian national anthem on a loop all weekend, stopped it briefly for the fans, but it made no difference: by that stage even the Racing Engineering mechanics were whistling it over and over subconsciously.
As the sun finally slipped away so did the fans, leaving before the party started at the Porsche paddock next door. They had set up a few bars, some tables and a DJ in the laneway between their teams, and their hospitality unit had the look of a European nightclub for the duration. One of their guests, possibly a few beers too far in, decided that most people wanted to see how he could karaoke to Robbie Williams.
Most people, however, decided they wanted to go inside as a result, which pleased Sergio Hernandez, sitting on a lounge inside between a number of girls. "It's nice here!" he laughed as everyone from GP2 crowded around him. "We should have parties like this too!"
"We should just have their air conditioning," came the reply, "the parties can come a distant second…"
The heat of the day was already winding up as the teams were getting ready for the mass migration to the pitlane, with everyone looking for a space in the shade to sit down when the French marshals held them all outside for what felt like an age. Once inside it was straight down to business, and the cars were on the grids minutes later to make the time cut off.
Ferdinando Monfardini and Lucas di Grassi were quick off the front row of the grid, but it seemed only a matter of time until Giorgio Pantano claimed the lead off them, and so it was. Premat made another fast start but found Xandi Negrao, who forced him wide and off the track, dropping him down to fourteenth for his troubles.
At the front di Grassi was in the lead of a race for the second time in 24 hours when Monfardini ran off track, followed closely by Pantano, who could smell his first win and, a few laps later, was in the lead and pulling away. Piquet was the next man up, and he forced his way by his countryman at Lycee before heading off down the road after the leader.
Premat was having another blinding race, muscling his way past his famous teammate and moving up to tenth by the end of the second lap before starting a string of remarkable laps with Hamilton in tow. Pla, Ammermüller, Jani, and Piccione saw a red and white blur as Premat powered by them all in the opening laps, and Hamilton followed along for his leftovers.
By lap twelve it was clear that di Grassi didn't have the car to compete on pace with the others at the sharp end of the field. Still third, by this stage Glock had caught up and was past a lap later, followed by the ART train a few laps later. By this stage the question being asked was who wouldn't be passed by Premat, and Glock failed the test despite a fierce fightback in the rear section of the track.
Even more action was happening at the front, as Piquet desperately looked for a way by Pantano, who was not going to give up the win without the biggest fight of his life. For almost the entire race the pair were separated by less than a second, but Pantano didn't put a wheel wrong and was ecstatic to be greeted by his team on the pitwall when the chequered flag finally came, just half a second ahead of his rival. Premat towed Glock and Hamilton across the line to bring home one of the most remarkable podium drives so far seen.
"You know, that made me so happy," Pantano laughed after the race, "because it is not since 2003 that I have been on the top of the podium, and I was starting to think what's happening, why am I not going back to the top? Yesterday we had a problem with the braking, we didn't have a chance to compete for the win, but today everything was great and we were there.
"Now we know we can win a race, and I think it will let us do it again."
"He had a very good race, and his car was pretty good also," Piquet later conceded, "he deserved to win. If it was an ART car I would have tried a lot harder, maybe gone crazy in the last laps to try to overtake him at the last corner, but there was not reason to do it - I would have fucked his race and my race.
"I think we need to get quicker, but I'm sure we can win the championship - Lewis had a horrible weekend here, got two or three points, but I had a horrible weekend in the Nurburgring where I only got two points for the pole and the tyre blew. I think we're going to continue getting points and winning races, and hopefully we will be in the front of the championship at the end.
"Of course it's much easier if he has bad weekends, but I think we can win it anyway."
And then it was all over, with everyone finishing their jobs as quickly as possible so they could get into their cars and away from the heat of central France. One of the earliest back to the car park was FMS boss Paolo Coloni, who had driven his own car up from his home in Perugia. Unfortunately someone else had taken exception to his Italian licence plate and jumped on the roof of the BMW.
After bringing down the GP2 communications team to help him argue with the security guard, who seemed rather nonplussed by the whole event, Coloni went off to find someone who would argue with him a little better. It took him an hour or two, but he found what he wanted.
"Hello, Will?" he said down the phone, trying to stifle a laugh. "I have spoken to les flics, and they said they know who has done the damage.
"It was Zidane. He headbutt my poor car."
"I hate coming here," he said as they sipped their coffees. "It's always a pain. We can't get a hotel anywhere nearby, it always takes so long to get to the track, the food is rubbish, everything seems to take longer to do, there are always more people getting in the way in the paddock – it's a nightmare."
"Sure," his friend replied, savouring his drink, "but it's Silverstone. Besides, you don't have to run off to the airport to get here: we just have to drive over from the factory."
"Well," he sighed, draining the dregs of his coffee, "that's true. And at least we get to drive on the right side of the road."
"I hope you don't, at least if I'm in the car."
But his friend had to admit that it did feel weird to race in his own country, although he'd never admit it out loud to anyone else. Both of them had been mechanics for a long time, starting in the junior championships and worked their way up through the ranks over the years, but that seemed like an age ago. Racing at home reminded them of what was back then, not what was now, what was in front of the eyes of Europe, of the eyes of the world.
Silverstone greeted their return with a blazing heat that was completely at odds with their last visit to the track earlier in the year, when they had to wear puffer jackets in the middle of the day just to keep warm. On Friday it was the hottest day of the season so far, and it was at home. The irony wasn't lost on either of them.
They were all gathered at the end of the pitlane, the teams and cars and drivers, waiting to be allowed to push everything up the long, long pitlane as the sun built up a head of steam for the day ahead. It was, as always, a time for jokes at each other's expense. Timo Glock stood in the centre of the gaggle of cars talking with his new mechanics, getting to know them as best he could in the timeframe, when former teammate Hiroki Yoshimoto wandered over to say hello.
They chatted easily, as though nothing had changed, until the gate was opened and it was time to go. "See you later," the Japanese driver said before turning to the iSport mechanics and commented "By the way, be careful: he pees in the car" and walked off smirking, the baffled men behind him unsure whether to take him seriously or not as the German protested his innocence.
Every race weekend the teams line up in the pitlane in front of the F1 team with which they have an association; FMS with Renault, ART with Ferrari, and so on. Trident, being new to the paddock, always work in front of Super Aguri, the new boys in F1 at the bottom of the road. "Yes, but I don't mind it here," team boss Alessandro Alunni Bravi noted. "It's a good spot to see the difference between the drivers. See? It is 50 metres to the fast corner here, and the slow ones brake a little, and you can hear it.
"The quick ones, they don't brake at all here. You can hear that, too."
The drivers were all in their cars and waiting to be released, collected together at the end of the pitlane like a pack of hounds waiting for the hunt. Nelson Piquet Jr was up front, waiting to lead them away, and by the end of the session he led them on the timesheets too, claiming the top time just ahead of Gimmi Bruni, with Adam Carroll continuing his impressive form to finish third, just one tenth off the top spot.
Back in the paddock Piquet Sports had a new addition to the team: their own artist was creating images of their pits, painting on wood with oils. But they hadn't suddenly decided to spend money F1 style; he was a friend of one of the team's engineers and liked to paint unusual scenes, having recently painted in an operating room. It was a change of pace for the artist, and confused everyone outside of the team, so it was a win-win situation for them.
Or at least it was until Piquet found out he was going to lose his best time in qualifying for overtaking Bruni under yellows in free practice. "It's so stupid," he fumed. "Yes I overtook him, but he was slowing down, and it was on the straight; what else could I do?
"I'm gonna spend every second, every metre on track to beat the other guys in the race. I'm gonna prove them wrong."
And he very nearly did it in qualifying, too. After a slow first half of qualifying Piquet got up to speed towards the end, setting the fastest lap of the session before almost repeating the performance. The second lap was 0.056 off the best lap of eventual polesitter Carroll, who himself was just 0.004 ahead of Lewis Hamilton. Remarkably, Piquet's time was only good enough for fourth, sharing the second row with Alex Premat.
"It was pretty close, wasn't it," noted Carroll, ever the master of understatement.
The press conference came and went, a well-drilled part of the programme already, and then it was time for dinner, with the teams sitting down in the hospitality unit at tables arranged in front of the backdrop. One of the Durango mechanics couldn't resist it, sitting in the middle seat of the press conference area and regaling everyone with his thoughts on the main course ("The salmon? It's very good, and let me tell you why…") before moving into the second seat to describe his salad, and over to third for the dessert ("These strawberries! The best I've had, for sure!"), much to the amusement of his team.
Piquet was back in the paddock early the next morning, clearly unwell but nonetheless answering everyone's questions at a breakfast with the French media. The Brazilian suffers badly from hay fever, but it was clear that whatever he had was far worse than he expected the day before. He sniffled and croaked his way through the meeting, answering every question in fluent, if fluey, French before heading back to his rented motorhome to get some sleep.
Half an hour later and the contrast couldn't be more pronounced when the British media sat down with their new hero Hamilton. On form as ever, he charmed them with stories of his youth, of his two years with former teammate Nico Rosberg, of his hopes for the present and for the future. Having won them all over he returned to his team, to sit down with his engineer Steeve Marcel to hatch the plot to win his home race.
All weekend the sessions were on earlier than usual, with the F1 sessions pushed forward because of the World Cup and everything else moving up to make space for them. Sitting on the pitwall ahead of the race, Neel Jani was filling in for the injured Nicolas Lapierre, but his team seemed to have other things on their mind.
"When are you going to call me in?" he asked as they soaked up the sun. "Well, we've had some good news," Arden's Mick Cook told the Swiss driver, "we can get the football feed on the screens here on the wall. The race should be about the same length as the game, so keep an eye on the big screens; when you see the players come in at half time, get ready to come in yourself…"
Eventually the drivers were in their cars and off on the standard blast around the circuit to line up on the grid, but it wasn't business as usual for Racing Engineering. On pole for the first time this year, the pressure was soon ramped up even more when Carroll's car arrived, smoking heavily, at his grid position. "Take it off!" barked John Gentry, the Ulsterman's race engineer, and as the engine panel was removed the flames started to lick higher. "Quick, hit it now" he ordered, and the mechanic next to him with the extinguisher gave it a few quick bursts, one two three, and the fire was out.
There was smoke everywhere as Gentry reached in, pulling out a warped and smoking heat shield, its surface blushed as though in shame, and then he was back into the engine, checking, testing, cleaning, as the clock ticked aggressively on. Gentry won the battle; the covers were back on and the smoke had cleared as his driver led the grid around on their warm up lap; but the war was about to commence.
Lights out; game on. Carroll and Hamilton both had strong starts, and they were side by side into Copse, neither man giving an inch to the other; Hamilton was fighting to solidify his championship lead, Carroll for his first win of the season, for a sign that all of the hard work would have its reward. Around one corner they went, then two and three, before Hamilton got his nose ahead, held his line, and was gone.
Behind the pair Glock had a phenomenal start, blasting past Piquet, who had found his way to grid but looked even more wretched than he had in the morning, and Premat, who had struggled a little to get off the line. The German was on for a podium finish by the end of the first lap, and was determined to repay his new team's faith in him with silverware.
Monaco star Franck Perera was in the wars at Silverstone, being tapped out of the first corner by his teammate and taking Jose Maria Lopez with him. The pair were unharmed bar their pride, but their beached cars prompted the safety car to come out on track while the marshals worked on removing the stricken vehicles from the gravel.
Hamilton has clearly honed his restart skills to a fine art, and when the cars were released he had the jump on Carroll, stretching off into the distance as the Ulsterman tried to keep everyone behind. With tyrewear a major problem in the English heat pit strategy was going to be critical, and the leaders started to come in from lap ten: first Premat and Piquet, then Glock and Lucas di Grassi, then Carroll, and finally Hamilton.
ART looked to have done the job, with Hamilton out ahead of Premat, Glock, Carroll and Piquet, but the Frenchman had been over-eager to move up and was soon penalised with a drive thru, undoing his team's hard work. When Giorgio Pantano finally came in from the lead Hamilton was once again on top, and looked to have done all he needed to take the win.
Pantano was in great form behind the leaders, coming out right on the tail of sixth placed Andreas Zuber and pushing all over the track for a way past. Just as he was about to make the move stick, however, two things happened: di Grassi's rear wing flew off the car, putting the Brazilian into the gravel, and Ferdinando Monfardini lost the rear in second gear at Abbey, spearing to the right and hitting the barrier with a sickening thump, bringing out the safety car once more.
Di Grassi was livid but otherwise fine, while Monfardini was taken to the medical centre for a mandatory check up and was soon back in the paddock, sweating profusely and telling everyone he was fine. Clearly he wasn't though, and he checked himself into the hospital, where he was kept in overnight for observation, putting himself out of the Sunday race in the process.
At the restart Hamilton attempted to ease away from the pack, while Pantano resumed his pursuit of Zuber, but both men were frustrated once more when Gimmi Bruni's car gave up the ghost, running out of gears and coasting to a halt at Bridge. The Italian attempted to push his car off the racing line by himself, but the effort was too great and the safety car was soon out again.
The restart was a mirror image of the previous one, apart from Zuber's off track excursion under pressure from Pantano. The laps ran down and Hamilton led Glock, Carroll, Piquet and Pantano across the line at the end of the race.
"It was a superb victory for me," a clearly emotional Hamilton said after the race, "and I think this tops Monaco. England won the football today, and for a British driver to win as well, here at Silverstone, is a really special feeling for me."
After the race rumours swirled around the paddock that the stewards were looking closely at one of the teams, and when all the cars bar Durango's were returned it was obvious who they were looking at. After di Grassi's accident the stewards looked at his car and noticed that repairs had been effected to his rear wing which, as a structural element, is against the technical regulations. The stewards were left with no option but to exclude the team from the weekend, and the Italian team's truck was long gone as everyone walked in to the paddock early the next morning.
Piquet was back again, saying little, looking like death warmed over. The Brazilian had been unable to take part in the usual signing session the day before, cancelling everything other than the race in an attempt to get some rest. It was clear that he would rather be somewhere else on Sunday morning, but when it was suggested that he not race he just looked straight ahead and said "I race – that's what I do. I have to do this." Unsaid went the mathematics, the points that he needed to blunt his rival's lead in the championship.
But Hamilton was unstoppable, winning the most thrilling race of the year while Piquet scrabbled around for the scraps. Felix Porteiro stormed away from his first GP2 pole position, belying the pressure on his shoulders, while Carroll and Hamilton repeated their battle from the previous day, to the same effect.
Piquet was up to third after barging his way past Pantano, and was all over the back of second-placed Clivio Piccione when Arden's nightmare weekend came to an end: Michael Ammermüller tipped teammate Jani into a spin at Abbey, putting both cars out on the spot and provoking yet more laps for the safety car.
When they were let loose once more Porteiro had another perfect start and was off to rebuild the lead he'd lost, while Hamilton timed his run on Pantano with clockwork precision, running side by side with the Italian across the line and easily beating him into the first turn.
Piccione was desperately trying to hang on in front of Piquet, who was equally anxious to get by. But Hamilton was with the pair almost immediately, setting up on of the best overtaking moves of the year. Coming into Maggotts corner Piquet went left and Hamilton went right around Piccione, who must have felt like Ricardo Zonta as the meat in a championship challenge sandwich at that famous F1 race in Spa.
Like that race the man on the right won, Hamilton playing Hakkinen, by barging through a gap that no one saw, while Piquet, the Schumacher of the equation, was left with no room left to use. They ran three wide along the short straight until Piccione backed out, jinking slightly to the left, and it was all over: Piquet was out of road and running across the grass, through an advertising hoarding and back on track behind the chasing Carroll and Pantano, while Hamilton has the next turn to himself and was gone.
Porteiro knew what was coming, but was powerless to stop it. With so many laps to go there was no way the plucky Spaniard could hold on forever, and a strong move from his English rival at Brooklands sealed his second win of the weekend ahead of Porteiro, who held his nerve to fight off a nail-biting challenge from Carroll and Co over the final ten laps.
Heartbreakingly, the Spaniard lost his points when Campos were disqualified after the race for steering rack irregularities (think ART in Hungary last year, and you're close), but his drive had put down a marker for the front runners to keep an eye over their shoulders.
With the race over so early, there was nothing to do but go: Hamilton walked over to the big paddock, now achingly close to being his new home, while the mechanics got into their cars and drove back to the factory and then home. Meanwhile Piquet checked himself into hospital for a check up, wondering how a weekend that should have been his had slipped away, and what he could possibly do to get his championship fight out the grass and back on track.
The sun sat there, fat and orange and full, shining down benevolently on to the roads at the top of the hill, twisting like a nest of newborn snakes as they writhe blindly over and around each other towards the water. In the harbour the yachts were already in place, their masts and rigging tak tak takking their Morse code messages to each other in the relative pre-race calm.
The yachts filled all of the available space in the harbour, and their decks were crammed full of the rich, the powerful and the beautiful, all jostling for position, for a view of the comings and goings in the Formula One paddock, all trying to see around the massive Red Bull floating palace looming over the paddock gate.
But what they couldn't see, beyond the fizzy drink powered behemoth and its comparatively modest competitors on the other side of the fence in the paddock, behind the low rise office block behind it and along the road to the car park at the base of the cliff that pushes the royal palace grandly up towards the sky, was the Monaco home for GP2.
"I'm freezing," said Hiroki Yoshimoto, hugging himself inside his BCN fleece as he sat in the hospitality area on the first floor of the concrete structure. "It's always cold here. Its not exactly the glamour of Monaco, is it?"
"Maybe," said his companion, "but the view is nice."
The Mediterranean sat there, flat and blue and shining, outside the car park and beckoned through the large openings on either side of the hospitality section. The driver and his friend got up and walked downstairs to join the other drivers, who were already basking like lizards outside, drinking in the sun and the sea in equal measure as they waited for the session to start. No one there could resist the syren's call for long, and most of the drivers could be found outside in the sun all weekend.
Unfortunately for the mechanics they had no choice but to resist, stuck as they were in the gloom inside. Ten teams wound around the support pylons on the ground floor, while the remaining three were upstairs between hospitality and a gaggle of Formula One trucks, and everyone had their heads down over the cars, preparing for the most difficult racing weekend on the calendar.
It was Thursday morning, and the cars were about to be rolled down to the pitlane for the first practice session of the weekend. "Hey Yoshi," a journalist called over as he soaked up the sun, his overalls at half-mast and sunglasses firmly in place. "Are you going to complete a lap this time?" The driver pulled a face in reply, one that he was used to showing: half wry amusement, half pained grimace.
The Japanese driver had been unable to turn a single lap in either practice or qualifying after gremlins struck this time last year and, despite flying out his backers from Japan, at great expense, he was unable to compete in the race he had dreamt of entering since he was a small boy living on Australia's Gold Coast.
His first lap around the prestigious street circuit was slow and steady, one to be banked and forgotten for insurance purposes before he could relax and enjoy his time on track, secure in the knowledge that he would be allowed to take part in the race, come what may. He was soon up to speed, leaning on his tyres and pushing his way up the timesheets to ninth in a session topped by Lewis Hamilton, half a second ahead of nearest rival Jose Maria Lopez.
Friday morning in Monaco means pressure: a second practice session at nine in the morning gives the team some all-important data on track conditions, but with the session just half an hour before qualifying any problems on track would punish the teams exponentially. And so it proved: Yoshimoto was the first driver to drop under 1:25 but he was soon in the wall, having ridden the kerb too much on the exit from the swimming pool and been thrown across the track as his team groaned at the knowledge of the rush of work to come.
Hamilton took up where he left off and put his car on top, keeping a little bit in reserve to avoid any injury to his car, which left a hair's breadth for Franck Perera to set the best time in the session by just 0.007 seconds, confirming his long held view that his car could be on top again despite the team's problems during the early part of his season.
The BCN mechanics swarmed around Yoshimoto's bent car when it was returned to them at the end of the session, working feverously to repair the damage to the front wing and front right suspension. It's driver stood across the pitlane watching, an inscrutable look on his face behind the ever-present sunglasses as he sipped from his water bottle and studiously ignored the photographers around him.
His car was still up on the jacks as the rest of the field streamed through the narrow pitlane exit at the start of qualifying, the fight flaring up now to take advantage of the clear track to set a good time. Hamilton set the early pace and then just got faster, brushing the walls here and there as he did so. "You need to treat them like friends, you know," he later claimed, "and just lean on them every now and again."
Early in the session Giorgio Pantano came to a halt next to Hamilton's friend at the Rascasse corner, bringing out the red flags as the Italian skulked around the corner and back to the pits, a black cloud hanging low over his head as he assumed his weekend was already over. At the restart Hamilton went even quicker, managing the traffic superbly as Olivier Pla jumped up to second behind him.
Pantano was given a get out of jail free card when his teammate Jason Tahinci spun harmlessly at the Mirabeau. The red flags were out once again for the combination of this and Fairuz Fauzy's loop at Massenet, and when the young Turk's car was brought back to the pits his team swarmed over it to install Pantano's seat and replace the number on the front of the car with a gaffer taped six, so they could send the Italian out once the circuit went green again.
Once again Hamilton was the quickest man on track, holding the rest of the field at bay until he started his quick lap. Two drivers who were not so lucky were Ernesto Viso and Olivier Pla: the former put his car into the wall at Ste Devote in a similar fashion to his qualifying shunt last year, leaving his French rival nowhere to go but into the side of his car as teammate Clivio Piccione behind them took to the escape road to avoid the pair.
Surprisingly there were no red flags for the incident, but waved yellows slowed everyone down until the cars were craned out of the way. Once the track was clear Gimmi Bruni took second off the stranded Pla, only to give way to a quicker Perera, who nonetheless was reminded of his place in the pecking order when Hamilton went faster again, claiming pole in the process by over two tenths of a second, surprisingly his first official pole of the year.
"I think that was the best qualifying session I've had in terms of managing the traffic," he noted afterwards. "Slow down at the beginning of the lap, because people slow down at the end of the lap but I made sure I had a huge, huge gap each time, and I never had any traffic. We've been quick all day, we made some changes and they were really good, and in general it was really good to drive. We're in a very good shape to take the win tomorrow: I'm hoping to be good at the start tomorrow, and then just bring it home.
"And," he added ominously, "I'm sure we will."
Further back and Pantano's experiment hadn't worked: he was eighteenth and had a mountain ahead of him, while Yoshimoto was even further back after qualifying on the back row. "I can't believe my luck here," he noted afterwards, "but at least I'm in the race this time, I guess."
After qualifying the mechanics and the engineers were back into the cave, back with their heads down over the cars to get them into shape for Saturday's race, while everyone else went for lunch. Afterwards everyone was as a loose end as to what to do: the journalists had their quotes and filed their copies, the drivers had finished their debriefs and were sat outside to catch the sun, the team bosses had spoken to the team managers to make sure that everything was running smoothly, and the engineers had instructed the mechanics on how to set up the cars.
By early afternoon, before qualifying would normally happen, everyone had done their job. The drivers disappeared; the locals to their homes, the others to the Formula One paddock or to their hotels, and everyone else went off to wherever it was that they were staying, every single person thinking 'what have I missed?' No one could think of anything they had forgotten to do, and yet they all felt guilty about leaving the paddock so early.
The next morning and everyone was in early to avoid the traffic, to feel like they were part of a racing team, to be part of the gang while Monaco happened all around them. The mechanics worked on the cars, cleaning and tightening and discussing, the drivers sat outside drinking in the sun and the sea, and everyone else looked for something to do in between.
And, finally, it was time for the race. The teams pushed their cars down the lane towards the pits for the last time, the ever-present sun beating down on their necks, and the drivers walked with them, helmets in hand as they chatted to each other, the usual stilted conversation where they try and fail to take their minds off the job ahead. Unspoken went the thought 'this is the one, the race that counts more than the others, the one that I really need to win.'
Strap in and go, they say, and Hamilton did just that: as the lights went out he made a perfect start and led Perera into Ste Devote, with Pla barging his way past Bruni just after them. But behind the first four there was chaos.
Tristan Gommendy was in trouble right from the start: crowded after the lights went out, he looked in vain for a gap before finding the wall and bouncing back into the pack. Lopez was filling the space the Frenchman needed, and he suddenly had Gommendy riding over his rear wheel and was suddenly pinwheeling into Javier Villa and Nelson Piquet Jr.
Gommendy, momentum now controlling his out of control car, found the back of Nicolas Lapierre's car, bouncing his countryman high into the air, taking Lucas di Grassi's rear wing as he went, before gravity slapped him back down to earth with a bump, his broken car throwing itself at the barriers at Ste Devote with wanton abandon.
The drivers pulled themselves from the wreckage that had been their cars and walked back across the road to the pits. All the drivers, that is, except for Lapierre, who was being laid down on a stretcher as the pain in his back made itself known to him.
Piquet and di Grassi managed to limp around the track, waiting for the red flags that never came, while the others were joined in retirement by Bruni (car broken on the kerbs after Pla's robust overtake) and Adam Carroll (engine stopped, started, and stopped again at Casino Square) as the field came around to find out that their race was still very much on.
Hamilton knew what he had to do: drop Perera and build a gap before the stops. Perera knew what he had to do: try to stay with Hamilton to put himself in a good position when it was time to come into the pits. Both succeeded, in their own ways.
Perera was the first of the lead pair to come in, ten seconds off the lead but well ahead of his pursuers, who couldn't live with the pace of the top two. Coming out well clear of Alex Premat, now third after Pla found the wall on the exit from the swimming pool complex, he pushed and pushed, looking for an advantage from his fresh tyres.
Hamilton was in just three laps later, his engineer awake to the time he was losing to his rival. One safe and sedate stop later and the Briton was back out in the lead, now just three seconds ahead but with an all important backmarker buffered between them.
It was enough: after 45 punishing laps around the principality Hamilton claimed the win ahead of Perera, with Premat a distant third.
"It's quite an emotional experience winning here in Monaco," Hamilton gushed immediately afterwards. "It's historic, and it's something that, growing up, you dream of. It's something that, in Formula 3, I had accomplished, and then to come into GP2 in only my first year and win here, well, I couldn't ask for more.
"For years I watched Senna's onboard footage in this place, and in part of this race I was thinking to myself 'wow, I'm racing this circuit, and this is what Ayrton did, and I want to do the same.' And, luckily, I did it."
Beating the Englishman back to the paddock was the only race that Pantano and Yoshimoto could win, and they both achieved it easily: Pantano had taken advantage of an early stop and put his car up to fourth with a strong drive in clear air, but his hard work came to nothing when he broke his car on the kerbs at Ste Devote, while the Japanese driver retired in the pits when his car stopped from seventh in the race.
Back in the paddock and the tear down was in full flow, with the teams forced to make space in the car park for a number of Formula One trucks that needed the space. Everyone worked despite their concern for Lapierre, who had been taken off to hospital for a check up but hadn't returned. "I really don't know," said a very stiff Gommendy, now back from the medical centre but unable to move his neck or torso, his face suggesting he knew more pain was on the way tomorrow. "I saw him being treated, but he didn't come back with me."
"We haven't heard anything yet," said one of the Arden mechanics, cleaning the remains of the car like a mother waiting for bad news. "I'll give you a yell when we know something."
The news finally came in as the teams were packing away their last pieces of kit: two compressed vertebrae, out for six weeks. Could be better, they all thought, but it could have been worse.
With everything squared away it was almost time to leave, when Hamilton bounded upstairs in the GP2 bus looking for information. "Do you have results from the race yet?" he asked as they putting their laptops away.
"We haven't received them yet, but I'm pretty sure you won."
"I had a feeling I might have, but I just wanted to check!" he laughed. "No, I just wanted to go over a few things with my engineer before we left."
"We'll email them to you tomorrow if you'd like. Besides, you just won; you should be celebrating down at the Amber Lounge!"
"Yeah, but I always like to make sure that we've covered everything before I leave the track. I hate feeling like I've missed something."
"I didn't think there'd be much more to cover, and besides: everyone else has already gone back to get changed for the club. It's ladies night tonight."
"Really?" he asked, that soon to be famous smile emerging once again. "In that case, I'll see you down there…"