This was it - crunchtime. The whole season came down to just one weekend, and as the championship was played out on track, David Cameron was there once again to bring you all the behind the scenes action. Ultimately, everyone in the paddock knew before it happened that the entire weekend in Monza was going to be viewed through a prism of how it would affect the Nelson vs. Lewis show: every look, every glance, every word would be magnified for significance with regard to the coming storm, the showdown that the whole season was aimed towards, the fight for the future of the two top ranked young drivers outside the formula one gates and looking for a way in, the fight that would propel the winner into the career he had dreamt of for most of his young life.
And yet it was never like that: Nelson Piquet had already been announced as a Renault test driver for next year before anyone arrived at the track, while Lewis Hamilton has long been a part of the McLaren family and any result over the weekend was hardly likely to damage that. Nonetheless tongues wagged as soon as they both walked into the paddock ("Nelson looks calmer than ever: is it because of the Renault drive; is the pressure off now?" "Lewis looks serious: is he feeling the pressure now? Is he upset that Nelson has been announced and he doesn't know what he's doing yet?"), and the TV crews and photographers flocking around them like gulls around a trawler soon got in everyone's way as they prepared for the final rounds of the season.
After the usual walk around the track by the various crews the drivers were called to their last driver's briefing. The drivers spread reluctantly around the room like kids on their last day at school and Giorgio Pantano, late as ever, was left without a seat. Rather than stand at the back of the room he sat instead in the middle seat at the front looking at the drivers, just as Charlie Whiting and Herbie Blash of the FIA walked in.
"Are you sitting with us today, Giorgio?" a bemused Whiting asked.
"Yes, I think so today," the Italian smirked back, and the meeting got underway, with comments from the other drivers batted back with an "I don' think so, no" by the new man at the front. The whole thing was over in ten minutes, a new record in a meeting that can bring subsumed tensions back to the fore. "It's a shame this is the last one, Giorgio," Whiting laughed when it was over, "we could have used you up here at some of the earlier briefings!"
Everyone arrived in the paddock on Friday morning to be greeted by ominous looking dark clouds as far as the eye could see, sending the onlookers into a frenzy. "Does this throw the advantage to Piquet, considering his record in the wet? How will ART respond?" The teams ignored it all and got on with their work, towing their workbenches around to the pits as the various team members walked along side, including Hamilton.
"What are you doing here?" asked an incredulous Will Buxton as he spied the driver walking along the pitlane.
"Err … free practice?" came the puzzled reply.
"No, I mean what are you doing in the pitlane: you're supposed to drive the car around here, not get it pushed."
"Oh shit!" he blurted before fighting his way back through the usual Monza crowds milling next to the formula one paddock to get to his car before they closed the gate onto the track.
Piquet was the first man on the circuit when the green light came on, but he soon dropped back so he could see how the car reacted behind other cars. He took a couple of calm laps to gauge the conditions and was then immediately on the pace, rolling out two fastest laps and then coming in on a lap that would have been even quicker. Hamilton took the opportunity of setting fastest lap in his rival's absence, but as soon as the Brazilian re-emerged he slapped down the fastest lap of the session and was never again headed for the remainder of the period, with a time that put him ahead of the ART pair on the top of the timesheets.
Footballer Clarence Seedorf was in the paddock in the guise of co-owner of Trident racing, but more excitement in certain camps was caused when a small, dark haired man arrived in the hospitality area to say hello to Piquet at lunchtime. All of the Brazilians in the paddock suddenly pulled out their mobile phones and started taking photos of the pair as though it had just occurred to them that the driver may be on the verge of fame.
"Don't they have enough photos of Nelson?" a journalist asked as they took photos of the men standing immediately behind him.
"That's Kaka," someone replied as he looked for just the right angle for his shot.
"It's not that stupid a question!"
"No, no: it's the footballer Kaka. He played for Brazil in the World Cup." The pair moved off to talk in Piquet's truck, with the group trailing at a respectful distance, leaving the journalist to eat his lunch in shame.
The dazzling Italian sun had burnt away every remnant of cloud in the white, mazy sky by the time the title rivals emerged from their trucks to join the rest of the field for the afternoon qualifying session in the pitlane, and the battle between the pair began in earnest as Piquet nipped past Hamilton on track as the Briton attempted to get a clear track ahead of him for his first run at pole, the start of the mind games for the session.
Neither man did much in the first ten minutes until Hamilton, by now back in front of his rival on track, set the fastest lap in the session only to see it lost to Piquet thirty seconds later. The Briton was faster again next time by, but Piquet gouged seven tenths out of the laptime as he crossed the line and both returned to the pits for new tyres and one last tilt at pole. Hamilton came out and nibbled away at the time but couldn't match it, and with one minute remaining Pantano made the Briton's day so much the worse when he nicked second on the grid with a brilliantly controlled lap as the chequered flag came out.
"The car was great again, and we were very lucky we didn't get involved in traffic or anything," Piquet noted afterwards, basking in the two points he desperately needed in his title chase. "Tomorrow I need to play it safe: there are many cars around us that want to win a race, and they are going to risk moves that me and Lewis wouldn't risk for the championship."
"It's not my problem tomorrow!" Pantano laughed in reply. "I want to win the race, me, and I have nothing to lose. I'm going to do my own race, and if I have a chance to win, I'm going to win." While the two men next to him in a packed press conference had their careers mapped out in front of them, the Italian knew he had to impress to keep his career going, although he did concede that he would be considering some unorthodox career moves in the future: "Maybe I do can work with the FIA!"
Hamilton, who already knew he was likely to lose his fastest laptime after seeing a yellow flag too late out of the Parabolica, echoed his rival's call for calm at the start of the race: "As Nelson said we've got to play it quite cool and not take each other or anyone else out, so if I get a good start and Giorgio comes along and wants to go past, well…"
Saturday saw the oven heat of Monza turned up another notch or two as all of the drivers bar the title protagonists milling about in hospitality, watching the formula one sessions and joking among themselves, a feeling of school term end hanging over everyone as they waited for their holidays to come. Piquet joined in the clowning around at lunch time, pouring his bottle of water down my back and giggling as he ran away, laughing even louder as I returned the favour while he talked to series organiser Bruno Michel in front of his pits, while Hamilton kept everyone guessing by staying in his truck for most of the day.
The usual long, long day got underway at last as the teams went out to the pitlane in the afternoon, while all eyes in the stands and upstairs in the formula one media centre were on the drivers as they found their way to the grid for the start of race one. The pressure was centred squarely on the title rivals, who both had relatively poor starts as Pantano tore away as the lights went out: Piquet cut the chicane but handed the lead back to the Italian into the next turn, while Hamilton bogged down allowing Adam Carroll to temporarily slip through into third behind the pair.
Piquet was determined to make amends and retake the lead, but Pantano would not be denied and the pair traded fastest laps at the start of the race to pull away from the rest of the field: Hamilton was the only man close to their laptimes, but the time he lost behind Carroll meant he had more than four seconds to find when he reclaimed his grid position.
Carroll came in on lap nine for his pitstop but was out of the race a lap later, the victim of a probable ill-applied wheel that came loose into the Ascari complex before pitching the Ulsterman into a lurid spin which, thankfully, kept off the solid barriers on either side of the track. With the errant wheel continuing on down the road and the car beached on the inside kerb, there was no option but to bring out the safety car so both could be retrieved.
The three front men led most of the remaining pack into the pits for new tyres as the track was cleared; the order remained unchanged afterwards albeit with a few backmarkers caught on track between Piquet and Hamilton. When the race went green again the Brazilian gave his all to take the lead but Pantano was equal to the task, and Piquet flatspotted his four new tyres as he locked up into the first chicane to avoid the FMS car next to him.
While Hamilton was pushing hard to get back on terms with the leading pair in front of him, teammate Alex Premat was in a championship battle of his own: Timo Glock was on his tail and pushing hard to get past, on the track and in the points. The Frenchman weaved a little in a desperate attempt to stay ahead of the clearly faster Glock, unsettling him enough to allow the pursuing Luca Filippi through. Worse was to come at the Parabolica for the German when, unsettled by a combination of Fairuz Fauzy in front and Adrian Valles behind, Glock and the Spaniard were into the wall and out of the race, with the German's hand being so badly injured in the crash that he would be unable to feed himself the next morning, let alone race in the final event.
But back at the front Piquet was unable to catch up with Pantano, who was inching away on his fresher tyres. In the title fight Piquet was still alive until lap 23, when Hamilton reeled in the fastest lap of the race, changing the potential difference at the end of the race to an untouchable seven points. Despite his spent tyres Piquet pushed as hard as possible to outdo his rival, setting fastest first and third sectors over the closing laps but losing time in the Ascari complex, until Pantano presented the Brazilian with a get out of jail free card by claiming the fastest lap on the last lap of the race.
For Pantano, racing in pain after pulling a muscle in his chest earlier in the week, the win at his home circuit was vindication after a difficult year: "It was great! We did a very good job today, the team did a very good job in the pitstop and we didn't make any mistakes. We raced consistently, every lap was the same, and that's it, it was great!"
Piquet, pleased that the title was still alive but realistic that his chances were slim, was just happy to have dragged his car across the finish line: "At the start of the race I tried to overtake Giorgio, but every time I braked a bit late the wheels were locking, and the car started to vibrate a lot and I couldn't handle it anymore. I just wanted to finish the race: all my sidepods were like two or three centimetres open from the cockpit, and I was scared they were going to fly away and Id have to stop or something. I was just happy to finish the race, and after this I hope for something good tomorrow."
Despite the title being effectively in his grasp, Hamilton wasn't prepared to pronounce himself victor just yet: "It's never over until the fat lady sings, as they say… I think I was in a good position until this guy here [Pantano] put in the fastest lap on the last lap: how the hell he did that I don't know, but we're in a good position for tomorrow. I think a lot of the pressure is off, but it's still there. We need to have a good finish tomorrow."
But after the press conference, the rotund woman began to croon. Pantano was called up to the stewards after it had been suggested that his fastest lap was set under a yellow flag, and although it was later found out to have been shown in error and immediately next to a green flag, rules are made to be observed and the Italian lost his fastest lap. The point was handed to Hamilton, along with the title, in a largely deserted paddock at ten o'clock on Saturday night. The only sign of the championship being resolved was when ART's Fred Vasseur came over to shake hands with Felipe Vargas of Piquet Sports in the otherwise deserted hospitality area, the team principals sitting down together to exchange a few words before they returned to their respective pits.
The next morning everyone turned up as usual, but with nothing to fight for the overwhelming feeling in the pitlane was one of wanting the whole thing over with, of finishing up and getting out. Perhaps that explains the start of race two, where Hiroki Yoshimoto on pole failed to get moving, along with all those around him, allowing Pantano to be the first man through the first chicane from a remarkable eighth, followed by Hamilton, finally released from the championship demands and looking for the perfect finish to his championship.
Piquet was sixth through the chicane, but made short work of brushing by Alex Premat and Nicolas Lapierre to put himself on the tail of third placed driver Clivio Piccione. Unfortunately for the Brazilian he had a repeat of his recent braking ailments and he was unable to find a way past the Monegasque driver, spinning at the chicane a few laps later and falling down the order. Hamilton ran through the gravel at Lesmos but held his nerve to push back up to Pantano, who won the race by 0.4 of a second from the Briton, with Piccione a distant third. The points were rounded out by a nose to tail train of Lapierre, Yoshimoto and Piquet, and the racing was done for the year.
The teardown was completed in record time, partially because of the impossibility of getting out of the Monza circuit in any reasonable time after the formula one race is done, but more through a desire to get to the end of year party. With Monza becoming the final round of the championship after the removal of Spa from this year's calendar the party was merged with the traditional Gonzalo Rodriguez WAA Awards, held in honour of the late Uruguayan as a fundraiser for the fine work of his Foundation, now the life work of his ebullient sister Nani.
It was the perfect end to a roller coaster year: good food, good company, lots of laughs, a few awards with no speeches, some photos and a lot of good wine. The auction was a huge success, albeit surprising to see drivers buying the boots of other, more famous, drivers ("What could Nicolas Lapierre want with Jenson Button's boots? Does it mean he's gone native after two years in Oxford, or is he looking towards his budget for next year?"), and a bidding war ensued over Tonio Liuzzi's world cup special boots. It was all for a good cause, and it was a great way to end the season.
Or almost end it. Nelson Piquet ran back into the room as the evening was drawing to a close, looking for his mother's handbag under the table. "Come on, are you coming to Hollywood?" he asked. Paolo Coloni, beaming with joy all night after beating Trident by one point in the championship had organised an all-nighter at the famous Milanese nightclub, and Piquet was about to head off there. "You should come, but if not then have fun on holiday, and I'll see you soon, or in the paddock next year.
"It's been great, hasn't it?" Whether he meant the party or the season, he was right either way.