Finding the drivers you've spent the last year or more co-habiting with in the paddock suddenly driving for a different team is a bit like when they get another actor in to play James Bond: it's not necessarily wrong per se, but it's still a little weird. It's like when a friend tells you he's broken up with the long term girlfriend you thought was really good for him before presenting the new model, saying "I never really loved the other one, actually", and you have to smile and say "good for you" when really you're thinking "well, I hope this one works out for you, this time."
But they seemed so happy it would have been churlish to disparage the new marriages. Nicolas Lapierre (now known as Nico to his new team, according to his pitboard) was smiling in the Dams pit, while Jose Maria Lopez (or Mr Lopez as his new board demanded) beamed out from deep within the chilly BCN garage, sheltering from the unusually grim Jerez weather.
Lucas di Grassi wasn't ready to settle down just yet, playing the field instead by testing with both iSport and ART and making both sets of mechanics laugh whenever he walked by, a loveable rogue despite all parties knowing what he's been up to. Ernesto Viso, on the other hand, was trying desperately to impress the ART engineers, spending hours out the back in debriefs with them and carrying out any task they asked. Giorgio Pantano however, now firmly ensconced at Campos, had no need to try so hard: his new team had already fallen for him, so he was free to wander around and chat to others while he looked for something to eat.
But there were new names too; younger drivers coming up from the junior ranks looking to make a name for themselves, hoping to woo the teams in their direction, with one eye on the pitlane and the other on the future. The British F3 gang were there in force, Mike Conway and Stephen Jelley and Christian Bakkerud, and the Japanese were in effect too, Kazuki Nakajima and Kohei Hirate were both looking to get into the paddock and leapfrog Hiroki Yoshimoto into the Formula One dream.
And while the young Spaniards squabbled amongst themselves on home ground to become the official Next Alonso, the new driver that everyone was talking about both in and outside the paddock was the one with that most famous motorsport name around: Senna. Bruno had arranged a day each with ART and iSport, the teams most likely to continue their fight at the front of the pack, and the combination of that famous helmet with the red and white car on Monday had more than a few people looking into his garage for longer than they intended.
It was the French team's first time back in the paddock after the heart-rending blow of losing Steeve Marcel so recently, but they were quickly down to business as usual, running the programme that he set. While it was clear that the team wasn't trying for outright speed (Viso set the 12 th fastest times in both sessions, and Senna was further back), they were certainly trying to assess the technical skills of the drivers: both men spent a good part of the day in the back of the garage talking, peering at computers and drawing up the track maps that were a common sight in Lewis Hamilton's hand over the year.
Over at FMS there was another well known Brazilian driver quietly going about his business: Antonio Pizzonia was back at the track that became almost his second home during his stay with Williams, and he was putting that experience to good use by setting up his car so that he could get the maximum out of his tyres.
The morning session didn't go to plan, and the constant track stoppages just as he was leaving the pitlane prompted one wag in the team to change the sign next to his helmet to Antonio Pizzonia: Red Flag Driver. Nonetheless he managed to set a reasonable time over the remaining laps in the morning before running just eleven laps in the afternoon, one short qualifying run and one longer run, to easily set the fastest lap of the day with a lap of 1: 27.184, seven tenths ahead of second placed Franck Perera.
"We did some set up work this morning to try and improve the car, because you have one lap on the new tyres then that's it, and I had red flags and traffic so we lost our best laps" Pizzonia stated as he relaxed in the truck at the end of the day. "I think the pace was already there, so we did another 20-25 laps to try and work on the car for the new sets, and then in the afternoon we did 2 short runs, the first one on old tyres and the second one on new tyres, and it was good.
"The tyres don't really last that much: it's probably only the first lap that is pretty good, and then there is a drop off for the next three or four laps, and then after that they're gone; after that it is really freaky to judge where you can use the tyres because the balance changes completely. But I always thought this was a better track to test at than Ricard, because Ricard has a lot of wind and the tyres always react in a different way there, so for me this is a much better test track, for sure.
"And whatever we do here everyone can take to a race weekend: whatever people do at Ricard just stays there."
Franck Perera, driving to secure his future after losing his Toyota backing, impressed many by finishing in the top three in both sessions just ahead of Giorgio Pantano, who was disappointed to see the end of the afternoon session: the Italian sat in the pitlane alone, waiting to be released after yet another red flag just before the 5 o'clock cut off, only to have the chequered flag waved at him rather than see the green lights he was hoping for. After cutting the engine he sat where he was for ten seconds before getting out and pushing the car backwards, the start of a long journey back to the far end of the pitlane.
Waking up on Tuesday morning it was immediately obvious that the long threatened showers that had held off the previous day had finally arrived in force, disproving the old adage about the plain. Pantano was the first man on track, as usual, claiming his regular spot at the top of the pitlane every time the session was red flagged: being a wet session, that mean he spent a lot of time there, waiting for the lights to change. The other drivers were slower to get on track, but soon enough everyone had set a time and were working on their wet weather set ups.
Senna was easily fastest in the wet for iSport, belying his relative lack of experience to beat out Pantano and Pizzonia for the top spot, albeit 18 seconds off the dry pace of the previous afternoon. The session was disappointing for anyone wanting to walk the track: while the various managers stood on the pitwall and tried to look important I had wanted to walk the track again, getting closer to the action than its possible to at a race meeting.
It's really only at a test day that you can stand right up at the barriers and see the differences between the drivers, but it's there that you can really see the differences in driving style. For example, at the infamous Dry Sack hairpin most of the field were braking at around 100m, while Pizzonia didn't hit the brakes until 70m ("you must have seen me when I had the new tyres on!" he later laughed) grabbing them hard before smoothly slingshoting through the complex and off around the hill. The only other driver to brake that late was Gavin Cronje, but the effort messed up his exit and he lost loads of time for doing it.
At the chicane too there were a number of different styles: "I saw you out at the chicane," Viso later noted. "How did I look?" Slightly ragged (and perhaps looking too much at the scenery), Viso's line through the tight chicane was muscular and jagged, with obvious brake and accelerator jabs forced under control by the steering, carrying too much speed through but still somehow squeezing through. The biggest contrast to Viso's line was Jose Maria Lopez, who was easily the smoothest line through the chicane, gliding by as though it was a long, soft right hander, or Stephen Jelley, who missed the chicane entirely twice just while I was standing there.
Back to the rainy second day and the older drivers were starting to talk to newer ones, with di Grassi and Senna laughing as they described running through some of the corners in the wet, both of them spinning their hands around an invisible wheel as they went, while over in the Piquet Sports garage Xandi Negrao was showing new teammate Roldan Rodriguez the ropes. With poor weather outside and a longish drive to get into town, they had little else to do but make their own entertainment until they could get back into the cars again.
Pantano was the first man on track in the afternoon session again, while the teams looked to the skies and wondered if they were imagining the rain getting lighter, as though they'd become overly used to it and could no longer feel the water. But slowly, slowly the rain was easing off until, with half an hour to go, the rain had stopped completely and the water was running off track, creating a dry line.
"This is going to be nuts," someone muttered as the first of the drivers rolled into the pits to gamble on slicks, "if you thought we had a lot of red flags before, just wait." The drivers would head out on track, someone would lose their car (Conway, both DPRs and Tahinci are just the ones I remember), and the remainder of the pack would return to the pits like a flock of gazelles that was being picked off one at a time whenever they went out on track.
With light not a problem the session was extended by 15 minutes just to give them some sort of dry running, but the times were always going to be a lottery. Pantano once again was committed to topping the times, but on the one occasion that he could have set a lap he had assumed the session was over, got out of the car and went off for a sandwich: when he heard the rest of the field blasting past he simply shrugged and then walked over to the pitwall to watch the action with the rest of us.
Lopez won the lottery, ahead of di Grassi, Luiz Razia and Senna. Although in the grand scheme of things it didn't mean much, being 5 seconds off the previous afternoon's times, the Argentine took comfort in the achievement: " I am very satisfied: since I arrived at BCN I've found an incredible atmosphere, the guys are pushing me so hard to improve the car, and we have improved a lot on the car.
"Today it was rain and then more red flags, but then in the afternoon I got more comfortable and got quicker and quicker. Then we put on the slicks, and I knew there was going to be a lot of red flags. I just pushed really hard, and conditions were really difficult, but my car was absolutely perfect in these conditions, when there is no rubber on the track.
"For me, today with BCN it's good, because we didn't do the time with a top team like ART or iSport, so it means the team have improved a lot, and it means that I've helped them."
And then it was time for the managers to jockey for position with the team bosses, selling their prodigy as the Next Great Hope as they pushed for a seat for next year. The team bosses, though, had seen it all before and politely extricated themselves by mentioning their flight home, promising to talk to them when they get back to the office. But it looked as though most of them had already made up their minds on their new line up, and were simply waiting for the right moment to announce it.
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.
It was the penultimate round of the season, and under glorious skies and amidst insane heat, David Cameron brings you all the behind-the-scenes action It was the pools that gave it away. If you didn't look at the weather forecast, if you couldn't tell by the already climbing temperature, then the two pools in the paddock - one behind the Arden pits, and a much larger one out the back at FMS - were irrefutable indicators of the extreme heat to come.
But it wasn't the heat that had Hiroki Yoshimoto worried. "I've got food poisoning," he moaned as he walked gingerly towards the pitlane, clearly in pain and wishing he was anywhere but there. "I had fish and a salad in town last night. I guess it was the salad being washed in the water that did it."
Yoshimoto had been busy since the race in Hungary, having flown straight over to Japan to drive in a round of the immensely popular GT series in his homeland - fifth, but disappointed that he had no testing before the event, in case you were wondering - and then flew straight into Istanbul, only to be mugged by his stomach. "It's agony," he sighed as he rounded the corner into the pitlane. "It's like someone stuck a knife into my guts, and then just kept doing it."
Unsurprisingly he didn't figure in the free practice session, which featured a lot of mostly harmless spins as everyone learnt the fastest way to drive around the quick, undulating circuit. Nelson Piquet was the fastest man at the end of the session, picking up where he left off two weeks earlier, just beating Giorgio Pantano to the top time.
He was also one of the fastest men back to the paddock, so as to get back and relax in the growing heat. As soon as he got back he was into the truck to change into a new pair of trunks, and was straight into the FMS pool. He was shortly joined by Jason Tahinci, taking a break from the heavy demands of racing at his home circuit, and team boss Paolo Coloni, who looked very, very happy at his decision to bring the pool.
"You should make the press conferences here," he laughed. "You could put the board behind us, some seats around, and the first ones here could sit in the pool across from the drivers!" It would have been a popular move with the journalists, although FOM may have had some problems with the arrangement. Giorgio Pantano sat on the bench next to the pool watching the proceedings, but couldn't be convinced to come in; he is Italian after all, and was probably worried about messing up his hair.
Piquet, reflecting on the recent upturn in fortunes at FMS, joked "I'm gonna pay him €500 to let me have pole, isn't that right Giorgio?"
"For sure: I need the money!"
"Yeah, and he's gonna give me €500 if he takes the pole off me."
"What?" the Italian stammered, suddenly losing the plot of the joke, before realising the obvious answer: "Hey Paolo, if I get pole today, you gotta give me a €500 bonus!"
"Really? No wait: I want some more!"
Piquet's teammate Xandi Negrao was having a lot less fun than his countryman: having been stung on the ear by a wasp he was sitting glumly in the hospitality area holding an ice-filled tissue to his ear while Piquet's PR representative Rebecca Banks fussed around him. "You should go to the medical centre," she insisted. "It could get much worse if its not treated."
"Bah!" scoffed Leo, Negrao's physio. "He is Brazilian; this is just a scratch for him. If he was English, he might die!"
His driver just sat there quietly until Leo wandered off, allowing him to go to the medical centre and not lose face in front of his friend, before returning shortly after with a massive brick of some frozen substance against his ear and a big smile on his face.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, qualifying fell to Piquet too, extending an astonishing run and reducing the deficit in the championship to Lewis Hamilton. But it was a close run thing. The Brazilian came out on track with everyone else at the start of the session, but was back in the pits next time around to get a few vital tweaks to his car. Two minutes later he was back out, and his lap was one second faster than anyone. He could afford to relax for the rest of the session; Pantano looked to be the closest man on track with a time just three tenths back until, on the very last lap of the session, Jose Maria Lopez missed Piquet's time by just 0.004.
"It was okay," the Argentine sighed during the press conference (held in the hospitality unit as usual, sadly). "I mean you can always do better, everybody can be better."
"We've got the momentum at the right stage of the championship," the polesitter noted, "right at the end, and things are going very well. I hope it continues, and we continue to do a good job."
"No, it's because now, after one year and a half, he knows how to drive this car!" Pantano laughed. "He's going quicker now. I try to do my best. I think, I hope, it's not easy for Nelson tomorrow."
"I don't know; I'm not going to say anything," said Lopez when asked to forecast the next day's race. "Last time I said it wouldn't be easy for him, I finished eighth and he won by half a lap!"
Jason Tahinci was everywhere over the weekend, and it seemed a little overwhelming for a driver who had never had remotely close to this level of scrutiny before. His sponsor also presented the race weekend, his picture was seen in most petrol stations in the country, he was seen in television commercials all weekend, and when he blew an engine in qualifying it made the national news.
Nevertheless, he bore it well. When asked in an interview in the Paddock Club what is was like to see himself everywhere in the country, he noted: "I guess it's weird, because people are coming up and ask for my autograph in the street, and that's unusual. But I'm used to seeing myself because I look in the mirror every morning, so it's not that strange, I guess."
Will Buxton, hosting the event, couldn't help but mutter "Ponse!" under his breath
"Come on, everyone looks in the mirror in the morning!"
"Well, you do have very nice hair."
"Of course I do – I'm the public face of Petrol Ofisi!"
This followed on from an event put on by his sponsor at Reina, the most famous nightclub in Istanbul and with a view unmatched anywhere, sitting as it does underneath the bridge over the Bosphorus. Christina Aguilera was due to headline the night but decided she didn't want to fly, handing the night over to Missy Elliot to get her freak on instead.
"Tell Lucas he can't dance," Tahinci whispered as he passed di Grassi's table at lunchtime on Saturday, laughing like a drain as he went.
"Lucas says neither can you, but at least he's Brazilian," came the reply at the coffee machine, to his further amusement. The pair had spent a lot of time together at the club the night before, and they bantered back and forth all the way to a signing session at the merchandise area.
"I had three girls all over me last night at Reina – they recognised me from the ads."
"Sounds good so far."
"Yeah, but what can I do with three girls?"
"If you're having a problem with that, you can always call me: I'm happy to help you out!"
The autograph session was mayhem, with more people out front than had ever appeared at a signing previously. The pair kept up the repartee while giving the ever calm Javier Villa a hand ("keep signing Javi, keep signing") and from time to time throwing signed Bridgestone hats into the crowd, causing a surge that threatened to swamp Will Buxton in front of them, much to their amusement. Eventually they were back into the minibus en route to the paddock, with Jason helping everyone else to learn Turkish: "Just remember the most important words in the Turkish language: siktir git."
Standing in the paddock, every car lined up and ready to be pushed up to the pitlane ahead of race one, Piquet's physio Alan stood in the middle of them, hands entwined with the metal fence and looking at the sky. "It's too hot," he sighed, worried about his driver, his friend. "I saw the clouds this morning and thought yes, we're gonna get some rain. But now…" he looked up at the clear, heat-hazed blue sky and sighed again.
If he was worried about the effect the extreme heat would have on Piquet, he needn't have bothered. When the lights went out the Brazilian was off like his tail was on fire, and the rest of the field didn't see him again until the race was run. Behind him Lopez was slow away, dropping like a stone through the grid as Premat made an astounding start to put himself second, only to be passed a lap later by Pantano, followed next time along the front straight by Hamilton, who was waved on his way in pursuit of his arch rival.
It was only a matter of time before the Briton claimed second position, and he did it with a strong overtaking move on Pantano at the end of the rear straight after drafting him from the chicane. Although the championship contenders were now running one-two, there was nothing Hamilton could do about the pace of Piquet, and the Brazilian ran out a comfortable win, eighteen seconds ahead of Hamilton, whose teammate picked up another podium after Pantano retired with a damaged car.
When asked if his third race win in a row had been easy, Piquet noted: " I couldn't make any mistakes, and the pitstop had to go perfectly to stay in front of him after the pitstops. Everything had to go right, and that's how it happened. I didn't make any mistakes, the pitstop went well, and we continued opening the gap."
"To come from fifth was really good for us," Hamilton replied, before being interrupted by Piquet's mobile phone, which he held up to the microphone and laughed as it played the Brazilian national anthem. Even the Briton laughed eventually, before adding: "We needed more points, as Nelson was getting very close. It was good because we had quite good pace but we were not as quick as Nelson; otherwise we could have been closer."
"I have to say congratulations to Nelsinho because today he was so quick, and I think he did a really good job," Premat said at the press conference. "I tried to keep up with him but it's difficult, because Nelson is so fucking fast!"
Eleven o'clock on Saturday night and many of the teams were still working up and down the paddock, under floodlights, to get the cars ready for tomorrow. Durango were one of the remaining teams, and two of the mechanics snuck buckets of water into their pit to soak each other, as a joke and to combat the heat. The other mechanics howled with outrage before laughing, chasing each other around and then toweling off and going back to work.
Piquet was the only driver still in the paddock, working his usual hours as he went through the paperwork and talked with his engineers long into the night. Taking the quad bike to get to the toilet, a long hike far from the paddock, before coming back and performing tricks to amuse himself, standing up and throwing wheelies, going round in circles on two wheels and so on, before parking up out the back and walking back up the stairs of the truck to see his engineers again.
The next morning there was a longer wait than usual, as the race was going out at the regular time in Europe, which meant a two hour delay to the programme on local time. It also meant the local weather had another chance to build up a head of steam before race time.
"I just need to start!" poleman Xandi Negrao had said the night before. "Last year both times I started on pole it was really disappointing; one time the first gear didn't come and just tried to go first, first, first but it didn't come, and the other race the car didn't even start! Just that would be, not a victory, but a good beginning." Sitting on the grid Felipe Massa, friend and fellow polesitter, came over to shake hands and wish him well, but it didn't help much: although he got off the line this time, Negrao was very slow and was easily passed by fellow front row starter Andreas Zuber into turn one.
Adam Carroll almost got by too, but Negrao threw his car back at the Ulsterman and bumped him back to third: it would only last for two more laps, however, as the Brazilian retired with a broken steering wheel. Carroll now had the chance to take the fight to Zuber, and the pair battled for the lead for almost the entire race.
As good as that fight was, the excitement was further back down the field. Hamilton, up to sixth and sitting right behind his title rival, spun on his own on lap two and dropped down to sixteenth, spinning his car back in front of the few remaining drivers that hadn't passed and heading off on what looked like an impossible pursuit of a points finish. Most people watching thought that the championship appeared to be over, but they had discounted the Briton far, far too cheaply.
On successive laps Hamilton's position changed as follows: sixteenth, fourteenth, twelfth, eleventh, tenth, ninth, eighth, seventh, sixth, sixth, fifth.
Further up the grid Piquet was stuck behind Timo Glock, never an easy man to overtake at the best of times; despite being clearly faster, the Brazilian couldn't find a way past. Glock had nothing to lose, and was looking to cut some more points out of the gap to Premat in the championship, so Piquet had to accept that three points were better than none.
Until he had Hamilton on his tail, that is.
At the press conference the day before, Hamilton had bemoaned the fact that the pair had not had the chance to fight wheel to wheel, but suddenly it had come, and the Briton lapped it up. He sat on Piquet's tail for a lap before pouncing, at the end of the back straight which had given him most of his earlier scalps, and was straight onto the tail of Glock.
He tried to go around the outside, to no avail. He looked to the inside, and that worked just as well. For five laps the pair fought each other at every turn, with Piquet snapping at their tails, and even back between them at one stage. It was the best fight seen in the series since that famous race two at the Nurburgring last year. It was as though no one dared to breathe in the paddock and pitlane for five whole laps.
But Hamilton had the momentum in the race, and somehow found a way through. Once released he caught Carroll hand over foot, and blew past on the final lap to claim second behind Zuber, who was already celebrating his win, along with the fact that the race didn't last any longer, given the astonishing pace of the second placed man.
"We knew we were quick yesterday," Zuber smiled afterwards, "but not quick enough in the race. We knew it was possible to win today, and the team worked so hard to make sure it was right. The whole year they've done a great job, but now this is the first weekend where everything for me was perfect. And we won."
"You know, you keep that hope inside you, and you push until the end," a delirious Hamilton blurted. "I never give up, ever. With Glock it was difficult because I was a lot quicker than him, and he put up an awesome fight: he just wouldn't give up that position! I think he put up an awesome fight, and to come that strong up against me; I think there were just centimeters between us, if that! I'm surprised we didn't come off, but thankfully he drove very well and we were very fair to each other, and I came out on top."
Not everyone was as happy about the final result or, more particularly, Hamilton's speed in the race. Piquet was relatively subdued back in the paddock: "Yeah, coming from sixteenth in the sprint race, it was a little crazy how fast he was. He did a good race, no mistakes, everything. I've got nothing to say: he did a good job. I was a bit too cautious, and Timo was aggressive because he wasn't fighting for the championship, so for me to tackle him it would be too easy for us to touch.
"I didn't think Lewis could come back up, so I thought if I stay here in the top five it's great, if I overtake Glock even better, but I didn't want to risk a lot because I knew Lewis was in the back and he wasn't going to come back up. But suddenly that happened."
Glock was a little more succinct: " It's strange that Lewis can go at such a better pace from Saturday to Sunday: on Saturday he was average, and on Sunday he's fucking going through the whole field, so I don't know… Sure our cars aren't perfect, but it can't be that he can brake fifty metres later than everybody else. I'm not talking about them cheating, but maybe they can explain how they found so much more pace between Saturday and Sunday…" Nonetheless he had brought himself within three points of third in the championship.
But the fight everyone was looking at was for the title, and Hamilton had eased his lead out to ten points with just two races remaining. Looking forward to Monza, Piquet was sanguine about his chances there: "I don't know what will happen, but we'll try and win more races there.
"If we win the championship, great, if not, bad luck. We're just going to try our best."
Life in the pitlane when you're waiting for something to happen on track is a strange place to be, a mixture of anticipation and boredom in equal measure. "It's wet, wet, wet."
"Does that mean love is all around us?"
"How long have you been coming to races now? When has that word ever been used here?"
"Yeah, good point. You won't put that in the blog, will you?"
"Of course not."
Feeble jokes aside, it was showery for much of the weekend, which was a problem for most people as, if they've been to Budapest before, they knew that it has never a. rained or b. been cold in the history of the Hungarian Grand Prix, and they dressed accordingly. Or at least, that was my excuse.
And the drivers were soon looking for excuses too, with so many of them getting caught out in the tricky conditions of free practice. Some of the newer drivers went off, including Luca Filippi and Javi Villa (who prompted a few people in the paddock to wonder as to whether, being from Spain, he had actually seen rain in his young life), but the big shock of the session was when Lewis Hamilton lost control of his car and put it into the barrier at turn 11; it was his first ever spin in a GP2 car. To make things worse for the Briton his arch rival Nelson Piquet Jr took the top time by over a second as he walked back to the paddock.
It was there that the full extent of the damage became apparent as the ART mechanics set to work replacing everything down the left side of Hamilton's car, creating a pile of bent metal and broken carbon fibre in the small space out the back between the ART and BCN pits. One of the mechanics was tasked to rebuild the gearbox, a slow and painstaking task at the best of times, but his driver sat and watched all the way through, occasionally asking questions as the mechanic carefully slid one cog into place before oiling the top, spreading it evenly with a small brush and selecting the next cog to repeat the process all over again.
Over in the Piquet Sports garage and their driver had a different problem. "Why is everyone writing about me going to Super Aguri?" he asked, genuinely puzzled. "I've never said anything more than hello to them."
"That's your problem right there: you said hello, they said hello back, someone saw that and put it together from there. 2 plus 2 equals 5."
"But if they wanted to know the story then they could come and ask me: it's not like it's hard to find me here."
"Sure, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?"
But it wasn't long before they both had bigger things to worry about. Qualifying took place on a dry track under gloomy skies, and while there was some Formula One rubber on track as usual, the grip levels were well down on what they've come to rely on for the session. Piquet, alone among the main challengers went out on used tyres at the start, and it was a gamble that inadvertently paid off in spades.
On the first lap out of the pits Hamilton spun his car and stalled his engine, being left behind by the rest of the field. Gesturing frantically for a push, he waited for the marshals to attend to his stricken car and, as the field was coming back around for their first flying lap he slowly crawled onto the racing line with the helmeted marshals all over the rear of his car. Inevitably everyone else's fast lap was destroyed as they slowed to find a way past the stationary car, their new tyres past their prime already.
Piquet dived into the pits to wait it out, and when the track was eventually clear (after Hiroki Yoshimoto and Fairuz Fauzy also spun) he had an obvious advantage: an extra set of new tyres. As Hamilton sat by the side of the circuit, his helmeted head in his hands in despair, his rival took pole by six tenths of a second, an age in GP2 terms when the usual gap for pole is one or two tenths. Jose Maria Lopez claimed the remaining front row position, while Michael Ammermüller made Arden's usual qualifying troubles disappear by claiming third, a fraction ahead of Adam Carroll and Alex Premat.
"The car was working very well," Piquet noted afterwards, as relaxed and expansive as ever. "Fortunately I didn't get as much traffic as you usually get at this circuit, and I got about two laps out of the four that you can do, so it was quite good. I'm happy."
"I think my car was undriveable in qualifying, but what can I do?" a tightly wound Yoshimoto stated back in his pit. "I just have to drive and get the best out of it. My first set were gone because Ammermüller blocked me: I have to thank him for that, and I'm going to tell him to wear bigger glasses. On my second set I was coming over the hill and Lopez just started to slow down like a turtle: I was about to crash into him and I lost everything." He then walked next door for a chat as the German sheepishly walked out front.
"Yes maybe I blocked him a little bit," he acknowledged. "I went to the left side but he said it was not enough space for him. But yes, he just said to me maybe next time you can go one metre more to the left."
"I went to see him after qualifying to say I was sorry," Lopez admitted, "because I'm one of the first to say that this is a problem. Obviously I can understand why he was so upset because if the same thing happened to me it would be very bad. I think he's had the same problem in the last few races, so I'm just really sorry because I didn't see him."
"Yeah, I probably could have been second, but it was tough to get a clear track today," Gimmi Bruni later noted, adding, "unfortunately I got held up by Yoshi."
"Not right now," Hamilton stated when asked for a quote about his session, sitting in the gloom at the back of the truck by himself and waiting to hear if he would be penalised for steering onto the racing line in qualifying. "Maybe a bit later." Starting from the back meant that no penalty could be applied, and he was later handed a reprimand instead, much to his relief.
The next morning and the rain returned, intermittently but enough to annoy. It meant there was little to do but sit in hospitality and gossip, the drivers bitching good humouredly about each other as their mechanics worked on each part of the car for the fifth time in a row in their pits. There was the usual signing sessions and talk in the Paddock Club, but if you weren't involved in that it meant you had a long, dreary wait indoors for the Formula One cars to get off the track and let the race commence.
And when it came, it was a lesson in variable weather driving from Piquet, who just disappeared at the front when the lights went out. Lopez was slow away from second before tapping Ammermüller, who had got by at the start, into a spin and out of the race, allowing Carroll through into second place, with Bruni on his tail.
Well behind the pair Timo Glock and Giorgio Pantano were squabbling like school children, and enjoying every minute of it. "Giorgio pushed me out and I really struggled in the second corner," claimed the German. "He said before the race, 'I will overtake you at the start,' and he did it. I said I'd overtake him again like I did in Hockenheim and Magny Cours, so we got it right!" "When I saw him he went to brake over here in the paddock, so I said 'okay, goodbye!'" Pantano later laughed. "He was late braking and we went off, but I was expecting to see that from him!"
At the back of the grid Hamilton was doing what he could to minimise the damage, and a good start pushed him up from last to 18th before coming in for an early pitstop so as to get some clear track ahead of him in an attempt to leap through the field in the pits. It may well have worked but for his eagerness to get the stop over with – a drive through penalty for speeding a few laps later took away any natural advantage he had gained.
Glock too was in early after falling back into the traffic with Pantano. The German's stop was far more successful than Hamilton's, however, and he was soon in clear air and faster than anyone on track bar Piquet, who was untouchable for speed. The other teams responded when they saw the times, but it was too late: every driver bar the leader came out behind Glock after their pitstops, including Carroll, who changed all four tyres: "Yeah, and I got a shake and a Big Mac with it as well!
"We decided to go for four wheels, and it wasn't too much slower but it was just a little slower than we hoped for, really. I came out in ninth place, and I think that was a bit of a shock for all of us!"
Piquet also stopped for four tyres, but he had the luxury of time on his side. The stop turned a 45 second lead into 12 seconds at the front, but next time by the pits and the Brazilian was already increasing the margin back to Glock and Bruni. When the Italian's suspension failed Pantano was promoted to the podium and, despite pushing Glock all the way to the finish line, that was how they finished.
"I don't know what to say really," Piquet later reflected, "everything worked perfectly. We had a very good start, and the car worked really great from the beginning of the race to the end. That's how every driver wants to do a weekend, and that's how I wish to finish the championship: to drive like that every time." Having added the win to his pole the Brazilian was even more laid back, underselling his performance as ever despite his clear superiority on the day.
Hamilton put in an astounding drive to get up to tenth, despite starting from the back and taking a drive through penalty, but on a day where his rival cut his lead in half it wasn't enough. With the door to the ART truck firmly closed after the race, his brother, whose normal bright and cheery demeanour had been temporarily lost in sympathy, said: "I don't know if he's in there or not, but he's not really talking at the moment…"
"…" an enormously frustrated Yoshimoto proclaimed after the race, having once again finished his race by the side of the track as a result of a collision with a Frenchman, this time Nicolas Lapierre. "Actually, you better cut the swearing out if you want to print that."
Sunday woke up to the downpour that had threatened by proxy all weekend, and the teams worked as much as they could on the cars under cover before starting the long, soaking haul up the hill to the pitlane. The GP2 paddock is in a crater at the bottom of a steep hill up to the F1 paddock next to turn two, and the teams tow all of their equipment up behind a quad bike while the drivers are given the rare opportunity to drive the cars from the paddock to the pitlane rather than trying to push the vehicles up the steep incline.
Everybody drove up the hill on old wet tyres, as expected: everyone, that is, bar Yoshimoto, who opted for a slippery ride on new dry tyres. "I start 21st: what have I got to lose?" he noted, not unreasonably. "Besides, it makes life more interesting."
Nonetheless he made it safely to the pits, and then to the grid too, a task Pantano was unable to carry out. With the rain easing slightly but small creeks still crossing the track, the Italian lost the back of his car and pitched slowly into the wall. He eventually managed to limp back to the pits where his team set to work on repairing his broken rear wing endplate, and his chief rival was now the clock rather than Glock.
Pantano's spin highlighted the poor conditions to race control, who took the inevitable decision to start the race behind the safety car. On lap 3 they were released, and Carroll immediately pressured poleman Lopez into turn one. It was top much for the Argentine, who spun in front of his rival before finding the wall, leaving the door open for Carroll to take the lead and run.
Behind him Piquet made a strong start from eighth to be fourth by the end of the first lap, with Hamilton one place back from tenth. Negrao was second as a result of a strong drive the day before, but he undid all of his hard work next time by the pitlane when he spun slowly into the barriers at turn one, promoting Alex Premat to second behind the flying Carroll.
Piquet already had a sniff of a second win, and there was no chance he was going to settle for less, no matter what the conditions suggested. He made short work of getting by Premat; certainly far shorter than the Frenchman's teammate behind him, at least; and when Carroll slid off the kerb and bounced into the wall a perfect weekend was in Piquet's pocket.
The iSport engineers had done their usual sound job in setting up their cars despite the conditions, allowing Viso and Glock to steam through the field and into the points. There was no love lost between the pair, but their cars were so good that they were able to drag each other up the order despite also attacking each other throughout, much to the delight of the sodden fans around the track.
Piquet was untouchable yet again, his two years racing in Britain giving him unsurpassed skills in the wet. Hamilton was well back in second, comprehensively outpaced but at least scoring some points at last to stem the leaks in the outgoing tide of the championship. Premat held out, just, from Viso and Glock for the final podium position, the three drivers crossing the line nose to tail.
“It was disastrous at the start of the weekend, obviously,” Hamilton reflected on his return to the paddock. “It has been tough for us to get the right set up, because we missed most of practice and all of qualifying: we were behind in that, because of my mistakes. So today to come from tenth to second was a good achievement for us.”
Asked how he felt at the conclusion of his perfect weekend, the serene Piquet smiled and stated: “It feels excellent. I'm very relieved, and I think the relief you have when you've done what you've always dreamed of doing from the beginning of last year feels wonderful. I think my car was driving well so you don't need to overdrive the car, which is when you make some silly mistakes, and you can do a perfect race.
“I don't think he [Hamilton] had trouble, I think he made some stupid mistakes, like spinning in qualifying, crashing in practice, speeding in the pits in the race: he made a lot of mistakes this weekend. He could have easily started ahead of me in the race today and then held me for the whole race, but for his mistakes.
“I think it will now be a very big push for the next two races, and for us to win the championship. Hopefully I’ll do the same in Turkey that I did here. I think that the whole team is getting better every race, and I’m sure we can do the same again.”
And with that said Piquet walked over to collect his famous father, hugging each other once again before the pair walked together, through the gloom, back up the hill towards the Formula One paddock.
Hot. Hotter than Rio apparently. Perched on top of a hill on the southern French coast, Circuit Paul Ricard was sweltering. The FIA’s Bruce McIntosh looked mildly concerned.
“I think I may need a cap,” he smiled, the sun reflecting off his bald head. “Its….”
“I think that’s something of an understatement,” he laughed, walking back down the pitlane in search of shelter.
It was Monday afternoon and the GP2 teams were already set up in their garages. They’d been to Ricard countless times over the past 18 months, so much so that most team members could quite easily count Le Castellet as their second home. They positioned themselves, as always, in numerical order, with ART in the first garage by the pit entrance, Arden next, filing down to the final garage at the pitlane exit which is shared by Trident and Campos due to limited space.
Durango’s garage whirred and hummed as the team strapped on their brand new, unpainted noses and wings. There was a steely determination about their work and the garage, unlike all the others, was devoid of the booming music which so usually forms the accompaniment to the set-up days at tests and races.
Next door DPR Direxiv was setting up shop, but the name on the number 20 car had yet to be fixed on. Graham Rahal, the 17-year old son of US racing legend Bobby had been due to fly in to make a one-off test for the squad, but bad weather had delayed and then cancelled his flights, curtailing what had been a highly anticipated debut. Olivier Pla’s name and flag were re-affixed to the car and the Frenchman, who had been out since Monaco with a broken wrist, would have to drive both days and just see how his injury held up.
Pla’s compatriot Nicolas Lapierre was still out of action however. His back injury was taking longer to heal than Olivier’s wrist, a fact made apparent when Nicolas gingerly tried to sit down in the circuit’s Panoramic Club.
“You alright mate?” someone bellowed as Nicolas sat down.
“Fine thanks,” he shouted back. “But this thing makes sitting down pretty tough!” He lifted his shirt and knocked his tight plastic brace corset with his knuckles, smiling as he did so. “I can’t wait to get rid of it and get back in my car.”
But he would have to wait, and the uncertainty of whether or not he would be fit for his home race at Magny Cours in two weeks was clearly playing on his mind.
As the teams completed their set-ups and left the track, a gaggle of drivers including Ferdinando Monfardini, Lucas di Grassi and Franck Perera had congregated in front of the televisions in the Panoramic Club to watch Italy take on Australia in the World Cup. They were joined by Fabrizio Nosco from the FIA and GP2’s Marco Codello, and all of them screamed and cursed in Italian as the Azzuri went close, but never quite got the better of the Aussies. And then, in the dying seconds, the Italian speaking community within GP2 went wild as one of the most debatable penalty decisions of the tournament up to that point was awarded, converted and the game won.
Marco punched the air, “Siiiiiiiiii!” he yelled as around him the drivers fell into fits of laughter.
“You lucky bastards,” a journalist muttered.
“I know,” said Marco, his arms still aloft. “But we won! We won! Siiiiiiiiii!”
Next morning and it was down to the business of testing. Nine o'clock rolled in suddenly, and over at Arden the team was making Nicolas’ stand in Alvaro Parente at home, covering up the logos on his WSR race suit with gaffer tape. Renault, of course, could stay, but a large piece of black tape was placed over the rival tyre supplier and “Bridgestone” written over it in red pen. The British F3 champion was in high spirits having tested for Arden and iSport over the winter, and was clearly looking forward to getting back into the GP2 car.
“We tried to get him in for Silverstone,” said Mick Cook. “It didn’t happen in the end, but we’ve been impressed with Alvaro since he tested for us over the winter. Obviously we’re just hoping for more of what we’ve already seen from him. He’s quick, he gives good feedback, and naturally we’ll be looking at how he performs with a view to the future.”
No pressure then… actually none at all as it turned out. He only ran six laps on his first morning, as problems left his car in the garage while Nicolas looked on wishing it was him in the car, even if it wasn’t going anywhere.
As the cars went out onto the 3D track that they all know so well, Adam Carroll was upstairs in the Panoramic, putting ice on his thumb. Something caught his attention as he sat at the bar with his trainer Karl.
“Is that a simulator?” he beamed.
“Don’t even think about it,” Karl growled.
“What? Oh come on!”
“No, not for five minutes, not until you’ve had the ice on your thumb for five complete minutes… and no cheating.”
Adam was right, it was a simulator. Juri Brandes from game developers Adrenalin Storm had driven more than 13 hours from his home in Brittany to bring along the first example of a prototype GP2 series simulator to show to the drivers and GP2 organisers. He’d been setting up during the previous night, and now the game was ready to run… Adam would be its first test driver.
“The car’s too loose,” said the Ulsterman, as he threw it through the Becketts complex at Silverstone. “And the feedback through the wheel’s not strong enough… the gear ratios are screwed, the top speed’s off and the brakes are too soft.”
“OK, we’ll go into the pits and change it,” said Juri.
“No, don’t worry, I’ve got to get into the real one downstairs in ten minutes. Just let me have a drive for a bit.”
And drive he did, despite the fact the car appeared un-drivable, and the Silverstone pole-sitter kept it on the track, constantly improving his times, adapting his lines and driving style as he went. Despite the lack of feedback through the wheel, he coaxed the car through opposite lock corner after corner… there’s no traction control on a GP2 car remember.
“I’ll come back later and help you get a good set-up,” Adam smiled at Juri as he shook his hand and made his way back down to do his real job.
The morning session came and went in a flash, with Lucas di Grassi making all his mechanics’ hard work pay off with the fastest lap. It was clear relief for the Durango team after a tough few weeks, and evidence of what could be a turnaround for the second half of the season.
Over lunch, Giorgio Pantano jumped into the simulator. After one lap he pulled the car into the pits…
“Is not Formula One?”
“No Giorgio, it’s not.”
“Feels more like GP2.”
Juri grinned widely. “That’s because it is GP2.”
“Ohhhhh, OK. The set-up is shit. Who did this?”
“Well Adam played it this morning.”
“What? Is shit… ok, raise the ride height… more… more… more.. OK, less… stop. The steering is no good so make it less sensitive, and give me more wing at the rear.”
Juri did as commanded and the Italian went out for another spin.
“Is still shit set-up, but is better now,” concluded Giorgio confidently.
He went off to grab some lunch as Lewis Hamilton walked up to the machine and took a seat.
The Championship leader was straight out on the track that had brought him a double win, and look baffled as he flew off into the gravel at the same point he’d pulled off one of the overtaking moves of the season by going three wide with Piquet and Piccione into Maggotts.
“Who the hell set this up?” he shrieked, laughing as the car beached down in the gravel.
“Right, can I change a few things then?”
45 minutes later, and Lewis was ready to go out for his first full run on the track, having taken the car out for two corners at a time and then requesting to go back into the set-up menu.
“This is much easier than real testing,” he smiled. “I can bring the car in after a few turns and not have to complete the lap!”
His face took on a look of intense concentration. His lines were perfect, the car not stepping out of line an inch. Crossing the finish line, he’d just taken five seconds out of Giorgio’s lap.
“Five seconds?” he laughed. “Ha ha, brilliant. I’m going to wind him up about that now!”
The two hour lunch break was soon finished, and under the sweltering sun 25 cars went back out on track to try and improve on di Grassi’s morning time. Lucas himself was walking around the paddock aimlessly sporting a Brazil football shirt.
“You not testing this afternoon Lucas?”
“No way,” came the seemingly exhausted reply. “It’s too hot! And the Brazil game kicks off in a few hours so I want a good spot in front of the TV. Plus I was quickest this morning and nobody ever goes faster in the afternoon.”
Lucas may have been laid back, but he was also wrong. Timo Glock took eight tenths out of the morning best to lead the times at the end of the first day in an iSport 1-2. At the most important test of the season, iSport were continuing the fine form they’d shown at Silverstone, with Timo rejuvenated back to the kind of form which brought him the Champ Car Rookie of 2005 award and had won him many fans after his spell at the Jordan F1 Team.
Hiroki Yoshimoto, Timo’s former BCN team-mate was having a harder day, finishing not quite as high up as he’d been hoping for.
“It’s an odd one,” he sighed. “We had some problems… but hey, it’s me. I always seem to have problems, but I’m still smiling!”
That night saw France take on Spain after Brazil had soundly beaten Ghana in the afternoon match… something to put a smile on Lucas’ face after losing fastest time of the day. The predominantly French GP2 organisation assembled together for the game, cheering on Les Bleus. Marco was happy as Italy were through and for as long as England weren’t playing, GP2 press officer Will’s fingernails were safe. GP2 series organiser Bruno Michel was the most vocal of all, more animated than even the French coach, he jumped out of his chair at every shot, felt every tackle, protested every French foul and demanded a replay.
Of course, France were destined to progress. After a lacklustre start to the campaign, opinion was unified that, for the first time in the tournament, the “real” France had actually turned up for a game.
Next morning and the Brazilians and French were on a high after the successes of the night before. But it was an Argentine who set the track alight in the morning session as Jose Maria Lopez went top, with Timo once again in impressive form in second and Nelson Piquet Jr third.
Back upstairs and the simulator was getting even more use over lunch. Hiro, Sergio Hernandez, Ferdinando, Gimmi Bruni and Adrian Valles all had a spin with visiting WSR driver Andy Soucek also having a go, albeit changing the track to Barcelona as he wasn’t too sure of the Silverstone layout. Of every driver over the test however, it was Gimmi who was the quickest, with everyone now using the base set-up that Lewis had perfected in his 45 minutes on the game, as their starting point.
“I’ve been so impressed with Bruni,” said Juri, delighted with the feedback he’d got on the GP2 prototype. “He even said he’d come and help me develop my games! What a cool guy.”
But the acid test was still to come. Bruno Michel had been eyeing up the machine since it arrived and shortly after lunch he strapped himself in and went for it… not at Silverstone however… nor Barcelona. No, the GP2 organiser decided that for his first laps in a GP2 car, he’d like to try Spa-Francorchamps.
He took the car down the pits at a steady 80, before releasing the pit-lane speed limiter on the exit. Rising up the hill, and still inside the pit exit lane, he hit the curb and flew over the grass. Keeping his foot in and trying to get the car back under his control as he cut over the greenery, the Frenchman flew sideways onto the track, skidded across the tarmac, dug into the gravel and barrel rolled about three times, finally coming to rest on the roll-hoop. Bruno laughed and turned to Juri…
“Hey, this set-up is no good!”
“Well it isn’t anymore… you’ve knocked off all the wings!”
Outside the serious business of testing was back underway as ART boss Fred Vasseur came upstairs to have a giggle as Bruno got the hang of the GP2 car around one of the most difficult circuits in the world.
Perhaps buoyed by his team’s success in the previous evening’s football, it was Nelson who went top on the second afternoon. But the Brazilian’s time could not beat Jose’s lap from the morning session. The Argentine would end the test as the fastest man, but it was iSport International who would leave as the team with the most to be happy about.
Last season it was at this mid-season Ricard session that ART Grand Prix made the discoveries which turned them from potential podium finishers to the class of the championship. At the next race in Magny-Cours they scored their first win, and the rest, as they say, is history. While the 2006 test provided no such clear-cut answers, it will perhaps only be in Magny-Cours where we see who has benefited the most from the two days in the south of France.
Playtime is over, the simulator packed away. Next weekend it’s back to the real thing… only then will the true implications of the mid-season test become apparent.
"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…"
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