5/14/2006 0 Comments
The truck turned up at midnight and sat waiting at the gate, its driver taking the opportunity to rest after a long drive from England. He was waiting for someone to come and allow him into the circuit and to claim his cargo, and he didn’t have long to wait. The large, heavy boxes were unloaded under the sodium glare of the paddock lighting, manhandled off the truck and inside the bus at the heart of the temporary structure there, and finally the driver could start his engine once more, drive the truck up the hill to the car park, switch off the engine and sleep.
The cars were on track once again early the next morning, but no one had high hopes for the session: the rain had arrived overnight and sat on top of the track, a permanent, track-shaped mist squatting over the circuit as the cars ran around, throwing more liquid into it, making it more solid.
No one was more annoyed at the inclement weather than Giorgio Pantano; the popular Italian had been called up the day before to drive for FMS and, despite his familiarity with the car from last year, the changes made to the 2006 version would require time to familiarise himself with everything. “I was a little bit unlucky in qualifying,” he would later concede, “because we didn't have a chance to test earlier on the slick tyres.
“I know the car hasn't changed that much, but still there are different tyres, there is more power on the car, and the braking is different. It’s not so easy to learn quickly on a race weekend.” Alex Premat was the quickest man in the gloomy conditions, just ahead of ART teammate Lewis Hamilton and Franck Perera.
Returning to the hospitality unit afterwards, the drivers were in for a surprise: the boxes that had arrived overnight had been transformed into an enormous new structure for the press conference, the same size and shape as the one used in Formula One. It loomed whale-like over the area, and every driver started to fantasize about what they would say if they were to sit in the centre seat later in the day.
While testing the sound system the engineer needed a constant conversation to test the levels, and a bored journalist sat at each of the microphones to help, making up an impromptu press conference as he did. “I was up to third at the start,” he said from that chair, “and was looking good until Gimmi [who had just walked into the room] didn’t see me and decided to make my life hard.
“I finally got past him and into second [slides across to that chair], right behind Ernesto [who was laughing at Gimmi’s confused face during the commentary]. Obviously he wasn’t hard to get past [Ernesto laughs even harder], and I was leading the race. I came in for new tyres, but unfortunately I got stuck behind Giorgio [then being pointed to by Ernesto], who was really slow. I don’t know why he was so slow though: what happened, Giorgio?”
“Ah, the car was just shit!” he bellowed into the cordless microphone, generating more laughter from the drivers as they waited to watch the first Formula One session.
Out in the paddock the teams were using what little they had gleaned from the session, along with data captured during winter testing at the circuit, to set up the cars for that afternoon’s qualifying session. Nelson Piquet Jr was one of the few drivers to be happy about the wash out, stating: “I prefer it to be like this than if it was dry in the morning actually, because it just makes everyone a little confused, and they don't know what to do.”
The Brazilian was keen to stamp his authority on the weekend after a race meeting from hell just days earlier in Germany; he had scored just two points for pole before destroying his tyres while fighting his way back through the field after a poor start in race one, and two wins had brought Lewis Hamilton level in the championship; he was willing to take any small advantage that passed his way.
The sun came out just after free practice, and the strong Spanish sun soon dried the circuit. Qualifying never looked like being wet, despite the constant threat of a flock of clouds high overhead. And so it proved: in the warm, dry conditions in the late afternoon Hamilton just pipped Piquet and Premat for pole, with Gimmi Bruni and Adam Carroll lining up behind the trio.
Unfortunately for Pantano he was due to line up last on the grid, after an accident on his second lap put the Italian out of the remainder of the session. With just one lap under his belt on the new tyres Pantano went into turn one too deep, ran over the gravel and into the wall, but worse than that he injured his arm as he did so.
Holding the steering wheel hard to the right while trying to slide through the gravel and back on track he clipped the wall, causing the wheel to spring back around and spraining his arm, while the shift paddle also gouged into his hand. When he finally made it back to the paddock he was sporting a serious looking cast on his arm, which he picked at incessantly throughout the weekend until it was finally all gone on Sunday afternoon.
Hamilton, Piquet and Javier Villa were the first three drivers to use the press conference facilities, for pole, championship lead and locality of birth respectively. All three were unfazed as members of the media sat down to grill them, and it was seemingly over in a flash.
It wasn’t until they returned to their teams that they found out that six drivers had lost their two fastest times for setting a quick lap under yellow flag conditions, including Hamilton and Bruni. Piquet was now on pole, and Carroll would line up just behind him in third for the next day’s race one.
It was good news for the Ulsterman’s Racing Engineering team, who had been struggling to get the maximum out of the car earlier in the year but now looked to be a roll back towards the front. But the good news wasn’t to last: the next morning, while practicing pitstops on the slightly damp asphalt in the paddock, team manager Thomas Couyotopoulo fell awkwardly while holding the jack and landed on his knee, dislocating it. The team would need to pull one of their mechanics into the pitstop for what would be their most important stop so far this year.
That afternoon the autograph session was for the Spanish drivers: Adrian Valles, Felix Porteiro, Sergio Hernandez and Javier Villa duly lined up in the giant Bridgestone tyre in front of the now race mad Spanish crowd, almost all of them wearing Fernando Alonso clothing. Several hundred autographs later and it was all over, with the drivers holding onto their Bridgestone caps as they stood up.
“What do I do with this?” Sergio asked.
“You should put your phone number on it and give it out to a cute girl!” laughed the GP2 representative there.
“Great idea! You can give it to my grid girl this afternoon!”
Later that afternoon the teams lined up in the lane behind the Formula One paddock, the cars queued as everyone walked over to the toilets for a last minute stop as a myriad of horns and cheers indicated the crowd’s delight as Alonso claimed pole on track. They were held there for an age before being directed to the holding pen next to the pitlane while Alonsomania erupted all around.
The drivers walked round and round, all hand slaps and small talk, laughter emanating from the ones expecting little from the race while the others stood alone with their thoughts. “I’ve just had a look at the grid,” Hernandez grinned. “Keep my hat for tomorrow, please!”
Lewis Hamilton’s dad looked tenser by far than his son, who was swapping stories with his team as he waited for his moment in the car. And they were all just waiting, waiting, waiting for the fever to end, 15 minutes standing still an eternity ahead of a race.
Finally they were let loose, a few minutes sitting on the grid before the lights went out. Piquet made a storming start from the front, leading Premat and Carroll into turn one as Hamilton fell backwards from fourth to eighth as the field screamed by to complete their first lap. A drastic strategy was needed, and his team brought him in for his stop next time by.
The move meant he needed to run qualifying laps until the leaders came in, and Hamilton duly provided them. So fast was he that when his teammate came in, more than ten laps later, the Briton was ahead on track as he came back out, and everyone waited to see where Piquet and Carroll would re-emerge.
Piquet knew what was needed, and he had run comparable lap times to Hamilton: he came out ahead of the Briton, while Carroll’s super fast stop brought him out just behind. But both laps had been too quick: Piquet was soon handed a drive through penalty for speeding in the pitlane, while Carroll had to come back in because he had been unable to find his team first time through.
Ferdinando Monfardini was the only man not to have stopped, but his pace was so good compared to his pursuers that he had no need to rush in. Hamilton was second, and with the fast flowing corners of the Barcelona track discouraging any meaningful attempts at overtaking he now looked a certainty to claim his third win in a row, ahead of his teammate and Michael Ammermüller, who had Clivio Piccione all over his rear wing but was steadfast in defending his line.
Piquet was seemingly the only man to work out the secret of overtaking, carving his way through the field as he tried to salvage something to replace the lost win. He had worked his way up to fifth by the final lap, an astonishing display of bravado as he watched his championship lead slide away from him.
But on the final lap Premat, who had been sitting on his teammate’s sliding tail for lap after lap watching the Briton’s tyre performance fall away, thought he saw a gap at La Caixa, putting his nose up the inside and hoping for the best. Hamilton gave him enough room, just, but Premat needed a little more and the pair collided, with the Briton spinning helplessly around as the Frenchman sailed through for the win a few corners later.
Hamilton was the next man by, followed by Ammermüller, who had lost Piccione at the last corner as the Monegasque spun off through the gravel as he made a last ditch attempt at a podium finish. The move promoted Piquet to fourth, a useful collection of points by scant recompense for his efforts in the race. Returnee Pantano finished tenth, having been overtaken on the final lap by Viso after wearing out his tyres.
There was to be more heartache for DPR after the race: Olivier Pla, who had battled gamely to collect a point for eighth and the second race pole, was declared to be underweight after a heavy contact with a kerb had drained his car of water. When they refilled the tank his car was a kilogram over the minimum required, but it was too little, too late.
Andreas Zuber was another man in the wars after his wheel disconnected itself from his car, pitching him into yet another retirement.
“I thought you promised you’d have no more bad luck last week,” a journalist stated back in the paddock.
“Yeah, I know: I’m so pissed off!” he shot back despairingly. “We had a bad stop and then lost a wheel nut on the front, and that was that. But if I win in Monaco, I won't care." His mechanics would be working late into the night to get his car repaired for the next morning.
The teams lined up in the laneway once again early the next morning under a photographer's favourite conditions: bright sunlight with deep, long shadows. Most people there had arrived not long before forming the queue: the circuit had urged fans to arrive early to ease congestion, offering a free breakfast and MotoGP on the big screens as an incentive.
The teams sat once again in the holding bay, watching the race along with the crowd as they waited to be allowed into the pitlane. “Hey, can I have that hat now?” Hernandez asked as they waited. “I think I’ve found someone to give it to.” They were finally setting up in there as horns all around the track indicated that local rider Dani Pedrosa had claimed another win, to the joy of the bike crazy Spaniards.
“Who is going to win today?” one journalist asked another as they sipped their coffees back in the paddock and waited for the race to start.
“Viso from Piquet,” came the reply, “and Negrao will stall again.” And so it proved: Viso had a strong start from pole as his fellow front row starter stopped beside him, slowing up Tristan Gommendy behind him just enough to allow the ART pair to fall in behind Piquet on the first lap, and the four drivers finished in that order, split by just over two seconds as the chequered flag dropped. Pantano finished seventh after losing the fight for the final point to a charging Monfardini.
“The race wasn’t too difficult,” Viso claimed afterwards, “I just did my job and the car was very good. I developed a bit of a gap between Nelson and me, and after that my only target was just to win the race and stay in front of him. I knew I had a few tenths in my pocket that I could use whenever I wanted, and I used them in the mid race when Nelson started to get a bit closer to me, and that was it.”
But it was Piquet who was smiling more broadly that the race winner: he had held onto his championship lead by two points over Hamilton, and although it was a slender lead, it was enough for now.
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