8/31/2006 0 Comments
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."
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