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.