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.