"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."