The Nurburgring is always the track with the least distractions, with the fewest things to do outside of the track, and therefore the circuit where everyone seems to work the hardest. It’s human nature: even when people are at work they will still have half an eye out for a diversion, no matter how much they enjoy their job, and for most it’s only when there’s nothing else to do that they really devote themselves to their work.
Not that the Nurburgring was completely devoid of distractions: there were a number of very attractive girls in the paddock, roaming up and down in a pack like predators looking for prey.
They gave the various mechanics a few minutes of amusement: they would see the girls walking past, nudge the guy next to them and make a comment in their various languages and share a laugh, while the girls would studious ignore them, looking instead for the drivers. The mechanics would soon be back to work, the drivers being hidden away out the back with their engineers, and the pack would circle away once again.
It was all forgotten early on Friday as the cars lined up in the lane behind the main pit complex for free practice. Once released they went looking for any grip they could find on the green track, with Jose Maria Lopez setting the fastest time ten minutes in while working on his set up for the tricky circuit, while Nicolas Lapierre and Adam Carroll were within a tenth of his time at the end of the session.
Nelson Piquet Jr was left fuming when a problem on his car left him stranded on the side of the road after just two laps. After the session his car was back in the paddock, but its owner wasn’t: when a journalist went looking for the Brazilian he was told by the team manager: “Nelson is out taking a walk at the moment; he’ll be back in a little while, but he needed to take a bit of time alone.”
Pechito’s lap time was all the more impressive considering that he was feeling wretched all weekend: he’d picked up the flu earlier in the week, and out of the car he was struggling badly. It didn’t seem to have any effect on his driving though, and the Argentinean’s engineer Pat Coorey was grinning broadly during the debrief, feeling that the bad luck which had plagued his side of the garage in the first two rounds might be coming to an end.
Another man who knew about bad luck was Trident’s Andreas Zuber. Austrian by birth, citizen of Dubai by racing licence, amusing by nature, the bespectacled driver was entertaining anyone who would listen after the session.
“What did you think about the track?” he was asked by a passing journalist as he sat sunning himself on one of the team’s flight cases.
“It’s great!” he laughed through his omnipresent Oakleys. “But you have to watch out for the top chicane; I tried to ride the kerbs, and halfway through I realized it probably wasn’t a very good idea: I flew!”
“You were quick through there?”
“No, I mean I actually flew, about two metres off the fucking floor! I landed and thought okay, maybe I won’t do that again. It was a lot of fun, though!”
Meanwhile in the hospitality area Adam Carroll was back to work straight out of the car: a media breakfast had been set up for the British Formula One contingent to meet up with the engaging Ulsterman, and they were primed by coffee and mini bottles of champagne with straws. It did the job: the dozen or so journalists were charmed by his easy going nature and dry line in humour, and it was clear that positive press was forthcoming. All he needed now was a result.
That would have to wait for the time being, as he was shipped off with Lewis Hamilton and Ernesto Viso to an autograph signing session at the giant Bridgestone tyre in the merchandise area. All three donned their bright red caps (although Viso was slightly reluctant to do so, having just acquired an oversized cap that he was inordinately proud of) before sitting down and signing everything put in front of them, posing for photos and putting on a show for the fans.
The drivers always seem to enjoy the signing sessions: who wouldn’t like having a number of people show their appreciation for what you do? But mainly it feels like the signing is the main course before the desert of the quad bike ride back to the paddock, and it’s one that every driver has a sweet tooth for. Lewis won on Friday and, with his rivals standing on either side and two GP2 staffers hanging on grimly behind him, he ran at a qualifying lap pace to get the bike back in record time, all four wheels sticking to the tarmac around the corners only because of the combined weight on top of them.
And then the real qualifying session was on, the drivers were released, and they were back to where they wanted to be. Franck Perera stunned everyone in the pitlane by setting the fastest lap early and holding on throughout the session, with an incredible 21 drivers within a second of his time. It held until the closing minutes, when Piquet came back and set a time almost half a second quicker: no one had any answer as the emotional clouds seem to part around the Brazilian, letting the sunshine in. “Of course I’m happy,” he noted afterwards; “I only expected to be in the top six.”
“I’m thrilled!” Perera laughed back in the paddock, the line of hair from mouth to chin, one of the reasons why so many confuse the Frenchman for an Italian, vibrating in time with his laughter. “I didn’t expect the front row at all, but I’m really happy to be back where we were in winter testing; it means we’re back on track.”
“Third again,” Hamilton stated. The third time he’d taken the position in as many sessions. “At least we’re consistent.” Maybe he’d spent more than he meant to on the quad bike.
He’d done better than Lucas di Grassi again, although no one was very surprised by that. Lucas had been having a torrid time in the opening rounds of the GP2 series, and 21st was all he could manage in qualifying. Despite the crashes, despite the baptism of fire, the genial Brazilian was just happy to be given the opportunity to be in the paddock.
Except when it came to checking his emails, that is. “What’s going on with the internet?” he asked everyone at his table after dinner in the hospitality unit. “Why can’t I get online?”
“The internet has been randomly crashing all day,” came the reply. “You should know all about that.” There was silence at the table until Lucas roared with laughter, allowing everyone else to follow suit. “Yeah, it’s so slow,” he snorted. “It’s even slower than me!” before leaving the rest of the table in stitches as he talked his way through his crashes in Imola. A driver who can laugh off the down moments is going to be stronger than most in the good times: when his car works don’t be surprised when di Grassi flies.
And then it was Saturday, and the long drag through to the first race. Roly Vincini was in the paddock to support his former driver Adam Carroll, and rumours abounded that he was providing engineering support for the weekend.
“He’s got a new engineer every week,” said one paddock wag. “First Gary, then John, now Roly: it’s like Big Brother for engineers. I wonder who he’ll have in Barcelona?”
“Well I hear Mike Gascoyne is at a loose end these days,” came the reply, “maybe he’s next on the list.” Vincini just laughed it all off, stating that he was here just to support his former drivers (Ernesto Viso having also driven for the larger than life Formula 3 team boss) before disappearing to do whatever he was there to do.
With the sun shining brightly overhead most of the paddock would congregate at the far end of the laneway to watch the Formula One sessions at what is the best vantage point on the circuit, everyone sunning themselves and pretending not to look at the girls as they smoldered behind their sunglasses. They were joined there by a number of Formula One personnel, notably those from Toyota, as well as a growing number of photographers, all looking for the perfect shot. Everyone talked and laughed easily together, another communal moment in a paddock that never needs an excuse to talk to each other.
But it was never going to last, and the coming race focused everyone on the task at hand later in the afternoon. The teams pushed their cars out into a laneway between the GP2 paddock and the main pits, lining them up side by side while the last minute routines started, with drivers running off for a last minute toilet stop and then waving to the guards to be let back in. Eventually the engines were fired up, that high pitched scream as one after another woke up, and then they were off towards the track, with some drivers doing practice starts on the way and others unable to as rival mechanics walked slowly in front of them, accidentally on purpose.
The start of the race was held for a long time: too long for the front row starters, who bogged down as the lights went out and the second row blew past them. Hiroki Yoshimoto was the first man into turn one, but it only lasted for two corners: “That was maybe my race highlight; I led the race for two turns,” he dryly noted afterwards.
It was Hamilton who walked away, building up a strong lead before the stops so as to be still leading when they’d shaken out. And so it proved, except that he was hit with a drive through penalty for speeding in the pitlane. Most other drivers would have seen that as the end of their race, but the Briton keep pounding out fastest laps before taking the penalty, coming out second behind teammate Alex Premat and then hunting him down, overtaking and tearing away, eventually winning by 20 seconds.
Joining the ART drivers on the podium was Adam Carroll, his third place bringing home his first, long overdue, points of the season to the delight of his team. The Ulsterman had driven a fine race, starting from seventh and then fighting his way up after his stop and claiming third from Lopez on the final lap. Notably not on the podium was Nelson Piquet, who had ended his race in the wall after his tyre delaminated, the end result of a brave but ultimately futile effort to fight back after his poor start meant the Brazilian flat spotted his tyre badly trying to muscle his way past Lapierre.
Lewis got the call to come up to the Formula One paddock, and he had an audience with McLaren boss Ron Dennis before having a special interview for ITV’s Formula One broadcast the next day. His first GP2 win was already gaining him platitudes in the main paddock and interest in his home country, with Dennis later pointedly refusing to rule his young charge out of the fight for the free race seat next year. The young driver took it all in his stride before strolling back to his own paddock, where his father was excitedly waiting to hear the latest news.
The girls were back for dinner, giving the drivers something to fight over other than a race, with the large South American contingent making fun of each other in an attempt to make themselves look better in comparison. As usual there were some Formula One drivers enjoying the relative peace of the smaller paddock, this time Mark Webber, Jarno Trulli and Robert Kubica, and they just watched the younger drivers and smiled at the antics.
The next morning and everyone was waiting for the signal to head off down the lane as Lewis strolled over to join them, casually taking his helmet out of his father’s hands and getting into the car just before they moved off, an outward signal of his inner calm.
Starting from eighth he had lowered expectations, and then went on to destroy them: moving unremittingly through the grid he was only troubled by Carroll, who held third place until he flat spotted a tyre and had to concede, and Yoshimoto, who was defending the lead with all he had until a new line put Hamilton alongside him on the front straight, and then an early brake and a slight push to the left meant the Japanese driver had no choice but to give best.
Hamilton was on the top step of the podium for the second time in 12 hours, and his team went ballistic.
“Ehhhhh marjeek! Marjeek Looweees,” the French mechanics screamed from below the rostrum, and his performance had certainly lived up to their nickname Magic. Even his teammate had to concede the point: “Good job,” Premat said afterwards as the two hugged, “you know, for an Englishman that wasn’t bad!”
Joining the ecstatic Briton on the podium was Nicolas Lapierre and Jose Maria Lopez, the latter claiming his first podium while feeling at his worst, and making up for the disappointment of the final lap from the day before. Piquet hadn’t finished once again, pulling into the pits after flat spotting one again, and the drivers on the top two podium positions had cut his lead in the championship to just one and two points respectively.
And then it was all over and the teams started their pulldowns, as everyone in the various teams asked each other whether they were going directly to Barcelona or would have a day at home first. The drivers were out immediately: the ones with an affiliation in Formula One went there for the main event, while the others watched the start from the end of the paddock before heading home, leaving the mechanics behind to clean up and the girls to take off in search of better pickings.