6/19/2006 0 Comments
"I hate coming here," he said as they sipped their coffees. "It's always a pain. We can't get a hotel anywhere nearby, it always takes so long to get to the track, the food is rubbish, everything seems to take longer to do, there are always more people getting in the way in the paddock – it's a nightmare."
"Sure," his friend replied, savouring his drink, "but it's Silverstone. Besides, you don't have to run off to the airport to get here: we just have to drive over from the factory."
"Well," he sighed, draining the dregs of his coffee, "that's true. And at least we get to drive on the right side of the road."
"I hope you don't, at least if I'm in the car."
But his friend had to admit that it did feel weird to race in his own country, although he'd never admit it out loud to anyone else. Both of them had been mechanics for a long time, starting in the junior championships and worked their way up through the ranks over the years, but that seemed like an age ago. Racing at home reminded them of what was back then, not what was now, what was in front of the eyes of Europe, of the eyes of the world.
Silverstone greeted their return with a blazing heat that was completely at odds with their last visit to the track earlier in the year, when they had to wear puffer jackets in the middle of the day just to keep warm. On Friday it was the hottest day of the season so far, and it was at home. The irony wasn't lost on either of them.
They were all gathered at the end of the pitlane, the teams and cars and drivers, waiting to be allowed to push everything up the long, long pitlane as the sun built up a head of steam for the day ahead. It was, as always, a time for jokes at each other's expense. Timo Glock stood in the centre of the gaggle of cars talking with his new mechanics, getting to know them as best he could in the timeframe, when former teammate Hiroki Yoshimoto wandered over to say hello.
They chatted easily, as though nothing had changed, until the gate was opened and it was time to go. "See you later," the Japanese driver said before turning to the iSport mechanics and commented "By the way, be careful: he pees in the car" and walked off smirking, the baffled men behind him unsure whether to take him seriously or not as the German protested his innocence.
Every race weekend the teams line up in the pitlane in front of the F1 team with which they have an association; FMS with Renault, ART with Ferrari, and so on. Trident, being new to the paddock, always work in front of Super Aguri, the new boys in F1 at the bottom of the road. "Yes, but I don't mind it here," team boss Alessandro Alunni Bravi noted. "It's a good spot to see the difference between the drivers. See? It is 50 metres to the fast corner here, and the slow ones brake a little, and you can hear it.
"The quick ones, they don't brake at all here. You can hear that, too."
The drivers were all in their cars and waiting to be released, collected together at the end of the pitlane like a pack of hounds waiting for the hunt. Nelson Piquet Jr was up front, waiting to lead them away, and by the end of the session he led them on the timesheets too, claiming the top time just ahead of Gimmi Bruni, with Adam Carroll continuing his impressive form to finish third, just one tenth off the top spot.
Back in the paddock Piquet Sports had a new addition to the team: their own artist was creating images of their pits, painting on wood with oils. But they hadn't suddenly decided to spend money F1 style; he was a friend of one of the team's engineers and liked to paint unusual scenes, having recently painted in an operating room. It was a change of pace for the artist, and confused everyone outside of the team, so it was a win-win situation for them.
Or at least it was until Piquet found out he was going to lose his best time in qualifying for overtaking Bruni under yellows in free practice. "It's so stupid," he fumed. "Yes I overtook him, but he was slowing down, and it was on the straight; what else could I do?
"I'm gonna spend every second, every metre on track to beat the other guys in the race. I'm gonna prove them wrong."
And he very nearly did it in qualifying, too. After a slow first half of qualifying Piquet got up to speed towards the end, setting the fastest lap of the session before almost repeating the performance. The second lap was 0.056 off the best lap of eventual polesitter Carroll, who himself was just 0.004 ahead of Lewis Hamilton. Remarkably, Piquet's time was only good enough for fourth, sharing the second row with Alex Premat.
"It was pretty close, wasn't it," noted Carroll, ever the master of understatement.
The press conference came and went, a well-drilled part of the programme already, and then it was time for dinner, with the teams sitting down in the hospitality unit at tables arranged in front of the backdrop. One of the Durango mechanics couldn't resist it, sitting in the middle seat of the press conference area and regaling everyone with his thoughts on the main course ("The salmon? It's very good, and let me tell you why…") before moving into the second seat to describe his salad, and over to third for the dessert ("These strawberries! The best I've had, for sure!"), much to the amusement of his team.
Piquet was back in the paddock early the next morning, clearly unwell but nonetheless answering everyone's questions at a breakfast with the French media. The Brazilian suffers badly from hay fever, but it was clear that whatever he had was far worse than he expected the day before. He sniffled and croaked his way through the meeting, answering every question in fluent, if fluey, French before heading back to his rented motorhome to get some sleep.
Half an hour later and the contrast couldn't be more pronounced when the British media sat down with their new hero Hamilton. On form as ever, he charmed them with stories of his youth, of his two years with former teammate Nico Rosberg, of his hopes for the present and for the future. Having won them all over he returned to his team, to sit down with his engineer Steeve Marcel to hatch the plot to win his home race.
All weekend the sessions were on earlier than usual, with the F1 sessions pushed forward because of the World Cup and everything else moving up to make space for them. Sitting on the pitwall ahead of the race, Neel Jani was filling in for the injured Nicolas Lapierre, but his team seemed to have other things on their mind.
"When are you going to call me in?" he asked as they soaked up the sun. "Well, we've had some good news," Arden's Mick Cook told the Swiss driver, "we can get the football feed on the screens here on the wall. The race should be about the same length as the game, so keep an eye on the big screens; when you see the players come in at half time, get ready to come in yourself…"
Eventually the drivers were in their cars and off on the standard blast around the circuit to line up on the grid, but it wasn't business as usual for Racing Engineering. On pole for the first time this year, the pressure was soon ramped up even more when Carroll's car arrived, smoking heavily, at his grid position. "Take it off!" barked John Gentry, the Ulsterman's race engineer, and as the engine panel was removed the flames started to lick higher. "Quick, hit it now" he ordered, and the mechanic next to him with the extinguisher gave it a few quick bursts, one two three, and the fire was out.
There was smoke everywhere as Gentry reached in, pulling out a warped and smoking heat shield, its surface blushed as though in shame, and then he was back into the engine, checking, testing, cleaning, as the clock ticked aggressively on. Gentry won the battle; the covers were back on and the smoke had cleared as his driver led the grid around on their warm up lap; but the war was about to commence.
Lights out; game on. Carroll and Hamilton both had strong starts, and they were side by side into Copse, neither man giving an inch to the other; Hamilton was fighting to solidify his championship lead, Carroll for his first win of the season, for a sign that all of the hard work would have its reward. Around one corner they went, then two and three, before Hamilton got his nose ahead, held his line, and was gone.
Behind the pair Glock had a phenomenal start, blasting past Piquet, who had found his way to grid but looked even more wretched than he had in the morning, and Premat, who had struggled a little to get off the line. The German was on for a podium finish by the end of the first lap, and was determined to repay his new team's faith in him with silverware.
Monaco star Franck Perera was in the wars at Silverstone, being tapped out of the first corner by his teammate and taking Jose Maria Lopez with him. The pair were unharmed bar their pride, but their beached cars prompted the safety car to come out on track while the marshals worked on removing the stricken vehicles from the gravel.
Hamilton has clearly honed his restart skills to a fine art, and when the cars were released he had the jump on Carroll, stretching off into the distance as the Ulsterman tried to keep everyone behind. With tyrewear a major problem in the English heat pit strategy was going to be critical, and the leaders started to come in from lap ten: first Premat and Piquet, then Glock and Lucas di Grassi, then Carroll, and finally Hamilton.
ART looked to have done the job, with Hamilton out ahead of Premat, Glock, Carroll and Piquet, but the Frenchman had been over-eager to move up and was soon penalised with a drive thru, undoing his team's hard work. When Giorgio Pantano finally came in from the lead Hamilton was once again on top, and looked to have done all he needed to take the win.
Pantano was in great form behind the leaders, coming out right on the tail of sixth placed Andreas Zuber and pushing all over the track for a way past. Just as he was about to make the move stick, however, two things happened: di Grassi's rear wing flew off the car, putting the Brazilian into the gravel, and Ferdinando Monfardini lost the rear in second gear at Abbey, spearing to the right and hitting the barrier with a sickening thump, bringing out the safety car once more.
Di Grassi was livid but otherwise fine, while Monfardini was taken to the medical centre for a mandatory check up and was soon back in the paddock, sweating profusely and telling everyone he was fine. Clearly he wasn't though, and he checked himself into the hospital, where he was kept in overnight for observation, putting himself out of the Sunday race in the process.
At the restart Hamilton attempted to ease away from the pack, while Pantano resumed his pursuit of Zuber, but both men were frustrated once more when Gimmi Bruni's car gave up the ghost, running out of gears and coasting to a halt at Bridge. The Italian attempted to push his car off the racing line by himself, but the effort was too great and the safety car was soon out again.
The restart was a mirror image of the previous one, apart from Zuber's off track excursion under pressure from Pantano. The laps ran down and Hamilton led Glock, Carroll, Piquet and Pantano across the line at the end of the race.
"It was a superb victory for me," a clearly emotional Hamilton said after the race, "and I think this tops Monaco. England won the football today, and for a British driver to win as well, here at Silverstone, is a really special feeling for me."
After the race rumours swirled around the paddock that the stewards were looking closely at one of the teams, and when all the cars bar Durango's were returned it was obvious who they were looking at. After di Grassi's accident the stewards looked at his car and noticed that repairs had been effected to his rear wing which, as a structural element, is against the technical regulations. The stewards were left with no option but to exclude the team from the weekend, and the Italian team's truck was long gone as everyone walked in to the paddock early the next morning.
Piquet was back again, saying little, looking like death warmed over. The Brazilian had been unable to take part in the usual signing session the day before, cancelling everything other than the race in an attempt to get some rest. It was clear that he would rather be somewhere else on Sunday morning, but when it was suggested that he not race he just looked straight ahead and said "I race – that's what I do. I have to do this." Unsaid went the mathematics, the points that he needed to blunt his rival's lead in the championship.
But Hamilton was unstoppable, winning the most thrilling race of the year while Piquet scrabbled around for the scraps. Felix Porteiro stormed away from his first GP2 pole position, belying the pressure on his shoulders, while Carroll and Hamilton repeated their battle from the previous day, to the same effect.
Piquet was up to third after barging his way past Pantano, and was all over the back of second-placed Clivio Piccione when Arden's nightmare weekend came to an end: Michael Ammermüller tipped teammate Jani into a spin at Abbey, putting both cars out on the spot and provoking yet more laps for the safety car.
When they were let loose once more Porteiro had another perfect start and was off to rebuild the lead he'd lost, while Hamilton timed his run on Pantano with clockwork precision, running side by side with the Italian across the line and easily beating him into the first turn.
Piccione was desperately trying to hang on in front of Piquet, who was equally anxious to get by. But Hamilton was with the pair almost immediately, setting up on of the best overtaking moves of the year. Coming into Maggotts corner Piquet went left and Hamilton went right around Piccione, who must have felt like Ricardo Zonta as the meat in a championship challenge sandwich at that famous F1 race in Spa.
Like that race the man on the right won, Hamilton playing Hakkinen, by barging through a gap that no one saw, while Piquet, the Schumacher of the equation, was left with no room left to use. They ran three wide along the short straight until Piccione backed out, jinking slightly to the left, and it was all over: Piquet was out of road and running across the grass, through an advertising hoarding and back on track behind the chasing Carroll and Pantano, while Hamilton has the next turn to himself and was gone.
Porteiro knew what was coming, but was powerless to stop it. With so many laps to go there was no way the plucky Spaniard could hold on forever, and a strong move from his English rival at Brooklands sealed his second win of the weekend ahead of Porteiro, who held his nerve to fight off a nail-biting challenge from Carroll and Co over the final ten laps.
Heartbreakingly, the Spaniard lost his points when Campos were disqualified after the race for steering rack irregularities (think ART in Hungary last year, and you're close), but his drive had put down a marker for the front runners to keep an eye over their shoulders.
With the race over so early, there was nothing to do but go: Hamilton walked over to the big paddock, now achingly close to being his new home, while the mechanics got into their cars and drove back to the factory and then home. Meanwhile Piquet checked himself into hospital for a check up, wondering how a weekend that should have been his had slipped away, and what he could possibly do to get his championship fight out the grass and back on track.
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