Nothing much ever seems to happen at the Nurburgring: maybe that's its appeal. For everyone other than those who have to write about what happened, of course. About the most interesting thing I can think of that happened there was sitting with a driver in his truck two years ago, half watching the F1 qualifying session when another driver walked past holding hands with a girl.
"What's he doing with her?" asked said driver, curiously. She's his new girlfriend, I replied; they've just started going out.
"Girlfriend?" he asked, incredulously. "Actually girlfriend girlfriend, or a weekend girlfriend?" The former, I confirmed, curious at how this was turning out. Why do you ask?
"Because everyone's been with her," he smirked. "I have, and so has x, y and z. The whole alphabet, in fact. I wonder if he knows?" I don't think so, I figured; he wouldn't be going out with her if he did - you know what he's like.
"Maybe I better tell him then," he laughed, "I would hate to think that he's going out with her without knowing all the facts." That's a bit mean, I smiled; don't you think it might upset him?
"I hope so," he winked, "I could use the help on track..."
She wasn't back at the next race. Or any other races in fact, until we returned to the Nurburgring the next year, when she arrived on the arm of another driver, who was beaming with joy as they walked through the gates together...
Before heading up to the pitlane for free practice on Friday Will and I slipped our waterproof coats on and left the bus. "What the hell are you guys wearing those jackets for?" approximately 27 people asked on the walk up the hill, "It's sunny and warm." Haven't you ever been here before? I thought to myself, but said nothing and smiled. I stood on the pitwall with the iSport crew and waited.
Five minutes into the session the rain started. A minute later the session was red flagged. I stuck Dry The Rain by The Beta Band onto my iPod and laughed as a half drowned, miserable looking Marco Codello slunk across the pitlane looking for an awning to stand under.
The drivers had to hang around in case the session started again, except for Ernesto Viso, who found out that the car problem he had would take a while to fix, and was gone in a flash. The rest of the field sat in their cars and pulled their umbrellas down low, trying to keep as much rain out as possible.
With a minute remaining in the session it was announced that the session would restart, for ten minutes, to give the field some running, albeit in sodden conditions. The spray from their cars made Marco even more miserable, if that's possible.
Timo Glock pushed hard and set a 2.03 lap; Lucas di Grassi beat it, just, and the next time around Timo slapped down a 2.00, so he had two of the three fastest rain laps, although they were obviously well off the top dry times of Lucas and Luca Filippi from the first five minutes.
And then it stopped raining when we got back to the paddock. Of course.
When qualifying came around it was sunny again, just to be perverse, but the rain had washed all the rubber off the track so there was no grip early in the session. Timo and Lucas were fighting it out at the top of the timesheets once again, with Luca's engineers struggling to sort out a problem on his car for much of the session. The two drivers were never more than one tenth apart until, with two minutes remaining, the German pulled out a half second gap with no time left for a reply.
"After the last two weekends with scoring only two points it's good to be back at the front, on pole, and score two points," Timo noted in the press conference, "it's good for the championship. I think it was perfect because we had both conditions: you never know how it will be at the Nurburgring!"
What was most interesting about the press conference was that it was the start of the unofficial mind games championship. It happens every year, usually around halfway through the season, and racers being racers they can't help themselves: they're always looking for a competitive edge over their rivals, even if they've got to manufacture it themselves.
Walking into the press conference Giorgio, who was third despite being called in to be weighed twice, joked about where he should sit, preferring of course to sit in the middle, the focus of attention. Until Timo walked over, that is, who claimed the middle seat and turned it slightly towards Giorgio, or slightly away from Lucas.
Anytime he made a comment about Lucas (who has scored in all but one round of the championship so far, something Timo has patently failed to do) he would refer to him as 'Luca': a Germanic verbal foible, or a subtle dig by mixing his rival with the third placed driver? When asked about the race he noted: "Sure I will try to win the race, but I know it will be difficult against Lucas and Giorgio: especially Giorgio I think, because he is good at the start", leaving the inference unsaid but clear to all...
Lucas, on the other hand, wasn't playing any such games: he just seems too polite to do so. Despite looking miserable once again (normally an outgoing personality, he has looked despondent at every press conference, probably because he's never been in the middle seat) he would give his answers with aplomb ("we were really close, and he did a very good job on the second set and could do a very fast lap, so I just have to congratulate him and his team for getting pole at his home track..."), while Timo fiddled with something, yawned, or chatted with Giorgio.
Giorgio was just happy to play along. It saved having to come up with a way to unsettle Lucas himself.
But there was time for a bit of normal fun, too. On Saturday morning we trooped over to the regular signing session at the Bridgestone stand in the merchandise area: Timo, Andi Zuber and Ho-Pin Tung jumped into the minibus with Will and myself, with Vitaly Petrov joining us later when he got to the track, and Will was keen to try out his German skills. "I love those movie ads on television here," he smiled as we walked into the back of the giant tyre. "Jetzt im kino! With that goofy voice."
"You should give it a go now, but you have to do the voice."
"Okay, jetzt im Bridgestone wir haben der rennfahrer von gee pee zwei!" he started as Andi and Timo burst out laughing at his outrageous accent. "Von BCN Competicion, Hopintung! Auch der zuberman von iSport International, Andizuber! Und die poleman, deutsche rennfahrer, Timoglock!" The crowd were laughing along with the drivers by now, and if Will knew any more German he would have kept going throughout the session. "Enschulegung, kann ich spreche englisch?"
"I don't know, but it'll probably be better than your German..." Timo was still giggling as he switched over to his BMW uniform to go to their Pit Park complex across the road for lunch and interviews with the South African media.
The first race was delayed due to the red flagged F1 qualifying as a result of Lewis Hamilton's big crash, and we all had to stand around outside the medical centre as we waited to get on track, which was less than ideal: a big crash is always worse when it's one of your own. Thankfully we found out pretty quickly that he was fine, and our thoughts turned to the race.
Although it seemed that not everyone was thinking about the race yet: when the lights went out Timo was slow away (and Lucas was away fast, wanting to prove a point after the press conference), with Giorgio, Pastor Maldonado and Kazuki Nakajima slotting in behind the pair.
Behind them Sebastien Buemi seemed to have forgotten about his brake pedal, slamming into the side of Luca Filippi and continuing to accelerate, much in the manner of Borja Garcia's assault on Adam Carroll at the same corner two years ago. The Italian was out on the spot while the Swiss driver limped around to the pits and retirement, where he went over to talk to his victim on the pitwall.
Luca is quite possibly the coolest driver I've ever known: nothing ever seems to ruffle him, and he is always able to find a smile and a joke no matter how down his team are: everyone in the paddock loves him. He is the Sammy Davis Jr of drivers, but with his championship rivals at the sharp end of the race and no chance of points for the weekend, he was steaming.
"You should go back to Formula 3," he stated, flatly, when Sebastien came to apologise. The Swiss driver opened his mouth to say something and Luca put up his hand, saying "no: that is all there is to say" before walking off towards the paddock, pulling the black clouds overhead with him.
Back in the race Kazuki came in as soon as he could and then set about doing the Kazuki Laps, easily the fastest man on track and eating into the time of the men at the front. The pitstop strategy is normally set by the lead driver, but eventually ART could ignore the times no longer and had to bring Lucas in to cover the gap, with Timo getting one lap in clear air before coming in for his stop. It was enough, and the German had the lead when he re-emerged from the pits.
From there he just pulled away easily to become the first driver to win a second race in 2007, even if they all had a hairy couple of laps behind a very slow Jason Tahinci.
The press conference was early in comparison because of the delayed start: that's my excuse. I was still writing the race report and my mind was in a different part of the race when I had to run downstairs and host the press conference. "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the press conference for race one at the Nurburgring. Joining us today in third place is Kohei Hirate from Dams..." The shocked face in front of me told me immediately what I'd done. At least I got the team right...
Thankfully someone was being a professional: "We've had the perfect start to the weekend," Timo began, "especially with pole position and two points yesterday, and now the race win. It was tough, especially at the beginning: another bad start and I don't know why, he [Lucas] was pushing quite hard, and we didn't have quite the car for the beginning with a lot of fuel in the car, but after that I could come back, could catch up and get close.
"My strategy was to stay out as long as possible and find some time when he goes in the pits; he went in the pits and I pushed quite hard and the time was quick, but I overshot the tyres so I had to come in straight away. I wasn't sure if I would come out in front or not, but in the end it was okay. It was difficult in the first 2 laps with cold tyres but I could handle it."
Lucas was fairly gloomy again, but tried to put a brave face on it: "The start was pretty good, and I've been doing really good starts this year since the first race: I could overtake Timo quite comfortably in the straight already, not even in the braking point. After that Timo and iSport were really quick and there was a lot of pressure, but I tried to push a lot.
"I think the pitstop was okay and we had to stop first because we were leading; I would have made the same decision, and it was a good in lap, a good out lap, I pushed the most I could, but not enough to keep Timo behind me: he was really, really fast in those two laps. After with Tahinci it was a good fight too, and I didn't know what to do because Nakajima was just behind, Timo in front and Tahinci closing everybody, and I was hoping to have a moment to overtake Timo, but that moment didn't happen.
"I think iSport did a great job, and also Timo, so they deserve the win at Timo's home track, and I'm happy now to have ten points back to third for the championship, and tomorrow I start in front of Timo, so if I repeat the start I did today it should be a great race."
Despite my faux pas Kazuki was still willing to talk to me: "It was always the plan to come in early, depending what happened on the first lap of course. I had a good start and maybe picked up a few spots, but the first corner was a bit of a mess and I think I was a bit lucky to survive that!
"After that I was in P5, and so we did an early pitstop as we planned, and we knew that our race pace has been quite good and consistent, and we knew it was good for the tyres and we were pretty confident for the tyres life. From the middle to the end of the race it was a bit difficult because we had some oversteer, but compared to Timo and di Grassi the race pace was competitive, and to the others behind it was much better. I think we are going the right way and we have to keep pushing to get another step on the podium."
It was a busy paddock this weekend, sharing it as usual with the Porsche Supercup guys, but also with Formula BMW and the Mini racers. The latter were the happiest to be there, mostly because they're there more for fun than career reasons. Which was made obvious when the fashion parade started.
Rosana, who works in the spare parts truck for GP2 and organises the teams' orders, was sitting on the stairs up to the truck as the fashion shore started, with a variety of models showing off the latest in Mini merchandise as the pumping music started up.
"So, are you going to go in and model the GP2 range?" I asked.
"Don't be stupid," she laughed, "no one would see me over the heads of the guys sitting in the front!" The fashion show eventually morphed into a disco, and our mechanics all trudged back up the stairs to their pits, working long into the night, as ever.
Everyone was anxiously anticipating the Sunday race: probably the best GP2 race so far was on Sunday morning at the Nurburgring two years ago, when runaway leader Gimmi Bruni's gearbox was, in the words of team boss Paolo Coloni, "eaten by a crocodile", allowing a five way fight for the win, with overtaking seemingly on every corner and no way of guessing the final result until the chequered flag dropped.
This race wasn't like that.
In what was probably the dullest GP2 race so far Javier Villa made a great start from pole and just walked away, with the order shaking out in the first lap apart from Adrian Zaugg falling off the track from second place under pressure from Kohei Hirate (the real one), and Kazuki Nakajima pressuring Pastor Maldonado into a mistake, handing the Japanese driver his fourth podium finish in a row. They can't all be races to tell the grandkids about, I guess.
"The second race that we win, and I think the win for this race was perfect," a beaming Javi stated afterwards. "It was a little bit difficult at the start, but we started really good, and then when Zaugg went in behind I knew that we are quicker. When he went off I don't know, because I don't know how quick are the other guys, but we continued and no one was quicker than me, so we could relax a little bit.
“But that was only two laps to the finish!"
"It was a very hard race, very tough," the newly ginger-haired Kohei began. "I was behind Zaugg for a couple of laps, I was always trying to find the chance for the overtaking, I found some places where he is weak, and then he made a mistake at the hairpin: I went inside of the corner and we hit at the exit because he tried to cover the inside, and then suddenly he went out. During the race I was having a lot of oversteer after that, and it was quite hard at the end of the race, but I could manage to hold my position, so I was really happy with this result."
"In this track it is a little bit difficult to overtake," Kazuki, echoing most of the grid, noted, "so I didn’t expect too much for today’s race. I had a good start, and after that I could gain one position in the beginning. Glock was behind and he looked pretty good, and so I had some pressure from him, but I don’t know why after that he started to lose the pace, so I could concentrate on Pastor. From the middle to the end I had better pace and the car was pretty consistent, so that’s why I could overtake him and catch Kohei."
And then it was time to finish up, pack up, and get out of town. Except that, just before the F1 race and with the wind blowing hard, I took a look down the paddock and noticed the vast black clouds already dumping their contents as they headed our way. I wasn't the only one to notice: half of the paddock was in the hospitality area, hoping to avoid the weather and waiting for the start of the race.
The rain came on cue, bearing mayhem as a gift. GP2 has its moments of nonsense, so it was nice to see the big boys have their share of craziness too. It brought our paddock together, one big happy family sharing some laughs, raising our arms and yelling "ole!" every time someone went into turn one, like fans of a football team 3-0 up and cruising, the drivers making fun of each other ("that looked like something you'd do!") while the engineers looked on and smiled like doting parents until the rain ended, and it was time to finish up the packing.
After the restart Will, Rosana and I figured it was a good time to head out to the car and get the jump on the traffic to the airport: the sun was shining, the clouds had evaporated, and it looked as though the race has settled down to the usual sedate F1 event. We found out at the airport as we were having a beer. Oh well.
“Hey Andi,” Giorgio called out across the laneway that bisects the paddock in Silverstone, “I took a look at your crash the other day, and I want to tell you what I see.”
Trust me, you’d stand there and eavesdrop, too.
“For sure it was Timo’s fault,” he continued, the Austrian driver focusing intently as he spoke. “You can see that he came onto your line: it’s really clear when you see it.”
“Yeah, for sure! Take a look if you don’t believe me: he comes across, then boom!”
“Okay, I guess I better take another look at it. Thanks.”
Warnings in the media about the increased mud across the whole area, comments about more security having to be brought in to deal with people trying to jump the fence to get in, loud groups you’ve never seen before making a din from the other field, the constant, looming threat of rain hanging immediately over you personally everywhere you walk: it could only be Silverstone. Or Glastonbury of course, but I didn’t get tickets for that, and this is a motorsport website, so…
“Hey Timo,” Giorgio called out across the laneway that bisects the paddock in Silverstone, the hint of a smile ruthlessly suppressed as he did so. “I took a look at your crash the other day, and I want to tell you what I see. For sure it was Andi’s fault…”
It was only a couple of days since we’d all seen each other last, which was pretty weird after the slow start to the season so far. It brought out the impish natures of most of the paddock at some stage, as though having so much access to each other meant it was practical joke open season.
“Alfonso, I think you better take a look at this.” Racing Engineering team manager Thomas Couyotopoulo handed the piece of paper to his boss carefully, as though fragile, and watched as he read it: when his face had blanched, Thomas knew he’d finished it. “They’re telling me I can’t come into the pits dressed like this! But I always wear shorts: why are they complaining now? Come on, we have to go to race control now.”
The pair slunk along the pitlane, looking like overgrown school boys who knew they were in trouble with the head teacher, while a couple of smiles further down the pitlane grew larger the further the pair walked away…
Meanwhile on track Timo Glock was already looking for payback after a tough weekend at the office in Magny Cours by setting the fastest time despite the cold, gloomy conditions, just ahead of Mike Conway, Kazuki Nakajima and Bruno Senna, while further back Filipe Albuquerque was having a torrid time on his debut, filling in as he was for the absent Ernesto Viso: a problem with his downshift in the brand new car put him into a spin at Chapel, and with no way to avoid stalling he was out of the session on his first ever lap in a GP2 car.
Maybe he’d been put off by his team boss yelling from the pitwall.
“You bastards!” Alfonso exclaimed as he walked back down the pitlane to see Marco and Didier Perrin giggling to each other as the sight of the Spaniard. “I can’t believe I fell for it! I got all the way up there and was all ready to defend what I wear, and they just looked at me as though I was crazy for being there during a session!” This prompted howls of laughter before Marco asked: “But wait: didn’t you see the names of the stewards on the form?”
“Well yes,” Alfonso admitted, sheepishly. “But you have to understand that I went to school with Jackie Stewart’s son, and he’s been around racing so long, so that could have happened.”
“Well, my uncle knows him very well, and I know that he’s a lawyer. Plus, he doesn’t have a job at the moment.”
“Okay, sure, but Mickey Mouse?”
“Yeah, I was looking at that one: I just thought how mean some parents can be when they name their kids…”
Over at FMS they weren’t taking anymore chances: The air intake on Adam Carroll’s car was completely stuffed full of garlic to ward off any lingering evil spirits. “I don’t care, and it makes them happy,” he laughed when asked about it. Although I would have been worried about Christian coming over from hospitality and pushing it into the car, looking for roasted garlic…
Giorgio’s mind games had half worked in the morning, but the other half was about to fall in qualifying: Andi Zuber claimed his first pole during a miserable session of strong winds and low temperatures, two tenths ahead of Mike Conway, Lucas di Grassi and Kazuki Nakajima, while Timo slid off into the wall on cold tyres as he tried to get out of Luca Filippi’s way as he exited the pits and was lucky to hold on to fifth at the end of the session.
As the clock ran down to zero, the rain came. Welcome to summer in England.
“I was fighting for this all year,” Andi noted afterwards in the press conference. “I missed it two times from very close, and I’ve finished for the fifth time in the top three, so I’m very happy for the team and for everyone with our team.” When asked if this reapplied the pressure to him, he laughed: “I never think about pressure, because pressure you have always in motorsport and in racing, so I never think about that.
“Okay, so I had some problems with the gears, and then in Magny Cours with the brain failure of both drivers, but we’ll do better this time, for sure!”
“All year we’ve been pushing to get up to the front,” Mike acknowledged, “and for some reason it’s come a little bit easier here in Silverstone, with the knowledge I’ve had from before. We’ve won here in the wet and the dry, so for sure that will help, but all these guys are experienced and they know what to do to drive these cars quick. I think it will help for maybe the first few laps in the race, but then we will have to wait and see.
“I’m happy to be P2 - it’s a front row start, so we just have to make a good start and it should be good.”
They stand around in a gaggle, talking, laughing and waiting, their cars arranged haphazardly around like a small child’s collection in a sandpit after a call in for lunch. The cars are held in place by a collection of items, an umbrella here, an electronic starter there, to keep them from rolling back down the gentle incline towards the pits. They’re held in place by the inertia of waiting as the pitlane is cleared after Formula One qualifying.
They don’t look at the moody, slate grey sky, they don’t look at the other drivers, unless they’re talking to each other. They look at their cars, they look at their mechanics, they look at the still shut gate and will it to open, to let them go through and get on with their jobs.
The weekend started in the paddock as usual, everyone waiting to be released to the pitlane for free practice on Friday after a normal, uneventful Thursday in Magny Cours. Nothing much ever seems to happen here, in the middle of nowhere surrounded by fields under that big, ominously cloudy sky.
The signal came and we moved off, the mechanics pushing the cars up the long, low hill to the pitlane, the drivers walking with soft straws in their mouths draining the last of their energy drinks as their engineers talked them through the 30 minute programme, and the rest of us talked among ourselves or silently looked around as we walked with them into the pitlane, then watched as they rapidly prepared for the green light at the end of the pitlane.
Half an hour later they were back, and the newly resurfaced track had taken a toll of some of the drivers – Ho-Ping Tung and Nicolas Lapierre both ran too deep at the hairpin and went off, while returnee Ernesto Viso lost the back of his car and spun off harmlessly into the gravel – but it had promoted competition too, with the top three drivers (Andi Zuber, Giorgio Pantano and Pastor Maldonado) split by less than a tenth, and nineteen drivers were covered by just one second in free practice.
It’s the standing around that’s the worst, the waiting. They’re always waiting at this level: waiting for the gates to open and admit them, waiting to get out on track, waiting to get into the big paddock, waiting for their dreams to become reality. They stand there like soldiers, a motley bunch waiting for the call to arms, the call to battle. When the call comes, they don’t delay.
Nothing much ever happens in the paddock here. Which is generally good, as the French race is usually in the middle of a number of other races, and the change of pace works to everyone’s advantage. This year it’s the middle of the season, timewise if not numerically: the season started three months ago, and has three months to remain, but the number of events either side are more than a little skewed.
Which is why everyone was so keen to get here for once, to start racing again. Will Buxton’s keenness manifested itself in the speeding ticket he picked up on the way down from Paris, one of a few in the paddock, which set the mood of conflict even before his run in with the woman in accreditation who refused to hand out the paddock passes, despite his polite requests and it being her job.
Eventually the normally placid fellow exploded, doing his part for the continuation of a solid Anglo-French relationship by blurting: "You know what? Now I understand – it’s you. You are the reason no one ever wants to come here, or to come back" before storming off, seething with rage for whole minutes before inevitably blushing with shame.
Two men who did want to come back were Adam Carroll and Ernesto Viso, both men returning to drive in the series for the first time this year. “It’s just great to be here, you know?” the Ulsterman smiled as he stood waiting to head back up the hill for qualifying. “I’ve enjoyed myself this year in DTM, but I’ve been wanting to get back into one of these things for ages. And I’ve got my old seat back from the old team – it took us a day to make it last year, so that’s a bit of a bonus!”
Ernesto was grinning like a maniac all morning too, eager to get back and show his new team what he could do. “You know, it’s been too long away from here: when I got the call to come to the test, I couldn’t stop smiling!” The deal had come at the last moment: so late in fact that the team didn’t have a race suit ready for him, obliging the Venezuelan to wear a black suit with his own name and logo across his chest.
When the signal comes they go, marching up the hill as if to war. The intensity level rises perceptibly, the jokes get feebler and fade from view, the mind switches into gear and they are mentally in their cars before they’re even in the pitlane. Then they are physically in them and the intensity gets even higher: the mechanics swarm around, the last minute checks that could make or break an event, everyone waiting for that one little light to change.
Eventually it does, and the thumb comes up from the pitwall, the murmurs into the microphones subsumed by the caged animal scream of the engines firing into life before they’re moving into the pitlane proper, the buh buh buh stuttering starts of the younger ones, the confident slide of the more experienced drivers as they leave their telltale black stripes on the tarmac, a signpost for their leap into battle.
“Please, can you not ride your bike in here? It’s dangerous.” Will was leaning down to talk to a small, blond mop on top of the tiniest minibike ever made just before qualifying, and was rewarded with a quizzical stare for his efforts. He tried again in French, to the same result. Eventually someone repeated the warning in German and the small mop said ja, okay, before zipping out of the paddock again, back towards the Formula 3 paddock.
The session came and went in a flash, a five way fight for pole that saw Glock, Zuber Senna, di Grassi and Pantano battle it out between them right up to the red light. Vitaly Petrov and Luca Filippi played no part in the clash, coming together at the hairpin on their outlap, a premonition of sorts for the melees to come. Zuber looked like he had it until his teammate pipped him by a tenth: on the closing lap Pantano was caught in traffic in section two, Zuber was fastest in sector one but couldn’t quite hold on in sector three, and di Grassi just pipped the Italian to put himself next to his countryman on the second row.
“It’s just that it’s dangerous here,” Will said after session as that familiar high pitched whine indicated the return of the mop. “There are forklifts and all sorts of things coming through here, and they won’t see him” he added, as we watched the small bundle of fleece flick his bike around one of the cars as it was pushed into the laneway and then back around the corner.
“Nice reflexes,” I noted. “Maybe we should get him back for a test in a few years, when he can see over the wheel.”
“That kid is just looking for trouble,” he seethed when our unwanted visitor returned as we walked with a few drivers up towards the signing session in the middle of the track. “If he comes back here again, I’m going to kick him off if I get a chance.”
They left the rest of us behind as they rolled around the circuit, weaving this way and that as they prepared for what lay ahead. All the words were spoken, and now it was time for action as they worked their way back to stop in front of us again, silent but for the deep throb of their engines and the occasional bark as they squirted the power to warm the tyres and brakes.
Eventually they were back, forming ranks again ahead of the skirmish to come. The leaders are pointing at each other, I thought briefly before discounting it. They know what to do. The red lights came on: one, two, three, four, five, the sound and the fury increasing with their number. They were held there for a moment, along with our breath, and then the lights went out.
“He’s not making my life easy, I would say!” Timo laughed in the press conference afterwards, slapping his teammate on the back as he did. “Andi's doing a good job, and when you look at all the qualifying positions he's still the man to beat in qualifying: he is really strong, and he will be strong in the race tomorrow, definitely. But it good - we push each other, and I think we are right on the limit at the moment.”
I had to ask it: “So Andi, apparently you're the man to beat in qualifying - why did you get beat today?”
“I think he was quicker today,” he smirked back, “so he is the man to beat in qualifying next time! I just lost one tenth to Timo today, so I'm quite happy with qualifying today.”
And for tomorrow? “We will be clever enough for the first corner,” Timo predicted. “Andi will fight for the win, and I have to think about the championship, but I want to win too! We will see: it's always tricky to go into the first corner when you are one and two, but we have to watch out for Bruno too, because he is quite quick and will be there at the start, and he will try to get in between us.”
“I just said to finish one and two,” team boss Paul Jackson suggested afterwards. “I don’t care what order they’re in. The winner will be the one who crosses the line first…”
They mirrored each other at the start, a special effect gone wrong as both cars headed for the same spot in the centre of the screen. Inevitably they hit, Zuber up and over Glock, both cars stacked together and sliding towards the end of the pitlane as though looking for a shorter walk home. A couple of drivers were left behind: Rodriguez was still there, as was Carroll, while the rest made their escapes and smiled at their good fortune.
The shaking, snarling beast that is a race start roared into life, thrashing and writhing itself around the circuit, cars moving up and down as it went. And then it bit: one of the cars went over another, soared into the air, twisting as it rose, and then closed the parabola as it came back to earth, landing upside down on the concrete wall next to track and rolled over the edge, shedding parts as it continued on and on, before finally coming to a rest at the next corner.
There was no sound, no breathing, no movement as we watched the screen. “Fuck,” someone said, in shock. He spoke for us all, kicking us back into motion. You feel your heart, too fast, you see your hands, moving unbid. You know what you saw, you think, and you know how useless feels. Your mind races, a thousand thoughts a second, and you have no way to act on any of them. You turn to the person next to you, you talk, you touch each other, the arm, the back: you crave the sense of feeling human again. And you wait.
Slowly, eventually, the word gets out. I was sitting with Ines from Racing Engineering; she was getting news from the pitwall while I got it from Will: together we pieced it together and relayed it. A miracle had unfolded in front of our eyes; we could only sigh with relief.
They climb back into their machines, strap in and wait. The noise and vibration comes, telling them they’re about to fight again. Do they think about what they saw, and what they didn’t? They wait for the speed to come again, and they banish such thoughts from their heads: war had come again.
Pantano won this time, the first victory for Campos, a relatively easy result after the hour under red flag. Lucas di Grassi and Bruno Senna rounded out the podium, the latter claiming his spot on the last lap after Luca Filippi’s remarkable drive from sixteenth on the grid petered out as a result of disappearing gears with a few laps remaining: the Italian had to make do with fourth despite his best efforts.
“We just worked to the maximum,” an unusually subdued Pantano noted after the race. “I worked very hard with the mechanics, with the engineers, with everyone, and now we can see the results start to come. In Monte Carlo we saw it, and also here - we were just unlucky in the first few races with the car. But I'm very happy for them, I'm very happy for me also: we work very hard, and now we can see that Campos can win races with no problems.”
Everyone just got on with their jobs back in the paddock, trying not to think too much about what we’d seen, and eventually we sat down for dinner, everyone mixing around the various tables in hospitality as usual. Eventually someone put the race replay on the screens, and we watched silently until the moment came again: the sound of teeth being sucked, the heavy sighs afterwards. It wasn’t until the replay of Lapierre accidentally knocking over his mechanic brought a cheer from the man himself, shocked but unharmed, that we could laugh again and watch the race like any other.
When we finally came to leave the paddock, head of operations Marco Codello, normally the first man to make a joke at your misfortune, walked around shaking hands with every man and kissing every women before he left, something I’ve never seen him do in the three years of our paddock. But he wasn’t alone: everyone you spoke to in the paddock would touch you arm, hold your hand longer than usual in a handshake, as though human touch would banish the events of the afternoon for good.
The next day we heard some more good news from the hospital: “Ernesto was told he had to have the nurses come in to see him every hour just to check on him: he asked them if they could send them in every half hour instead…”
Waiting at the gates once again, Paul Jackson was in a good mood too: "Do you see that circle on the cars there? The boys have stuck a couple of magnets on the top of the cars..."
The race went off without the drama of the previous day: Nicolas Lapierre led Javier Villa comfortably from pole until late in the race, when a hydraulic failure broke the Frenchman’s heart and stole his win in front of his friends, neighbours and family (he grew up within a mile of the track, and couldn’t have wanted a win more in his life), handing the victory instead to Villa, who just held on despite the rain and constant pressure over the closing laps from Luca Filippi and Pantano, both of whom had sliced through the pack to be there.
It was while the champagne was being sprayed that we heard the bad news: a helicopter had crashed the previous evening, killing the pilot along with Emmanuel Longobardi from Quiksilver and Simon MacGill from Oakley, and injured Nicolas Duquesne from Bridgestone and his niece: the three men were regular visitors to the paddock, and known to most there.
It was a punch in the guts after a weekend we thought we’d escaped. That’s racing is the glib, pre-programmed reply, but it’s not: it leaves you shaking with useless rage and a sense of hopelessness. Ernesto finally turned up in the paddock, hugging everyone and smiling over his neck brace: we were all genuinely delighted to see him again, but our thoughts were elsewhere by then.
With nothing else to do we finished our jobs, packed our bags, said our goodbyes. Will and I walked down towards the carpark just as the sound of 22 Formula One engines reached fever pitch at the start of their race, but we didn’t have the stomach to watch them. It was the last time that we would walk through the gates at this circuit in the middle of nowhere in France. We didn’t look back.