The heat sits heavy on you in Istanbul, like an over-friendly labrador that doesn't realise it's too big to sit on your lap as it happily pants away in your face while slobbering down your shirt. You can feel the heat of the place pressing against every part of your body when you're outside, even in the shade of the hospitality area, and when you step back outside it gets instantly worse.
Of course, you've got to get to the hospitality tent first. Alfonso de Orleans-Borbon decided to drive down from Switzerland for the race, taking in a little break along the way, but regretted it when he made it to the border. "I've driven down the last few times," he started, relating his tale of woe to anyone who would listen, "but for some reason the border guard decided he didn't like me..."
Alfonso, dressed as usual in a pair of shorts and sandals with a t-shirt, was driving his very large, very expensive Mercedes: the border guard clearly decided his appearance and that of the car didn't match. Factor in that Alfonso had recently lost a bet in the paddock which involved shaving his head, and you can start to see why he didn't look particularly royal...
"The guy said a lot of stolen cars get smuggled into Turkey and sold, and he thought that's what I was doing. I had all the car's papers, but that didn't seem to mean much. He had us sitting there for five hours! I didn't know who to call, so I rang Jason's dad..."
Jason's dad, Mumtaz Tahincioglu, is the president of the Turkish Motorsport Federation. He was also, at that very moment, on the field at a charity football match. But he was soon looking at his phone...
"I was watching the guy on the phone, and he was pulling it further and further away from him. It was the Prime Minister's office, and they tore into him. I didn't care by then: he'd keep us for hours by that stage! By the time he came over to talk to me again, he was white as a sheet..."
Alfonso wasn't the only guy to suffer bad luck: DPR engineer Dan Walmsley fell off the quad bike as he made his way round the track with the rest of the team and broke his leg. The break was so bad that he needed a pin in his ankle: unwilling to have it implanted in Istanbul, Dan had to suffer through the night in his hotel room before getting out to the airport on Friday, as well as a rough flight back to England for the procedure. To make things worse it was all for nothing: his driver Christian Bakkerud had a reoccurrence of his previous back malady, and was unable to take part in the weekend after free practice.
By the time we got into the paddock on Friday there was more bad news: FMS had erected their inflatable swimming pool as usual behind their garage, but as they were on the opposite side of the paddock from last year it was pointing towards the F1 paddock, with the powers that be feeling it was inappropriate for their image, and we were left with one less way of dealing with the extraordinary heat.
Nonetheless it was three former or current FMS drivers who filled the top spots in free practice: Giorgio Pantano took the top spot at the end of the season, just 0.043 ahead of Luca Filippi and a tenth ahead of Adam Carroll, with the trio holding on in a session that saw numerous drivers run off track as they searched for the limit on the hard compound tyres. Title rivals Timo Glock and Lucas di Grassi were the next two on the timesheets, split by just one thousandth of a second at the end of the half hour period.
Sitting upstairs in the bus between sessions wasn't much fun, but Will Buxton had brought along a large electric fan to try and keep us cool. Mostly it just stirred the porridge of air, but at least he tried. Photographer Andrew Ferraro came up to leave some cards with his colleague Alastair "Stan" Staley to be uploaded, and the heat was clearly getting to him: "Oh, this must be GP2's number one fan" he gestured in its direction.
"That comment is precisely why you're a photographer."
"Yeah, sorry. You won't put that in the blog, will you?"
"No, I haven't got the energy."
A few long hours later and it was time for the trudge back up to the pitlane for qualifying. Over the last few years pole was found during the first few laps using the F1 rubber on track, but this year the best time has usually come at the end of the session, created way more excitement during the session. And so it proved this time: at the end of a frenetic final few minutes Filippi claimed the top spot in a six way shootout, and his first points in five races, just ahead of the iSport duo of Glock and Andi Zuber, with Pantano, Carroll and di Grassi following just behind.
One man who hadn't come to grips at all with his car in the session was Karun Chandhok, who was sweating profusely and looking extremely annoyed on the walk back to the paddock: he had been very wayward throughout the session, and was stumped for a reason. "I don't know what the problem was at all," he sighed as we walked back. "We just couldn't find the right way. I just don't know how we could be faster here."
"Perhaps you could try staying on the track..."
"Shut up! The car was just impossible today: I dread to think what we'll have to do tomorrow..."
Back at the press conference an unexpected problem had come up: "Which seat is for second?" Timo asked as he went to sit down. "Left or right? I'm not used to sitting there..." But it was Luca who, beaming with joy, was the centre of attention for once: "I’m really happy because we needed this pole: we had two very bad weekends, we scored zero points, so I got more points with this pole than from the last two weekends!
"I got a very good lap, but with two corners to go I got traffic and my third sector was bad, so I had a slow lap and I knew I was able to go quicker with a very good third sector. So my first sector wasn’t too bad, second sector was OK and third sector I was pushing very hard and I got a better lap. Honestly I was very confident with the car: you know, when you have a good feeling you can push more and more and it’s a good feeling, and I hope to have the same feeling tomorrow for the race."
Meanwhile, Timo felt in the mood for some crystal ball gazing: "We have to finish the race, that’s important, without any technical problems and try to be in front of Luca Filippi and Lucas di Grassi to try to open the gap in the championship again. It depends all on the start, the strategy, how the race goes, safety car, no safety car: you never know, and you have to play a little bit and see how it goes.
"You saw last year we had a couple of quick races here on Saturday and Sunday with quite a lot of possibilities to overtake, so there should be everything possible. On Sunday when you start from seventh or eighth there is still a possibility to win the race or be on the podium..."
The next morning we were driven over to the merchandise area for the usual driver signing session, with this week's victims being local boy Jason Tahinci along with Karun and Sebastien Buemi, with Kohei Hirate failing to make it to the circuit in time. Instead of the usual giant inflatable tyre we were greeted by a large open air stage, and the regular Ferrari model was replaced by an F1 car rent asunder as art.
Oh, and there were people. Lots of people, everywhere.
"You should go and see the Petrol Ofisi stand," Rebecca Banks stated, watching over Jason on behalf of her team. I must have pulled a face, as she followed up: "No really, it's actually pretty good: just go and take a look." She was actually right: they had a giant scalectrix track for the fans, complete with some little FMS cars, while there were also a couple of scale models for the fans to sit in and play computer games.
And there were free car fresheners there as well, the old type that your grandfather used to hang from his rear mirror. Obviously I took a couple to give to the guys back at the signing. "Wow, I haven't seen one of those in ages." "Do you think it smells like petrol?" "No, it's for people who want to make their car smell like Jason..."
The heat was still mugging everyone in the paddock by the time of the first race: there was no shade at all for the long walk up to the pitlane entrance, and many of the drivers sat in the shade and watched as the teams pushed their cars up to the pits before slinking after them at the last minute. When they got into the pitlane most people dived for the cover of the large pits building, walked underneath the overhang and squeezed behind the race control Alfa Brera, then sprinting across the lane for the relative shade of the pitwall housing.
But it was all business when the lights went out, with Zuber slipping between Filippi and Glock to take the lead into the first corner: Mike Conway spun as he tried to negotiate the turn, taking Andy Soucek and Adrian Zaugg with him, while teammate Filippi spun on his own shortly after, both men later complaining about the lack of balance after a tyre pressure change on the grid as they watched the safety car come out and most of the remaining grid dive into the pits.
iSport has a tough question to ask, and about 15 seconds to get it answered: with their drivers running 1-2 in the race, what tactic do they use? Zuber had precedence on the call as he was leading the race, and obviously he was going to come in for his stop immediately, but what to do about Glock? Stacking the drivers meant the German would lose out to a lot of his rivals, particularly as he was at the far end of the pitlane, but trying to build a large gap in identical cars is nearly impossible.
Obviously, he went for the latter. With both of the Minardi Piquet drivers still on track due to radio problems he hoped to build a gap back to Zuber and di Grassi, whose great pitstop had propelled him up the order, but when the race went live again it was clear that Negrao and Rodriguez were on a pace not far short of the championship leader, who was pulling away but not at the rate required.
But further back in the field there was another injury to come: Arden mechanic Chris Hill was changing the rear tyre of Bruno Senna when the wheel nut fell off the gun, so he calmly picked up the spare gun and got to work. But unfortunately for him when the car was dropped the tyre landed on top of the nut, and as Bruno lit up the tyres it was spun out straight into Chris' foot, and the resultant hospital visit meant yet another team was down one member.
Behind the Minardi Piquet pairing Zuber knew he had the race in his pocket: all he had to do was keep di Grassi behind him and the win was his after the pitstops shook out. Which was why it was so strange to see him try and get by Rodriguez: it seemed like a risk he didn't need to take. The Austrian was caught out coming into the final complex, snapping to the left as he tried to turn and brake at the same time to avoid the car in front and went flying across the grass, bounced off the kerb and buried the car deep in the gravel, waving furiously for a push before reality set in. Just to throw salt into the wound, he broke the floor of his car too, necessitating an overnight rebuild using a borrowed tub from BCN.
The moment of brainfade handed the effective lead to di Grassi, the one driver his team really didn't want to see get any benefit at this stage of the championship. Needless to say, Zuber wasn't the most popular person in the iSport garage that night, but he was somewhat less than pleased with himself, too...
By the time Negrao and Rodriguez came in for their stops Glock had a sixteen second advantage over di Grassi on the road, but it was never enough. His team was watching the gap back to Buemi, who could act as a spoiler after the stop, but when the Swiss driver pitted once more the road was clear and Glock was in for his stop, amazingly coming out in fourth place just ahead of Borja Garcia but well behind the fierce battle between Carroll and Pantano for second.
And with five laps remaining there wasn't enough time to change anything: di Grassi punched the sky in delight as he crossed the line (albeit without a chequered flag to greet him due to a flag waving error), with Pantano coming out on top of Carroll, who dropped right off and had to force Glock into running wide at the last turn just to hold on to the final podium position.
Di Grassi was ecstatic, standing on top of his car when he returned to the pitlane and pointing to his long time sponsor Renault's logo across his chest before grabbing a Brazilian flag to take to the top step of the podium: the win was not only his first in the series, but it had also put him on top of the championship fight for the first time. So many people wanted to talk to him back in the paddock that he was late for the press conference, leaving Pantano and Carroll to make jokes at his expense as they carried on without the race winner.
"Yeah, I think the race win came in the right moment," di Grassi beamed when he finally joined us. "Its awesome to get the championship lead by winning the race, a feature race, a Saturday race which is long. It was a very long race for me! When you pit in the beginning the race feels very long. We were very concerned about the tyre wear because we had problems in the past, but the car felt really good and I could manage to keep a good gap from Adam and Giorgio, and I am very happy, very satisfied with the win."
"From fourth to sixth was not a very good start!" Pantano laughed when asked to describe the opening section of the race. "But anyway I arrived to the grid with second gone: I had too much throttle, I have too much wheel spin, and I didn’t have room enough to pass on the outside or the inside: I had to slow down and Carroll just passed me on the outside because I didn’t have space where to go. He was quick until ten or 12 laps to the end, he had some problem with his car I believe, but me I was using only first and third gear and I was allowed to stay close to him to overtake at the end of the straight. Anyway, when I had the opportunity, the safe opportunity – we don’t take any risk – I decide to take it and we were done."
"When the safety car came out that was exactly what we didn't plan on," Carroll later noted. "We thought because of the run off area here there wouldn't be a safety car. We would have gone with our usual strategy, which is four tyres not two, but when everybody came in the safe thing to do is to go with two tyres just to make the time up. After that the balance was very, very difficult, so that's all that I can do, to push as hard as I could. At least my lap times were consistent, if not particularly fast really: I could just about stay with them, and I could see Giorgio was closing, so I just thought don't make any mistakes and he won't be able to pass me. But the tyres were completely finished at the end, so there was nothing I could do."
Sunday morning was cool and cloudy on the way to the track, a blessed relief from the previous heat all weekend, but just before the start of the race the clouds evaporated and heat came out to punch you in the back of the neck, conditions normal once again, albeit without the nearby hills catching fire, as they had done just before the start of race one.
Karun Chandhok was on pole after dragging his recalcitrant car through the field to eighth place the previous afternoon ("yeah, it was a good drive," head engineer Luca Zerbini had laughed after the race, "he wasn't happy with the car so we told him we'd made a lot of changes, but actually it was just the same set up as qualifying!"), the first time he had sat at the front of the field. With Xandi Negrao also on the front row there were question marks from the drivers further back as to what would happen when the lights went out.
They needn't have worried. Both drivers got away well, with Kazuki Nakajima being even faster away to split the pair and slot in behind the poleman as the rest of the top eight held station behind them, while further back Zuber's dismal run of luck continued as he stalled at the start and had to be pushed into the pitlane to be restarted.
A chat with iSport's Paul Jackson the previous evening had confirmed everything I thought about the previous race: yes it was yet another tough call, but the driver in front makes the call and Glock agreed with it, and it was a shame that his astonishing drive had been overshadowed by results ahead of him: "But you'd have to think he's going to be pretty keen to make up for it with a win tomorrow, wouldn't you?"
Glock was proving his team boss correct as he quickly disposed of Garcia and Negrao to put himself up to third and closed in on the battle for the lead. Behind him di Grassi was outside of the points and keen to get past Pantano, but a slightly mistimed move saw the Italian spinning helplessly around at the final complex before heading off again as the red mist descended.
Further back Filippi was on a charge: after his heartbreaking spin on the first lap of race one he started at the back of the grid, but the Italian was slicing through the field as though it wasn't even there, a drive reminiscent of Lewis Hamilton's run after his spin a year ago in the second race, such was his precision and speed.
Back at the front Nakajima was trying harder than ever to get by Chandhok, who was easily able to contain the Japanese driver and looked set for at least a podium despite the added pressure of Glock looming large. It was probably the latter which saw Nakajima made an ill-informed lunge inside at the final turn, a move that has never come off despite the number of drivers who have tried a similar move over the years, and the result was predictable: Chandhok was nerfed off into retirement, Nakajima ran well wide, and Glock was through into the lead and gone.
The Japanese driver was given a drive through penalty for causing an avoidable incident, as were di Grassi and teammate Buemi for taking Jason Tahinci (who had been impressive in both races despite an engine problem the day before) out of his home race.
The shake out meant that Glock took a dominant win ahead of Negrao, who was over the moon to take his first podium in the series, with Carroll once again standing on the third step, ahead of Garcia. Meanwhile Filippi was desperately unlucky after getting up into the points with a superlative drive to lose the point to Bruno Senna as a result of running wide on the penultimate lap while trying to find a way past the brick wall defence of Vitaly Petrov.
"This is perfect," Glock beamed afterwards. "It's very frustrating when you have only one good race on a weekend, and yesterday we were frustrated by the safety car and a decision that I have to say was quite difficult. It's frustrating when you know you are the quickest guy out there and you can't take it to the end, so today really showed the performance of the team, especially of the mechanics who did a perfect job overnight to fix Andi's car: they worked until three last night, and it's not normal that both cars run without a problem when the guys don't get enough sleep. So they did a really, really good job: this win is only for the mechanics, because they are perfect.
"In the end it is great to fight back, and when you look back and see how many races we had without points, six races is quite frustrating because I think we showed today we are the guys to beat. But we have to take it like it is, and from this point on we will never give up, and I think that will be the key factor."
The win handed the championship lead, and the title momentum, back to Glock, who now led by just four points with six races to go. Neither of the title rivals joined the rest of us at the Red Bull party that night back in town, a chance to let our hair down after a tough weekend, preferring instead to head home and prepare for the next round in Monza.
On the evidence of my head the following morning it was a smart move by both drivers, and it was clear that the tight battle for the title meant there would be little chance of a party in either the iSport or ART camps until after race two in Valencia, now just four weeks away.