Nerves fray at the end of a racing season: tension builds, tempers flare, and people over-react through simple tiredness, whether it be Marco yelling because Stan put his camera case where Marco normally puts his laptop, or Will yelling because the Spanish security guard was being over officious after he opened a door they were late in opening, or Didier yelling because the parking attendants are trying to make him park miles away from the paddock, or me yelling because the guards are trying to make us walk around the world.
It’s natural that we’d all be tired by the end of the season, particularly with one round to go, but it happens and the yelling comes, and then it’s gone and we’re quietly ashamed of the outbursts, mostly because we don’t know where they even came from, because on any other day we’d have laughed and made a joke about it instead, laughed at how ineffective the Spanish are at organising anything rather than taking it as a personal attack and snapping.
But we’re not alone: outside in the paddock there was a throbbing black cloud of tension, and its epicentre was a man called Timo Glock.
On Friday he just looked lost, a small boy who had let go of his father’s hand in the shopping centre for one minute and now couldn’t find him anywhere. Friday was useless, a waste of a day because everything was going to happen on Saturday and Sunday, so with the cars being set up in the pits there was nothing for the rest of us to do other than mill about listlessly and work ourselves up into a anxiety state. And so we did.
By Saturday the nerves had hit, and Timo had moved from on listlessness to outright worry. It was as big a surprise as we could have had: Glock had spent the rest of the season being calm and collected, propping his team up when they needed it and helping them to re-find their nerve and face the rest of the paddock, but before the sessions on Saturday it was as though he’d put his head on inside out.
“Don’t worry about it,” Paul Jackson said, trying not to betray his own nerves`. “He’s still Timo: as soon as he’s got his helmet on he’ll be fine.” The team, and everyone else, left him alone in the corner, iPod on and headphones in, scanning for the right track to banish the nerves and get the weekend underway.
Outside in the paddock, on the other hand, Lucas di Grassi looked like he didn’t have a care in the world: smiling and joking with Xandi Negrao, you’d have been forgiven for thinking he was someone other than the man two points off the lead of the championship, someone not hoping to change his entire life over the course of one brief weekend.
Too much inactivity is harmful in a racing paddock, so it was a relief when free practice finally came around and we all had something to concentrate on for a while. The session was mostly quiet, being that qualifying was less than an hour away: Markus Niemela beached his car on the kerb on the outside of the final turn towards the end, briefly bringing out the red flags, but at the end of the session Nicolas Lapierre held the top spot, just ahead of teammate Kazuki Nakajima and the Minardi Piquet pairing of Negrao and Roldan Rodriguez.
Glock and di Grassi had brought their cars home sixth and tenth respectively, but it was clear they were keeping their powder dry for qualifying. In which, the Brazilian set the early pace until Andi Zuber stopped on the front straight, briefly bringing out the red flags once again, ahead of a squabble between the local drivers for the top spot.
Eventually the big guns were brought out, and the top time ticked over between Luca Filippi, Glock and Nakajima, but it was the Japanese driver who just pipped the pair to pole, with the German joining him on the front row and just one tenth covering all three drivers. Di Grassi had clearly lost the first battle, finishing back in seventh and unable to stay with his rival, despite Glock flatspotting his left front just after taking on new tyres.
But any thoughts that the result would raise a smile from Glock were soon banished as he lashed out at the brakes, telling anyone who would listen that he might have to change his brake pads during the race. Jackson, as ever, had the real answer: “We put the new style pads on his car, and he’s never driven with them before so he didn’t really know how to drive with them: he was trying to stop like he normally does, and obviously that’s not the best way to use them.
“But we’ve got one more set of the old brakes: we’ll put them on for the first race so he can be more comfortable, and hopefully that’ll do the job. If not, he can practice tomorrow on the new ones, again ahead of race two.”
Maybe he just needed to have something to eat: Will gets a bit frantic after he forgets to eat (pretty much every weekend), so why not a driver too? It seemed to do the job: Timo was smiling and back to his old self after sitting down for lunch.
It was around this time that Guy Hornsby turned up in the paddock, returning once again to DJ at the end of season party after being (literally) blown away at the opener in Bahrain, and this time he brought a couple of friends, John and Andi, with him. Unfortunately for us, it turned out that Andi is a rain god, and ominous black clouds were soon rolling in where previously we’d enjoyed perfect blue skies.
“I knew it,” Andi sighed. “Every time I come to Spain it rains.”
“How is that possible?” I blurted. “It was scorching half an hour ago.”
“The clouds follow him everywhere,” Guy sighed as the first drops started falling. “Wherever we go, the rain follows right behind him: we should start selling his services to drought affected countries.”
“Oh man, what next?” Timo laughed as he looked at the sky. “Someone up there is screwing with me for sure!”
“It’s his fault,” I grinned, pointing at the suitably despondent looking Andi. “You need to find someone in the team to kidnap him and drive him as far from the track as possible.”
“Okay, I’ll get someone now!” Andi, increasingly nervous as he waited for Timo to get out of earshot, finally whispered: “I think I better disappear now: I can’t tell if he’s serious or not…”
The support F3 race came and went in a deluge of mayhem but the rain lingered, still hanging in the air as we walked out to the grid. The threat of more rain hung ominously over the field, as the teams looked at the sky to see which way they should go on tyres: do they start conservatively on intermediates and hope for the best, or take a chance on slicks and possibly lose everything?
The iSport mechanics, unsurprisingly, put inters onto Glock’s car: after so much chaos this year it now seemed a way of life, and they calmly went about their jobs as the clock ticked down, while the Campos mechanics went the other way and put slicks onto both of their cars before walking back to the pitlane with fingers firmly crossed.
What followed were probably the most chaotic opening laps ever seen in GP2: Nakajima on slicks easily pulled away from Glock and Filippi on inters to lead the field into turn one, while Nicolas Lapierre was slow off the line and was immediately tagged by a fast charging di Grassi, putting the Frenchman out on the spot. The Campos pair were also fast away, running with Roldan Rodriguez until the Spaniard got a little lost at the back of the circuit, took a short cut down a service road, and popped out in the lead of the race.
He soon realised his error and waved five cars through, but it wasn't adjudged enough and he was soon in for drive through penalty, handing the lead back to Nakajima, who was trying to hold on from the Campos pair: unfortunately for the Japanese driver he soon came across Mikhail Aleshin, who was unaware that he was a lap down and pushed hard to stop Nakajima coming through until it was too late, with Petrov and Pantano blasting by on the straight next time around.
With the rain stopping and starting it was chaos on the pitwall as the teams tried to decide on the best strategy: slicks had worked out for the leading trio, but had also helped a number of drivers to go over the edge of adhesion and into the gravel. Di Grassi found this out to his detriment: his ART engineers called him in early for slicks, which put him towards the back of the grid, and the combination of long pitlane and short track meant he was now a lap down on title rival Glock; pushing too hard in tricky conditions to get back up his car ran wide and into the gravel, and his title challenge was all but over.
"The start was really incredible," Petrov laughed afterwards in the press conference, "because I talk with my engineer on the radio and I told him it would be very difficult to start, because my tyres were a little bit in the water and I was really afraid to do too much wheel-spin. But I was really lucky, it was incredible the start, and I passed a lot of cars. I did a few laps and had a very clear understanding of the track: I knew where I could push, and for me it was really not a problem in the first five laps. At the start it was a big problem, because I was on the radio speaking with my engineer saying maybe we change for wet tyres or not, but I take the decision to stay out all the time.
"And I was really happy, because its the first time I won a race! I was really happy because my team was happy: my team won this, and I give it to them."
"You know, he did a pretty good start to be honest," Pantano acknowledged. "For me, I did well but what he said before, it was wet and I probably had a bit too much wheel-spin compared to him. Anyway, I think we did the right choice about the tyres: we was very quick to deal with the situation, and we both did a very good job, apart from the last 15 laps I had quite a big problem with the rear. I had to take off a little throttle because it was too risky to stay there and push him to try to overtake, and I decide to take the place and let him win.
"He did a great job and I want to say congratulations to him, because he drove very well today."
"The start was great for me," Nakajima reflected, "and I had slick tyres so my start was much better than, like, Timo or Filippi who was behind me. Just after the start we had already small raining, and I was just controlling my pace and looking at the car behind. After it was really difficult to have rain on slick tyres and traffic. Because of traffic I lost my place and it was a shame, but I’m happy to be back on the podium again in the last event and I think the team did a good job.
"It’s a shame to miss the win, but we showed the pace in qualifying and it’s good to survive such a crazy race."
With much of the pressure now off, Glock could finally relax a little: seventh place meant his lead was out to four points with one race remaining, even though he wasn’t yet ready to admit that he had one hand on the title: "Ha! I don't say this: I was 18 points ahead, 11 points ahead, and it never worked out! So I will just take it easy tomorrow and try to bring it home, and that's it. I mean, everything is possible: the possibility is that we are in P2 on the starting grid and Luca is on P20 is a difference, but I don't care: we've had so many crazy races in GP2 and I think everything is possible until the chequered flag comes out!"
The roles of earlier in the day had now reversed: Glock was his usual ebullient self, while di Grassi, hurting deeply, was staying in the truck out of sight as he tried to come to terms with what had happened: he knew that he would need a miracle to reverse the flow of points, and miracles were in short supply in Valencia.
It was something Luca Filippi knew all too well, although he wasn’t actively seeking one. The Italian had seen his points advantage over countryman Giorgio Pantano evaporate after his fuel tank hold had snapped during the race, allowing the tank to slop around in his car and denying his engine fuel every time he went around a corner: he was losing six seconds a lap after a fine drive before the inevitable retirement came.
Despite the disappointment, and the almost certain loss of third in the championship, Filippi wasn’t willing to wish his rival any ill will: “For sure it will be hard now, almost impossible, but how can I hope for something to go wrong for Giorgio? That’s not the correct way, not sporting: I can only hope for the best for me, and I will try with everything I can: if I don’t get third I will be very sad, but I can only push hard and hope that everything is fair.”
His words came back to me early the next morning as we watched the monsoonal F1 race in Japan, everyone there cheering with delight as GP2 brought home the first 1-2 in the senior series in the shape of Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen. Fernando Alonso, disappointed after running off the track during the race, knew that his shot at the title was more than a little dented, but in contrast to Filippi he stated: “It is out of my hands: I need him to have a problem now, but I do believe in miracles.”
After the F1 race it was time for the new GP2 car to get its first public outing: Adrian Campos slipped into the seat as everyone else in the paddock walked over to the pitlane to watch. He ran a few laps, nowhere near the top pace as you would expect, but the new car looked and sounded phenomenal, like an F1 car on loan for the weekend. We all stood there, trying to keep warm as the sun peaked over the nearby hills for the first time that day, everyone smiling as we watched our new toy in action.
A 1-2 in F1, the new car turning laps, a quick espresso to warm you up, a smile and a joke with your racing family: what better way could there be to start the final day of the season?
The race finally rolled around, the last of a long season, and one last effort was needed before we could get across the line and finally relax. Javier Villa was on pole yet again, joined on the front row by Glock, but any thoughts of repeating his usual Sunday antics were soon abolished as the German streaked away: Villa stayed with him for as long as he could, but the German had too much for him as he claimed his championship with a dominant win ahead of Villa and a delighted Andy Soucek.
Behind them Filippi put in yet another finely time charge through the field, getting up to the points and sitting on the rear wing of Pantano in fifth place, but with his tyres past their best there was nothing he could do: the pair crossed the line nose to tail, finishing on the same number of points in the championship, but Pantano got the position by dint of a superior win record, two to one.
Di Grassi, meanwhile, looked strong as he also charged through the field until he came across Andi Zuber, who was clearly under instruction not to let the Brazilian through: he did his job to the letter, and the championship was over at last.
"After all the hard work over the year," a clearly emotional Glock reflected, "all the bad luck and bad races like in Spa, and the hard races like yesterday which was just a special race, today when I got here I just said I would try and win the race for the team. I had a little bit of wheel-spin but it was better than the rest, and I tried to save a little bit the tyres in the beginning, pushed a bit in the middle of the race, and at the end I tried to bring it over the distance.
"At the moment it's just a little bit difficult to believe it, because when you have so many ups and down, when at the end you can just win the championship, it's just a great feeling. It's strange at the moment: it's just the finish of the last race, but when you hear the engineers and my team boss over the radio, and all the mechanics, I'm just quite happy. We won the team championship as well, so that's just the perfect feeling. And for now, I just hope we can get something done for 2008."
"From the very first moment he sat in the car he was instantly on the pace, he felt at home, and he clicked with all the guys in the team," Paul Jackson noted after we dragged him reluctantly up to the front for once at a press conference. "It was a very strange situation where you feel like he’s an old friend after a couple of days, and I think a lot of people miss those personal relationships: they’re very important, and it makes the bond very strong and helps the work ethic, and everybody pulls 100%. It worked out extremely well, better than we could ever have hoped.
"And at the end of that year, having scored more points up until Monza than Lewis [Hamilton] did in those same races, from both sides we wanted to stick together this year and try and win the championship. It’s been pretty tough, but we’re there now and we can celebrate."
Finally we let Timo and Jacko go, and they went straight downstairs to celebrate at last with their team: everyone was decked out in blue iSport 2007 champions t-shirts, and Jacko was soon spraying the champagne all over anyone foolish enough to stand near him (“You can't spray that as well as your boys can” I noted, to which he laughed: “They’ve had a bit more practice than me, and it's been a fair while since I did it last!”). Eventually the team got down to the business of clearing up, eventually getting everything packed up, albeit being the last team to be ready to leave, as usual.
When the truck eventually pulled out there were a few mechanics from the other teams standing around waiting for a lift back into town, and they gave the truckie some polite applause as he crept down the paddock: randomly he pulled out a trumpet in the cabin and started blowing a charge before placing it carefully in front of him and heading for the exit.
And then it was time for the party, at last. We headed down to the City of Arts and Sciences, the futuristic collection of buildings by the port where Will had organised his biggest party to date, as well as hosting the event while the rest of us got stuck into the food and drink.
It was a fantastic night, as always, with the drivers, engineers and mechanics all blowing off steam as they put a long and grueling season behind them. The party carried across the way to another building for the after party where, despite the best efforts of the bouncers to destroy the mood, most of us lifted up even further.
“It’s downstairs,” Alfonso stated when I asked where the toilets were. “Be sure to wash your hands.” It was a refrain that everyone who saw me along the way repeated, as though training a toddler. I soon saw why as I walked in and saw a mechanic at the sink, the dark shirt and trousers he was wearing turning into a purple dress in the mirror: only the top half of the view in front of him was an actual mirror, while the bottom half was clear glass showing through to the women’s toilets.
When it was my turn to wash my hands, I looked into the mirror to see that I had transformed into Timo Glock, and I looked very, very happy about it.
I walked around to retrieve him as he stood there, laughing. “I need to find my team!”
“I don’t think you’ll find them in here! Come on, I’ll help you look.” The walk back to the venue, just one flight of stairs away, took about half an hour as every single person coming the other way stopped to shake his hand, to give him a hug, to have a word before moving on. Timo lapped it up, graciously smiling for everyone as they came over.
“You’re going to miss this when you go back up to the big paddock, aren’t you?”
“It will never be like this up there: you know what it’s like up there, you remember. GP2 is fantastic: I wish I could stay here every year and race, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s so much fun here: it’s so tough, but the racing is the best, and everyone is just fantastic.”
“Don’t turn into one of them when you get up there: remember you’re one of us, not one of them.”
“I’ll never forget this: I’ll never forget anything about here. This has been the best year of my life.”
“I know what you mean. Now, we better find your team: where did you leave them?”
“I can’t remember…”
We found them in the end, he insisted on buying me a drink, we all stood around and laughed like maniacs, the edge of our worlds shrinking down to just one large room for a while: for one night, there was nowhere else we would be: Guy was creating the soundtrack, and we all filled it with dancing, laughter, magic. The end of year parties are always fantastic, always perfect: Will is too much of a perfectionist to put together anything less.
We always have so much fun, but they’re also a little bit sad too: no one knows where anyone else will be next year, whether or not we’ll ever see each other again, and it’s sometimes too bittersweet to think about, which is why we never talk about it at the time. There are always a couple going up to the big paddock to be usurped by F1, to be molded and packaged until they shine like jewels, until they look and sound like all the others. More sadly, there are always some that won’t be back, for lack of results, for lack of budget, for whatever reason.
But there are always some who will be back again to fight another day, to go through the mill again as they try to prove themselves, as they hope against hope that next year will be their year. And the rest of us who watch have a drink and a laugh with them now, and hope against hope that we’ll be there again next year to watch them fight once more.
"What time do you get in?"
"5.45. Is that okay?"
"Sure. It's an hour and a half drive from the track, but you'll be here in an hour: I'll get Marco to drive." Everyone has trouble getting to Spa: it's in the middle of nowhere, near nothing much and on the way to nowhere else. Most people drive there just because they'll end up driving most of the way anyhow, and with the race being back to back with Monza the teams and series staff all made their way straight up through Switzerland and Germany after the last race.
Alfonso de Orleans Borbon was one of those to drive up after a quick stop in Switzerland to swap cars: after driving to Greece and Turkey and who knows where else this year, his car was due for a service. The dealer gave him a replacement car, equivalent in every way but one: it wasn't a diesel. "I'm used to the diesel engine now, and it runs forever on a tank. Which is something I forgot about...
"So obviously I ran out of fuel, in the middle of nowhere in Germany. I always keep a fold up bicycle in the back, just in case, which was a good thing! It turned out that the nearest service station was 14km away, and I had to ride it while holding a 5 litre plastic tank: after a few miles a guy took pity on me and gave me a lift, but when I got there the guy wouldn't sell me any fuel because it's not safe! I stood there arguing with him for ages but he wouldn't do it: he only finally relented after I threatening to buy fuel for the next car and then syphon it out of his tank!
"And then I had to ride the whole way back, and no one stopped to help me, sadly. I think I lost a few kilos on the way, but at least I didn't have to carry the 20 litre metal tank the guy wanted to sell me!"
Ricardo Risatti had an unusual trip too, mostly because he wasn't expecting it. Sitting at the airport in Rome, waiting for his flight back to Argentina, Trident called and asked where he was: when he told them he was waiting for his flight they were overjoyed, as Pastor Maldonado's injury was more serious than first suspected and he wasn't going to be able to race again. "Cancel your flight and get up to Belgium: we've got a seat for you here." Within minutes his luggage was being taken off the plane and reunited with its owner as he made his way to the ticket office.
Meanwhile, life wasn't any easier at the track: Will Buxton had joined a couple of the guys in taking a lap around the famous circuit, but halfway around the long, long track disaster struck when they were told to get off the circuit. "But we're with GP2: the guys need to see the circuit before tomorrow!" Non-plussed, the marshals told them to get off the track as the medical cars need to come through. "But the medical car doesn't circulate until later this afternoon!" But with no other choice they left the circuit and attempted to make their way back through the forest to the paddock, getting lost almost immediately in the process.
Needless to say, the medical car didn’t circulate until later in the afternoon, at about the time Will finally found the paddock again.
On Friday morning everyone was doing their best to ignore the large black cloud hanging over the support paddock up the hill: it was as though the McLaren penalty had let off a giant quiet bomb, and hordes of people from up there were in our paddock to avoid the fallout. But our teams worked on regardless, in their own pitlane for once, getting the cars ready for free practice.
From the very start of the session Bruno Senna was setting the pace: after a resurgence in Monza the Brazilian was keen to show that he was back on terms with the leaders for speed. He claimed the top spot halfway through the session as the rest of the field was coming in for tyres: 22 cars were in the pits at the same time, and Super Nova won the race to get Luca Filippi out ahead of everyone else, setting the second fastest lap first time around (albeit half a second off Senna's time) just as Andi Zuber understeered into the wall at turn nine, bringing out the red flags and closing the session as his car was unable to be removed in time. Lucas di Grassi finished third fastest, while title rival Timo Glock could do not better than ninth.
Zuber's accident meant yet another non-matching area of car after having to make the loan of a tub from BCN permanent: blue engine and sidepod covers with a red chassis and black nose. "It's a bit of a patchwork car, isn't it?" Paul Jackson sighed back in the pitlane. "We're running a bit low on parts now."
"Well, you could always borrow an engine cover from Minardi Piquet and a rear wing from Durango," I laughed, "that would be quite a look!"
Senna's speed in the earlier session meant all eyes were on him for qualifying, which made his mistake seem bigger than it should have: after setting the early pace the Brazilian lost the rear and spun at the newly reprofiled bus stop corner, bouncing over the kerb and into retirement just ten minutes into the session. The mistake gave the rest of the field a static target to aim at, and they were pushing hard: Glock was fourth and looking faster before coming in for tyres, then lost his chance at pole on the second set after Christian Bakkerud failed to look in his mirrors as he returned to the pits, while Filippi claimed the top spot before returning to the pits with 3 minutes remaining, assuming his work was done.
Unfortunately for the Italian Nicolas Lapierre managed to find one clear lap and just pipped Filippi's time with a minute remaining, taking pole by one hundredth of a second, a shining moment in a torrid season of poor luck for the Frenchman. It was a moment no one could quite believe had happened: in the press conference I couldn't help but laugh after announcing him as the poleman, and he was laughing along with me, overjoyed at his good fortune at last.
"It is a little bit surprising," he smirked, "but from this morning I think we knew we were going to be at the front. From the beginning of the year that is where we need to improve a bit: we haven't been very quick since the start of the season in qualifying. We did a good job and a big step in the last few races, although it was a little bit hard to see because we had some trouble. This morning in free practice went okay, and in qualifying I did a good lap on my second set of tyres which was good enough to get pole. It's good for me, and it's good for the team as well: we had a lot of trouble this year, and I made a few mistakes as well, which did cost us a lot.
"In the standings we are nowhere, but we always knew that we had the ability to do it, and I think tomorrow hopefully we will have the opportunity to show it."
"I was 28 minutes on pole and then I lost it for 11 thousands, which is a very short gap," Filippi acknowledged. "When I came in I said 'this is the limit: maybe we can gain a bit of traction, but that's it.' I was second this morning and second this afternoon, so we just can see that our pace is good and that the car is working perfectly, and I think we have shown a very good pace during the whole day. Tomorrow will be very interesting. Lapierre did a great lap: when I did my lap I was pushing 100%, and I didn’t think someone was able to go quicker. I did a good lap and anyway, with the second set I was almost two tenths quicker in the first sector, and I thought I was able to go a little quicker but I had traffic and I had to quit the lap, but the front row is perfect."
"I knew it was a decent lap, not the best lap in the world, but a decent lap," a slightly rueful Senna noted. "I was confident that it would be competitive to the end of the session, because we were quick in the test session. For sure if I didn’t have Filippi in front of me on the previous lap it would have been better: I lost a lot of time behind him at Les Combes. But I love this circuit: I always have, since the first time I drove here. It’s just amazing: every time we come here I just enjoy it more and more.
“It’s a circuit where you cannot not push hard. You just feel like pushing hard because the circuit invites you too, and I’m loving driving the GP2 car here: it’s the best experience to drive this car here."
Spa being Spa, everyone wrapped up for the weather to come: it always rains there, which meant we were almost disappointed not to get any, the first time any of us had been there and not had some bad weather. It's certainly not a place I'd ever consider camping, which was why it was surprising that Will's friend Oliver had pitched a tent just outside the circuit in Francorchamps and was staying there with a group of mates. They were making the most of it by spending their nights drinking in the bar at the Radisson in nearby Spa.
"No, it's been great," he noted over a couple of beers at the bar. "The people are so friendly, and the beer is great. Not much of a nightlife, though."
"Well if there's any nightlife to be had, here's the guy who'll know where it is: how's it going Xandi?" The Brazilian driver wandered over to say hello, and was looking less than enthusiastic about being there.
"There's nothing to do in this town," he moaned after we made the introductions, "I've been everywhere, and there's just nothing going on."
"Have you called Nelson?"
"Of course, but he's got nothing either. It's not great when the most exciting place to be is the bar at the hotel you're staying at!" Nevertheless he stopped and chatted for a while, unintentionally adding five members to his fan club for the race the next day.
But the relatively decent weather had one fan: Alastair "Stan" Staley was polluting the bus with his evil illness, and he had to save the little strength he had for lifting his cameras, so he spent most of his days staring at his computer screen in the bus and trying not to pass out, which was not helped much by Will's fibre rich diet. "Do I really have to come to the signing?" he whined. "It's a long walk: can't we just use old photos?" He wasn't the only one unhappy about things: Markus Niemela was freezing despite his heritage, and refused his manager's requests to take off his hoodie and show his sponsor's logos: "But it's too cold..."
Nevertheless Will and I worked the crowd, handing out posters with photos of all the drivers and pointing the fans towards the guys, and we got through every poster we brought over as Markus, Ho-pin Tung, Andi Zuber and Nicolas Lapierre signed like machines before the walk back, Stan and Markus dawdling at the back as they moaned to each other all the way home.
When it came time for the race the pitlane became a ghost town, with the teams dragging their equipment up the hill to the F1 pitlane, having decided to start the race there given the big bump at the end of ours, while the drivers were started and let lose to run the long way round to meet up with their teams at the top of the hill.
Lapierre was determined to make the most of his opportunity and was the equal to fellow front row starter Filippi as the lights went out, but di Grassi put in another of his usual demon starts to split the pair into La Source: the Frenchman had the inside line and was safe, but the Italian was on the outside and had no option but to take to the run off area as they hurtled around the corner, losing out to di Grassi and Adam Carroll as they made their way to Eau Rouge.
But the big story was who wasn't with them: Bruno Senna, Timo Glock, Andi Zuber, Kazuki Nakajima and Kohei Hirate had all stalled on the grid, and all bar the latter were pushed into the pits to be restarted, effectively ending their chances of meaningful points over the weekend. The resurfaced front straight was too grippy, and it was on an incline, which meant that all 5 drivers had their foot flat to the floor, restricting their engines to one alternating cylinder and filling the trumpets with fuel: as with Zuber being the fastest man through Eau Rouge the day earlier despite being off the gas for longer than anyone in the famous corner (Filippi was the only driver to run through flat), the start needed a more considered approach. It was cold comfort to learn of their easily rectifiable error afterwards.
With Vitaly Petrov holding up the rest of the field behind them, the front four drivers were able to run and hide: it was soon clear that the winner was going to come from that select band. Lapierre and di Grassi came in together, with the Frenchman almost removing his rival's nose as he scraped out ahead, while di Grassi was slow enough on cold tyres that Filippi (who leapfrogged Adam in their stop one lap earlier, 2 tyres to 4) and Carroll could squeeze by on his outlap: when the Ulsterman rode one kerb too many and threw himself out of the race the Brazilian was promoted to the podium while his title rival scraped the only point available to him, for fastest lap, to try and stem the flow.
"It’s very good for me, for the team as well," Lapierre beamed afterwards. "We won the race in Bahrain, but it was the sprint race which is easier to win: this one is a proper one. We got the pole position yesterday and today we were quite fast, and I think we had a good strategy: that shows to everybody that we can do it. Obviously it’s a bit late, with two races to the end, but at least we did do it, which is good for me and the team."
"It was not just starting second and finishing second, because I was P4 in turn one!" Filippi smirked in the press conference. "I didn’t have a great start, but then in turn one I locked the front and went straight and went into the run off area, so I was P4 and the car was a bit difficult to drive at the beginning, especially in the first three or four laps. Before we pitted I was getting closer to the guys in front of me, and especially coming in I was a lot quicker than Adam. I gave the chance to my team to pass him in the pits and they did a great job on the pitstop. Then the guys in front they pit the lap after, and going out from Eau Rouge a lot quicker I was able to pass Lucas. I think it was a good move – I enjoyed it!
“Then I was second and after Adam had a problem I tried to push and catch Nicolas but I saw it wasn’t possible, so I backed off. I’m very happy, honestly, especially for the pitstop: the team made a good job."
"Well, the start was good for me!" di Grassi laughed. "Off the line I overtook Bruno and Luca when Bruno stalled on the grid, and I was side by side with Nico: in the first part of the race I was quicker than Nico when he had some problems with oversteer and my car was really good. When we changed the tyres the car went too much understeer, and its where I lost the places to Luca and Adam, but I had to manage the situation because I knew that Timo stalled on the grid and I was getting closer in the championship in that moment.
“The risk that I could take was a bit different to Adam, so I tried to be as close as possible to Adam and Luca when they were fighting, and after Adam went out I was at the same pace as Luca and running third. I decided to stay there, and now I am six points off the championship lead: that was the main objective for this race."
Timo Glock was, as expected, less than thrilled with his day in the office: sitting down for dinner with the team he was somewhat philosophical about his problems: "You know, I told the guys that we would have troubles today, because we've never had two good weekends in a row: it's always one good one, one bad one. It's always been like that this year."
"Well, at least that means you've got your timing right then."
"Hah, I bloody hope so!"
And then Ricardo Risatti nerfed the German off the road as they made their way around to the dummy grid the next morning. You've really got to wonder what he's done to so offend the racing gods.
That morning Didier had to warn all the teams about the start, hoping that the drivers would listen and react accordingly. It was a heavy load to have on his shoulders: he knew that any accidents in the tight front straight and people would be pointing the finger in his direction: but he was determined not to let anyone know how worried he was. With the odd finish to the earlier race we had an unusual looking grid: Ho-pin Tung had scored his first point and claimed the reverse pole, ahead of Karun Chandhok, Andy Soucek (first points for him and DPR) and Mike Conway.
As Bernie Ecclestone came over to wish the front row starters, both of them helped out in one way or another by the F1 supremo, Didier stood to the side talking to Karun's dad. "You know, I think he can do it today" Didier smiled, "I have a good feeling for him."
"Well, I'm hoping."
"Really? I thought you would support Karun!"
Bad puns notwithstanding, Didier's feeling was on the money, for once: Tung was slow off the line allowing Chandhok and Soucek to lead the field through the first turn, with di Grassi blistering off the line as usual to follow them through. In a race of many highlights Carroll managed to run side by side with Petrov all along the long, long straight at the top of the hill before going for the outside line and sitting there all the way from Les Combes to Blanchimont to take the position and, most noticeably in respect to the points finish, Chandhok got by Soucek by also running around the outside at Les Combes and staying there, claiming the win as he did so.
There was hardly a dry eye in the house as Chandhok howled with joy on the top step of the podium: it was the first time the Indian national anthem had been played on a grand prix weekend, and almost everyone was delighted for the extremely likeable driver's first victory in the series: even Dave Price came over, slapped him on the back and said "well done, you bastard!" as Chandhok was giving an interview.
"It's all very emotional, for sure!" he laughed in the pitlane. "The team are Italians, and for me it’s ideal! For this year the deal happened literally one week before the Ricard test, so I went through three months of the winter with no sleep, not knowing what I’m going to do this season. To come away with a win and points every weekend since Budapest shows we are coming on strong: it builds up to a good winter. This weekend there’s been a lot of speculation about next year, for India as well, it’s the first time I’ve heard the national anthem at a Formula One Grand Prix, so that’s a special feeling as well. It’s been live on TV in India, so everyone’s going crazy back at home: my phone has loads of missed calls already!"
That phone didn't come out of his hands for the rest of the day as seemingly everyone who knew him wanted to pass on their congratulations. Even a visit to see Bernie after the race held a surprise: "I got up there to say thanks to Bernie and he kept me waiting for a few minutes and then called me in: he just said to me 'nice race today: now you have to sort out the bloody qualifying!' then turned to the guy on the other couch and said 'see? That's why I told you to support him': I turned around and it was Dieter Mateschitz coming over to shake my hand! I'd never even met him before today!"
Even the cooks were overjoyed with the win: Christian Staurenghi has always made a point of being vocal in his support of the guys who are a bit further down the grid ("well you know, the top guys already have lots of fans"), and he dragged Karun in for a photo with the guys, all of whom stuck a piece of masking tape above their noses to mimic the Indian's monobrow: he was laughing harder than anyone in the shot.
"It was good today," Soucek beamed in the back of the team’s truck. "I had a great start: Ho-Pin went a bit wide at the first corner, so I took the inside line and could accelerate earlier. I tried to pull away in the first laps and until lap 10 the car was working perfectly, but then it got a little bit oversteery: I think I pushed a little bit hard and damaged the rear tyres. But it was fantastic! Karun was a little bit quicker in sector one and sector three, and down the straight I think he ran a bit less wing, so he was quicker than me in Eau Rouge. He tried to overtake me on the outside and I didn’t want to close too hard because we could have a crash: I thought the best thing was to keep my position and finish on the podium."
"Yes, it was a great weekend in terms of the championship," di Grassi noted afterwards, "we closed the gap by nine points. I think the last couple of races I was attacking a lot and since Turkey, when I was two points behind Timo, the aim was to push as much as I could, try to win a race, try to score more points. We go to the last event and you cannot do mistakes, but you have to be at the limit all the time. I think it will be a good fight between me and Timo: Timo is an excellent driver, he has been one of the fastest guys for the whole championship, and it’s great to be fighting with him and iSport. We were both unlucky in some races, and we will go to the last event with equal chances of winning the title."
I saw Timo as he was leaving hospitality, but what was there to say? His face on the pitwall said it all, and everyone who watched the race saw how he was feeling. I patted his shoulder, he shook my hand, and we walked in opposite directions: me to get some food, Timo to think about what was to come next.
Two points between them, and the rollercoaster is coming to an end: we're all just waiting now to see how it finishes.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, I took a day out in Manchester. No wait: that's the wrong song. Let me start again.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, I was living a fairly normal life in Brooklyn: I'd moved over there a few years earlier for work, and the river of life has bubbled along for a while until a horrible thing happened and all of our lives changed, mine in particular. My friend Bira, the editor of a famous website then and now, worried about my well-being and was looking for a way to save me. She's always been one to collect strays.
"I've had this idea," she wrote to me one night. "I think you should move over to Italy, and I will too, and we'll go to all of the F1 races and you'll write about it." I wasn't sure what I was reading: I'd been out for more than a few beers with an old boss of mine. She wanted to know what I thought about her plan, what I thought about uprooting my life and moving to another foreign country, another foreign life. I was more than a little confused, the fog in my head failing to clear despite the life-changing words on the screen in front of me. "So, does it turn you on?"
It did, of course. She was right that I should leave; she was always right about these things. We found a place to live in Milan, we went to all the races, I wrote columns and features and interviews, I had my Season In The Sun and my Every Other Sunday, and we moved to London and found a place to share there, and she stopped going to races while I kept on, even after going back to the real job and moving out, and then someone invented GP2 to give me the best of both worlds. At least I think that's why it started.
"I'm coming to Monza," she wrote to me a few weeks ago. "It's been 3 years since I've been to a race, and I want to go home. It's been too long."
We hugged at the airport and talked non-stop all the way to Milan, giggling like a couple of schoolgirls as we caught up on each others lives, even though it had only been a couple of weeks or so since we'd seen each other last. We don't get to meet in the kitchen anymore: we have to make the most of our moments together when they happen now. We were still chatting away as we walked out at Linate airport, Will sitting on his car and wondering what he was going to have to deal with over the weekend: we immediately tried to corrupt him into going into town for a meal and some drinks, but he whined about being too busy before getting lost on the way back to the track, taking a leisurely couple of hours to do so.
Bira wandered off to take a quick stroll through the F1 paddock, while I went over to catch up with people in ours. It didn't take her long to return. "It's a strange place over there: those motorhomes are so huge now! You don't feel welcome at all anymore. And I didn't see anyone I knew, either." We headed off to the car, chatting away as usual while Will drove us out of the park before coming to a sudden halt behind a guy on a bicycle.
"Hey you!" he screamed through the window. "Get the hell out of my way! Come on, move it!" Bira and I slunk back in our seats, amazed at this new face Will was showing the world, before the guy yelled back: "Get a life, buddy! I can ride on this road if I want!"
It was only when he turned around and we saw that famous smile, those famous eyes, and realised it was Bruno Senna was riding back to his hotel.
"Are you crazy?" Will asked as his head followed the flow of traffic alongside the park. "Seriously, riding a bike over here? You must be mad."
"Hey, it's safer than London," Bruno laughed back, "have you ever tried to ride a bike there? The drivers are insane."
"Yeah, he's not wrong there," I added before he waved goodbye and shot out onto the main road, right into the path of an oncoming truck, and sprinted off into the distance.
"I never realised the resemblance was ... so close," the voice came from the back. "You guys are so close to your drivers: it must be a bit weird."
"You should see him when he puts his helmet on..."
We headed off to the hotel to dump my bags before going on to the restaurant for dinner: as usual Christian, who heads the hospitality unit, picked it and, as usual, the food was excellent. Bira, Will and I sat down with Marco and Didier, who also arrived a bit late, and we were soon getting stuck into some amazing pizzas ("they're just like the ones from down the road at the old place" Bira swooned) while Didier cracked jokes and Marco smirked at us all, with Bira taking it in turns to talk with the guys. "I can see why you're here," she whispered to me later as we walked to the car: "it's just like a big family, isn't it? Everyone just gets along."
And then we headed for her hotel and promptly got lost, obviously.
The next morning saw the start of proceedings, with Will and I standing on the pitwall as the teams prepared for free practice. We were joined by Hiroki Yoshimoto, in the paddock as part of his Fuji TV deal, although he was still wishing he could be in one of the cars instead ("I heard that Chandhok hurt his knee: maybe I could fill in for him." "Yoshi, you know that he'll be in the car up until the minute his leg actually fell off." "Yeah I know, but still..."). Timo Glock pulled up in front of us and gave us a wave: his former teammate pretended to throw water from his bottle at the championship leader, who then did the old roll-up-the-window-oops-it's-my-middle-finger mime and laughed inside his helmet. If he was feeling any pressure at the business end of the season, it wasn't showing.
And then the light went green and they were off. It wasn't long before Markus Niemela rejoined us in the pitlane, having spun off into the wall just after the first chicane, a victim of the tricky hard-tyres-and-no-downforce combination. Walking around in the paddock before the session it was interesting to look at the rear wings of the cars and see who had a single element on the lowest setting, who was running two elements, who had their wings higher or lower, who was running a gurney flap. The differences were pretty much as you would expect, except for Super Nova who were running their wings high at the start of the session before dropping them to the bottom setting for the second half.
The Italians set the running in the session: Luca Filippi was quickest early on despite the difference in wing settings, although Giorgio Pantano soon came out and topped him. The pair fought it out all through the session, with Filippi getting some nice tows down the main straight and Pantano running by himself by right along the inside wall, a trick he has used for years that no one else seems to have picked up on, and he just managed to squeeze ahead as the session closed, with Adam Carroll in third place.
"Great session, huh?" Marco smiled when he got back to the paddock to change out of his suit: one of his many jobs is to sit in the safety car with the driver in case he is needed to give instructions, and he secretly loves wearing his FIA race suit and helmet. "Should be good for qualifying. But man, I've got to go to the toilet now."
"I don't care," Will and I piped up in unison, the answer shocking Bira completely, compounded by our laughter.
"I can't believe you just said that!"
"It's a running joke here," I laughed. "Besides, I've heard you tell me that about a million times..."
"I'm Israeli: you have to tell people where you're going at all times, just in case something happens."
"Okay, I'm going to get a coffee now, just in case you're worried."
"I don't care," Will intoned automatically in my wake.
Pantano picked up where he left off in qualifying, taking the top spot comfortably after Filippi struggled to repeat his form from earlier in the day: Lucas di Grassi was delighted to take the other front row position on the grid, with Vitaly Petrov up to his best qualifying performance so far, matching the Brazilian's time but losing the position as he set the time later in the session. Filippi came in seventh fastest, just ahead of Glock: the gap up to di Grassi meant a certain change in the championship fight, although there were few in the paddock who were not betting on Pantano to add to his dual wins at the track from last year.
And he was delighted with his perfect start to the weekend when he made it to the press conference: "I think so, but anyway we don’t say it’s just because it’s my home circuit. Nearly every race when everything was going well we were nearly always in the top four, and here for sure it’s a bit special and I’m at my home circuit. I like this circuit, but if we see also my team-mate he made a very big improvement and he’s there in third place, and that means the car and everything was working very well." He had Bira giggling afterwards with his usual tactic of answering questions I hadn't asked, something that we usually shrug off with an 'oh well, that's Giorgio' comment: it's always interesting to get a fresh perspective on something that you just take almost for granted.
That, and I put on my professional voice when I ask the questions, apparently. I didn't even know I had one.
But if Pantano was happy to take his home pole, it was clear where di Grassi's attentions lay: "Pantano did a very, very good lap in both sessions: with the first set I was able to keep close with him, and I couldn’t improve on the second one due to a lot of factors. But I was surprised that this was the first qualifying of the year that iSport was not very strong, because normally they are very strong in qualifying: I was expecting Glock to be again very quick.
“But the race is very long tomorrow – 32 laps - and a lot of things can happen. We have to focus to improve the car overnight and concentrate on the race: that’s it."
Meanwhile, Petrov was just overjoyed to be in his first press conference (at first he didn't believe Will when he went to collect the Russian: "You want me there? No: what for?" "Because you came third, Vitaly..."): "It feels very good, but for the beginning in free practice and first set of new tyres we had a little problem with the brakes, but we improved a lot: I want to say thank you to my team because they did a really good job, and changed the car very well for my style to be able to drive on this circuit. I showed what I can show today..."
It was not long after the press conference that Bira realised she'd been deserted: she was staying at the same hotel as some of the journalists who work for her, and it was about that time that she realised they'd forgotten her when they went home. Personally I was secretly happy: it meant I got to spend a bit more time with one of my only friends who could come to the paddock, understand that I've got to work, and be happy to catch up in the odd quiet moments, because she's lived this life too.
We sat down for dinner soon after, laughing between calls when her embarrassed colleagues rang, all trying to make it up to her, although she laughed the loudest after the last call: "They came up the road at the golf course to get in here but the gate was locked, and when they turned around the gate behind them was locked too: they're trying to negotiate their release now. It just goes to show: you don't mess with karma!"
The next morning we were set for the usual autograph session: set, that is, except for the lack of two Italian drivers who were caught in traffic. We held off for as long as we could, and then grabbed di Grassi for the session: at least he has an Italian name, and can speak the language. We drove over and he sat down at the Bridgestone marquee next to Adam Carroll and Jason Tahinci, but the spare seat beckoned next to him.
"I should sit down and pretend to be a driver," I stated as the table was prepared in front of them.
"Go on then," Lucas laughed, "we'll see if anyone notices!"
"I could pretend to be Mike Conway: I've got the right colour hair for it."
"Yeah, why not? You could be his older brother, at least. Or maybe his uncle!"
"Thanks mate: I think I'll go and look for the other guys now!"
Giorgio never did show up, much to the disappointment of two Pantano fans who waited through the whole signing session for an appearance by their hero (Adam eventually signed one of his own cards with the Italian's name and handed it over, saying "Giorgio asked me to give you this"), but Luca finally made it just as the session came to an end, only to be disappointed as the fans had already left. All but the Pantano fans, of course.
"Quick Luca, go over and talk to those two guys: they're big fans."
"Okay! So, you guys want me to sign something for you? I hear you waited a long time."
"Yeah we did, but to be honest we want Giorgio - I'm sure you're good, but we are Pantano fans."
"But he couldn't even be bothered to come here!"
"Yes, but maybe he's saving his strength to beat you this afternoon!"
It was a fortuitous call, ahead of one of the most exciting races this year. There's no way to do the race justice in one paragraph, but the race report is online (http://www.gp2series.com/en/website/gp2series/news/index.php?news=tcm:2-12042) for anyone wanting the full story: the short version is that Pantano blew the competition into the weeds despite three safety car periods; di Grassi fell off the track with a gearbox problem on the second last lap after a strong drive to hold second, which Filippi inherited after a superb drive through the field, the only man able to run at Pantano's pace; and Glock did his championship challenge a power of good by taking third despite spinning Conway around at the first corner and falling down to 20th before putting in one of the best fightback drives ever seen in the series.
"Nearly all the weekend was going perfect for me," a beaming Pantano noted in the press conference. "We have a good feeling, I have a good feeling with Monza. The car was perfect today, and I know I have just to go out from the first corner and try to push the maximum I can, and that’s what I’ve done. Everything was perfect from yesterday and today, and I hope also tomorrow.
“The only difficulty was when the safety can was coming in: you have some gap and then you have to close back and restart with some cars behind you. Here on the long straight there is a good chance they can overtake you, and you have to manage the situation and just to pull a little gap between you and second and try not to give them a chance in the next braking. That was the only problem I had today."
"It’s very nice to be back on the podium," Filippi smiled radiantly, "especially at home at Monza. In Italy you have a special sensation and feeling, so I wanted this podium very much. We started very well from free practice when we were P2. In qualifying I went over the exit curve a bit too much, so starting from P7 I think P2 was the best result possible for us: Giorgio was the quickest today, so P2 was the best result possible. Of course I was pushing very hard: with Negrao it was a fun fight, and with Nakajima I passed him in Roggia but then he cut to stay in front of me, and he would have been penalised if he didn’t make a mistake by himself in the safety car.
"I’m really happy, honestly: today I started from seventh and finished second, and tomorrow I start seventh again and I will try to do the same!"
After the race Glock was almost glowing with joy as he basked in what was being referred to as his karmic redistribution of points: "That race showed the whole way of the season: it was up and down, and after the start when I had to go through the gravel, I was P20 after the first lap, and I couldn’t believe it! It was bad luck, but in the end we decided to pit under safety car, and when we went out the safety car came in so we didn’t win anything, just lost more time than anything. The only luck we had was with the second safety car, but before that for two laps I thought about finding the exit of the track, driving the car to Germany and having a beer at home!
"I couldn’t believe it: Lucas was second and on the way to scoring more points and take the championship lead again. But after two laps I thought okay, we have to fight back as hard as we can, like the whole year, and its what I did. I was P9 after the second safety car, and then I was only behind Senna and all these guys who were fighting hard: I stayed behind and waited for the mistakes and overtook them after. At the end I was P4, and with the luck at the end in the last couple of laps when Lucas had a problem with his car I opened the gap in the championship again.
"I think its maybe a bit equal now: we had six races without a point and now he’s had the bad luck..."
"I wasn't planning to watch the race, but it just happened," Bira laughed afterwards. "I wanted to see it, but I had a meeting with Nick Fry at Honda. We were sitting there talking in his office, and he had the screen on behind him, and I saw it all going crazy and just said 'wow'. So he turned around and started watching it too!" But more importantly, she said, was the fact that she had conned, er, convinced one of her journalists to go into Milan for the evening. "We need to go and get some Fiorentina steaks - you know we do!" But I had to finish writing and, as time ticked away, the chance of that mouth-watering potential got further and further away...
And then it was Sunday, an early start yet again, and it was probably just as well that I hadn't gone for the drive: given our ability to get lost together (obviously it's all her fault, but as we're friends I'll pretend to take some of the blame...) I may not have made it back to the track in time, and I would have missed another cracker.
I would have missed Pantano's storming start from 8th to be 2nd at the end of the 1st lap, I would have missed his impatience pushing him down to 7th when he tapped poleman Ricardo Risatti, I would have missed his drive back up the grid which was thwarted by Sebastien Buemi, and his refusal to come in to change his front wing at the end of the race despite the black and orange flags, the bloodrush decision to put on a show in front of his home fans. I would have missed Glock's tailing of Pantano, his patience and his persistence, and his eventual blast off once he got out in front. I would have missed Filippi's clinical slicing through the field to push Glock all the way home for his second second of the weekend, and Bruno Senna's long overdue podium after a storming drive to third.
And I would have missed everything else that happened, too. It was a brilliant weekend for racing.
"We knew it would be quite difficult to be on the podium," Glock smiled afterwards, "but we fight every time until the last moment, and that's the reason why we are sometimes on the podium where some guys would not expect us to be, and that’s a positive thing about the whole team. The race today was quite difficult: I lost the start against Giorgio, and I stayed behind him to go with him and I could overtake fourth and fifth, I can’t remember who it was, and then I could overtake Senna, and then Giorgio spun in the first corner, and at the end I overtook Risatti, and the positive thing was that I could go quickly away.
"And I survived the lead."
"In Monza this is what I wanted," Filippi laughed back in the paddock. "I came here with one goal, which was to win, but the podium is nice and I’m happy. You saw there were so many people watching: GP2 is getting more popular every season, and now the people are coming earlier to watch GP2 because it’s fun and everybody likes it now. It was really nice to do these podiums in front of thousands of Italian people watching me. Listen, we have a better show than F1: GP2 is THE category, better then Formula One...
"Maybe I can ask Bernie if he can swap and make GP2 the most important and Formula One is the learning category, for the young guys to learn: young guys like Coulthard or Barrichello!"
"Yeah it’s been a great weekend," Senna confirmed. "In qualifying I really though we were going to have another one of those weekends where you just get frustrated, but really I cant be more happy than this: with all the conditions that we faced it was a good fight for the positions that we achieved, and I am pretty happy with third today to be honest. I think maybe if Risatti wasn’t in front I could have probably pulled away and not been under pressure from Timo and Luca, but when you have a slower car in front of you it’s so difficult to fend off two fast guys. Well, another podium and back into the points."
And then it was time to pack up and go, back to another airport as the weekends get shorter and shorter. "I had a great time with you guys," Bira smiled as I got ready to go. "It's much more friendly down here! I wish you were staying over though: we never did get to have that steak."
"No we didn't: I guess I owe you one. Maybe when you get back" I said as I picked up my bag.
"Maybe, yeah. I'm really glad I came now: I didn't know what I was going to do here, but it was fun. And I got to see you having fun, too."
And I do, almost every race weekend. Because it turned me on when she asked me that question five years ago and, happily, it still does today.
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.
"But why do we gotta do this? It's so far away, and I gotta do some things with the team. I haven't even been around the track yet! It's too far to this place." Giorgio Pantano was unhappy, and he wanted everyone to know about it, whining incessantly as the group made their way to the far side of the circuit for an event.
It all started back in France. "We don't know who to support, because the series is too close and there have been too many winners already," Adam Hay Nicholls stated, blinking out from his new, heavily framed glasses like an owl. "All of us at the Red Bulletin need to know who to cheer for, but it's too hard to pick a driver this year. So we've had an idea..."
Back at the track and the other drivers in the top six - Timo Glock, Lucas di Grassi, Luca Filippi, Pastor Maldonado and Kazuki Nakajima - studiously ignored Giorgio as he went on, and on. "But it's too hot: I don't wanna walk no more. Why we gotta do this? It's not in our contract, right?" He continued right up until they arrived at the water park, when Giorgio finally fell silent. "Right, go and get changed," Will stated flatly to the drivers. "The race will start in five minutes."
"The idea is this," Adam explained to us back in France. "We get the top six drivers in the championship when we arrive in Hungary, and we take them to the water park around the back of the circuit: there are six slides next to each other, and we let them race down to the bottom. The first one in the water is our new series favourite."
"What about a reverse grid race?"
"Great idea, and the winner over the two rounds is the champion."
The drivers were soon posing for photos in their swimming shorts before heading up to the top of the slide. The approaches were different, with Timo using the bar above to swing out and use momentum, while Lucas hit the water with a front first approach versus Luca and Giorgio's bum first attack, and when they got to the bottom Lucas had won the first round, just ahead of Timo, with Kazuki still halfway up the slide as the Brazilian splashed down.
Luca was quickly waved over by his physio, who had noticed the style of the local kids and was keen to implement the improvement into his charge's approach to race two: it helped him move up the order in race two, but bulk won out yet again as Lucas, easily the tallest of the drivers, was crowned champion and new Red Bulletin favourite for the series, while Kazuki, by far the lightest of the six drivers, was last once again.
The Brazilian was delighted, beaming for the cameras as he posed with an inflatable tube around him as his winner’s wreath while the others looked on, laughing. "I guess he had to win something this year!" Timo sniggered to Giorgio before they were told to get ready to go back to the paddock by Will. "But why we gotta go back?" Giorgio moaned. "It's nice here, and we can keep cool. I don't wanna go back..."
The next morning there was more than the usual interest in the Red Bulletin, as copies were handed around from table to table in the hospitality area over breakfast. Luca came over to see what all the fuss was about, and regretted it immediately.
"You were the best looking one there Luca," Francoise chirped as he walked over, "all the girls think so."
"Yeah, I'm a bit worried actually," Will added. "My fiance talks about you all the time, how cute you are and how she wanted to come along to apply oil to make you a bit faster in the race. I think she fancies you more than me!"
"Well, you're better looking than Giorgio," I smirked, "he just looks white and fat next to you."
"Si," Luca laughed, "he looks like a mozzarella!"
Nevertheless it was the cheesiest driver who led the way when free practice finally got underway: the intense heat was no match for Pantano as he claimed the top spot ten minutes into a session marred by a huge number of spins and off-track excursions, as the usual dusty conditions punished anyone putting a wheel off the one racing line around the technical circuit. He was just ahead of Nakajima, Maldonado, Filippi and Glock when Adam Carroll spun off the inside kerb at the chicane and beached his car next to the track: the red flags came out, and with one minute remaining by the time the marshals had removed the car there was no chance of anyone getting another timed lap in before the chequered flag was shown.
By the time qualifying came around the extreme heat had dissipated a little, with cloud cover rolling in over the circuit to make conditions a little more bearable. Pantano looked to have sealed pole in the first half of the session with a scorching lap as the rest of the field came in for new tyres, but with the temperature dropping further during the session the times were improving: the Italian went quicker again before di Grassi topped him, but the iSport pairing of Glock and Andi Zuber destroyed his hopes of a first pole position with a couple of outstanding laps which sealed off the front row: poleman Glock was eight tenths ahead of his title rival.
Pantano had to make do with a second row start next to di Grassi, with Maldonado and Carroll (who spun once again in qualifying but found the pace on the last timed lap of the field) finishing just ahead of Filippi and Nakajima. Mike Conway seemed to enjoy the chequered flag so much that he came around twice to see it: the error was to cost the Briton three places on the grid in race one.
"It was pretty difficult today," Glock noted in the press conference. "I made that mistake at the last corner and just went off line a little bit, and then had no chance to go back because of all the marbles and everything off line. When I saw the lap time was still a 28.6 with the mistake in the last corner I was still comfortable, but you have to make nearly a perfect lap, otherwise you go off line and you're done. The following lap was a bit quicker but I had to stop it because of yellow flags, but at the end it was okay and we got the pole, and the two points, so I'm happy with it."
"It's a pity for me because I had a little gearbox problem the whole of qualifying," Zuber stated, "and it cost me just a little bit of concentration and I made some little mistakes, but in total it's a great result for us: the first two again, and tomorrow we fight for the race. Our race pace is usually very good, and it also surprised us a little bit that in qualifying we were so quick, but I'm very comfortable for tomorrow."
I had to ask the now traditional question when the teammates are on the front row, namely had they been given any instructions on the start: Zuber laughed, stating: "No, we can't speak together, because the last time we spoke together it went wrong! So this time we don't speak together and it will be right!" When I suggested he might want to reconsider this decision Glock butted in, laughing: "I think Paul has calibrated the joystick to the right, so we should be okay!"
One man who was definitely not happy with how his day had worked out was Marco Martinez, the new signing for Racing Engineering. With no seat time before the weekend he was having to learn everything in two half hour sessions, and it was unsurprising that he was well off the pace. After free practice the Spaniard was five seconds off pole, but worse was to come in qualifying where he was only on track for a few laps before he inadvertently flicked a switch and killed his engine, forcing him to sit out the session and finishing over seven seconds off the pace.
Considering the circumstances in which he finished qualifying, and that he had been unable to finish a lap inside 107% of pole, the race stewards had little choice but to ban Martinez from the races on safety grounds, the first time in GP2 history such a proclamation had been made. The team was naturally gutted, and his car was destined to spend the rest of the weekend undercover in their garage.
In a break from the norm there was no signing session on Saturday: it was just too hot, and it was felt that the drivers shouldn't be put through the stress of it all just before the race. Although this didn't seem to stop a few of the crazier members of the paddock having a kickabout in front of the hospitality tent while the rest of us stared and sweated.
The Paddock Club interview session went ahead though, with four drivers pleased to be in the air conditioned environment for a while. The woman in charge of the area was delighted: "I can't believe the cheeky questions you guys ask your drivers. And they answer them, too! I've never seen one of the GP2 sessions before, but I'll have to come back: they're much more fun than when the F1 drivers come up! You guys can come up here anytime." Considering the temperature difference between the Paddock Club and our bus, we should have moved in for the weekend...
As usual we sat down to watch the F1 qualifying session before race one, and everyone was shocked to see Fernando Alonso sitting in the pits holding up Lewis Hamilton: Lewis is one of our boys, and the whole paddock felt aggrieved at his treatment, even his former rivals. Which was why, when he was asked how far he'd missed his final lap by, his comment "about as long as I was held in the pits" was greeted by cheering and applause in the paddock.
His brother Nick came down to watch the race in hospitality just as the field was leaving for the pitlane, probably hoping to get away from the storm to come. Being down the hill from the F1 paddock the drivers are allowed to strap into their cars before driving up the steep incline and onto the track, with the teams rolling up just ahead of them sitting on their work benches and being towed by quad bikes or tiny flatbed trucks. Once there the usual flurry of activity overtakes everyone as they set up for the cars arrival, carry out a few last minute checks and then get the cars back out on track to form up on the grid.
Which is where I ran into Nelson Piquet Jr. "I'm so sorry to hear your news from last week!" he stated, deadpan, as he shook my hand. "Now you can't look at the pretty girls anymore."
"Don't worry mate, I'll send them all over to you: I know that you need the help."
"That's why I come here: no competition for them!" He stood there trying not to laugh as a video camera was stuck underneath him and he reverted to the usual role of anyone who sits on the pitwall, pretending not to notice a camera that is aiming straight up your nose and closing in.
The start of the race was deferred by a lap as a result of Sebastien Buemi stalling on the grid, but when the red lights went out Glock was easily able to cover his teammate into the first turn, but by doing so he'd handed a clear path through for the even faster starting di Grassi, who led Glock through turn one followed by Pantano, Maldonado, Zuber and Carroll, with Zuber clearly spending too much time thinking about his teammate ("of course we spoke together," he later laughed, "and we said everybody starts straight and then we will see who gets the better start. But obviously it wasn't Timo I had to watch, it was the guys behind me!")
They soon split into two groups at the front of the field, with Maldonado unable to keep up with the pace of the top three but overly determined to keep Zuber behind, appearing to run extremely slowly into the final turn a few times before Zuber kinked left next time through and blasted past the Venezuelan, waving his fist at him as he went by.
Nakajima came in for his now customary early stop from seventh before popping back out in clear air and setting the fastest laps of the race as usual, eating away at his rivals times as he looked to pass them all in the pits once more. The other teams still seem to struggle with the tactic, and once again he was dictating the shape of the race. Glock came in early from second to cover, but an errant wheel nut put paid to his best efforts and he came back out well behind the Japanese driver.
When the rest of the front runners came in they had little more luck: di Grassi came out on the tail of the Japanese driver, with Zuber slotting back out between the pair, and when Maldonado threw his car into the wall the only driver left who had been in front of Nakajima at the start was Carroll, who was only 17 seconds ahead now on track and unlikely to be able to carry out a stop in such a short span.
But then Filippi hit the wall, and everything changed.
"For me it was a bit of a boring race," he later laughed, "and so I wanted to make something interesting happen. And the cameras weren't looking at me, so I wanted to make them come to me!" In reality he had been tapped from behind by Nicolas Lapierre, weakening his left rear suspension: it didn't take long for the equipment to break, pitching the Italian into the wall on the left and taking off two corners before throwing him luridly back on track, spinning round and round as he shed pieces of his car before finding the wall on the other side of the track and taking off the other two corners of the car: Vitaly Petrov and Xandi Negrao were taken out of the race by the debris, and the Super Nova crew were going to be in the paddock until after three to carry out repairs.
As Filippi stepped out of his car, looking remarkably calm considering his wild ride, the FMS crew were straight onto the radio to call Carroll in, with Borja Garcia and Ho-Pin Tung on his tail: Karun Chandhok was now the only man not to have made a stop, and he tip-toed through the debris with Nakajima right on his tail, but the Indian's pace was hindered to such an extent that Carroll could change four tyres and still re-emerge to reclaim the lead.
At the restart Nakajima wasted no time getting by Chandhok before furiously setting off after the Ulsterman, determined to reclaim the win that should have been his. Unfortunately for the Japanese driver his tyres were past their best and, with his rival on new rubber, there was nothing he could do: Carroll won by just seven tenths ahead of Nakajima and Zuber, with di Grassi, Garcia, Roldan Rodriguez, Adrian Zaugg and Javier Villa filling the points paying positions, while title leader Glock recovered from a spin after being tapped off by Zaugg to finish tenth and out of the points.
"Great job today Adam," I smiled as we shook hands back in the paddock, "fantastic call from the pits."
"It was good, wasn't it?" he smiled back. "Oh, and congratulations to you, I hear. I'll see you in the presser in two minutes: I'm busting to go to the loo!" Back inside he claimed his spot in the middle of the table before recalling what happened when the yellow flags came out: "I didn’t know where I was: I knew I was in first when I was going around, and I just wait for them to call me. They called me in and they changed four tyres in six seconds. We changed four and beat the two guys out in front of us, and they only changed two so the guys were absolutely right on the money: I think the F1 guys would have been proud of that! We literally made the lights by about two tenths, Herbie [Blash] said to me after the race, so it was quite close.
"After that it was hard because the first few laps we were still just feeling the tyres, but the balance was better on the second set of tyres. I’d already done nearly ten laps on the first set from qualifying so they were knackered, and the second set were much better: when the car started to get into it I could keep that pace and that was pretty much it, I couldn’t really go any faster. He [Nakajima] was very, very quick, but I knew if I didn’t make any mistakes then it was going to be hard to get past."
"For me I didn’t actually expect to be on the podium from eighth place," a slightly disappointed Nakajima noted, "so yeah, the second place is a really good result for me and for the team, and it’s incredible to score five podiums in a row. You have to say at one point that I thought I could have won the race, if I didn’t have a slow car in front of me during the safety car: yeah it’s really disappointing, but still I’m quite happy with second place. It's just a matter of timing and everything, so I’m still happy with second place, and hopefully if I could win some races in the rest of the season it will be good enough."
"I had a very bad start: I had too much wheelspin," Zuber noted afterwards. "I was P5 after the start, so at this moment I knew I had to work very hard, and I then was fighting against Maldonado which was very dirty: he braked in the middle of the corner and I nearly crashed in him, so that’s not fair. But in the end, one lap after, I overtook him and then I just tried to push very hard, and the car was good all the time and we made a really good pitstop. The shame was just the safety car came along so we lost one or two places more, but it was a good race."
Other than Carroll, the happiest man in the paddock was di Grassi, who had seen the gap up to Glock in the championship cut once again. "See, I told you!" he laughed when I caught up with him in the ART truck. "I asked you just before I got into the car would I do the same as Magny Cours, and you said not but I told you I would do my start, no problem! Since Barcelona I have been starting better than Glock, and today I started better than Glock and Zuber!
"I hope it stays the same way, because they are faster in qualifying but I am faster at the start and on the first lap and the beginning, so it's been a very good fight. I told you yesterday the difference in qualifying of eight tenths doesn't reflect so much in the race: Timo didn't have any chance to attack me in the first laps. It was a very funny race today, so I cannot be satisfied because we did not arrive in the front, but also I'm not frustrated to arrive in fourth, take five points, and get closer to Timo."
There was more joy to come for the Brazilian the next day: Villa held on for the win after being swamped at the start by Zaugg, who then fell off the road after running into the side of Rodriguez among others, while Carroll made a storming start to finish second just ahead of a recovering Rodriguez, but di Grassi claimed fourth again after absorbing pressure from behind by both iSport drivers, with Glock retiring in the pits with a broken gearbox and Zuber running wide and finishing sixth, just behind Garcia.
"I had a gearbox problem on lap 15," di Grassi advised after the race, "and that's why Zuber caught me, and then Timo caught me. But I was okay, I did no mistakes, and even with some gears down I managed to hold them. It was good: finishing fourth with a problem I think was a good result. Later it was more or less the championship fight, so I was pushing very hard and very honestly with Timo, and he didn't have a chance to attack me until the point that he did a mistake, or had a problem, and then I was alone.
"This is what I said to you yesterday: we are not going to be reliability free the whole championship, and we had our problem in this race but still managed to do some points. I think that's what the championship is about: to be consistent. Everybody knows that iSport has the fastest car at the moment, but in the races it changes a lot as you have seen this weekend, and we've managed to do consistent points every race, and now we are closer than ever in the fight for the championship with four weekends to go. We are going to try and improve the car and get a little bit better in every aspect to make the final part of the championship as good as possible."
The mood over at iSport was markedly different: they had lost points once again, and while Glock wasn't blaming the team ("it's not their fault: yesterday we had a mistake by Chris, my mechanic, but I'm not pissed off about it because everyone does mistakes, and as long as I drove for iSport it's the first pitstop that ever went wrong. But today I only had two laps behind Luca without the problems in the gearbox, and I had more pace than him, but at the end I had to fight more with the gearbox than with him!”), his team boss was gutted on his behalf.
"It's a real shame for Timo," Paul Jackson sighed after the race, "because he's been so fast all year, but he's had so much bad luck. We know how good he is - everyone in this paddock does - but it's the guys up there that have to know, and I'd hate to see this have a bad effect on his career. We should be miles ahead in the championship, and I think the team has done a bloody good job, but we're being let down by the components: this is a great series, but we're not the only ones in this position.
"I know it's good for you guys, because you get to write about an exciting series, but I just hope that the guys in F1 can see how good Timo is through all of this."
Anyone who has watched the races could only agree, but anyone who only looks at the scoreboard would be thinking how tight the battle between Glock and di Grassi had become: as we left the circuit the German's lead had shrunk down to just one solitary point.
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.
"I swore to myself that I wasn't going to do it again: after the bitter disappointment of missing out on a drive the last time GP2 came to Bahrain I thought 'there is no way on earth that I'm going to make a fool of myself to get a drive this time.'
Of course, my manager knew what it would take to get me back into the paddock:
The next morning I found myself in the breakfast tent at the track, a little unsure as to how I got there, but it didn't take me long to get my head back together.
As luck would have it, Alfonso de Orleans Borbon was having breakfast too: as soon as I saw him there I knew that I had to go over and re-introduce myself. "Hello Jujube!" he boomed, just a little too loudly for me at that moment. "What are you doing here again?"
"Well, I'm looking around for a drive. I figured out this time that there might be more of a chance to get a seat at the start of the year than at the end."
"Oh, if only you'd come to see me a little bit earlier: I just confirmed my line up a few weeks ago. Maybe you should jump on Dave Price and see if he's still got a spare seat."
So I did, but that didn't work out so well:
"Oi! What the hell are you up to!" yelled the surprised team boss as Alfonso walk past, sniggering. "I bet he put you up to this, didn't he! Tell him I've signed Soucek, so you're out of luck." Taking the hint I slunk off to the pitlane, stopping briefly to use the handy spittoon I found in one of the garages.
But if there was one thing I learned from my last visit to the paddock it is to start at the top, and that meant there was only one target for that morning: ART. "Hello Mr Todt," I began, nervously. "I was wondering if there was any chance of getting a drive with your team…"
"I'm sorry Jujube, but both of my cars have been full for a while now. The only chance of a vacancy would be if something happened to either of the drivers." I thanked him for his time and wandered away, but he'd given me something to think about. Sitting near to the ART garage, I waited for the first of the drivers to turn up.
"You can stare at me all you want Jujube, but I'm not going anywhere," Lucas di Grassi stated from his cockpit. "I can sit here all weekend if I have to. You'd be better off trying to sneak into someone else's car."
So I wandered off down the pitlane to see if there were any other cars left untended, but it seems that word had got around, and the other drivers were guarding their cars carefully.
I realised that the best thing I could do was to make friends with the drivers and try to appeal to their consciences. It was educational too: I managed to get a few tips about the cars from Kazuki Nakajima while we watched the F1 practice sessions.
Luca Filippi was great too: he told me about the benefits of relaxation and exercise, and even gave me a massage to show me how important it can be before a session.
Sakon Yamamoto helped me out a lot too: he let me sit in on his engineers meeting to get a few pointers.
All of this information was great, but I needed to get away and think about it while keeping an eye on the paddock just in case something came up suddenly. Luckily photographer Andrew Ferraro was in the pitlane: he gave me the best seat in the house.
And then, all of a sudden, I knew what I had to do. No one has as much local knowledge of the track as I do, and I was determined to put it to good use. I decided to go around to the various teams and help them out with their set ups at this notoriously tricky circuit: the team bosses would be thrilled, and it wouldn't be long before they offered me a drive just to get more of my technical feedback.
The other benefit was that I could confuse the drivers: if they didn't go well in free practice then I would be certain to take over their seat for the rest of the weekend!
"Are you sure about this Jujube?" Nicolas Lapierre asked me. "I was told you turn right in the pitlane here…"
Meanwhile I was able to brush up on the specifics of the GP2 car with Didier Perrin: who could be better to learn the ins and outs of this car from? He even loaned me his glasses so I could get a better look at the secret telemetry traces he has on his computer from every car.
I also figured it could hurt to keep targeting the ART drive.
"Get off me Jujube! Jumping off the door frame and trying to scare me into giving you my seat just won't work!"
I also kept in with the Piquet Minardi crew: I think they really liked my personality and abilities, and I regaled them with stories of my past adventures in Bahrain: "So I said no problem Ernesto; you've got to get an early night because you've got a race tomorrow, so you take off and I'll make sure your girlfriend has a nice time tonight. Maybe I'll take her to a knitting club I know up in Manama…"
And when I was in their garage I bumped into an old friend who I hadn't seen in a while. Nelson and I had a great time catching up: it seemed like only yesterday that we were last hanging out together.
But finally, success! After impressing the FMS engineers, Paolo Coloni decided he would give me a chance in one of his cars.
"And down here we have the secret button, but you can't tell anyone about it: that's the boost button, but you have to be careful not to hit it at the wrong time, or else you might accidentally run up the back of someone when the safety car is out, or something like that."
I was overjoyed, and a few minutes later the photographers were buzzing around to get a shot of me with my new team boss.
I felt great, and it was so exciting to be at the drivers' autograph session. I sat there at the table with my competitors signing race posters, and it was such a proud moment when the commentator said "come and get autographs from top young drivers Kazuki Nakajima, Mike Conway, Andi Zuber and, of course, hot young local driver Jujube!"
And then there was the obligatory schmoozing with celebrities, in this case launch party DJ sensations Guy Hornsby and Gary Holden. Oh, and GP2 communications manager Will Buxton wanted to bask in my reflected glory as well.
I should have seen the signs though: looking back there were some subtle little hints on the car that maybe my car might not be mine after all:
And so it proved: Antonio Pizzonia got my seat after all. I tried to squeeze into one of the cars on the grid, but I knew there was no chance.
"That's twice you've failed to get a drive here, isn't it?" Heikki Kovalainen told me, trying hard not to laugh. "Maybe you need a better manager."
"You're right!" I stated, and as the engines fired up on the grid I knew what to do.
"Hello Bernie? You know how you've been looking for a local driver for F1? I think I might be the answer to your prayers."
"Right, get over here now," he spat back. "There's a pass waiting for you at the gate."
This was a bigger chance than I could have ever dreamed of! I was straight out the gate, stopping only to leave two little messages before I left. "