"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.