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.