"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.