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.