At the end of every season the results of the championship hang heavy over the paddock, and this year was no different to any other: while the individual teams were hoping for the best for their own drivers, everyone was still looking at one challenge above all others, the fight for the title between Giorgio Pantano and Bruno Senna. With both drivers having more than their fair share of bad luck, along with mistakes by both, over the last few rounds, the title was still down to the pair and they were trying hard to show that they were unaffected by the atmosphere around them.
Giorgio was looking much more calm than in Spa, where he seemed unnaturally nervous before getting into the car, with home track advantage and the points difference handing the Italian a big helping hand going into the final weekend. Bruno, on the other hand, was defiant: all manner of 'it ain't over til it's over' commentary and an out of the ordinary frown etched across his face kept the well-wishers at a mental arms length, deflected their comments from him.
For everyone else it was a case of wait and see: while it looked as though the championship was all but over, everyone knew well enough that GP2 specialises in the unexpected, and most people weren't willing to verbalise their thoughts for fear of yet another strange event throwing everything into flux.
And then it rained.
Actually, to call what happened just before free practice mere rain is like calling the Versailles Palace a house: it was as though a lake flew overhead before realising the impossibility of defying gravity and flopped down again on top of us. The paddock was deluged, the water rising up to the doors of the bus in the hospitality area, and the teams were forced to put the cars up on their stands as the water rose below them and hope for the best as all electricity in the area was switched off and we were cut off from the outside world.
Marco stood on a chair in the hospitality area and phoned Charlie Whiting to see what was happening in the pitlane while Christian wandered around in his wellingtons, a purchase he'd made four years previously and which he'd never had need to make use of before now, while the cooks came out of the now inoperable kitchen holding two large fish which they claimed to have just caught and laughing uproariously.
Immediately we started to think of the ramifications for the championship: if we couldn't qualify, what would it mean? Championship order on the grid said one person, race one cancelled for qualifying and race two becomes the only race claimed another, while the rest of us looked to the skies and willed it to stop raining. The combined prayers must have worked: eventually the water receded and we were able to make our way down to the pitlane, pushing the programme back an hour so we could run a shortened practice session after all.
Senna was the first man on track as the entire field took it easy: with qualifying now only two hours away any damage to the cars would be a disaster. At the end of the session Pastor Maldonado was on top by just 0.015 from Alberto Valerio and Mike Conway, with Pantano doing the bare minimum of set up and not setting a competitive time, while Karun Chandhok was the only man to stop on track after a bow wave at the Parabolica forced the Indian into the gravel. But with almost everyone running wide or cutting the chicanes, qualifying was going to be more than a little tricky if the weather didn't clear.
As it happened qualifying took place under blazing sunshine as everyone squeaked back to the pitlane in their still-wet shoes to prepare for the 30 minutes which would clarify the rest of the weekend. Pantano immediately set the pace just ahead of countryman Luca Filippi, but Senna was off the pace and struggling for traction, prompting the team to set to work on his car halfway through the session: the work was in vain, as Pantano took the two points for pole position just ahead of Lucas di Grassi, Sebastien Buemi and Filippi while Senna was stuck down in 12th position in a session which saw 17 drivers within a second of Pantano's time.
It looked like game over for Senna, but Pantano was having none of it: "I say no: if we're going to calculate then no, the job's not done. We have scored two points before the race, which is always good and always makes me a little more relaxed because I see Senna is in P12 at the moment, but you never know what can happen during the race, or if it's going to be wet or something. I think it's going to be tough but I am quite confident, and I know the job: just stay in front of Bruno, because di Grassi and Grosjean are already out for the championship, so I just have to focus on Senna."
The next morning we had the final signing session of the year, with the top four in the championship heading over for the session, but it was clear that thoughts were elsewhere. Alexa had told Thomas, the Racing Engineering team manager, that the time was half an hour earlier to make sure that Giorgio was there on time, but with traffic always an issue in Monza we were inevitably late as the hordes swarmed around the desk for their autographs and moment's conversation with the drivers.
Senna's one hope was to have rain for the race, the Brazilian having shown his astonishing pace in the wet just a week earlier in Spa. Sure enough the gods provided for the Brazilian, but went over the top in doing so: so heavy was the rain that race control had no option but to start the race behind the safety car, cutting Senna's chances of making up places at the start in the process.
When the race went live a few laps later Pantano easily controlled the pace to lead di Grassi, Buemi and a charging Maldonado through the first chicane, while further back Senna was up to eighth by the end of the first lap, which quickly became seventh when teammate Chandhok waved him by at the Parabolica. The Italian was in heaven, racing comfortably in the lead at his home circuit while his title rival was on for just two points, who was pushing hard and was much faster than his rival, but nevertheless was left hoping for a miracle.
With the track drying out after the rain stopped the call for tyres was always going to be critical, and with everything to play for Senna rolled the dice and came in early for slicks, coming back out in traffic in 14th position and waiting to see what would happen up ahead. Pantano finally came in on lap 25, the last man to do so, and easily held the lead when he returned to the track: he was under no pressure whatsoever, which made his crossing of the white line on the exit impossible to understand.
The resultant drive through pushed Pantano out of the points, handing Senna the best opportunity he could hope for to hold on to his slim chances in the championship, but Romain Grosjean had other ideas, holding onto fourth behind race winner di Grassi, who himself held on to the top spot despite constant pressure from Maldonado, with Buemi rounding out the podium ahead of fifth placed Senna: Pantano finished in tenth place, but with Senna failing to score enough points the championship was over.
Pantano was ecstatic to have won his first championship since 2000, finally proving all of his supporters right after going so close so many times in the past: "I am so happy! I'm a little bit worried about the race today, but taking the championship was what we wanted to do, and it is what we have done. There is another race tomorrow where I am P10, and I remember another race in 2006 where I was P8 and won the race, so I can have a good chance to make the podium tomorrow, and then probably start to convince myself that I won the championship, because at the moment I am a little bit angry about what I did at the exit of the pitlane and because it was not possible to win the race.
"But apart from that I have to say thanks to all my team, especially to my mechanics because this year they just make a great job: this year we didn't have any mechanical problems, which means they were very serious working on my car and the other car, and this is wonderful. This is my first year where I have something like that and don't have any mechanical problem, and I really have to say thanks to them."
Team boss Alfonso d'Orleans Borbon was outside shaking hands with all and sundry, enjoying his cigar as the team hugged each other in the pits, apart from Javier Villa who was up with the stewards being excluded from the weekend for the crash which took out Andreas Zuber and Vitaly Petrov at turn one just after the safety car had pulled in, the Yang to his teammates' Ying as everyone celebrated without him.
The next morning greeted us with more slate gray skies and the threat of rain as we walked into the paddock for the final time for breakfast. Heading over to the coffee machine Luca Filippi's physio Gianlorenzo Santoro was looking in vain for a coffee pod: "No coffee: I guess the championship is over, huh?" he laughed as everyone milled around, waiting for the race to start and their work to be done.
On the grid the rain came once again, forcing everyone onto wets once more, but it had tailed off enough by the start for the safety car not to be needed. Davide Valsecchi had a slow start, while behind him Roldan Rodriguez had a great one to claim the lead at the first chicane: further back behind them Senna had another spin as he pushed to get by Grosjean but held onto fourth position as the field came back around for the first time.
Di Grassi and Senna were fighting for second in the championship, and although the former had stated that he didn't care about the position his driving said otherwise as he forced his way by his rival on the second lap, with a fast charging Mike Conway sliding past the pair of them: one lap later Senna cut the first chicane and gave the position back to the Briton, but with the Brazilian pair running side by side up to Roggia they ran out of space: di Grassi ran into the back of Conway who spun into Senna as di Grassi sailed on, seemingly wrapping up the championship fight.
A few laps later though he was in for a drive through penalty for the move, falling out of the points and handing the advantage back to his countryman who was also out of the points but had a one point advantage in the title fight. Back up at the front Valsecchi was driving like a man possessed, easily dispatching Rodriguez for the lead before storming off into the distance, winning the race by 9 seconds over the Spaniard and Grosjean, who was all over the back of Rodriguez as the chequered flag dropped.
Before the race Alfonso had told me that Giorgio wanted to finish the season with a win: watch out for him in the race, he suggested, as he'll either crash or be on top by the end of the event. As it happens an early spin pushed the Italian backwards, but a typically gutsy drive pushed him up to fifth at the end after dropping down to 17th, and with the season finally over he celebrated by stopping to throw his gloves into the crowd before delighting everyone with a series of doughnuts as he returned to the pitlane.
Valsecchi was speechless after the race, in both Italian and English, laughing constantly as he tried to explain his feelings back in the paddock. The result was the perfect way for the jovial Italian to round out a problematic season, with heavy crashes in Turkey and Spa now forgotten as he celebrated with his Durango team: with good results for the team in each session and race from the Toro Rosso pitwall the team felt that it was their good luck charm at their home circuit, an idea with even more credence after the F1 team's amazing result later in the day.
And then, finally, it was time for everyone to let their hair down at the end of year party, a chance to finally unwind and enjoy themselves with everyone else in the paddock. Unless you had to organise everything, that is: poor Alexa didn't seem to breathe until the awards were handed out and Sakon Yamamoto started DJing inside. As usual the party was a huge success: despite the constant battle on track everyone gets on well with everyone else in the paddock, a large moving family which spends its life fighting with itself only to throw its arms around everyone else when the pressure is finally off at the end of the season.
After the prize-giving ceremony a number of us went into Milan to the Hollywood club, another tradition which the new drivers were keen to uphold, along with sore heads and missed flights the next day. We left about 4 in the morning with the Dams pair of Kamui Kobayashi and Jerome D'Ambrosio still holding court, with bottles of champagne flowing and being sprayed around: the bouncers had seen it all before, and didn't bat an eyelid. It was a time to celebrate, even if their results over the weekend perhaps didn't warrant it: getting to the end of a long, tough season like this felt like a victory in itself.
Any race weekend in Spa is about two things: the weather and that grey ribbon of tarmac meandering its way up and down and around the tree-coated hills of Wallonia. Both the weather and the track have combined time after time to create the legendary circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, the track that any racer who has competed on it automatically declares as their favourite circuit in the world. The entire paddock was looking forward to this one, and as usual it did not disappoint.
Free practice took place under overcast but dry conditions: the trees hold the moisture in the air close to the track, hanging overhead like a harsh word said in haste to a loved one and instantly regretted, constantly there against our wishes. The inevitable rain held for the session, with half of the field pushing for qualifying times and the other half running race set ups to perfect it before the event. Pastor Maldonado came out on top, with Giorgio Pantano and Vitaly Petrov less than a tenth off his pace, while title contenders Lucas di Grassi and Bruno Senna finished 15th and 16th consecutively, and Kamui Kobayashi and Karun Chandhok took a risk with Monza-style minimal aero just to see what they could do.
I bet that must have been a scary first run through Eau Rouge.
The long threatened rain broke just five minutes from the start of qualifying, with the teams swarming over their cars to adjust the set up accordingly before the green light came on at the end of the pitlane: Senna immediately set the best time while di Grassi fell off the track at Pouhon, destroying his chance of making an impact on the championship battle. When Maldonado also tripped over the edge and into the wall halfway through the session the marshals pulled out their red flags, with the rest of the field coming in to tweak their cars for the now drying circuit.
Senna had the whip hand in the session, although Pantano was pushing him all the way. Some of the other drivers pushed a little too hard, spinning off at various corners of the circuit with the session almost over: the title rivals and Chandhok were pushing hard on the last lap to see what they could do, with the sector times popping up on screen as follows:
Senna 36.9 65.6 Stop
Pantano 37.1 64.4 Stop
Chandhok 36.8 63.3 35.2
Yellow flags in the second sector were enough to force Senna and Pantano to abort their laps, but Chandhok stayed on track to take the top spot by less than a tenth over his teammate in the session, even though he knew it wasn't going to last given his ten place penalty picked up for the accident with Vitaly Petrov in race two at Valencia. Behind the iSport pair Alvaro Parente was best of the rest, six tenths off the pace but ahead of Romain Grosjean, Pantano, Andreas Zuber and Sebastien Buemi.
If there was any disappointment at the penalty, Chandhok wasn't showing it in the press conference: after keeping us all waiting as he returned from the stewards office, the Indian and his teammate were soon laughing all the way through it, correcting me with their grid positions after I announced their positions in the session ("Eleventh place!" "First place!") and going on to show they've got a future as a comedy double act if this racing lark doesn't work out.
"The track was getting quicker and quicker, but I had to wait because people were falling off all over the place," Chandhok noted. "Then they came on the radio and said 'this is the last lap, either you do a lap now or you start P12 plus 10!' And that was it: I pushed all the way through, the track was getting drier, and I hooked it up and beat Bruno by a tenth I think, and he backed off on the last lap. It just worked okay for us: obviously taking pole was the best I could do with a ten place penalty..."
Senna stated that discretion was in order on his final lap: "I had to back off on my middle sector: my first sector was very good and I took Eau Rouge almost flat, which was one of the scariest moments of my life! So I'm probably not going to do that in the race! But it was very fast, and obviously if I could complete the lap it would have been a good lap, but I saw the yellow flags and backed off, and Gav just told me to come in. I think regardless of the weather conditions we should be competitive, if nothing bizarre happens, like has been happening this year!"
What's that saying about a word said in jest?
The next morning we were running late for the signing session as the drivers were all stuck in traffic, including local Jerome D'Ambrosio: "I forgot the traffic gets so crazy here!" he stated as we walked down the paddock with Ho-Pin Tung. Standing around at the Bridgestone area in the merchandising zone we were eventually joined by Karun Chandhok, who had run all the way from the car park in his thick team jacket, but Vitaly Petrov didn't make it until it was all over.
To be honest it probably didn't matter: Belgium seems to have the shyest fans on the calendar, with few people willing to come up and talk to the drivers, who kept signing anyway as I attempted to drag people over and give them some signed posters. We called time on the event after a while, with the drivers heading straight back but Alastair pulling me over to an innocuous looking car next door: we jumped in and suddenly it started spinning over and over, the pair of us getting out red faced and laughing like drains, probably not the reaction the local police were hoping for when they set up the car to show what happens in a roll over accident. "We should have got the drivers to do that," I noted back in the paddock, "that would have made for some great photos!"
"Yeah, but you couldn't have put Maldonado in there," said a passing Marco, "compared to his races, it would have been boring!"
Soon enough it was time for the race, and the sense of anticipation in the pitlane was palpable, a living, breathing thing. Unfortunately so was the weather: the clouds seemed to noticeably lower as the cars went out on track, with the inevitable shower coming five minutes before the start: looking down the grid towards the Bus Stop it was as though the clouds had sunk down to touch the circuit. The decision was made to start the race behind the safety car, and though some of the drivers at the back later complained about it, none of the team members seemed too upset at the time.
The race went live two laps later, with Senna under attack from Parente but holding on to the lead as the pair slithered around the circuit: the rain soon stopped and it was just a matter of time before a dry line would emerge, with Zuber coming in for slicks on lap six, his first opportunity, and the rest of the field coming in over the next 2 laps. But the stop that everyone was looking at was that of race leader Senna, who was released just as Alberto Valerio was coming down the pitlane, with the Brazilian jumping on the brakes and narrowly missing the DPR mechanics who were waiting for one of their drivers.
"It wasn't the same as Karun's pitstop in Valencia," he later claimed, discussing the matter at length outside the hospitality area with Paul Jackson, Marco and myself. "That was dry and hot, this was wet and I had cold slicks, which meant the tyres spun for a long time before I could move. The distance to Valerio was much more: how can you expect anyone to work out how much more time it will take to get moving in those conditions?"
The note on the message screens came pretty quickly: Car 2 under investigation for a possible unsafe release. The next message was even quicker: drive through penalty for Car 2.
The radio traffic between Senna and the iSport pitwall was so frantic it was almost visible: coming out in the lead he had a great chance of taking the victory he had targeted, even with Pantano now up to second after the stops. It was while this heated exchange was taking place that Davide Valsecchi had his huge crash, bringing out the safety car and delaying the inevitable stop, as the penalty could not be taken under safety car conditions, a fact that clearly wasn't known to Pantano, who could be seen gesturing in agitation with his hands on the onboard camera.
It was at this stage that the Italian almost stopped, having engaged the anti-stall after driving too slowly for the gear he was in: the rest of the field briefly slowed with him before sliding past as he tried to regain a gear, eventually doing so and getting back past Diego Nunes as the race went live once more. Senna came in for his penalty one lap later, dropping to the back of the field for his sins, while Pantano was in tenth and desperately trying to get back up into the points.
Back at the front Parente was leading the race from Zuber and Grosjean, with the Frenchman trailing his rival all the way through Eau Rouge before claiming second place at the end of the long top straight, while the title rivals were pushing with all their might: Senna ultimately finished 12th while Pantano spun on the La Source inside kerb a few laps from the end in 8th position before plowing into di Grassi's sidepod on the last lap, dropping the Brazilian from 8th after a tremendous drive from last on the grid and losing his own front wing in the process, with the Italian finishing the race in 21st place.
At the happier end of the field, Grosjean blasted by Parente after a small error at the Bus Stop allowed the Frenchman to claim the lead on the inside of La Source, with Zuber holding on for third despite constant pressure from teammate Maldonado, who had overtaken a number of his rivals to put himself just half a second off the podium finish at the end of the race.
For Grosjean, it was as though the win was a salve for any number of invisible wounds: "We had six really bad races: I did some mistakes, we had some bad luck, and it has been really difficult for me at some points because when you have a bad result you go worse and worse. It's very important to jump again and go forward, to have a good result and be ready for the last three races, Valencia, Spa and Monza. Now we are here, we are third in the championship and it was obviously a very good operation today: I really wanted to win in Spa, and I want to win in Monza as well because they are two really good circuits."
Meanwhile Parente was left lamenting what might have been after changes made on the wet grid affected his race later in the day: "It was good for one part of the race, not so good towards the end: I think just a little bit more downforce at the end would have been easier and better. We've have some bad races, bad decisions, some bad luck with the technical and also fuel at the last one, but anyway it's good to have a good result, and we'll keep fighting for the next race."
Zuber was simply ecstatic at coming out on top of his teammate: "I knew that he has a very quick car, like me, but I was struggling a little bit with top speed and at Eau Rouge I always did it flat: I can't do more than flat, so he overtook me once but I overtook him back: it was quite good! He tried again to overtake me at the last corner: it was a bit crazy but he is like that, I have to live with it, but I finished third, he finished fourth, and that's it..."
Ominously Pantano had still not returned from the stewards office, who had previously handed Chandhok and Buemi 5 place grid penalties for their last lap efforts in qualifying: the longer it takes someone to come back, the more likely it is that they're receiving a penalty of some sort. Which didn't stop many in the paddock suggesting that a grid penalty in race two would hardly constitute a penalty with the Italian set to line up back in 21st the next day.
Christian left his kitchen to come upstairs in the bus for a bit of fun: after finding out a few races ago that my wireless microphone for the press conference works from anywhere in the area he had started using it to annoy certain drivers, generally Andi Zuber, with Christian whispering "Zuberman, Zuberman" whenever the Austrian appeared down below. But he nowhere to be seen at the time, and with Grosjean talking to a collection of Renault people downstairs a new plan formulated.
"Paging Romain Grosjean," I said in my most officious voice, "Romain Grosjean to the steward's office please..." No reaction. "Romain Grosjean to the steward's office please." Romain was too engrossed in conversation to notice, but Rosana went over to him and, deadpan, said she heard someone paging him. "This is the last call: Romain Grosjean to the steward's office please." Suddenly he looked all round the area with a look of sheer terror, before he a glance upstairs showed Christian and I laughing fit to burst, and he shot us an indiscreet hand gesture. "No death threats please, Mr Grosjean..."
It was not long afterwards that we found out about Giorgio's exclusion from the event, and the paddock was in uproar. Except for the man himself, who had left the circuit for the casino in Spa in search of a change in his luck, and Zuber, who had lost a hard fought podium because of illegal repairs to his nosecone carried out by the team, handing third to Maldonado. It's hard to know what he was more upset about: the loss of the podium, or the recipient.
The next morning Zuber was still upset, playing the martyr card to anyone who would listen: "Look, there's only 25 guys in this race, but they've put me 26th on the grid!" he laughed when the official grid was released, and sure enough he was right. He probably had other things on his mind when he was sitting on the grid (in the 25th spot) though, as once again it rained just five minutes before the start of the race.
This time the rain was less heavy that previous showers, and the entire field took the risk of starting on slicks, with everyone getting away slowly but surely behind local hero D'Ambrosio, who had been promoted to the reverse pole after Zuber's penalty was announced: with Mike Conway very slow to get off the line the Belgian led them easily into La Source, with Andy Soucek and Sebastien Buemi following him through while Luca Filippi and Lucas di Grassi made incredible starts from the back to bookend Senna in 11th by the end of the first lap.
Almost inevitably though the safety car made another appearance, this time on lap 5 after Conway, Valerio and Parente all found the wall in separate incidents, compacting the field once again: Filippi was taken out by Nunes just before the restart at the Bus Stop, while Grosjean tried to take advantage of a slow restart by Buemi to sneak through at Blanchimont before touching the kerbs and almost spinning, allowing Senna to get a run at the Swiss driver too: Buemi was overly robust in his defense and the pair came together, with Senna's weekend coming to a premature end almost immediately.
Maldonado had turned up the wick and was all over Soucek by this stage, with the pair banging wheels as neither was prepared to give an inch: unfortunately for the Spaniard the rain came back towards the end of the race, and a white line that had previously been harmless suddenly pitched him off the track and into the wall when wet, destroying a wonderful drive in the process. With nothing to stop him the Venezuelan was soon on D'Ambrosio's rear wing, and on the last lap Maldonado blasted by him on the top straight, just as he'd done to so many other drivers over the weekend, to claim his first win of the season.
"The race was really, really difficult," he laughed afterwards as he grabbed some lunch, "rain at the beginning, rain at the end, so I was looking to stay on the track and watch the people in front of me: I saw they were so slow, and my pace was unbelievable today. We improved the car so much from yesterday, and it was really constant. In the rain I could really push a lot, and I was incredibly quick on the straights. We decided to go completely to the dry set up to be quick on the straight lines and to overtake, and I was a little bit worried because of the rain, because very low downforce in the rain is so difficult: I just tried to not lose in the second sector, to keep the same gap, and in the first sector and the third one I was incredibly quick."
D'Ambrosio was in a reflective mood after the race, noting: "I'm happy, because we are second here after a disappointing qualifying, we came back yesterday and had a good race, so starting from pole today we were one of the fastest today apart from Pastor, who was simply faster than everybody else: he overtook me, which was very fair and there is nothing much else to say about that. I have mixed feelings because I am happy, and we have to be happy about second in the race and progressing. We are improving all the time, so I hope the team are just going to enjoy tonight. There is a little bit of disappointment, but I take that disappointment as a positive because everybody believes we can do it, we can win, so we just have to continue pushing."
It was just before we left the circuit that we found out that Kamui Kobayashi had been penalised for cutting the last corner on the last lap and stealing sixth place from Valsecchi, who had done an amazing job to come back after his big crash the afternoon before. The Japanese driver had had an awkward weekend after finding the wall in free practice and pushing Luca Filippi off track at the final corner in race one, so there weren't many dissenting voices when Valsecchi was given his point back.
And with that we walked to the car park talking about the decision, but it was only a couple of hours before another decision on a move at the same location would firmly displace it from our minds.