4/27/2008 0 Comments
Everyone is nervous at the start of a new season: drivers, team members, journalists, series organisers, everyone. Arriving at Barcelona airport on Thursday afternoon I wasn't immune to the feeling, which was compounded by the cab driver heading south rather than north as we hit the freeway. "Are you sure Granollers is this way?" I asked as we headed along the unfamiliar road, "It's near the Circuit de Catalunya." "No problem," he replied, "we're going around Barcelona to avoid the traffic."
We were halfway to Tarragona before he realised his error, switched off the meter and said sorry.
Eventually we arrived at the theatre which was playing host to the GP2 launch party, and the prize giving for the Asia series, only to find there were people who were suffering a lot more from nerves than me, principally host Peter Windsor and GP2's new communications manager Alexa Quintin. "I'm glad you're here," she smiled, "we've got a lot to finish in the next few hours."
Time blew past in a blur as the stage was set up for the launch, with a practice held to make sure everything went to plan. Sitting in the auditorium to see if there was anything that could be improved I thought it was going to fine, but understandably Alexa was not going to feel better until the launch was over and everything was finished. And so it proved: the launch was a success, and the function afterwards was a great opportunity for those who, like me, had been unable to attend the Asia series to catch up for the first time in months with old friends from the paddock.
Although not everyone had made it to the hall on time: Marco Codello, Didier Perrin and Christian Staurenghi didn't have a lot of time to get from the circuit to the theatre, but Christian is well known for being able to organise anything anyone needs in the paddock, and he had an idea. After a quick word with one of the police officers near the paddock it was all organised: the trio would put the rest of the GP2 crew into their two cars, which would follow a police escort all the way to the theatre to make sure they made it in time.
Feeling smug behind the wheel (even Lewis and Heikki didn't get such treatment as they made their way to present some prizes) Christian smiled to himself as they tore down street after street: it was taking a while to get to the auditorium, he thought to himself, so imagine how long it would have taken if they didn't have the police motorbike in front of them?
It was only when they stopped in the middle of nowhere some twenty minutes later and the police officer ran into a nearby store that they started to think that perhaps something had gone wrong: he had received an urgent call regarding a crime in progress as they got to the theatre, which our self-impressed trio had failed to notice, leaving them arguing in Italian outside the town on the side of the road and wondering how they were ever going to find their way back.
They eventually walked in sheepishly as many of the crowd were leaving, giving Didier a free run to the bar before coming over to say hello. Marco smiled and greeted me with a hug, while Didier eventually sauntered over and laughed: "Hey, you look like you've put on some weight!" It took a few minutes to realise that he was greeting everyone that way: a nasty virus he had picked up meant he'd lost quite a few pounds over the previous week.
"If you want to lose some weight, you should spend some time with Rosana," he smirked, "she's picked it up from me, and I think the other girls from the office are about to get it."
"If I pick this up, I am going to hold you personally responsible."
"It's not my fault: I didn't invent the virus. But I am definitely the carrier!" I now had another realise to worry about the drive to and from the circuit every day, other than just the driving abilities of whichever one of them had the car in his name that weekend...
The next morning the free practice session couldn't come soon enough: after all the waiting we were about to go live with the new car, and nerves were highly strung as we watched the clock tick down until it was time to get out on track. It felt like the first day of a new year at school, as everyone walked around catching up with friends they hadn't seen for a while ("Hi, how have you been? Did you go to Asia? What have you been up to since Valencia?") until it was finally time to push everything into the pitlane.
Despite the nerves there were remarkably few incidents during the session: only Karun Chandhok and Alberto Valerio ran off track during the gloriously hot period, with the Piquet Sports duo of Andreas Zuber and Pastor Maldonado claiming the best laptimes ahead of new boy Alvaro Parente and Luca Filippi. Then it was back to the paddock to set the cars up for qualifying, while everyone else got down to their own tasks in preparation.
Alexa and I started to set up the press conference area at the back of the hospitality unit, the first time we had ever done so together: unfortunately we built the backdrop upside down before realising, and with all of the new journalists coming to ask her any number of questions in between we were soon out of time, with the table and backdrop finally in place but unfortunately without a sound system in operation before qualifying commenced.
The top three from the morning session dominated qualifying, this time with Maldonado on top from Parente and Zuber, while Sebastien Buemi's session was destroyed as he came around turn eight at speed only to find a slower car on the racing line, forcing the Swiss driver onto the grass and the inevitable contact with the opposite wall. The ART pairing of Romain Grosjean and Luca Filippi fared little better: the Frenchman's engine gave up the ghost towards the end of the period, while the Italian's gearbox shed all bar one gear on his fastest lap to push them uncharacteristically down the grid.
The press conference was the cosiest I can remember: in the absence of the sound system everyone crowded around the table with the three drivers, which engendered a sense of mischief even stronger than usual. As I switched from Parente to Zuber he suddenly burst out: "I have a question to ask first - why are there no microphones?"
"I'm afraid that will have to wait until we go to questions from the floor, Andreas" I replied as he smirked to himself. We did get the sound system working later that night, but unfortunately it wasn't up in time for Trident's road safety initiative press conference, although no one seemed to mind too much.
We also got our first wild rumour of the weekend: the cars were delayed in parc ferme, and it soon got around that Andy Soucek had sued FMS and then somehow managed to have the Spanish police blockade all of the cars. It's a small paddock and we all like a juicy piece of gossip, so when something controversial is mentioned it tends to run through the place like a bushfire. A number of the paddock regulars were giving Paolo Coloni a hard time as the cars were finally wheeled back into the paddock (the delay was caused by a printer malfunction for the FIA – sometimes truth is sadly more boring than fiction), who suddenly laughed and said "see? Nothing to do with me!" before heading off for dinner with the look of a man vindicated.
The next morning we had the first signing session of the year, with Bruno Senna, Javier Villa, Adrian Valles and Roldan Rodriguez in attendance. As usual in Spain the scene was more than a little crazy: what is almost always the biggest crowd of the year was swarming the barriers in an attempt to get near to the next generation of local heroes. They took it all in their stride, signing until they ran out of cards and then shaking hands until Bert from Bridgestone realised he needed to get them back for lunch. The broad smiles on the drivers’ faces showed how much they enjoyed getting out among the fans that make their lifestyle possible.
And then it was the time we were all waiting for: the first race of the season. After being left in the holding area while the F1 cars were put away after qualifying it was finally our time, and the sense of of excitement could almost be tasted as the mechanics went about their task of setting up the pits, while the drivers had their last minute stretches, drank the last bit of their energy drinks and slid into the cars, ready for the pitlane to open.
Walking along the grid it seemed as though time was on a go-slow as we all waited for the bell that tells us it's time to move back to the pitlane and let the drivers loose. And eventually they were, albeit with Maldonado stalling on the grid to squeeze them all together. Parente made the most of his good fortune, out-sprinting the fast starting but delayed Zuber to the first corner, with Senna slotting in behind them as they tore off into the distance.
Behind them though was mayhem. Filippi, enjoying a strong start that put him on the tail of his teammate, had another coming together with former teammate Mike Conway at the final turn, spinning the Italian to the back of the field while the Briton came to a halt just next to the pitlane and jumped the fence for an early finish. Filippi came in to make an early pitstop in the hope of getting some sort of advantage, but another collision at turn one between Ben Hanley and Ho-Pin Tung brought out the safety car, which failed to allow the Italian through until it was too late.
The rest of the field came into the pits as one, a hurricane of wind and noise as they tried to slot themselves in and out without hitting anything or anyone. It's a slightly terrifying time, even if you are out of the way on the pitwall: the cars might be on their limiters but they're still doing 80km/h, and the breeze from that many cars rushing past pulls at your clothes as they go by while their mechanics pirouette around them like bullfighters, holding tyres rather than the traditional red robes.
As quickly as it began the noise and movement was gone as they rushed back out on track: Parente held onto his lead, but a small delay for Zuber as other drivers came through looking for their pits was enough for Senna to get the jump on him for second place. Further back the ART pair came up through the pack, with Grosjean finishing a creditable fifth behind Giorgio Pantano and Filippi moving up to eleventh, but with no one making any mistakes the top three finished line astern as they started after their pitstops, familiarity with the circuit putting paid their best laid plans of attack.
Parente was ecstatic, the first debutant in the series to win his first race since Heikki Kovalainen in the first ever GP2 race back in 2005, and the Super Nova garage was swarming with wellwishers, including countryman Deco and his FC Barcelona teammate Eidur Gudjohnsen, who were delighted to see their friend do so well at their local circuit. He soaked up the applause, the look on his face telling everyone that there was nowhere else on earth he would rather be than right here, right now.
"It feels great!" he laughed in the press conference. "Since yesterday things have been going great, and the team did a great job, and since the official testing my car improved a lot, which gives me a lot of confidence. It's a shame I didn't put it on pole after a little mistake in the final sector yesterday with a bit of oversteer which maybe cost me the pole, but it was great today. Maldonado had a bad start and stalled, so I got first place there, and then I had a lot of pressure from Bruno but I managed not to make any mistakes and keep focused, and the same gap all race, more or less."
One man who was somewhat less thrilled was Karun Chandhok, after a difficult day in the office: sitting down for dinner with some friends it was clear that he was not too pleased, although his usual bright personality was only slightly dimmed. Until I sat down to eat, of course: "I don't think I've told you, Karun, but my wife has decided that you are her favourite driver this year."
"Absolutely. Last year Timo was her favourite, but now he's upstairs you've been promoted."
"Well that's cool: he did alright last year! Tell her I said hello."
"I will. She's passed on a message too: she asked if you can stop crashing quite so much."
"Yeah, yeah, I know: I'm not doing it on purpose, you know!"
Nevertheless he was happier than Fiona and Rosana, who work in accounts for GP2 and who had both picked up Didier's virus, much to their chagrin: the poor girls looked miserable all week as they pulled their fleeces ever higher up their head in the vain hope of keeping warm. Didier smiled to himself in the front of the car on the way back to the hotel as they coughed and spluttered their way home, knowing he was now immune, while I could only lean as far away as possible and try not to breathe.
The next morning and they were at it again, with poleman Kamui Kobayashi won the battle of the front row with Sebastien Buemi (who had moved up from 20th after his qualifying nightmare to a very creditable 7th at the end of the first race) to get to the first corner first, with Grosjean slotting in behind him for a lap before dispatching the Japanese driver next time around and heading off into the distance just as teammate Filippi limped back to the pits after his engine gave up the ghost.
Meanwhile the Piquet Sports pair resumed their no holds barred battle, bumping their way past each other over and again until the inevitable happened and they both had to retire after their cars declared enough, neither man looking at the other as they got out of their cars and walked their separate ways back home.
Grosjean had the race in the palm of his hand until, just before the end of the race, Giacomo Ricci spun at the final turn and stopped in the middle of the track, necessitating a visit by the safety car once more. But at the restart the Frenchman messed up in the chicane, cutting across the grass and losing his momentum into the front straight: when Kobayashi tried to go past on the outside Grosjean's defence was somewhat more than spirited, and the stewards called him in immediately for a drive through penalty, undoing all of him good work.
Kobayashi was delighted to claim his first win in the main series, just ahead of Buemi and Pantano, smiling fit to burst on the podium as his national anthem rang out overhead. "It was a great weekend for us," he beamed back in the paddock, "and maybe we had some luck, but clearly we did a good job because yesterday the team did a good pitstop and made a good car. In the end we won in the second race, and that's really important because we need to score points until really we can win the first race."
"So, good to back?" Alexa asked after we had finished packing away the press conference area and had put away our computers. "Yeah, I missed it a lot over the off-season. Not to mention everyone here. It's a lot of work, but it feels great to be here."
And thinking about our successful start to the season all the way home, it continued to feel great. Until, of course, I woke up with Didier's bloody virus the next morning. Bugger.
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