8/3/2008 0 Comments
"Budapest eh?" he said, a wistful note in his voice as he stared into space. "That'll be nice. It's a tough life for some..."
"Well sure," I replied, on autopilot after having the same conversation a number of times at work over the preceding week, "but it's not exactly a holiday. It's always unbelievably hot there, for a start."
"Maybe so," he conceded with a voice which suggested he was conceding nothing at all, "but still, it's better than being at work."
"I will be ... oh, never mind, you're absolutely right..." We shook hands and he wandered off down the road smirking, thinking of how he'd won that little exchange. Me, I was thinking of nothing but the heat to come.
Budapest is always hot, or at least on the race weekend anyway, so the rapidly rising temperature on Friday wasn't much of a surprise, even if it wasn't as bad as what Marco refers to as the Atomic Weekend of 2005, when one of the Bridgestone guys measured the temperature upstairs in the bus at 50 degrees, when we couldn't use our laptops without a waterfall emerging on our heads, when I had to stop an interview with Heikki Kovalainen after race two (he'd chased Neel Jani hard all race long but couldn't find a way past for the win) to ask him if he was alright ("I'm fine: why do you ask?" "You're eyes are pink and you're sweating: I've never seen you sweat before...").
It was certainly too hot for Alastair, who had picked up a bug en route to Hungary and was acting as a giant incubator for it overnight. Driving in to the circuit it became too much for him and he pleaded for the driver to pull over, but there was nowhere to stop on the freeway, leaving him no choice but to roll down the window, stick his head as far out as he could go and be sick, narrowly missing the following Force India car before returning to the cabin, looking green and shuddering.
A car full of photographers and no one got the shot. Typical.
It seemed like everyone else had worked out one way to try and deal with the heat: get a haircut. I must have missed the memo, but Alexa, Marco, Didier, Barbara, and even Bruno (who arrived in the paddock looking like he'd come straight from the set of Prison Break) had a serious trim, whereas I was looking more like Shaggy from Scooby Doo with flop sweats, albeit with better sunglasses.
Free practice came and went in a blur: the top six drivers were within two tenths of the top spot, with Andreas Zuber finishing just ahead of Giorgio Pantano, Lucas di Grassi, Romain Grosjean, Karun Chandhok and Vitaly Petrov, and another nine drivers within a second. Most of them ran wide or spun at least once during the session, but Pastor Maldonado was the only one to find the barriers, spearing across the gravel at turn eight and tearing the right side off his car, damaging it so severely that his team was unable to carry out repairs in time to get him into the pitlane for qualifying.
It was Grosjean who came out on top when it counted, however: a last chance lap in qualifying pushed him 0.08 ahead of di Grassi, who had thought he'd done enough to claim his first pole position but instead had to make do with third when Zuber slipped inside the Brazilian's time by just 0.002. The session was a dramatic one, with Grosjean setting the pace on the first two sectors but unable to find the right line through the final turn against di Grassi's smoother but fractionally slower style through all sectors nevertheless setting the overall pace.
When Karun Chandhok spun at turn 12 (with the cynics declaring he'd done it on purpose to hold on to his then second position) it looked like it was all over, but fast work by the marshals cleared the track for a last lap showdown: Grosjean was unable to match his earlier times on the first two sectors, but nailed the third one when it counted.
The Frenchman was over the moon to claim his first pole in the series: "It feels great! I was three times second in qualifying, which was a bit too much: I really wanted to do this pole position because it's really important for a driver to be able to be the fastest in qualifying. It's my first time racing here, and the track is quite difficult, but with the data from second this morning I could work quite well and improve my driving for the afternoon. There was a lot of traffic and it's a short track so we needed really to be careful, but the car was working very well and at the end it was very close, but it was a nice qualifying."
Zuber wanted people to know how physically difficult it was to qualify at the track: "It's very narrow, very bumpy, and there are no straights so you can't relax: in the race it will be very hot, and over 40 laps. In a qualifying lap it's something else: in the race you don't have to concentrate on your breath but in qualifying, maybe it's my style, I don't know, but I only breath maybe 8 or 9 times, so by the end of the lap I am finished! When I'm really on the limit it is so difficult like that, but in the race it is different because you're not so much on the limit, you have to take more care of the tyres, so it's not so hard."
Di Grassi, meanwhile, was left thinking of what might have been: "I led the session from the beginning until the last minute, but then Romain and Zuber got a better lap. I think like everybody I had a little bit of traffic and the track was dirty and stuff, so I'm a bit disappointed because it's my 15th qualifying in a row that I qualified in the top six since last year, but I've never been able to do a pole. I had stopped already when I saw that Romain and Zuber had improved so there was nothing I could do, but the race is long tomorrow, it's hot, and I'm going to work on the car to see what we can do for the race."
The next morning we were on the road at a reasonable hour, hoping to take advantage of the locals sleeping in, but a massive traffic jam on the freeway to the track put paid to any chances of arriving early. It wasn't until later that we found out the cause of the problem: some of the DPR guys were driving to work when their minibus was sideswiped by a car, pitching them into a lurid roll which only stopped when they finished upside down in a ditch by the side of the road.
The emergency services were on the spot almost immediately, with a helicopter landing in the middle of the road in case anyone needed an urgent airlift: thankfully they were fine other than some cuts and bumps, but the resultant traffic jam was almost instantly snaking for miles back towards the city. A few of the F1 drivers were able to make other arrangements, with Ferrari sending motor scooters out to pick up their guys and Robert Kubica waving down a passing biker for a lift, while Lewis Hamilton popped out of the car in front of Alexa and took the wheel before cheekily driving onto the grass and past all of the traffic, but everyone else had to sit and wait for the road to clear ahead of them.
We finally made it to the track just ahead of the signing session, but unfortunately not all of the drivers had arrived: eventually we tracked down Sakon Yamamoto (who was practicing pitstops until I dragged him away), Michael Herck (who was sitting quietly in hospitality with his father and a new friend), and Carlos Iaconelli arrived just as the minibus turned up, but Davide Valsecchi was nowhere to be seen. Just then Jerome D'Ambrosio walked through the gates and was happy to fill in, and then as we were pouring into the bus Davide also arrived, so we had a bonus driver for the fans.
It was the first signing session we'd had since the Atomic Weekend, and the fans were clearly delighted to mark the return, the crowd waiting patiently until we walked through to the table in front of them and the guys got their hands warmed up, signing until we ran out of posters and then continuing to sign anything else that was put in front of them.
Romain Grosjean was walking around the paddock looking mighty pleased with himself, and with good reason: qualifying is extremely important for good results in the series, and pole position at a circuit as tight and twisty as the Hungaroring is vital. With his championship rivals well back he knew he had the best opportunity he could hope for to close the gap on them.
But the smile soon disappeared under his helmet: when the lights went out first Zuber then di Grassi and then Petrov blew past, all before the first turn, and the Frenchman's car looked more than a handful as the Brazilian took the lead when Zuber slipped slightly wide. When Bruno Senna took advantage of a slick start to slide past Grosjean his downfall was almost complete, only to be rounded out one lap later when an collision with, of course, Giorgio Pantano pitched the Italian into a spin to the back of the field and the Frenchman had to return to pits almost immediately to change a flat tyre.
A small mistake by Petrov, who had followed his teammate past Zuber at the first corner, allowed the Austrian to reclaim second place, but race long pressure amounted to naught as di Grassi held on for his first win of the season, and his second win overall in the series, just 0.7 seconds ahead of Zuber, while a mechanical gremlin for Petrov promoted Senna to third, just ahead of teammate Chandhok and Maldonado, whose pit strategy was diametrically opposed to everyone else's, staying out until late in the race to claim a remarkable fifth position from last on the grid to the complete amazement of everyone in the paddock.
Walking down to the podium after the race I came across Nelson Piquet talking to Hiroki Yoshimoto at the Renault pit perch, the Brazilian looking rightly pleased with his day: "Great job by Felipe [Vargas] today," I noted, "getting Pastor up from last to fifth is amazing."
"Yeah, they were great today," he smiled broadly, "and Pastor put in a fantastic drive."
"It's a bit of shame for Andi though: all that work in a quicker car, but that's Hungary."
"Yeah, it's pretty tough t overtake here." Just then the Brazilian national anthem started up, and looking at the screens but didn't like what he saw: "Come on Lucas, take off your hat..."
"Look at you: after Hockenheim you're suddenly the podium expert now!"
"Well, I was when I was in GP2!"
"Yeah, fair enough. Nice job by you today, too."
"Well it's a shame for Zuber, but..."
"No no, I mean for you in qualifying today, you idiot!"
To be fair, I guess he's not too used to me complimenting him in person.
Back in the paddock for the press conference, and Lucas was ecstatic with his victory: "I was very close to this in Silverstone and then lost it five laps to the end, and it was looking okay in Hockenheim in race two also if I didn't have a small engine problem, so I have had 3 second places: this win was what was missing for me, and I am really, really happy for me and for the team, and I think we did a really, really good job. These ten points are really important for me at this stage of championship, and also for my future.
"When I came back I wasn't expecting to do anything in the championship: I missed 3 races, so without 30% of the races in the championship it is very difficult to do anything, but I'm glad I'm third. I already fought for the championship last year: of course I want to win the championship, everybody does, but my main goal is to do every race good and fight for wins, and do each race after each race. I'm quite a lot behind Bruno and Giorgio of course, so I'm not thinking about the championship at the moment: I'm just thinking about victories at every race."
After all of his troubles in the earlier races, Andi was just happy to be on the podium again: "I was there for 20 laps behind him, and that's a lot of time! I thought he was struggling a little bit on brakes, and sometimes he was really smoky in front of me, so I thought maybe he brakes too late or makes a little mistake so I can try it, but he didn't have a mistake and I didn't try a crazy move, so in the end it was a good race.
"I was just following Lucas, and he did not even do one mistake: he did a very good race. My car was really good, even when I was behind him: there was a bit of oversteer but that's normal when you follow a guy, so P2 is okay."
After starting from eighth most people had already written off Bruno's chances of a decent haul of points, but not the man himself: "Everybody was already telling me that you'll have to wait for the next race, but to be fair I know that anything can happen: this is a difficult circuit, this is a difficult race, and the team did a great job so I just had to drive. I had a really good start, and at the first corner everyone just boxed themselves in so I just drove around the outside of everybody, and then Grosjean had his problems so I overtook him as well, and from then on I just had to manage my tyres.
"After the pitstop I managed the tyres well enough to just keep on pushing and having a consistent car, and at the end I was catching them: I had maybe two or three tenths per lap, but there was no point to try and overtake as I had already done my job, and I just had to collect the points. I knew that Romain and Giorgio weren't in the points, so this weekend is a very important weekend for the championship: I'm closer to Giorgio, and this time I had my worst qualifying of the year, so I plan to have a few pole positions from now on!"
After the press conference Bruno had crowds of people around him, wanting to shake his hand or have a picture taken with him: by contrast his championship rivals were nowhere to be seen, with both of them making a stop by the stewards before returning to the paddock, Giorgio for a debrief upstairs in the truck and Romain to lock himself away after being handed a 10 place penalty for the next morning's race. The Frenchman was inconsolable in the knowledge of the opportunity he had let go in the race.
The next morning there was an unusual mood in the Racing Engineering camp: obviously they were disappointed with the results from the previous afternoon, but there was something more going on. "Hey, I had a bit of an interesting trip in this morning," Alfonso noted when I saw him sitting on Javier Villa's tyre on the grid, "I was driving on the freeway and a truck sideswiped me."
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah I'm fine, but my car looks like someone took a giant can opener to the side of it!"
"It was your own car?"
"Yeah: I'm starting to think that car is jinxed!" Casting my mind back to last year I could only agree with him, but it was almost time to race so it was soon put to the back of our minds as we walked back to the pitlane.
Andy Soucek was under a lot of pressure starting from pole, but a great start when the lights went out kept him ahead of Sebastien Buemi into turn one, with Mike Conway getting a light tap but continuing on in front of Lucas di Grassi, Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna. The leading pair were soon able to open a break from the Conway / di Grassi battle, but when the Brazilian tapped the Briton into a spin the order rapidly changed, and then once again when he was handed a drive through penalty for his troubles.
This promoted Maldonado to third, a phenomenal effort after failing to make qualifying. When Soucek ran wide on his heavily used tyres Buemi was through and gone, with the Venezuelan soon putting himself on the Spaniard's rear wing, but then heartbreak struck with just three laps remaining as Maldonado slowed and stopped by the side of the row, promoting Senna to his second podium finish of the weekend: he pushed with all his might but finished 0.1 seconds, or the length of the nose of his car, behind Soucek when the flag dropped.
Ironically I'd been talking to Sebastien before the race and mentioned that he always does well on a Sunday, which he confirmed with the win: "Yeah! It was just a very good race: it was quite difficult at the start when I tried to overtake Andy, because he closed the door and so I just had to wait for him to make a mistake, and he did one! So after that I could pass him and pull away, and my car was really good, thanks to the team. We did a good job all weekend to now collect some points for the championship."
Andy was delighted that he could hold on at the end after using up his tyres early trying to break away at the front: "I don't know how I did it: I didn't want to look to the mirrors too much because I knew they were closing the gap really quickly! I was just thinking about braking as late as I could for the car I had, getting on the power as soon as possible so they couldn't get me on the next braking point, so it was pretty much a defending driving mode, but I would say that it was worth it to do that rather than lose the second position as well..."
Bruno was exultant upon his return to the paddock, knowing he'd made the most of a weekend which saw his championship rivals struggle: "I think for once we had very good luck with traffic and we had some people having problems in front of us, whereas usually we have the problems! It was really good, and today Lucas helped me to gain two places and then Maldonado had a mechanical problem, which helped me get another place in, but we were there waiting in the right place at the right time, and the team were doing a good job: I was just driving the car, pushing and not making any mistakes.
"We probably didn't have the fastest car yesterday or today, but we had a consistent car, so the car was quick enough lap after lap. Today I wanted a few more laps in the race because I was starting to enjoy myself in the end, when there was no oil in my face!"
He headed back over to his team, who were in the process of pulling down their awnings and getting ready to leave, and it was time to for the rest of us to pack up and head out to the airport as well. We took off after the start of the F1 race, although I noticed a lot of people were driving a little slower than usual on the freeway: after the weekend we'd had, you can never be too careful.
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