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.
The entire paddock was looking forward to arriving in Valencia, to see what had been built for the race down in the port area of town or by how much it had improved since a number of the drivers competed in the recent GT race. New races are always exciting, a chance to see what can be done with track design and to compete in front of a new crowd. What they found was that the Spanish are apparently not very good at signs.
Marco arrived early to find that our paddock was miles away from the pitlane and the F1 paddock, and quickly claimed a scooter so he could get back and forth all weekend. Each time he made the long ride between the paddocks he found another one of our strays: Andy Soucek, Dino the team manager from FMS, and a large selection of others were wilting under the ferocious midday heat and completely unable to find the paddock, all of them waving frantically when they saw Marco in the hope that he could guide them to their new home.
Later in the day Alexa came out to pick me up from the airport and we got extremely lost on the way back, so that I would fit in when we finally got there. That was her excuse, anyway.
The next morning it became apparent just how inconvenient it was to be placed so far away from the pitlane: while half the mechanics and engineers could get a lift to the paddock by sitting on the work bays as they were towed behind the teams' quad bikes and mules, the other half had to push the cars all the way to the final corner and wait there in the blazing sun to get them started before running the rest of the way around to the pitlane as everything got underway for free practice, while behind them Alexa and I walked for 15 minutes through the deserted laneways of the old port area.
It's clear that the whole area will be given a financial boost with the America's Cup and now the races being based in the area, but with an extremely tight timeline to get the track in place before the race weekend it's obvious that there is still a lot of work to do. Nonetheless the area has a faded charm which may eventually be lost when the money really kicks in: many of the buildings have been quietly crumbling since their initial construction, and while the organisers put huge billboards in front of the worst looking buildings to protect their modesty from the TV cameras, most of the others were left untouched if they were out of view.
We passed a man sitting on the roof of one dilapidated house, clearly delighted to have such an incredible view of the circuit as he drank his coffee and waved from underneath his sun shade, while across the road a large dog stood in the window on the fourth floor and quizzically studied the action unfolding below him. The holding area at the final corner looked like the buildings had once been a collection of metalwork shops before closing down many years ago, an oddly appropriate setting for the cars as onlookers sat in the shade watching men swarming all over the high tech machinery in front of them.
A moment's silence was held for the unfortunate victims of the recent tragedy at Madrid airport, a period which probably resonated with technical director Didier Perrin more than most as his plane had been number two in queue to leave behind them. But as always in racing the outside world soon washed away like the sea at low tide when the engines fired up and the visors came down, a bubble forming around the long circuit removing us from the outside world for the weekend once again.
Most of the drivers were taking things relatively easy during the session, a combination of the extreme dust on the circuit and the proximity of the walls restraining them as they circulated, with Bruno Senna late to the party while the team sorted out a mechanical issue on his car during the start of the period. Carlos Iaconelli tripped over the edge halfway through, however, and the session was briefly red flagged as the marshals swarmed out to remove his car, while Pastor Maldonado also found the wall when he re-emerged, removing his rear wing but stopping in an area which needed only yellow flags to mark his position.
At the end of the session it was Giorgio Pantano who was on top, with his last lap putting him half a second ahead of his rivals after a relatively quiet session for the Italian, with Alvaro Parente and Karun Chandhok also setting their fastest laps at the last minute to slot onto the timesheets just behind him before making the hot trek back to the paddock.
Qualifying was another matter, with the scorching heat matched by the action on track as the drivers realised that overtaking was not going to be as easy as they had previously suspected. Kamui Kobayashi was the first man under 1.50 on his first flying lap but promptly put his car into the wall, bringing out the red flags just as Pantano squeaked ahead of his time. Romain Grosjean was soon on top when they re-emerged, with the Frenchman swapping the top spot with Pantano and Maldonado throughout the session before the Italian claimed pole on his final lap by just 0.071 ahead of the Venezuelan, who himself finished fractionally ahead of Vitaly Petrov at his team's home circuit.
Giorgio was delighted to extend his lead in the championship, particularly on a day when Bruno could qualify no higher than 8th, but the remainder of the field were left grumbling about traffic on the long, winding track and playing the If Only game. Given the distance to the F1 paddock we had decided not to hold a formal press conference and put together all of the equipment that goes with it, opting instead to talk to the guys individually and have them stop in front of the hospitality area for a quick photo together. Which was exactly when some of the journalists finished the long trek to our paddock and saw the three drivers, swooping over to talk to them as an increasingly annoyed Alastair tried to take a photo around everyone.
He was a lot happier later that night when he joined Alexa and I at a dinner hosted by some of our opposite numbers at Bridgestone, an evening long discussed but difficult to arrange given our respective workloads. The one positive point about our paddock position was that we were close to the circuit exit, and for once we could actually walk back to the hotel rather than waiting all night for Marco and Didier to finish in the evening before getting a lift back, which meant that we had a great, relaxing night out instead.
But as happy as she was the previous night, on Saturday afternoon Alexa was literally jumping for joy as we walked onto the grid when she noticed that one half was full of the usual grid girls, while the other half was grid boys. She was soon rushing over to order Alastair to take photos of them before storming over to discuss the boys with the other women in the pitlane, with Bianca Senna laughing "they'd better have a girl for Bruno!" and going out to check while I walked around to watch the crestfallen looks on one half of the grid while the other side laughed out loud at them.
It was soon forgotten when the race got underway, with a shower of rain starting literally seconds before the lights went out but just as quickly stopping again, albeit too late for Ho-Pin Tung, who was pushed into the wall at turn two before bouncing back across the track and into the path of Kamui Kobayashi, with both drivers out on the spot as the safety car emerged from the pitlane. Prompt work by the marshals cleared the track of the pair along with Roldan Rodriguez and Mike Conway's cars which were also stopped on the circuit, and after just one lap the race went live as the shower petered out.
Pantano was easily the quickest man on track, leaving a fast starting Petrov behind as the post rain temperatures started to soar on track. With pitstops running to plan (other than Karun Chandhok's who was released by his crew into the path of Andy Soucek, with the pair very nearly collided immediately below us as we sat on the Renault pitwall) the Italian had the race sewn up, with the Racing Engineering crew climbing the fence early to cheer their man in as a TV camera took pictures of Alfonso getting his cigar ready (he brings 3 to each weekend, one each in case of pole or the two wins).
It was just at that moment that we saw Pantano slowing up, with Alexa banging on the window to get the team's attention as Petrov nipped through for an against the odds win, less than a second ahead of Maldonado with Grosjean rounding out the podium a couple of seconds later. While everyone was already doing the sums in their heads we looked to see where Senna was, having started the previous lap in fifth place, only for the Brazilian to splutter around the final turns and fail to score any points when Luca Filippi snuck through metres from the line to steal 8th place and the reverse pole.
Now I have a better understanding of that saying 'close but no cigar.'
In the pits there was mayhem, with everyone asking everyone else what had just happened and shocked faces all over as the Campos mechanics jumped for joy at their good fortune. It didn't take long to realise that the drivers had run out of fuel, prompting emotional outbursts among the engineers all along the pitlane. Alfonso and his team manager Tomas were inconsolable, lashing out to anyone within earshot, and I walked back to the paddock with the iSport race engineers, with Gavin glumly noting: "I know that learning is part of racing, but I'm bloody sick of learning these things the hard way..."
After the event everyone was suddenly an expert on fuel loads in Valencia, stating vociferously that they were worried about them all along despite no one having mentioned it to me before the race. I laughed when I saw Didier walk back into the paddock, telling him he must be the most hated man in the place at that very moment as he ran his eyes along the paddock, but as usual he set the record straight at once: "To be honest I was a little worried about it, so I went to every team last night and asked them if they had considered the fuel load when making their calculations.
"No one had mentioned it at all, so I went to all of them and told them to consider it. At the team bosses meeting this morning no one mentioned it again, so I said once more that they need to think about it and told them to think about topping up their fuel in the pitlane. So what more can I do?" He pulled a face that showed how much it hurt, but he made a good point. Of course I had to mention that if we hadn't had the safety car we might not have had any cars finishing: he laughed and replied: "Maybe that would have been better: then the results would have gone back a lap!"
Karun Chandhok was disappointed after the race too: he picked up a penalty for the pitlane incident and then also ran out of fuel at the end of the race, but it didn't take long before he was his usual exuberant self in hospitality. "I've just had a very strange meeting with someone who wants to get me involved in his chicken business," he stated quizzically. "I don't know why he was talking to me, to be honest: maybe you want to go into business with him instead!"
"Somehow I doubt Greenwich is a hot bed of chicken breeding: I suspect he would rather set up in India."
"Maybe, but what do I know about chickens?"
"Your namesake curry is dish is made from them, for a start, although you probably know more about India than chickens..."
Racing drivers and their managers are always looking for budgets to go racing, so these sort of unusual meetings happen more often than you'd think. Take Karun for an example: you might think that he would have no budgetary problems, but if you take what you think is his budget for the season and compare it to all of the logos on his race suit you'd still only be just over halfway there, which is where the aforementioned odd meetings come in: in this paddock, it was ever thus.
The next morning Alexa was bouncing around the pitlane again when she noticed that the grid boys were back, this time in alternate rows down the grid rather than on one side of it. Luca Filippi was even happier, if that's possible: pole position with his teammate right behind him gave the Italian a great chance to show what he could do, although that chance was tarnished a little when Buemi was wheeled off the grid as the rest of the field circulated on their warm up lap, leaving a gaping hole right between Romain Grosjean and Lucas di Grassi.
But the Italian got away well when the lights went out, leaving fellow front row starter Andy Soucek to be gobbled up by the RDD pair, with di Grassi quickly giving way to the Frenchman as they set off in hot pursuit of Filippi ("I knew that Grosjean was risking too much, so when he overtook me I just stayed there waiting for something to happen" Lucas laughed after the race, foreshadowing events to come). When the Italian's rear tyres starting going off Grosjean was all over him and pushing hard for a way through, but the former teammates were unlikely to give way easily to the other.
It was on lap ten when the inevitable happened: Grosjean braked late and wobbled his way inside Filippi and through at the final turn, but the Italian had a wider line and maintained his pace all the way down to turn two, when he tried to return the favour: Grosjean took a similar line to the one he complained about Pantano taking when they collided in Hungary, Filippi later complained that the Frenchman went wide every lap except the one where he stuck his nose inside at a corner where he would need to be allowed through, and the predictable collision left Grosjean by the side of the road and Filippi with a bent suspension as di Grassi laughed all the way to the next corner as he sailed by.
Behind them Jerome D'Ambrosio was driving like a man possessed: over previous weekends he had looked impressive but just finished outside of the points, but in Valencia he looked like a man who had the whole weekend package sussed, and a podium was just reward for his efforts. Senna should have finished ahead of the Belgian but failed to take advantage: after narrowly missing the back of a rapidly slowing Soucek he ran off track before coming back and spinning into the wall a couple of corners later, much to the amusement of rival Pantano who had stayed out of trouble and found himself back in the points once again, as though he didn't know how not to score on a race weekend.
Although it was di Grassi, Filippi and D'Ambrosio who filled out the podium, the Italian was soon labouring under a black cloud when the stewards handed him a 25 second penalty, dropping him well outside of the points as a result of a safety car for Marko Asmer's spin compacting the pack late in the race. The penalty was only decided after he had left for his hotel: Pantano was soon looking for his trophy from D'Ambrosio after being promoted to third, but the second place trophy was no longer in the vicinity.
The Campos team were over the moon after taking their second win of the weekend, and arrived back to the paddock as heroes. On the way back one of the stands spotted them and gave their local team a massive roar of approval, with the boys playing up to the cheers by jumping for joy and sharing their champagne with some of the marshals just over the fence. They weren't the only ones celebrating: Giorgio was dancing for the crowd as everyone waited for the traffic to clear in front of the paddock entrance, with Fabrizio coming out of the kitchen to dance with his countryman: Alexa got swept up in events too, but when the pair tried to throw her over the fence into the adoring public she realised it was time to make a hasty retreat for the relative safety of our unofficial sauna upstairs in the bus.
Despite the heat most of the paddock seemed delighted to be there at last, none more so than Lucas, who had now entered the championship battle in full effect. In fact Bruno was about the only one to look disappointed, and when I caught up with him in the line at the airport it was much the same: the Brazilian simply doesn't do black moods like most racing drivers, but even his famously sunny personality threatened rain as Giorgio pulled ever further from him as his neighbour and countryman closed in from behind.
"It's not over until it's mathematically impossible, so we'll just have to push harder in Spa," he noted, but it felt as though his comments were aimed more at himself than at me.
"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.
It was the first time any of us had been back to Hockenheim for a few years (even more for me, having missed the race there two years ago for my friend's wedding), and the circuit was keen to welcome everyone back in style: Alexa got the call asking if some of the drivers would be prepared to act as taxi drivers to ferry some journalists and fans around the track on Thursday along with a couple of F1 drivers.
Giorgio Pantano and Javier Villa jumped at the opportunity, along with Luca Filippi and Mike Conway, and they were all soon lined up on the track ready to go. Giorgio was his usual gregarious self, making everyone in the vicinity laugh by blurting out whatever came into his head before he took off, but the organisers soon realised they needed to pay lip service to safety and told Javi to don a helmet before heading out with Alistair onboard to take a few shots. The helmet last through the first turn before he deftly flicked it onto the back seat and, laughing, hit turn two hard as Al held on tight and snapped away.
Will Buxton got a ride when Luca asked him if he wanted to squeeze a quick lap in: he jumped at the opportunity before coming back pale but laughing out loud as another photographer followed him in with Mike: "That was awesome!" was Will's considered opinion, while the photographer went even further, noting "they don't fuck about, do they? Bloody hell, he was shifting!"
Philippe Jacquet was almost as happy as the queue of satisfied scribblers and snappers: the logistics manager was celebrating his birthday, and was the guest of honour at a party that night back at the hotel. After telling everyone that he was 42 (lets just say that earlier he had been delighted to have a woman guess he was 45 and leave it at that...) an appropriately marked cake was brought out with champagne after the meal was finished, but what was he hoping for in the way of presents? "I want rain in the races, so we can sell lots of parts!" Someone was clearly listening...
Free practice went off without a hitch though: on a drying track after a brief earlier shower Romain Grosjean just took the top spot ahead of a rapid Kamui Kobayashi and series leader Pantano in a disjointed session which saw a number of drivers, including the top three, endure spins or worse. Conway had a big accident at the start of the session when he struck the wall heavily coming into the complex, a move that would put the Briton behind the eight ball all weekend, while Filippi lost his car into turn one on his debut with new team Arden, although a moment of ingenuity saw him re-emerge later in the session: after the marshals pushed him back into the paddock he got onto the radio to let the team know where he was, and his mechanics rushed over to push him back into the pitlane where he could legally be restarted.
The order was switched in qualifying though: Giorgio came out on top of his French rival by three tenths after being slightly out of sync with the rest of the field, gaining a clear lap when the others went in for tyres before surviving a small scare when he spun at the hairpin, with Andreas Zuber filling his now customary role of third in the session as the temperature dropped and no one could run faster in the second half of qualifying, while Kamui was handed a five spot penalty after being judged to have blocked Lucas di Grassi late in the session.
It was a fairly familiar scene in the press conference, which was notable only for its lack of acoustics: a test before and afterwards proved that the microphones were working, but during the conference everyone had to strain to hear what was being said, even if by this time we knew what they would say before they said it (Giorgio: I'm happy and the team is working well, Romain: Unfortunately I didn't get pole but Giorgio was too fast, we'll work hard tonight, Andreas: We are still struggling with the tyres, but we'll get there).
No disrespect to the trio, but I'd been hoping for some new drivers in the press conference, just so I'd have something new to ask, as I noted afterwards: "I'm running out of ways to ask if you're happy with third mate: you need to do something different in qualy in Hungary."
"I'm doing everything I can!" Andi laughed, "at the moment I'm giving everything: I'm driving with my arse!"
"Maybe that's the problem: you need to drive with your balls..."
"Yeah! Maybe then I'll beat Giorgio to pole!"
We had a dinner later that night for selected British journalists with Conway, Pantano and Karun Chandhok in attendance, the latter joining us after hitting the buffet and coming back with some comically large carrots lying on top of the rest of his dinner: when asked what they were for he laughed and stated "I’m so far back on the grid tomorrow I need to do something to improve my sight to see the bloody start lights!"
The dinner was a roaring success: we discussed Mike's proclivity towards breakdancing any time he's out, Karun's local Indian restaurant naming a dish after him, Giorgio's new obsession with golf (I know: we couldn't see it either, but he loves playing a round...) and the state of the GP2 world. So successful was it that Marco eventually came around to ask if we were leaving soon as he wanted to go back to the hotel, the first time I can remember him waiting for me rather than vice versa.
On Saturday we were off to the signing session once again, with Kamui and Luca Filippi and Andy Soucek the centre of attention for the queues of Germans in attendance. The Japanese driver is a big poker player, spending a lot of time with the F1 guys around a table, and he figured it was time to bring it back to our paddock: Paul Quinn, who helps out with the e-zine, found a venue upstairs at Campos and got a few of the other drivers in before fleecing them all, claiming it was the first time he'd ever played cards in his life.
Whether or not that was the truth, he was certainly a convert: "we're going to host a game every Friday night now, first at Campos and then move it to the hospitality area after dinner. It'll be great: we'll have the cards, and maybe backgammon too. I can't wait!" I'm expecting to have every game known to man by the time we get to Monza, from chess to Jenga.
Sitting in the back of a minibus with a bunch of drivers is a great time to catch up on the gossip: Diego Nunes is apparently unwilling to follow Bruno Senna's health food regime (although I'm not convinced that mozzarella and prosciutto counts as such), but was happy to get on the back of a scooter ridden by Alberto Valerio, the pair crashing 3 times in Monaco because they were talking too much, although the latter owns a right hand drive in London and a left hand drive car in Monaco, which probably leaves him permanently confused on the road. He's thinking of selling both cars at the moment, although surely it would be easier to just swap them.
At the signing the two guys dressed up as Bridgestone's crash test dummies we a little over-excited, jumping around and slapping hands with everyone: I think they would have started body popping if they hadn't been told to calm down a little while the drivers were there. The guys themselves were signing machines, getting through hundreds of autographs while they were there: Luca came out with a sore hand and an annoyed look on his face: "one of the people in the crowd said 'look, there's Fisichella', but I'm only 23!" Alexa pulled out some chocolates at that stage, and suddenly he was all smiles as he chewed contentedly.
And then it was time for the race, and for most of the first 35 laps it seemed like we were out of luck drama-wise: Pantano and Grosjean made good starts and left, Zuber made a dreadful one and held up their pursuers enough to build a gap from lap one, and after the pitstops very little had changed.
But then the rain came.
Sitting on the pitwall we had no idea: we couldn't feel the rain, and we couldn't really see it for a while on the screens, but soon enough it made its way across the circuit to the main complex and the mayhem began. Grosjean, initially holding back to watch Pantano's lines and benefit from his experience, eventually felt confident enough (despite his slicks) to stick his car up the inside and through, his rival not willing to take a chance for 2 points against 8, while behind them it looked like no one wanted to join them on the podium as everyone took it in turns to fall off the racetrack, wet tyres or dry seemingly making no difference as the storm changed the circuit each time around.
Javier Villa looked to have third wrapped up but found the wall on the last lap, with Zuber slamming into the barriers next to him, while Senna kept spinning despite the change of tyres, leaving the way clear for Alvaro Parente to steal the podium position from the Brazilian with the finish line almost in sight.
It wasn't until just before the press conference that I had a feeling that something had gone wrong: Grosjean was called up to see the stewards, and the longer he was held the worse it looked for him, and although we deferred the conference in case the Frenchman made it back eventually we had to go on without him, prompting Giorgio to exclaim that he was going to sit in the middle, with me having to stop him, noting "that seat is for the winner, Giorgio..."
"I thought for sure we would win this race," he noted, "and for most of the race we were doing the job and winning the race, but the weather was unlucky in the last few laps and Grosjean got past me. It was very difficult and I was being very careful, and Romain was able to be faster than me so I had to just not be stupid and let him go. To be honest I was not thinking about the championship, I was thinking about being there at the end!
"It was so dangerous on those last few laps: the first sector was really wet and it is so easy to make a mistake in those conditions. Anyway we just stayed out with the situations and tried to make the best laps that we could without making a mistake, because they were telling me over the radio that the others were very far from me, and why would I make a big risk for just two points more?"
Alvaro was just delighted to have survived the start of the race: "Yeah, we had some definite problems on that first lap: the car in front of me stalled which wasn't a big problem, but then I lost my line into turn one because I had someone inside so I couldn't hold my position, and then I got out on the astroturf so I lost a few more places there!
"In the beginning it was not good for sure, and then we had a pitstop and I managed to overtake Filippi and Petrov when they came out of the pits and I was in eighth place. I was trying catch up but I was starting to struggle in some sectors, and then the last five laps came! We took a risk trying to stay on the track, and then we could pass some people and have some interesting fights until the end."
Eventually the news filtered back to the paddock: Grosjean had overtaken Marko Asmer under yellow and, despite lapping the Estonian after being waved through, a penalty was due and the win was lost. Sitting upstairs in the bus immediately after returning to the paddock, the Frenchman was philosophical: "I didn't see yellow flags, and there were blue flags for four corners for him and he didn't let me go, and then he braked a lot on this right with no yellow flags and nothing on my dashboard as well: at the exit of the corner I made him a sign and he moves on the right so I thought okay, he lets me go, and then I saw the yellow flags, but for me they were at this point only and not before.
"But the thing is we won on the track: we didn't do anything wrong, we didn't gain any advantage from this, so the thing is winning it on the track is important, but second with a drive through is not bad. And instead of being eighth, I will be seventh on the grid now!"
By that time all of the teams were eating dinner, a small break before heading back to work on the cars for the next race, while Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso had come down too, to catch up with friends and escape the pressures of the big paddock. Nelson Piquet was back as well, although I didn't see him until I was getting some dinner: he sidled up behind me and patted my stomach as usual, laughing as he said "I wouldn't take any of that lasagne if I were you: I don't think you need it..."
"Sod off!" I blurted as he sniggered, "I'll stop having lasagne when you sort out your qualifying!"
Turns out, he didn't need to...
The next morning the sun rose early, broad and strong enough to burn off the remaining few whisps of cloud as the paddock got itself ready ahead of the second race. We set up our computers on the new second pitwall box McLaren have built ("Just so you know, I wouldn't leave my bottle of water there," a passing DPR engineer advised, "McLaren get a bit funny about liquids on their desktop...") and had the usual stroll along the grid, looking for where the drama would come from this time until it was time for the start.
Chandhok and Soucek got away strongly from the line, but Lucas di Grassi was quicker still and went around the outside into turn one and the lead, but it wasn't to last: the Indian soon powered back into the lead as the Brazilian looked to be struggling with his car, and a few laps later it was a moot point anyway when Pastor Maldonado clattered into the back of him at the hairpin, putting the Campos driver out on the spot.
Andreas Zuber had big plans when he arrived in the paddock that morning: "I'm going to have an amazing start this morning," he told me as we stood around watching everyone walking by. "My starts are always mega or shit now! But today it's gonna be great."
"What makes you think that? It was awful yesterday. Plus, you've got some ... interesting drivers around you."
"Yeah, but you'll see." Walking back up the grid before the race I stopped in front of him, pointed to Valerio's car in front and formed a steering wheel shape with my hands and weaved them back and forth before shrugging, to which he replied with a well known international hand gesture, but he was right: his start was amazing, and he was up to sixth before the end of the first lap.
When Soucek and Pantano were out after the former's slightly assisted spin at the hairpin he was up a few more spots, and strong overtaking got him in front of the di Grassi / Maldonado contretemps and put him on the tail of the race leader, which he pushed hard for the remainder of the race. When Senna slid by Parente he was off in pursuit of the top two, but despite a race long battle the podium was set.
Chandhok was delighted to be back on the top step, that familiar face contorted by a mixture of tears and elation smeared across his face as the Indian anthem was played before the champagne could be sprayed: I stood with his father who gazed up in adoration, his expression exactly the same. Back in the paddock once again and it seemed that everyone in the world was trying to contact him at once, all wanting to share vicariously in his joy.
"This time is a little different to Spa last year," he reflected in a rare quiet minute in the back of the iSport truck, "because in Spa I was just really, really pleased but this time there is a little relief as well, because this year I came into it believing we were fast enough, knowing we were fast enough to win races but it didn't happen in Asia, and for a number of reasons I think we got robbed of a few wins there.
"I was really, really pissed off after Asia, so it's really nice to get one under our belts here: we've had good race pace all season long you know, in Monaco and Silverstone, but we've struggled a little bit in qualifying for a few reasons. And I'm really pleased for the team as well, to get two drivers to have won a race, and I just love working with these guys: they're the best team I've ever worked with, they're just so good to get along with, and with Bruno as I well because I think we get along better than any other teammates in the pitlane. It's just a great feeling right now!"
Often the second placed driver is disappointed, being so close but not taking the win, but Andreas was just pleased to be on the podium again after a few disappointing events: "Yeah, it was good today: we know what the problem was yesterday, it was just too long a first gear and we burned the clutch, so today we knew that we can start because we're not stupid, you know: it looks like it maybe because we had so many start problems this year, but we knew already the problems afterwards.
"I had a really mega start and after just one lap I was sixth already, I overtook four or five cars at the start and then on the first corner I was a bit wide because one guy pushed me out so I lost two places there but I made it back, I overtook my teammate, di Grassi, and then I went when Pantano and Soucek were a little bit fighting and overtook them on the outside when they touched, and it was really nice. After five laps I was pushing Chandhok quite hard but then my rear tyres lost a little bit of grip and I saw Bruno flying from behind and so I said okay, I'll wait for a mistake from Chandhok but it didn't happen - he drove a really good race today - and when you come from eleventh to second you don't want to risk too much!"
Bruno was quietly pleased with what he saw as a recovery drive: "We started from fifth place which should lead to a forward looking race but I had a really bad start: I got swamped by many cars and just had to let some people pass me because I was just being careful not to be taken out. And it worked, because everybody got too excited during the race and cleared the road a little bit: I had a good move on Alvaro, it was a good opportunity and I took the chance very well, so it was one of those days where you have to fight back without making any mistakes and I did it, so it was good to finish third.
"I have to thank the team because they did a great job today, and it was a good day for the team because Karun won and he broke his Sunday jinx in great style, and I'm happy for him as well. This is great for him and for the team because it motivates the whole team and next time we are just going to be stronger and stronger, and we now lead the constructor's championship once again too."
And then it was time to sit down and watch the F1 race, a flashback to two years ago in our paddock where Hamilton and Piquet were fighting for the championship: the pair finished first and second in the senior event, an incentive if any were needed for the guys to see what can happen if everything goes right when they get back on track in Budapest.
The sky was tall and wide and blue over the flatlands of Silverstone for as far as the eye could see as we walked into the paddock on Thursday morning, conditions perfect for the start of a race weekend that traditionally shakes out the season and points us towards the guys who will be fighting for the championship. Silverstone is in the middle of nowhere, and despite pulling more interlopers into the paddock than any other round the feeling was that nothing else mattered than the races to come.
One person who almost didn't make it to the track was Vitaly Petrov. The likeable Russian driver was made to jump through a lot of hoops before he was granted a visa into the country, with the British government apparently cracking down on entry to his countrymen as a result of the current war of words between the two nations.
Perhaps he should have tried to get a Finnish passport: the area he grew up in used to be part of Finland after all, and certainly that country seems to have a history of breeding fast drivers. But after 2 days of form filling he was finally allowed in, although it wasn't the start to the weekend that he had hoped for as he looked to get his championship back on track.
Kamui Kobayashi was clearly in a better mood as he waited for the gates to open at the start of free practice: the Japanese driver looked completely chilled as he sat in his fold up chair, giant headphones on and playing his favourite tunes as he prepared himself for the session to come, looking as though he would have been happy to sit there for the rest of the day and soak up the sun.
Free practice turned out to be an anti-climax excitement wise: a few drivers made gentle spins as they looked for the limit on the fast, sweeping circuit, but most of them had decent knowledge of the place and were able to stay on track throughout. Romain Grosjean was the fastest man on circuit despite being one of the drivers who had never been there before, just ahead of local driver Mike Conway and Luca Filippi, with clouds appearing in the second half of the session to bring temperatures, and times, back down.
Qualifying was quiet too, with the action happening in the first half of the session once again. The ART duo of Grosjean and Filippi were 1-2 on the timesheets when their team brought them in early to try and save their set of tyres, but Bruno Senna used his local knowledge to come out as they returned to take the top spot on a mostly clear track. Despite a big push on the second set the resulting traffic meant there was no more time to be found: the Brazilian took pole by just one tenth from Grosjean and Andreas Zuber.
The improvement in time was exactly what Senna was looking for after a disappointing practice: "We went the wrong way with car set up in testing, we saw the problems we had and made a few changes for qualifying: it's always a risk to change the car for qualifying, but it worked out good enough.
"I'm glad I know the place very well from my previous years of experience: as you can see it's quite tight at the front as usual - it always is - and this time at least I did pole the perfect way, without having any incidents on the way to it!"
Despite his lack of knowledge of the track, Grosjean was not as happy as his rival with his result: "For me it's the first time racing here, so I came here this morning and did only 16 laps in free practice: of course if you are in a leading position it is a bit disappointing to lose the pole position, and even more because I think we had the pace to do it, but the strategy was not so good because when we were on track there was everybody and we went into the pits at the same time as everybody, so when I went out on the second set there was a car coming out of the pits every lap.
After a tough couple of races, Zuber was happy just to be back at the sharp end of the grid: "The car since Monaco has not really been on the top level, and we still need to work on it because now there is quite a big gap already to iSport and ART, but we will solve it. In free practice today we had quite a bad car, but we worked very hard between free practice and qualifying: I still had to push quite hard and I was struggling, and it's a pity that I lost four tenths on my first sector because I had traffic, but I think I was quickest in the middle sector and the same time as Romain in the last sector, so the car must be good."
Afterwards Alexa had to organise a collection of Brazilian and Spanish journalists who she had invited to dinner, along with some of their countrymen driving in the series: each weekend she has invited a different national group to come to hospitality and get to know their drivers a little better, and so far it has been a very popular idea.
Unfortunately though, she didn't take into account that both nationalities tend to eat a little later than she's used to: when no one turned up at the allotted time Roldan Rodriguez couldn't wait any longer and got some dinner ("I'll eat again, I promise: I'm just hungry now!") while Lucas di Grassi and Bruno Senna came up with their solutions for all of the ills of their world.
"I'm going to start up our version of the driver's association in F1," Lucas proclaimed. "I'm going to call it GP2DA."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"I'm going to get changes made to the series. First off, we don't have enough time for qualifying, so we have too much traffic: I'm going to extent the period so we can get some clearer track."
"How are you going to do that?"
"You'll see. Also, I think it is unfair that some drivers will test in Valencia before we get there in F3 or the GTs: we should all get together and promise that we won't test like that so there is no advantage just by having a budget."
"You're not doing that test? I thought everyone was doing it."
"Oh yes, I'll be there: it doesn't cost that much, really..."
Meanwhile Luca Filippi turned up in his Honda outfit, fresh from hosting the pub quiz the F1 team put on for the journalists as part of their usual Silverstone pub night. If it seems strange to you that an Italian driver was picked to host an English quiz night, Luca was equally surprised: "I don't really know why they picked me to do it, but I was happy to be invited. I had to read through the questions first, just to make sure it was okay."
"How did it go?"
"Really good I think: afterwards they came over and told me I did a good job, but they seemed a bit surprised, so I said 'tank-a you, I practice much to make the good-a English speak for you'. I don't know if they even realised I was joking!"
"Heh, probably not. Don't forget to see Alexa before you go: she wants to interview you for the Proust feature on the website."
"What, Alain Proust? Ha ha, I prefer Mansell!"
The next morning we had the usual signing session, but unfortunately it was held during an F1 practice session: when we looked out it appeared that there was nobody there until we looked around the corner and realised that everyone was queuing politely and waiting for our arrival. It didn't impress Alastair much: "These photos are going to look boring: there's no one up the front grabbing and fighting for the posters! I can't believe I miss the scrum after Turkey..."
When we returned Trident were waiting for Mike Conway: they had made a Union Jack racing outfit for him in honour of his home race, and despite the presence of a number of TV crews he was completely lost for words, so moved was he by their gesture. The only answer he had was to hug everyone in the team as his family watched on, proud and delighted that they managed to keep the secret intact over the weekend.
And then it was time for the race. If some of this year's races haven't been quite as exciting as we've been used to, Silverstone made up for that in spades. Senna made a storming start when the lights went out in race one, taking Lucas di Grassi with him while Grosjean limped away from the line and soon had the blue and orange car of Giorgio Pantano filling his mirrors: Senna held his line until he went too deep into Stowe and a gust of wind carried him the rest of the way wide of the asphault, undoing all his good work as his countryman blasted past and into the lead.
Karun Chandhok made a valid point after the race when he brought up the issue of tyres: "There's no point having a tyre that can do 95 laps, because anyone can do 95 laps on those tyres: when you really have to look after the tyres and change the set up I think you start to see how different teams start to struggle differently. Lucas was struggling with the front, other people were struggling with the rears, and I think to me this is what it should be all about: in Formula One they're not going to do one set of tyres for the whole race."
The pitstop strategy soon whispered the story of the unfolding race: Kobayashi was in as soon as possible on lap 6, his team running the now famous Nakajima Hail Mary strategy, and was back out in clear air setting fastest lap after fastest lap as he slid up the timesheets. By the time that Grosjean made his stop on lap 15 he re-emerged in 8th with the Japanese driver all over his rear wing, albeit with older tyres: Pantano slid out between the pair one lap later, with di Grassi released into Senna’s path as he was arriving on the next lap, pushed the latter back down to seventh when he finally made it back out on track.
Kobayashi was robbed a few laps later when he slowed and stopped on the side of the circuit, and although Grosjean and Pantano were locked in a serious battle they were still carving chunks out of di Grassi's lead: the Frenchman's tyres were soon shot as he locked up on every left-handed turn, but the Brazilian was clearly not enjoying his second set of tyres either. It was only a matter of time before Pantano found his way further up the order, but in the meantime the Chandhok/Senna/Buemi train slid by a wayward Zuber and put themselves on Grosjean's tail.
Sitting on the pitwall Alexa and I were typing furiously (her on the live comments, me making notes for the race report) while, enviably, Didier Perrin and Bruno Michel sat between us cheering wildly at every move as the four men slicing up and down the order as they passed and were passed by each other. "This is the best race ever!" Bruno yelled, and it was certainly up there: the only other race I could recall with such close quarters fighting was race two at the Nurburgring in 2005, after which Adam Carroll gave us the unofficial motto of GP2: "rubbing is racing!"
No one wanted it to end, but inevitably the chequered flag dropped on Giorgio Pantano (whose amazing job was somewhat overshadowed by the footage of the open warfare behind him) who was followed across the line by di Grassi (who, understandably, looked like he'd eaten three lemons before climbing onto the podium after losing what seemed a certain victory) and Karun Chandhok (who had driven his heart out, overtaking a huge number of cars to claim his spot on the podium).
But what of the battle behind them? Buemi had somehow threaded the needle to push up to fourth on the final lap, breaking away just enough to escape the gravitational pull of the Grosjean/Senna scrap behind him. And while it appeared that the Brazilian had also got away on the final lap, a mistake in the complex at the end of the lap pushed him wide and allowed the Frenchman through for fifth just ahead of the finish line.
The win meant that Pantano now held the record for highest number of wins in GP2 history, but for the driver himself it meant something more: "That's important to me, but now we need to finish this: I would like to have a Formula One seat now! I would like to be here for my last year, try to win this championship, and then go to be in Formula One. We are halfway through the season, and it's still long because you never know what is happening in the other races, but if it's coming like this and we're not having any problems then it should be not difficult to take this championship."
Di Grassi, meanwhile, was left wondering what might have been: "I had a great start from fourth to second and I was putting a little bit of pressure on Bruno in the opening laps, and then he did a little mistake at Stowe and I got the lead. From there I just opened from Grosjean and the car was very good: the pitstop was okay and the team did a great job, but the second set did not perform so well and we started to have some problems. It was just getting worse and worse and worse, up to the point where Giorgio was much faster, and there was nothing I could do to hold him.
"I was a bit disappointed because I led the race for thirty laps but then I lost it in the end, but for me it's my second weekend since I've come back and I'm already sixth in the championship, so I can't really complain..."
Chandhok had an answer for those who think it's not possible to overtake with the new cars: "I think if you watch the replay of today's race you'll see the answer to that! Starting from tenth we got ahead of Mike who got bogged down on the line, then I got past Soucek around the outside into Stowe, I got Kobayashi because he made a mistake into Abbey, I passed both the ART cars in the same way going into Brooklands, I passed Zuber somewhere else: I think I passed more cars today than I have all season! Silverstone is a circuit where it's supposed to be very difficult to overtake, but it's worked out very well for me!
"For sure it is a little bit more difficult than last year, but it all has to go hand in hand, and I think this weekend we've had a really good tyre for racing and it made the racing very exciting, I think everybody who watched it enjoyed it, and hopefully we'll have more weekends like this, you know."
Better still, the next morning we woke up to rain. Driving into the circuit Didier and Marco did their usual trick of smiling and waving at every speed camera on the way to the track ("It's just in case we end up speeding," Marco smirked, "I'm going to refuse to pay until they send me a copy of the photo...") while Didier considered the action ahead: "I don't care what happens today: if it rains we'll have a good race in the wet, and if it doesn't rain we'll have a good race because they've used up their tyres..."
One person who wasn't happy about the conditions was Romain Grosjean: "It was too cold to catch the chairlift this morning, so we got the snow machine here" he grimaced at he walked into the hospitality area just ahead of his usual pre-race ritual run. He stood there for a while joking with everyone around him, but eventually he had to stop procrastinating and headed out into the gloom.
As did we all. With the rain stopping at the start of the race Luca Filippi led the rest of the grid into Stowe, but only just: Senna made a storming start to tear past a slow Andreas Zuber and put himself on the rear wing of the Italian, who was soon cursing the wrong set up as he spun off track and handed the lead to the Brazilian, who never looked back until the chequered flag, making up for the disappointment of the previous day. But with the rain starting up once again most of the field had off track excursions, with Grosjean soon back in the pits for a new front wing as a result of his unexpected trip.
While di Grassi also made a great start he was unable to run at the pace of his countryman, but nevertheless was happy to run at his own pace without any challenge from behind in the awful conditions on track, while behind him Pantano and Mike Conway fought for the final podium position for the remainder of the race.
Kamui Kobayashi, however, was revelling in the conditions, slicing through the field like a hot knife through butter as he put himself on track for a points finish despite the heartache of the earlier race, while Grosjean too was carving his way back once he re-emerged from the pits.
Andy Soucek too was under constant pressure, this time from Vitaly Petrov for fifth place, with the Austro-Spanish driver doing all he could do to hold back the inevitable: the Russian finally barged his way through after running a lap side by side on lap 13 before walking away, setting a string of fastest laps despite the rain falling harder than ever, while Kobayashi's similar move one lap later left Soucek unable to hold his line and spinning off into the wall and instant retirement.
Further back and there was a fourway battle for tenth place between Yelmer Buurman, Javier Villa, Jerome D'Ambrosio and Adrian Valles, which only broke apart when the race leader came through to lap the foursome towards the end of the race. The move clearly unsettled Valles: while Senna was greeted by the chequered flag the Spaniard spun in front of Kobayashi, who had nowhere to go but into Valles’ sidepod, followed by Pastor Maldonado. The Japanese driver lost a point for sixth place behind di Grassi, Pantano, Conway and Petrov as a result, promoting Davide Valsecchi and leaving Kobayashi seething with anger in the pitlane as the champagne flowed on the podium.
It was time to leave shortly after when journalist Charles Bradley offered me a lift home: we jumped into the car just before the start of the F1 race and headed out, taking advantage of the clear roads to put some distance between us and the circuit. Listening to the race on the radio David Croft noted: "Well, it looks as though that's the end of the rain for this race" just as the heavens opened above us. All we could do is look up, see that it was making a beeline for Silverstone, and laugh.
This time last year we thought we'd never have to come back again, and we gave thanks for this blessing. The weekend last year was too much, in every respect, and when Bernie announced we wouldn't come back to this circuit in the middle of nowhere, everyone was happy. Which possibly explained my mood upon arrival at Nevers train station.
"Nice suit," Didier and Marco laughed as I walked towards them, and straightened their pretend ties for each other as I got closer. That both of them came for the drive to pick me up speaks volumes about the entertainment levels anywhere around the circuit. Six and a half hours to get there and the first thing I see is their comedy routine.
"I could have gone to Bahrain in less time than it took me to get here," I moaned, ruefully regretting not buying a sandwich between trains in Paris.
"Yes, that's very true," Didier conceded, "but you wouldn't see much happen on track there while we're all here..."
Didier was full of aphorisms for my entertainment and delight this weekend. "It's a very small pitlane here," he noted as we drove to the circuit the next morning, the sky the usual grey duvet of clouds, "it's quite dangerous, so everyone needs to be very careful." Why was he telling me this now? I had no idea, but it meant that I had the thought stuck firmly in my mind as we walked up to the pitlane for free practice shortly afterwards.
I walked up with Alexa, who had been so bored the night before that she had already set up the press conference area, apart from the cables. "Well, I wanted to leave something for you to do," she lied, before admitting she wouldn't mind having another refresher course on which plug goes where. It was during this riveting conversation that a man was run down in front of us by an empty car.
The Super Nova mechanics were pushing their car along the pitlane to their space at the far end, along with all of the other teams: for some reason an old local man was walking along the middle of the fast lane avoiding all of the other cars before walking straight into the path of the navy blue car. The mechanics yelled out to him but he failed to notice, and when one of the mechanics tried to pull him out of the way the man pulled back the other way, right into the oncoming car's front wheel.
He fell immediately to the ground with a sickening crunch, the wheel having run along his leg past his knee before they could stop the momentum, and he was trapped on the ground for a few seconds as they pushed the car back off him and tried to get him up and safely away: his foot was pointing the wrong way, and it was obvious that his ankle was broken, at the very least. Pat Corey and one of the marshals picked the man up and carried him over to a flight case while a medic was called, but with the session about to start Pat had to get up on the pitwall to carry out his more regular engineering duties.
The session started under ominously heavy looking clouds, and local favourite Romain Grosjean set the pace, claiming the top spot on his first flying lap on his second set of tyres and staying there despite constant pressure from Andreas Zuber, Javier Villa and Giorgio Pantano, with Villa setting his fastest lap just before putting the car into the wall just five minutes into the session but still finishing a mere two tenths off the fastest lap. He wasn't the only driver to run off track as they tried to find the edge, with Giorgio and Karun Chandhok both spinning off harmlessly at the close of the session.
What with it being Magny Cours, little happened in the time between free practice and qualifying, and Will Buxton came down from the big paddock to say hello. "Any stories?" he asked, slightly desperately. "I've got nothing to write about this weekend."
"It's Magny Cours," I replied, "what do you expect? I was tempted to wish for more excitement, although after last year I'm not sure that I want any more, especially after that old guy got run over this morning..."
Soon enough it was qualifying, and the blanket of cloud had burnt away and left the pitlane scorching as we piled in, all of us looking around more often than usual as we found our way to our spots. For some reason the teams had changed order in the pitlane and BCN were in our usual spot on the Renault pitwall, so Alexa and I walked down to join Durango on the Toro Rosso perch instead, listening to Ben Hanley swap jokes in Italian with his new crew before pulling his helmet on and heading back out on track.
The session was fast and frantic, and more enjoyable than most as Bruno Senna, Romain and Giorgio fought tooth and nail for the top spot. Bruno eventually came out on top, in dramatic circumstances: running through the final complex he clattered over the kerbs and then flew across the line to record his pole position time just a fraction before hitting the wall and knocking the rear off his car, prompting a red flag period so the marshals could collect what was left of his car as the remainder of the field eased their way back into the pits.
With five minutes left on the clock the pitlane was a pressure cooker, and it wasn't going to take much to make it blow: FMS and Super Nova were between us and the pit exit, and it was clear that a problem was brewing there. One of the FMS mechanics was standing in the fast lane in front of a Super Nova car, and he was asked a few times to move to no avail: when the green light came on he was ‘assisted’ out of the way and both teams came together in a swear-off as the cars tore back out on track before the teams were separated once more.
On track the pace was intense until Jerome D'Ambrosio ran wide and beached himself deep in the gravel: the resultant yellow flag meant the session was effectively over, with Bruno taking the top spot by just 0.014 from a very disappointed Grosjean and Pantano.
"Obviously that wasn't how I intended take pole!" Senna laughed in the press conference afterwards. "I had a good lap going and then had a bit of a wild entry into the chicane, I used a bit too much kerb on the left before entering it, and I thought I could get away with it. I was carrying some good speed, but when I hit the kerb on the right I just lost the car and I completely lifted to try and save the car: there was no point on taking pole and crashing! But unfortunately I just couldn't really recover the car: I was sideways and just went into the wall.
"Fortunately I was quick enough for pole position, but I'd prefer to do it the classic way, with four wheels attached to the car next time!"
Romain was soon contemplating how a home race affects you in the car: "It's not pressure, it's something nice: you feel that people are behind you and try to help you, to just give you breath. It's just nice, it's not a pressure: for me it's just nice to be home, and at least I know the track after Turkey and Monaco, so it helps me a lot. The car is very consistent and I could do a lot of fast laps, so that's good for the race: the aim is to take a good start, and then we'll see what happens."
Meanwhile, Giorgio was left ruing what could have been after taking an off-road excursion just after changing to his second set of tyres: "I lost the right mirror, and with the left one I couldn't see if there was another car coming: I stayed on the outside just to stay off the fast line, but it was so dirty and I was on new tyres so I went off. I lost the right mirror and I didn't want to be penalised for being in the way, and that's why I went off."
The signing session came and went the next day, a blur of Gallic hands outstretched to take posters signed by the most local drivers, while back in the paddock life was making friends with more of the locals. "Bloody froggies!" Christian hissed as he walked back from a very loud conversation with two men next to the hospitality area. "They just don't want to do nothing! My garbage needs to be taken away: everywhere else it's no problem, but here they just shrug and say non..." Alexa just laughed when I told her the story, adding "I know exactly what he means. And I am French!"
And then it was time for race one: Senna was fast off the line and into the lead, with Pantano slicing his way by Grosjean when the lights went out to lead the Frenchman through the first corner, while behind them Kamui Kobayashi was left steaming on the grid after stalling at the start and then being pushed the wrong way off the line so that he couldn't be restarted in the pits: "I can't believe they went the wrong way: it's all shit!" was his pithy comment after the race.
The Japanese driver's DAMS teammate was soon in for an early stop: last season the French team brought Kazuki Nakajima in early on a regular basis, with the current Williams driver constantly forcing his way up the grid as a result and affecting the strategy calls for all of the other teams, and it was clear that the tactic was a favourite for them. It worked too: the Belgian was the first of the pitted drivers until Andreas Zuber made his stop from the sharp end of the field.
Senna and Pantano came in on lap 18 for their stops, re-emerging with Grosjean between them due to an earlier stop and some fast laps: the latter soon took advantage of the Brazilian's cooler tyres as he attacked for the lead at the Adelaide hairpin, taking the top spot easily as Senna fought in vain to hold onto second from Giorgio before returning to the pits with a clutch problem. The Italian was soon putting Romain under serious pressure before he too wilted with a mechanic gremlin, handing Giorgio his second win in succession at the French circuit ahead of series returnee Lucas di Grassi and Pastor Maldonado.
It was while I was getting everything ready for the press conference that I made my mistake: "Talk into this Giorgio," I asked as I handed him my wireless microphone, "I need to test the level."
"She has a very nice bottom," he noted as he watched a girl walking across the room. "Can you hear me? Hello? My name is Giorgio: I'm a racing driver..."
"I think I better have that mike back now."
"No, you gave it to me so it is mine now..."
"We are doing a good job here like all year," he noted more seriously when the conference started, "like you saw in Turkey, like you saw in Barcelona, also in Monte Carlo where we were fast but had an unlucky weekend. Anyway we are working well, we are working together, me, the team, everybody, and we prepare the car to do the job: that's it. When Bruno stopped there was still another 18 laps or something to the end, and also Romain. You never know what can happen, and fortunately for me they stopped before the end: when I saw Romain stop I just slowed down and thought I would go easy until the end."
"I was expecting a strong comeback, but not as strong as second place," Lucas smiled. "I think from this weekend it is nine months without racing since the last race in 07, and some of these guys have been doing the Asian series and GP2 for a long time so I was expecting to struggle, and I am struggling a little bit with this new car: it's very different from what I drove last year. I think GP2 has been very, very strong since the beginning: it's just the rookies get experience and then they replace the guys that leave the championship, and every year it gets really strong. And this year it is very strong: you have at least four or five teams fighting for a win, Pantano I think is the first guy that won for the second time, so it is again very, very competitive, as it was last year and the year before."
"We had a lot of problems with the car at the beginning of practice," Pastor reflected, "and in qualifying too: for today we did a lot of changes in the car, just to try, and the car was very strong. I was very constant, and when I saw Luca in front of me I said okay, I need to stay here to save some points, and after I was pushing as normal and I saw Bruno on the big TV stopped, and I though I've got one position, and then in the end I saw Grosjean and thought, one more! The weekend started very hard for us, and finished really good."
It is about that time on most race weekends when Didier comes over and says: "Did you notice there were no technical problems today, once again? I'm pretty happy" before wandering off to tell everyone else he could see about the reliability of his car, but for once he was nowhere to be seen. "Have you seen Didier anywhere?" Paul Jackson asked as I walked along the paddock.
"No: he's probably hiding at the moment."
"Yeah, he probably should: I won't be the only one looking for him. Let him know I want to talk to him, if you see him anywhere..."
I'm sure they sorted out their problems while the rest of the paddock watched the football: personally I wanted to have the Spain v Italy game on Saturday, given the make up of the paddock, but unfortunately it was Holland v Russia instead. Vitaly Petrov was happy, anyway.
"So, what team do you support in this championship?" Luca Filippi asked me as we sat in hospitality after dinner to watch the start of the game.
"Italy, of course."
"Actually, I have supported them since I was child: I used to watch all their games with an Italian mate of mine back in Sydney."
"Bravo. So maybe you remember Toto Schillaci?"
"Remember him? I had a t-shirt with him on it."
"Ah, bravo! So, we make a deal: if Italy wins the championship, I will bring you a jersey to Silverstone."
The next morning we were greeted with rain as we awoke: this should be fun I thought, and so it proved. Walking along the grid it was interesting to look at the tyres: Sebastien Buemi, Yelmer Buurman, Filippi and Senna were on slicks, most of the remainder of the grid were playing it safe. "You have to have wets on now," Hiroki Yoshimoto noted as we walked to the back of the grid, "feel how greasy the track is under your feet..."
The start of the race seemed to bear him out, as the slick shod drivers slipped backwards, but as a drier line started to appear the rest of the field made their way into the pits and the gamble seemed to be coming good: Senna was ultimately hobbled by another car problem, but the remaining three were soon celebrating their good fortune on the podium of the wildest race of the year.
"I'm really happy with this win!" an overjoyed Buemi laughed back in the paddock. "It is really good for me and the team, and now we are third in the championship. We started in P21: it's just unbelievable! I was hoping for the rain maybe to make things a little bit harder, maybe to have a possibility to come back, but I didn't think we had the possibility to do so much. It's just really good that we didn't know what to take but we made the right decision, and from there I did a really good race and the team did well: it just went, you know, like in a dream..."
"I had a few podiums in Asia, but this is my first one in the main series," his teammate Buurman noted. "It's really good: I didn't really expect it after qualifying, but it's a good feeling and hopefully we can do it a bit more often. Normally I always like the wet, and in British F3 I won twice in the wet, so I've always been quite good in the wet: when I saw that this morning I was really happy that I was going to drive in it!"
"Today when I woke up and was putting bag in the car I saw it was raining and I was super happy," Filippi smirked afterwards, "because I knew that these conditions would giving me a chance to prove that my potential is something better than what we've done before. During the warm up I did 2 laps to warm up the slicks because I wanted to start with them, even if they were going to be very slow in the beginning: I was thinking about last year when we had similar conditions in race two, and the circuit got drier and drier so I knew at the end it was completely dry, so I pushed for slick tyres.
“I knew for sure it would be difficult at the beginning, and I was last or so and struggling with no pace because I had a full dry set up and it was very difficult to feel the car and find the limit, but I knew it was a super strategy even when everyone was overtaking me: I was just waiting and taking no risks."
And then it was time to pack up and head home: luckily I was able to sneak onto an earlier train in Paris so I could get home in only six hours and watch the second half of the football, but unluckily I was able to watch the penalty shoot out and see my Italian jersey disappear into the hands of the Spanish goalkeeper...
"Let me know what time you get in and I'll pick you up at the airport." To say that I was surprised at Marco's unexpected offer would be an understatement.
"No, no, it's fine: Milan isn’t playing tonight, so I don't need to watch the game..."
This time last year the Italians were out in force at our hotel as they watched Milan win the Champions League: my taxi pulled up just as Giorgio Pantano, Roberto Chinchero, all of the catering staff and Marco were screaming with joy after their team won the game, all of them running over to hug me as I paid the driver. This year there was one person in the bar as we walked in, looking on in disinterest as the two English teams prepared to take their penalties: we sat down and had a quick beer and quietly went to bed when the game was over.
These games don't seem as much fun when the Italians aren't in them.
The next day news from the outside world evaporated as usual as we caught up on the news that counts: paddock gossip. There were a few driver changes once again, with Christian Bakkerud returning and Andy Soucek moving back over to DPR, prompting one wag to conclude that the Spaniard was trying to collect as many different fleeces as possible as he went for the record of driving for the most teams in the paddock. Giorgio, who could give Andy a run in that competition, was also celebrating the fact that he was about to claim the record for most races in GP2 ("doesn't he already have that record?" someone asked in hospitality. "It sounds like he wants an excuse for a party every weekend...").
I was getting more than the usual attention in the paddock, too. "What the hell are you wearing?"
"It's called a kilt."
"I know what it is, but why are you wearing it?"
"I forgot to pack any trousers yesterday: luckily I had the safety kilt in my bag for just such a problem."
I hadn't realised just how many mechanics would be interested in the state of my under garments, or how much of a distraction it would prove to be: Ivone Pinton from Durango almost fell off his bike as he rode down towards the pitlane, while Didier wobbled on his scooter before regaining his composure, although that may have been a memory from the Celine Dion concert he attended with his wife the night before ("200 euros per ticket: now I know what that is worth. Is that the right word to use in English?" "Only if you're suggesting your money is worthless...").
Bruno Senna was somewhat perplexed by the whole thing: "Why are you wearing that? Did you lose a bet?"
"I must have been a bit drunk when I packed: I seem to have picked up my wife's clothes."
"You really need to shave your legs man: that's not attractive!"
"I have to say I'm quite happy to hear that Bruno, although I'm a little worried that you think I might be attractive to you with smoother legs..."
"No! That's not what I mean!"
The marshals held us at the gate for ages, all lined up like penguins on the march, while I tried to stop people from pulling my kilt up and avoided unusually positioned camera lenses: when the gates finally opened we swarmed in: the marshals yelled "Pilotes only!" and pushing everyone they didn't recognise (including some of the drivers) back. "Are you crazy?" Marco asked. "We have to be at the briefing in 5 minutes!" "Pilotes only!" "Not pilotes only: everyone!" Thankfully common sense eventually prevailed and they let us in before a small international incident broke out, and the teams were setting up in the pitlane, with free practice starting only 15 minutes late as a result.
The drivers were trying to be as calm as possible, but in Monaco that never lasts for a whole session, no matter what level of competition you're in. Jerome D'Ambrosio soon returned to the pits minus his left rear wheel, while Adam Carroll didn't manage to set a time as a result of Andreas Zuber trying to overtake him on the run down to Mirabeau, hitting the bump and spilling left into the Ulsterman and forcing him into the barriers. Both Campos drivers struggled at Ste Devote, with Ben Hanley stopping immediately after his big thump into the wall, while Vitaly Petrov limped all the way back around the track with a broken car as a result of his impact at the famous corner.
But up front it was Pastor Maldonado who, once again, was showing the field how to be quick around the Principality: he went faster on almost every lap to take the top spot by around half a second from teammate Zuber and Bruno Senna. Andreas smiled when he returned to the pits, but it didn't last long: a trip to the stewards gave him a fifteen place penalty on the grid for race one as a result of his collision with Adam, while Vitaly also picked up a five place penalty for delaying his competitors as he struggled to bring his car back to the pits.
Walking back to the pits there was a guy wearing a silver helmet up on the hill who was yelling through a megaphone at everyone down below. Previously he had been calling out constantly to Lewis Hamilton, but with the GP2 crew in the pitlane he had to widen his approach.
"Hey Scottish guy!"
Looking around I saw the sun glinting off his head and realised where the noise was coming from.
"Hey Scottish guy, where is your wallet?"
I pointed towards my sporran.
"Hey Scottish guy, pull your skirt down: I don't want to see your hairy legs!"
I laughed along with everyone around me.
"Hey Scottish guy, you won't get any grid girls dressed like that!"
I pointed towards my sporran.
Pastor was back on top in qualifying later that afternoon: the Venezuelan was pushing hard all through the session (a little too hard on his first flying lap, where he went off at Ste Devote but stayed off the wall, unlike Andy Soucek who found the barriers before he could set a time), and just scraped onto pole after Bruno and Mike Conway pushed him hard for the top spot. The session was blighted by yellow flags, markers of mistakes for Ho-Pin Tung and Marcello Puglisi, while Adrian Valles went one further and prompted a red flag for his accident at Ste Devote with 3 minutes to go: no one was able to achieve anything in such a small period of time after the track re-opened, and the Spaniard kept his fourth position on the grid.
"I know this circuit very well," Pastor noted, "and I've won for the last two years in World Series and GP2, so this year I was very confident. I think it's a magic circuit, because there is a lot of history here in Monte Carlo. I enjoy the laps: every lap here I enjoy 100% in the car. I stayed very calm and waited for my chance, and when I had a clean lap with no traffic I pushed well, not at the limit - I never take any risk here - and the laps were coming easily."
"I got only one real clear lap today," Bruno reflected, "and that was good enough for second, but I'm pretty sure that if I had another lap with the second set we could have gone a lot quicker. My lap, where I put some sectors together, was really good, but I'm pretty sure there was more time left there. P2 is not too bad though, and it's very possible to win from there."
"You've just got to take the chances when you do get a clear lap," Mike smirked, "and you know how hard you have to push, how close you have to get to each barrier: even on your quickest lap you're sliding all over the place, but that seems to be the quickest way to get a time out of it: just boot it out of all the corners and slide it! It really pulls you, some of the kerbs are angled up and they pull you up if you just kiss it too quick. It's cool though!"
What was a little less cool was the number of drivers who were called to see the stewards the next morning: 15 to be precise. After the red flag in qualifying most of the drivers drove down the pitlane looking for the chance to head the queue back on track, and a lot of them were restarted just before the green lights went on, which technically counts as working on the car. We wondered whether it was possible to give all of them a penalty ("how would you work out the order with that many cars?" "You start Zuber 2 laps down and work from there…") but, with Alastair waiting downstairs to get the photos when they returned we soon found out what happened ("we all got a bollocking, and now we can go racing").
Paolo Coloni had ambitions for the first race that were somewhat ahead of reality: "You know, if Adam wins today I am going to wear your kilt onto the podium" he laughed as we ate lunch in hospitality. It wasn't a wish I shared: "Adam, you know I love it when you win, but not today: firstly I don't want to see Paolo in a kilt, and secondly no one wants to see me without one..."
Soon enough it was time for the race: the mechanics crawled all over the cars like bees in a hive, all of them looking for the one thing they could fix which would mean the difference between glory and disaster on the tight circuit. But there's only so much you can do in the pitlane, and a few minutes later they had to let the drivers go and see what happens.
Senna made a perfect start, Pastor didn't, and the Brazilian immediately owned a lead that he would not give up for anyone. The Venezuelan had to forcefully hold onto second from a fast charging Conway, but the top two were in a class of their own from thereon: nobody was able to run at their pace and a huge gap opened up as Pastor pushed with all his might while Bruno denied him all the way round the track.
But then the mayhem came. Sebastien Buemi stuck his nose inside Pantano at Mirabeau, a position into which it had no right to be: the pair collided and the Italian was spun around and stopped, Buemi retired almost immediately after losing his rear wing, Romain Grosjean and Ho-Pin Tung also came together, with the Frenchman breaking his suspension for his troubles, while teammate Luca Filippi broke his front wing on the back of Adam Carroll. The resultant traffic jam blocked the circuit: Senna and Maldonado were somehow able to thread the needle when they came back around, while everyone else had to try and find their own way through the mess.
It meant that the gap the Brazilian had eked out was reduced to almost nothing, with the remaining laps fought out at a fever pitch: Senna crossed the line just 0.6 seconds ahead of his rival to claim the win, while Conway was tapped into a spin after a collision with Javier Villa on the last lap, dropping to 8th (every driver below that position was lapped as a result of the Mirabeau accident) and handing a podium finish to an incredulous Karun Chandhok.
"You have to wear a kilt more often!" Bruno laughed afterwards when I finally found him in the middle of a scrum of well-wishers, "You've brought me good luck at last!"
"We can talk about a sponsorship arrangement later if you'd like! So, Bruno Senna, race winner at Monaco: how does that sound?"
"That sounds pretty good: that sounds pretty surreal, actually! It's surreal in terms of you don't expect to be winning every race, but we came here and I was very confident on what I could do, the team did a great, great job since the start: we were spot on in testing, spot on in qualifying, we were consistent and quick. Whereas in other races I didn't get the results we deserved on performance this time we did: I was quickest here and I was consistent, so it's a good win."
"At the beginning I wheel-spinned a lot at the start," Pastor wistfully admitted, "so Senna was faster than me, and I tried to push but he was faster than me anyway. After the pitstop we were absolutely faster than him and I caught him, but it's very difficult to overtake here: when we changed to the new tyres the car changed completely and was much better, better and quicker. But anyway it's good: good for the points, good to just be racing in Monaco, third race on the podium. It's all good, and I'm quite happy."
"I was making 1.6, 1.7 seconds a lap on Mike," Karun laughed, wearing a grin from ear to ear that nothing would remove." I was really catching him. Then I don't know what happened: Javi says that Mike braked early at the tunnel, but I have no idea because I didn't see anything, I just came out of the tunnel and all I saw was Javi in the middle of the road and Mike sideways, so I had a freaking good laugh for the rest of the lap, all the way to the line! I have to say that fourth was what I was aiming for, but third is a nice little bonus! It's Monaco, I got a podium: happy days."
There wasn't much joy in either the Racing Engineering or ART garages: Giorgio could see his championship lead evaporating, Javi was called up to the stewards and handed a ten place penalty for race two despite his protests of innocence, while Romain and Luca were inside the truck trying to come to terms with their misfortune. The Italian in particular had a tough race: moved up one spot at the start, lost three or four when the anti-stall kicked in during his stop, broke his front wing, suspension arm and brake air inlet in the melee, stopped again and came out last, then watched his brake catch fire just before losing his brakes and being pitched into the wall at Ste Devote.
Which meant he probably didn't need me telling him I was going to the Red Bull party on their floating palace. "You're going to that? Is that the big party? I really want to come too: I think I need to have something good to think about today!"
"You should come along then."
"Maybe, but I kind of have to do this race tomorrow, not that I've got much to look forward to! Have some fun for me, but don't tell me about it if it's too good, okay?"
So I won't be writing much about the party, then.
The next day we had a photo shoot with all of the drivers, and Al got to order us all about for a bit, but otherwise we were all just waiting for the second race. It was a strange atmosphere: we'd never had a second race in Monaco before, and it felt as though no one really wanted to have it, that we'd all rather be elsewhere. Other than Mike Conway of course, who had now cooled down after the previous day's incident to realise what an opportunity he had presented to him.
At the start he wasn't going to hang around: the Briton was easily faster than his teammate off the line to lead the pack up the hill, or at least those who made it around the first turn. Roldan Rodriguez was slow off the line which bunched up the field, with Adrian Valles cutting inside him to get past but a fast starting Andreas Zuber having to stop again in a hurry meant Christian Bakkerud had nowhere to go but over his wheels, flying spectacularly through the air before coming down to earth with a bump, although thankfully not damaging his back in the process, while Pastor pushed wide and squeezed Karun into the wall, with the pair bouncing back across the road and into the opposite barrier, prompting the safety car to come out for the first time that weekend.
Andreas came out with a new wing just as the rest of the field was released, waiting just inside Ste Devote until they were all past and he could get going again. Mike set fastest lap after fastest lap as he build a big gap back to Ho-Pin until Giorgio and Marcello Puglisi came together at the new chicane (with Alberto Valerio seemingly spinning out in sympathy for his teammate at Casino Square), calling forth the safety car once again. Mike stormed off once again at the restart, building a 20 second cushion over his teammate, whose rear mirrors were full of Alvaro Parente's Super Nova until they saw the chequered flag.
It was a popular result, and Mike had soon disappeared after spraying the champagne, whether to the F1 paddock or the boat where his Mum watched the race with Lewis Hamilton's Mum I know not. Monaco has a tendency to be like that, and the rest of us went straight back to the paddock to finish our jobs before we got thrown out so the F1 trucks could park there, or to get ready for the best the town had to offer later that night.
The man was standing right where Marco told me he would be, just outside the door at arrivals, holding a sign with my name written on it in capital letters and a slightly anxious look on his heavily stubbled face. The look changed when I stood in front of him and pointed at his sign and then myself: a broad smile split his face as he reached over to take my bag and he turned on his heels and strode away while I bumbled along behind and tried to keep pace.
Istanbul is one of the world’s most spectacular cities, and night is the time to arrive: at midnight most of the inherent craziness has died down, and the cool night air soothes you as you glide down highways that are choked with traffic during the day. The driver didn’t speak any English other than okay and tenk you, leaving me free to put my headphones on and listen to Sigur Ros as the world washed past.
We had a fast free run, the driver sliding by the few remaining cars on the road as I stared out the window at the giant, dimly lit Turkish flags looming silently over the industrial sites and warehouses until the bridge appeared ahead of us, its huge towers dimly lit in aquamarine while the humped deck rose and fell like a string of pearls on the nape of a neck.
It’s only when you make it onto the bridge that you can finally look down and see the Bosphorus, when you can see the city reflecting itself in the inky darkness of the water and remember that’s right, it’s beautiful here. Almost as soon as it arrived the view across the water, the mosques and the apartment buildings and the lights, is gone, leaving you to push on through the suburbs once more, the peaks of the minarets lit up along the way like giant candles to illuminate the way to the hotel.
The next morning is when you start to realise the cost of the late night drive: thankfully Christian maintains our coffee machines well, as they see as much use over a race weekend as any industrial version in a coffee store. Suitably caffeinated, we all walked up and around to the pitlane entrance and waited to be granted admission.
There were next to no fans in the giant grandstand on Friday morning, although two of the few had erected a giant banner with Javier Villa’s name on it right in front of his Racing Engineering pit: he laughed when it was pointed out to him, and the Spaniard walked over to the pitwall to give his fans a wave: the screech in reply could be heard over the sound of the engines firing up at the other end of the pitlane.
But it was teammate Giorgio Pantano who set the pace, storming out of the pits under surprisingly overcast skies to easily claim the top spot as well as all three fastest sector times, ahead of the Piquet Sports duo of Andreas Zuber and Pastor Maldonado in a session that saw a number of spins as the field came to grips with the long, undulating circuit.
Back in the paddock it was freezing: I hadn’t bothered to pack any warm clothes given that every time I’ve visited Istanbul it’s been scorching. Obviously I didn’t consider the three month difference between this year’s race and the usual weekend. Thankfully Marco took pity on me and pulled out a fleece to warm me up, and most of the paddock was glad that they stored warm clothes in the back of their trucks for just such an occasion.
Adam Carroll was one of those people glad for some extra team clothes to wear: the popular Ulsterman was back in the paddock after a number of driver changes opened up a spot for him at his old team FMS, and practically everyone came over to shake his hand and welcome him back to the paddock.
Even Will Buxton came down to say hello, making the long walk down from the F1 paddock. “Hello mate,” he smiled as he came over. “Bit colder here than I expected.”
“Tell me about it,” I said as we walked down the lane formed between the team trucks. “Have you seen Piquet Sports’ new panelling behind their cars?”
“Yeah, the mirrors: I guess it’ll give Nelson somewhere to check his hair when he comes down to visit…”
Before we knew it qualifying was upon us once again, and the teams had clearly sharpened up their cars while they waited: Giorgio set the pace once again, but his best lap was now 1.2 seconds faster than his best lap of the morning session, despite the chilly temperatures and a brief shower of rain in between. Andreas was second once again, with Adam a surprising third fastest despite having never sat in the new car before.
The problem we had for the press conference was that the Porsches were now on track, and with the hospitality area just behind the wall at the end of the back straight, there was a lot of ambient noise to deal with. Being that so few journalists make the trip to Istanbul, we suggested pushing the conference back a bit so that people could hear the drivers speak, but it wasn’t a popular choice with our poleman.
“I wanna go back to the hotel,” he moped, “I don’t wanna stay around here for too long. It’s too cold!”
“And he’s probably got a nice girl back in his hotel,” his engineer smirked. Giorgio thought about it for a beat before blurting: “Yeah, that’s right: I have a beautiful girl waiting in my hotel! Can I go right now?” and laughing along with his engineer.
Sadly for Giorgio’s fictional friend he had to stay for the press conference, being on pole and all, which put him in a … playful mood: when asked to what he attributed his strong performance earlier in the day, he noted “I have big balls!” before looking at Andreas next to him and, thinking of the race two Piquet Sports contretemps in Barcelona, adding “You know what is good for tomorrow? He's not my teammate!”
“Yes,” Andreas shot back, fighting his own corner, “so I can attack even harder!”
Adam wisely stayed out of the fray until I turned to ask him the first question, at which stage the speakers started whining with feedback every time he tried to say a word (“the microphone must be allergic to him!” Giorgio laughed): the problem was actually with my wireless mike, but ultimately we had to cut Adam’s quotes short through a combination of feedback and Giorgio’s laughter.
It was later that evening when we found out about the additional penalties that had been handed out: we knew Ben Hanley had a ten place penalty as a result of his accidents in race two in Barcelona, and that Kamui Kobayashi and Alberto Valerio picked up five place penalties for taking an extra lap after the end of free practice, but now we found out that five drivers were to lose five spots for failing to slow sufficiently for yellow flags in qualifying, namely Diego Nunes, Alberto Valerio, Milos Pavlovic, Andy Soucek and Mike Conway.
All of which created a new game in hospitality: guess the grid.
Alexa and I sat upstairs in the bus and came up with what thought was the order for the next day’s race, Marco did his version downstairs, Didier sat in his office working it out, while the teams all did their own versions back in their trucks: none of them were the same. The next morning we were discussing the order when Alberto walked in: as the only driver to receive more than one penalty, he wasn’t looking forward too much to the first race: “"I think I start from 5th place,” he laughed, “but from 5 laps behind!"
Needless to say none of our guesses were right: the penalties are issued on a strict timeline, so you would need to know the order the drivers were in when they failed to slow down. “I guess if you are going to do something wrong, you should get in before anyone else does…” a passing journalist sardonically quipped at the news.
Saturday mornings are always busy, and even though we get far fewer visitors in the paddock in Istanbul than anywhere else there is always plenty to do. Former F1 driver David Kennedy came down for a coffee and to catch up on all of the gossip: being a commentator on Setanta he needs to know everything that is going on so he can talk about it during the race, and he went away happy.
Which made him the polar opposite of Kamui Kobayashi, who was sitting by himself in the corner of hospitality staring intently at his computer (possibly looking for replies to his invitation for the next poker night: Kamui loves his cards, and often plays with Timo Glock and a few other drivers in either paddock). When he saw me walk over he smiled wanly, and when I asked him how he was he replied: “Everything that can go wrong this weekend has gone wrong! So many mistakes!” But he cheered up over the course of the conversation, as he always does: when I got up to go he laughed “well, I guess it’s not too bad: I just have to make 12 places or something, and I could get pole for tomorrow!”
He was also one of the featured drivers at the signing session, along with Vitaly Petrov, Alvaro Parente and Pastor Maldonado, who were soon in the eye of a hurricane of fans, all trying desperately to get close to their heroes. The Bridgestone people closed ranks around the table as the fans swarmed all over them, with Alastair getting mobbed as he tried to get the shots he needed before pushing his way back out to safety. “That’s insane!” he blurted as stared back at the heaving mob. “I’ve never seen so many people at one of these things before!”
As we stood there a young girl came up to us: she clearly couldn’t speak much English, but she recognised the GP2 logo on my fleece and, pointing to it, said: "I ... love ... Petrov!" Just at that moment the drivers were emerging from the scrum, so I pointed to him and said “there he is” and she squealed with delight, running over to him and jumping up and down in front of him as a number of Russian flags were brought out and photos arranged, with Vitaly a mixture of bemusement and pride as his countrymen chanted all around him.
Finally I managed to get the guys back to the minibus, herding them through the throng of the merchandise area and constantly counting heads to make sure we had everyone. Kamui was amazed at what he had just witnessed: "That was really ... strong!"
“Alvaro is quite used to that,” I laughed, “he gets mobbed every time he buys some milk!”
“Absolutely!” he snorted. “In fact I’m glad to come here for a bit of a rest!”
It was soon time to head back up to the pitlane, but the grid position confusion continued: as the drivers were getting into their cars someone noticed that some of the grid girls were in the wrong positions, so an urgent reshuffle had to take place as the engines were being fired up. It was all too much for one of them, and she fainted just after the car arrived at her position. Someone came over laughing about it as Alexa and I as we were walking onto the grid, to which she deadpanned: “You just don’t understand, it’s exhausting being so beautiful…"
When the lights went out Giorgio was not to be denied: he stormed off into a lead which he would not rescind, with Romain Grosjean threading the needle between a slow starting Adam Carroll and Andreas Zuber to slot in behind the Italian, with Sebastien Buemi and Ben Hanley suffering separate spins at the first turn, Bruno Senna having his front wing chopped off and Pastor getting forced off on the inside before he found a way back on track.
Giorgio just walked away, assisted by the fever pitched battle between Romain and Andreas, while everyone else tried to make the best of the hand they were dealt. Javier Villa was looking fast but stuck in traffic: his attempt to make up some positions in the pitstop was put on ice when Pastor turned in too early and chopped across the Spaniard’s bow (“Wow, that was great work by Javi there,” Andreas said when he watched the replay afterwards, “I can’t believe he managed to stop in time”).
A safety car period late in the race for Alberto Valerio’s spin gave the top three the opportunity to pit and re-emerge in the lead, and they ended the race in the positions they held all race long. Giorgio was ecstatic, soaking up the applause for a perfect job, while Romain was pleased to be on the podium after a tough race. Comedy moment of the day though had to be the look on Andreas’ face when he received his trophy: the contrast between one of the tallest drivers in the series and the smallest trophy we’ve seen sent everyone into hysterics.
The pair were still talking about the race when they arrived for the press conference, but the conversation changed as soon as they saw the video of the race being shown: “I can’t believe you were that close to me!” Romain blurted. “I knew you were there, but I didn’t know you were that close to me: I couldn’t see you in the mirrors!”
“Yeah, I was staring at your exhaust for the whole race!”
Giorgio, like every racer ever, wanted everyone to know that the race was a difficult one for him, despite all appearances: “It was not easy! We just made a good start and went out first, and I know I have a car to do a good race, so I just tried to make a good gap compared to the guy behind and just push to the maximum to find a little bit of a lap, and not have any confusion at the start or whatever.”
Nevertheless, in the absence of any battles he found something to keep his mind from wandering: “I tried also to talk with my engineer during the race, just to know a little bit more about the others: when I saw the gap was eight seconds or whatever I just tried to keep the gap consistent and go like that.”
“I tried to follow Giorgio for the first lap,” Romain noted, “but he was much faster than me and I did some mistakes behind him, so I just tried to focus and keep a consistent pace. I thought Andreas was more far away behind me because I couldn't see him in the mirrors: it seemed he was one second behind, but when I look at the TV now I can see it was really close! It was very difficult inside the car because I had to really focus and not make any mistakes, because one mistake would cost me second place.”
Andreas laughed at the thought of seeing anything other than that rear wing during the race: “No! I know exactly where he is understeering and where he is oversteering, so I know the ART car very well now! I was pushing him all the race through, and I tried to stay very close to him all the time but he never made a mistake, so for me it was not possible to overtake him. That's it!”
When we sat down for dinner most people’s eyes were on the screens to watch a replay of the race, or at least they were until one eagle eyed mechanic noted that Alexa, who was sat at the front table, had some underwear on display to the rest of the room. It wasn’t until Marco burst out laughing that we had any idea what was going on: his Bluetooth had picked up a number of the photos that were zinging around the room, much to her embarrassment and their amusement.
“Oh my god!” she squeaked, and Marco and Christian were soon egging her on even further: “We’ve just uploaded the photos to YouTube!” “It’s on Google now!” They laughed even more when she came down to hit them both after checking the internet, and were still giggling when we went back out into the paddock, the sunset a washed out palette of pale orange and pink and purple surrounding us overhead.
I finally got away from the paddock about 11.30, as usual: Didier always has to check for problems with every team, and Marco and I generally have to wait for hours while he walks around. I couldn’t wait any longer and got a lift back with the Super Nova guys: we had a great run back until Galatasaray won the football match that handed them the championship, and suddenly the roads were packed with screaming, waving, honking fans, all of them out of their heads with joy and deciding to stop on the main road to express it, turning the last kilometre into a half hour parking lesson before we could finally get back and try to tune out the noise.
The next morning Marco was thrilled to find that he had a grid girl once again (he sits in the safety car during the races on behalf of the series): “It’s like they think we’re one of the drivers: it’s cool, huh?”
“Well you like to think you’re one of the drivers yourself: I’ve seen you when you walk down the pitlane in your race suit and holding your helmet, looking for photographers!”
“Ah, my mother likes to see nice photos of me!”
At the start of the race it was clear to see that GP2 was back: if the first race was a bit F1 in its predictability, the second race was a cracker. Vitaly Petrov made a storming start to move up from fourth into the lead at turn one as poleman Adam Carroll’s clutch stopped his progress, while Romain’s battles allowed Sebastien Buemi and Javier Villa to slide in front of him as chaos exploded behind them: within 3 corners eight drivers were out of the race, and Marco was back to work again.
Both Piquet Sports drivers were out on the spot, with Pastor failing to avoid a stalled car from four rows back and Andreas nerfed off track at the first corner: Nelson, who had joined us on the pitwall for the race, could only shake his head sadly at the carnage. “It looks like Christian managed to find the crazy pills again,” I laughed as we watched the replays, “and he sprinkled them on the breakfast this morning…”
At the restart Romain wasted no time pushing up through the field to lock onto Vitaly’s rear wing, pushing the Russian hard all over the circuit before finally slicing through for the lead at the end of the back straight, a popular place for moves all weekend. It wasn’t Bruno Senna’s favourite place though: after setting a string of fastest laps the Brazilian had moved up from fifteenth to sixth and was shaping up behind Mike Conway when a dog ran on track. There was nothing Bruno could do to avoid it and he soon limped back to the pits with a broken car, furious at his loss.
A safety car for a second dog scrunched the field up once more before releasing them once more, with Romain storming off into the distance while Vitaly and Sebastien fought over the remainder of the podium until the chequered flag dropped. Giorgio kept his head to finish fourth and maintain his strong championship lead, ahead of Mike and Ben Hanley.
“It was a good race,” Romain noted afterwards, “and it's good to feel the podium, the win: we missed one in Barcelona in race two, so here it was important to be back. The thing is, to start seventh is not easy, but we had a really good car today and really improved it a lot from yesterday, and I improved my driving, and in the end it was very fast. The restart was very good so I had already a good gap, and then I pushed for the point for the fastest lap, and then go easy until arriving.”
“I could make a good start today,” Vitaly reflected, “I was thinking about this all night, about how to do this, how to get three places at the start! The car was very good compared to Grosjean, and I was only losing in two corners, but then I had a problem with my brake pedal and was hitting my cockpit so I had to brake harder: this was why I had to take the second place.”
“To finish on the podium, like in Barcelona, is good for me,” Sebastien stated, “and is good for the championship. We struggled all weekend to find a good set up on the car, and I think at the end we did some steps forward, which is important, so I'm quite happy with it, how it went, eight points: I think it's important if you don't have a really good car and if everything doesn't work well, you need to get points to be in the championship, and that's what we did.”
And then it was time to pack up and go. I got a lift with Luca Filippi’s dad, who arranged for a driver to pick us up outside after we found our way through the throng peering over the fence to the F1 race behind us. We finally found the car and got underway, both of us saying little after a long weekend at the track until we reached the bridge again, when he turned to me and said: “It was a tough weekend here but this, this is so beautiful.” All I could do was agree, stare out the window, and watch the city wash by.
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.