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.