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.