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...