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.