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.