The entire paddock was looking forward to arriving in Valencia, to see what had been built for the race down in the port area of town or by how much it had improved since a number of the drivers competed in the recent GT race. New races are always exciting, a chance to see what can be done with track design and to compete in front of a new crowd. What they found was that the Spanish are apparently not very good at signs.
Marco arrived early to find that our paddock was miles away from the pitlane and the F1 paddock, and quickly claimed a scooter so he could get back and forth all weekend. Each time he made the long ride between the paddocks he found another one of our strays: Andy Soucek, Dino the team manager from FMS, and a large selection of others were wilting under the ferocious midday heat and completely unable to find the paddock, all of them waving frantically when they saw Marco in the hope that he could guide them to their new home.
Later in the day Alexa came out to pick me up from the airport and we got extremely lost on the way back, so that I would fit in when we finally got there. That was her excuse, anyway.
The next morning it became apparent just how inconvenient it was to be placed so far away from the pitlane: while half the mechanics and engineers could get a lift to the paddock by sitting on the work bays as they were towed behind the teams' quad bikes and mules, the other half had to push the cars all the way to the final corner and wait there in the blazing sun to get them started before running the rest of the way around to the pitlane as everything got underway for free practice, while behind them Alexa and I walked for 15 minutes through the deserted laneways of the old port area.
It's clear that the whole area will be given a financial boost with the America's Cup and now the races being based in the area, but with an extremely tight timeline to get the track in place before the race weekend it's obvious that there is still a lot of work to do. Nonetheless the area has a faded charm which may eventually be lost when the money really kicks in: many of the buildings have been quietly crumbling since their initial construction, and while the organisers put huge billboards in front of the worst looking buildings to protect their modesty from the TV cameras, most of the others were left untouched if they were out of view.
We passed a man sitting on the roof of one dilapidated house, clearly delighted to have such an incredible view of the circuit as he drank his coffee and waved from underneath his sun shade, while across the road a large dog stood in the window on the fourth floor and quizzically studied the action unfolding below him. The holding area at the final corner looked like the buildings had once been a collection of metalwork shops before closing down many years ago, an oddly appropriate setting for the cars as onlookers sat in the shade watching men swarming all over the high tech machinery in front of them.
A moment's silence was held for the unfortunate victims of the recent tragedy at Madrid airport, a period which probably resonated with technical director Didier Perrin more than most as his plane had been number two in queue to leave behind them. But as always in racing the outside world soon washed away like the sea at low tide when the engines fired up and the visors came down, a bubble forming around the long circuit removing us from the outside world for the weekend once again.
Most of the drivers were taking things relatively easy during the session, a combination of the extreme dust on the circuit and the proximity of the walls restraining them as they circulated, with Bruno Senna late to the party while the team sorted out a mechanical issue on his car during the start of the period. Carlos Iaconelli tripped over the edge halfway through, however, and the session was briefly red flagged as the marshals swarmed out to remove his car, while Pastor Maldonado also found the wall when he re-emerged, removing his rear wing but stopping in an area which needed only yellow flags to mark his position.
At the end of the session it was Giorgio Pantano who was on top, with his last lap putting him half a second ahead of his rivals after a relatively quiet session for the Italian, with Alvaro Parente and Karun Chandhok also setting their fastest laps at the last minute to slot onto the timesheets just behind him before making the hot trek back to the paddock.
Qualifying was another matter, with the scorching heat matched by the action on track as the drivers realised that overtaking was not going to be as easy as they had previously suspected. Kamui Kobayashi was the first man under 1.50 on his first flying lap but promptly put his car into the wall, bringing out the red flags just as Pantano squeaked ahead of his time. Romain Grosjean was soon on top when they re-emerged, with the Frenchman swapping the top spot with Pantano and Maldonado throughout the session before the Italian claimed pole on his final lap by just 0.071 ahead of the Venezuelan, who himself finished fractionally ahead of Vitaly Petrov at his team's home circuit.
Giorgio was delighted to extend his lead in the championship, particularly on a day when Bruno could qualify no higher than 8th, but the remainder of the field were left grumbling about traffic on the long, winding track and playing the If Only game. Given the distance to the F1 paddock we had decided not to hold a formal press conference and put together all of the equipment that goes with it, opting instead to talk to the guys individually and have them stop in front of the hospitality area for a quick photo together. Which was exactly when some of the journalists finished the long trek to our paddock and saw the three drivers, swooping over to talk to them as an increasingly annoyed Alastair tried to take a photo around everyone.
He was a lot happier later that night when he joined Alexa and I at a dinner hosted by some of our opposite numbers at Bridgestone, an evening long discussed but difficult to arrange given our respective workloads. The one positive point about our paddock position was that we were close to the circuit exit, and for once we could actually walk back to the hotel rather than waiting all night for Marco and Didier to finish in the evening before getting a lift back, which meant that we had a great, relaxing night out instead.
But as happy as she was the previous night, on Saturday afternoon Alexa was literally jumping for joy as we walked onto the grid when she noticed that one half was full of the usual grid girls, while the other half was grid boys. She was soon rushing over to order Alastair to take photos of them before storming over to discuss the boys with the other women in the pitlane, with Bianca Senna laughing "they'd better have a girl for Bruno!" and going out to check while I walked around to watch the crestfallen looks on one half of the grid while the other side laughed out loud at them.
It was soon forgotten when the race got underway, with a shower of rain starting literally seconds before the lights went out but just as quickly stopping again, albeit too late for Ho-Pin Tung, who was pushed into the wall at turn two before bouncing back across the track and into the path of Kamui Kobayashi, with both drivers out on the spot as the safety car emerged from the pitlane. Prompt work by the marshals cleared the track of the pair along with Roldan Rodriguez and Mike Conway's cars which were also stopped on the circuit, and after just one lap the race went live as the shower petered out.
Pantano was easily the quickest man on track, leaving a fast starting Petrov behind as the post rain temperatures started to soar on track. With pitstops running to plan (other than Karun Chandhok's who was released by his crew into the path of Andy Soucek, with the pair very nearly collided immediately below us as we sat on the Renault pitwall) the Italian had the race sewn up, with the Racing Engineering crew climbing the fence early to cheer their man in as a TV camera took pictures of Alfonso getting his cigar ready (he brings 3 to each weekend, one each in case of pole or the two wins).
It was just at that moment that we saw Pantano slowing up, with Alexa banging on the window to get the team's attention as Petrov nipped through for an against the odds win, less than a second ahead of Maldonado with Grosjean rounding out the podium a couple of seconds later. While everyone was already doing the sums in their heads we looked to see where Senna was, having started the previous lap in fifth place, only for the Brazilian to splutter around the final turns and fail to score any points when Luca Filippi snuck through metres from the line to steal 8th place and the reverse pole.
Now I have a better understanding of that saying 'close but no cigar.'
In the pits there was mayhem, with everyone asking everyone else what had just happened and shocked faces all over as the Campos mechanics jumped for joy at their good fortune. It didn't take long to realise that the drivers had run out of fuel, prompting emotional outbursts among the engineers all along the pitlane. Alfonso and his team manager Tomas were inconsolable, lashing out to anyone within earshot, and I walked back to the paddock with the iSport race engineers, with Gavin glumly noting: "I know that learning is part of racing, but I'm bloody sick of learning these things the hard way..."
After the event everyone was suddenly an expert on fuel loads in Valencia, stating vociferously that they were worried about them all along despite no one having mentioned it to me before the race. I laughed when I saw Didier walk back into the paddock, telling him he must be the most hated man in the place at that very moment as he ran his eyes along the paddock, but as usual he set the record straight at once: "To be honest I was a little worried about it, so I went to every team last night and asked them if they had considered the fuel load when making their calculations.
"No one had mentioned it at all, so I went to all of them and told them to consider it. At the team bosses meeting this morning no one mentioned it again, so I said once more that they need to think about it and told them to think about topping up their fuel in the pitlane. So what more can I do?" He pulled a face that showed how much it hurt, but he made a good point. Of course I had to mention that if we hadn't had the safety car we might not have had any cars finishing: he laughed and replied: "Maybe that would have been better: then the results would have gone back a lap!"
Karun Chandhok was disappointed after the race too: he picked up a penalty for the pitlane incident and then also ran out of fuel at the end of the race, but it didn't take long before he was his usual exuberant self in hospitality. "I've just had a very strange meeting with someone who wants to get me involved in his chicken business," he stated quizzically. "I don't know why he was talking to me, to be honest: maybe you want to go into business with him instead!"
"Somehow I doubt Greenwich is a hot bed of chicken breeding: I suspect he would rather set up in India."
"Maybe, but what do I know about chickens?"
"Your namesake curry is dish is made from them, for a start, although you probably know more about India than chickens..."
Racing drivers and their managers are always looking for budgets to go racing, so these sort of unusual meetings happen more often than you'd think. Take Karun for an example: you might think that he would have no budgetary problems, but if you take what you think is his budget for the season and compare it to all of the logos on his race suit you'd still only be just over halfway there, which is where the aforementioned odd meetings come in: in this paddock, it was ever thus.
The next morning Alexa was bouncing around the pitlane again when she noticed that the grid boys were back, this time in alternate rows down the grid rather than on one side of it. Luca Filippi was even happier, if that's possible: pole position with his teammate right behind him gave the Italian a great chance to show what he could do, although that chance was tarnished a little when Buemi was wheeled off the grid as the rest of the field circulated on their warm up lap, leaving a gaping hole right between Romain Grosjean and Lucas di Grassi.
But the Italian got away well when the lights went out, leaving fellow front row starter Andy Soucek to be gobbled up by the RDD pair, with di Grassi quickly giving way to the Frenchman as they set off in hot pursuit of Filippi ("I knew that Grosjean was risking too much, so when he overtook me I just stayed there waiting for something to happen" Lucas laughed after the race, foreshadowing events to come). When the Italian's rear tyres starting going off Grosjean was all over him and pushing hard for a way through, but the former teammates were unlikely to give way easily to the other.
It was on lap ten when the inevitable happened: Grosjean braked late and wobbled his way inside Filippi and through at the final turn, but the Italian had a wider line and maintained his pace all the way down to turn two, when he tried to return the favour: Grosjean took a similar line to the one he complained about Pantano taking when they collided in Hungary, Filippi later complained that the Frenchman went wide every lap except the one where he stuck his nose inside at a corner where he would need to be allowed through, and the predictable collision left Grosjean by the side of the road and Filippi with a bent suspension as di Grassi laughed all the way to the next corner as he sailed by.
Behind them Jerome D'Ambrosio was driving like a man possessed: over previous weekends he had looked impressive but just finished outside of the points, but in Valencia he looked like a man who had the whole weekend package sussed, and a podium was just reward for his efforts. Senna should have finished ahead of the Belgian but failed to take advantage: after narrowly missing the back of a rapidly slowing Soucek he ran off track before coming back and spinning into the wall a couple of corners later, much to the amusement of rival Pantano who had stayed out of trouble and found himself back in the points once again, as though he didn't know how not to score on a race weekend.
Although it was di Grassi, Filippi and D'Ambrosio who filled out the podium, the Italian was soon labouring under a black cloud when the stewards handed him a 25 second penalty, dropping him well outside of the points as a result of a safety car for Marko Asmer's spin compacting the pack late in the race. The penalty was only decided after he had left for his hotel: Pantano was soon looking for his trophy from D'Ambrosio after being promoted to third, but the second place trophy was no longer in the vicinity.
The Campos team were over the moon after taking their second win of the weekend, and arrived back to the paddock as heroes. On the way back one of the stands spotted them and gave their local team a massive roar of approval, with the boys playing up to the cheers by jumping for joy and sharing their champagne with some of the marshals just over the fence. They weren't the only ones celebrating: Giorgio was dancing for the crowd as everyone waited for the traffic to clear in front of the paddock entrance, with Fabrizio coming out of the kitchen to dance with his countryman: Alexa got swept up in events too, but when the pair tried to throw her over the fence into the adoring public she realised it was time to make a hasty retreat for the relative safety of our unofficial sauna upstairs in the bus.
Despite the heat most of the paddock seemed delighted to be there at last, none more so than Lucas, who had now entered the championship battle in full effect. In fact Bruno was about the only one to look disappointed, and when I caught up with him in the line at the airport it was much the same: the Brazilian simply doesn't do black moods like most racing drivers, but even his famously sunny personality threatened rain as Giorgio pulled ever further from him as his neighbour and countryman closed in from behind.
"It's not over until it's mathematically impossible, so we'll just have to push harder in Spa," he noted, but it felt as though his comments were aimed more at himself than at me.