It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as a far better writer than me once noted about another day entirely. Alvaro claimed a brilliant win, the most popular win of the season and the first for Ocean Racing, but the accidents came too, to Trident mechanic Vasco Rossi and to newcomer Stefano Coletti at Durango. And although the subsequent reports were positive, the emotional rollercoaster of a day took its toll on everyone in the paddock.
The day started like any other Saturday, with a signing session over at Bridgestone, and we walked down the paddock and under the track with Jérôme d'Ambrosio, Giedo van der Garde and Michael Herck, while Vitaly Petrov joined us over there straight from the carpark. The session went as well as ever, but Alastair was buzzing because he wanted to put a long held plan into action.
After the session last year he and I rode in the car next to the Bridgestone tent that the local police put on to demonstrate what it feels like to roll your car: we knew it wasn't supposed to be enjoyable, but we giggled like schoolgirls through the whole thing last year and promised that next time we would get the drivers to have a go.
As soon as he saw it Vitaly was straight in, a rye smile on his face as he walked up the stairs to be strapped in while Jérôme wandered over to the nearby toilets (“I really need to go,” he claimed, glancing nervously at the car as he did, “does anyone have 50 cents for me?”), Giedo stepped back and claimed he didn't want to hurt his sore shoulder, and Michael stood behind him and didn't say a word.
When the Russian re-emerged laughing out loud Jérôme realised he had to have a go too (although it may have been Alexa walking over to take a turn that convinced him), while the other drivers disappeared back to the paddock. Alastair jumped into the other seat to get some action shots, and the pair were soon squealing with delight.
We had to rush back to the paddock to catch up with Karun and Alvaro for their teammates interview, and you'll see the results here soon. When you see the photo of the guys casually chatting to each other, conveniently standing in front of the team's logo, you might want to think about them having to stand on a couple of tyres so they could be high enough to be next to the logo. But they do that most days, apparently...
And then came the race.
Motor racing is dangerous – it says it right there on our passes – but sometimes pitlanes seem like the centre of the furnace, the heart of the heat, the spark waiting to catch fire. Everyone working there is a professional, but sometimes things can go rapidly wrong from a standing start.
With the pitlane open for installation laps the drivers were heading out on track, while the teams put everything together before heading onto the grid. Unfortunately for Ricardo Teixeira one of the rattle guns was in the way, and he was over it in a blink.
The gun wrapped itself immediately around his wheel, pulling the gantry and trolley over in a heartbeat, right where Vasco was squatting as he went about his tasks: Ricardo stopped immediately, but it was already too late.
The McLaren doctor was immediately on the scene, with the track doctors helping soon after, and everyone held their breath and hoped for the best as the ambulance arrived. With no way to help we went about their regular tasks, because there was nothing else that any of us could do.
The race arrived and found its shape while we tried to concentrate on what was happening in front of us, and we hoped to get it over as soon as we could. Which is why Stefano's crash knocked the wind out of everyone's sails once again: we thought we'd got through it all, only to be reminded once again that racing can change in the blink of an eye.
We slunk back to the paddock, hardly anyone talking despite Alvaro's win, and we waited for the news to be drip fed back to us there. Trident's news came first, the first break in the metaphorical black clouds over our heads: he's not in critical condition, they stated, he's had a MRI scan and he looks okay. He's in an induced coma, they added, but that's the usual treatment in cases like this.
Massa was put into an induced coma, someone else noted, and he seems fine now. A lot of people exhaled, at last.
Stefano is okay too, Durango soon told us. A compressed vertebrae, some bruising on his feet: he's shaken up and has a bit of pain, but there's nothing broken, nothing torn. The sun shone down, we dared to smile. It was the 100th GP2 race and we couldn't celebrate, but we began to hope, at least.
After the press conference, after dinner, after the work was done but we weren't ready to move away from each other, the football came on, the Milan derby, and the Italian contingent from F1 (Liuzzi, Fisichella, Kubica, Trulli) came down to watch it with us, to be here now.
Maybe it wasn't the greatest match, but it took our minds off things for a while, it let us be together and think about something else, it let us be normal again. We were two comrades down, two guys who would have enjoyed the match, but with some luck we'll have them back with us again soon.
And sometimes, that's all you can hope for.
As the season grinds ever more relentlessly on, the favourites for the title gradually become clearer: it has been the same ever since the first season of GP2, and this year is no different. But as the favourites become clearer so too do the demands on their time ramp up, and they get more and more requests for interviews and photo shoots as their profiles grow in the big paddock up the hill.
Which is why Alastair wasn't too surprised to get the request for some shots of Nico Hülkenberg in his racesuit, and he arranged to meet the driver up the hill from our paddock at Eau Rouge on Thursday afternoon to take advantage of the light. Setting up for the shoot he was joined by a few colleagues from LAT including Glenn Dunbar, who used to shoot GP2 before disappearing forever. Or going to F1, which is much the same thing, from our perspective.
Glenn was taking the opportunity to bore Al senseless, I mean, to share his ideas for the shoot, and to demonstrate his thoughts he was standing up on the tyre barrier, with his chest out and head raised high in a regal pose. So high was his head that he didn't notice Nico walking over until he was right next to the snapper, with the driver looking up and laughing at the scene in front of him. “Mmm, nice titties” the German smirked before placing his helmet on the ground a little further up as the other photographers fell about in hysterics.
Nico was soon up in Glenn's position, and the shoot was going fine until Alexa suggested he should puff his chest up a bit to show off his sponsors' logos a little better, but Nico complained that he was unable to puff himself up any further. “Hah!” Glenn blurted out, vindicated at last, “I bet you wish you had some nice titties now...”
We had no time for such conversations the next morning as everyone made their way up to the pitlane for the free practice session: luckily the rain spluttered to a close as we arrived, but there were soon bigger concerns than the weather. “So what's going on there, then?” asked iSport boss Paul Jackson as we walked towards our spot on the pitwall. “What do you mean?” I asked, and he simply pointed to the empty spot behind me which should have been filled by two Coloni cars.
It was hard to find out exactly what was going on with so many different stories floating around, but it turned out that the police had been instructed to impound the Coloni cars and truck, and they decided to wait until immediately before the session: by the time we arrived back in the paddock there was a truck sized hole in the paddock (which was soon partially filled by the iSport wagon and their tyres) and a couple of depressed looking drivers, still in their race suits, sitting in hospitality.
“I'm really disappointed actually,” Luiz Razia noted despondently after the session. “I have actually raced here before, so I know the circuit: this could have been my big chance to show what I can do...” There wasn't a single person in the paddock who didn't sympathise with the Brazilian and teammate Andi Zuber, who were the innocent victims of the whole thing.
Unsurprisingly they were gone by the time we held the press conference after qualifying: as usual Nico was the first one to arrive, and amused himself by pulling faces at Alastair as we waited for Lucas to arrive from Renault, who eventually rushed in, still in their uniform. He spent the first part of the conference, as I asked Alvaro about his great performance to claim his first pole position, behind the backdrop getting changed back before re-emerging to applause from the audience.
They weren't the only ones who weren't there, as Edo Mortara had left the circuit early: the poor guy was looking awful as he left, and was hoping that an early night would cure his mystery illness, leaving Arden's PR person Deborah Lyall behind to explain what happened. “I'm feeling a bit bad about it actually,” she confessed sheepishly, “because I was away last week and Sergio got two podiums, and now I'm worried that I might be a bad luck magnet! I even offered not to come here, just in case it brought them a bit more luck!”
So if the curse of Arden strikes again and Edo is too unwell to come to the track tomorrow, or Sergio has any bad luck in the race, then I think we all know who will really be to blame...
We've been too busy today, feel free to suggest a title! Saturday started like so many others before it: waiting for drivers to arrive for the signing session, this time Pastor Maldonado. We waited for as long as we could, but with the session to be filmed by FOM for later use we eventually had to leave without him. Besides, the crowds are smaller if the F1 guys are on track, for some reason: apparently our support event is quite popular...
We took off, a motley convoy of scooters and Sergio Perez's quad bike, and when we got outside the circuit we saw Pastor coming the other way in a car. Of course. But given the distance to cover we had to keep going, through the car park and across the abandoned foundations of a number of long dead buildings, kicking up dust as we zigzagged across the vast area.
When we arrived at the fans zone the quad bike was nowhere to be seen for ages, until Sergio eventually came around the corner: there was a gap that we could easily get through on the scooters, but it was too small for the quad bike. “We had to go up on two wheels and crawl through, and then a bunch of fans saw us and came over and took some of the posters from the front.”
“Oh well, at least we're not in a hurry on the way back,” I smirked, “so we can take the slow route...”
The fans rushed forward as the guys walked out front at the Bridgestone stand, but one girl looked disappointed: “Is Pastor still coming? I was hoping to get this signed...” She held out a good photo of the Venezuelan, and just as we were explaining that we could take it back to the paddock to get it signed Pastor rushed in, having clearly run the last part of the trip, and she beamed as he came over to say hello.
Afterwards we had to get back to hold the next of our now semi regular teammate interviews, this time with Kamui Kobayashi and Jérôme d'Ambrosio. The easy going Belgian lost his usual cool, however, when he heard about the photos Alexa wanted to go with the piece:
“In our race suits? Are you joking?”
“Jérôme,” she calmly replied, “you know I never joke.”
“But, but, it's Valencia!” was all he could splutter in reply. Alastair was soon smoothing things over, taking the shots as quickly as possible so that the guys could strip back down a minute later.
We had a lot of fun with them though, and hope to get it on the site soon, so you too can discover how much French Kamui can speak after four years in Paris, which driver is a master chef, and why they are unlikely to bring their pets to Spa...
But all of our running around in the sun all day – we also had to take Nico Hülkenberg halfway around the track for a photo shoot, with Alexa and I making Nico laugh as we compared him to Zoolander while Alastair snapped away – left us less than excited by the marathon hike to the paddock, especially as everyone had already left while we waited for Alexa's race notes programme to fire up.
Luckily a young local guy offered us a lift: he was clearly excited about getting as close to the pitlane as possible, which suited us, and we waved contently to the sweating masses from the paddock as they watched enviously while we sailed serenely past.
On the grid there were lots of unusual sights to behold. José Guedes, co-owner of Ocean Racing, stopped us as we walked down the grid and said: “I don't know who to tell, but there seems to be a bit of a weird looking grid girl over there...” Sure enough, standing in front of Karun's grid spot was the only grid boy, much to Alexa's delight: “Fantastic! I thought they forgot to bring the boys this year!” she laughed at the team owner's disapproval.
There was another grid boy of sorts at the front of the field: Michael Schumacher was standing in front of Nico's car with their mutual manager Willy Weber, chatting away happily behind his reflective sunglasses.
One brave photographer among the hordes decided to ask the question that all the others wanted answered, namely would he mind ever so much please sir if he went over to shake hands with Nico to wish him luck. Schumacher scowled, not wanting to jinx anything or overshadow his countryman's day, and merely called out “good luck” before heading back to the pits.
Richard Selwin wouldn't have minded the attention: sitting at the back of the grid after Giedo brushed the wall in qualifying and brought his session to an early end, the English engineer could have used the distraction. “Schumacher's here, is he? I didn't know: you can't really see much from back here! Tell him he's welcome to visit us if he likes...”
Given his comments, I guess he couldn't be too upset that his driver jumped the start...
At the end of a tense race it was Vitaly Petrov back on top, claiming a remarkable third win in the city after claiming last year's race one on the new circuit, as well as the same race at the old circuit. But the team weren't about to jinx anything, as mechanic Daniel Lluch explained afterwards:
“No, we don't bring the Spanish flag that we used to wave at the end of the race any more: since Monaco we decided it was unlucky, so the mechanics won't let us put it in the truck! I'm not even sure if it exists anymore: the guys are maybe a little bit superstitious...”
And the result will clearly be vindication for the boys, so don't expect to see it again any time soon. But the love that the team show for their de facto team leader is clearly returned: most of the drivers will point to the team's name on the car when they return to the pits, but Vitaly is probably the first driver to take off his gloves on the slow down lap (well, it was very hot) and caress the team's logo while he drove back to them.
At least it does if the TV is tuned to Valencia... It was too much to expect that I could come back and not write a blog, but that doesn't mean I didn't try to get out of it. “Come on,” I whined, “it's way too hot to write: let's just go back to the hotel and have a beer instead.”
“No!” Alexa proclaimed, giving me her best evil stare. “You'll write the blog before you leave, even if it kills you. And I don't want to hear that your pig flu has come back.”
“I didn't have the pig flu,” I protested meekly.
“Whatever. Start writing!” The change from arriving in the paddock to tonight was huge: like night and day, you might even say...
“Hey, how are you feeling?” Christian asked as I walked into the hospitality area in the morning, the third person to ask that question since I walked through the gates. Everyone had been told that I had swine flu (or just read Alexa's blog from Budapest, and assumed), and the story stuck, no matter what I said. At least Karun was the only one to actively pull away and cover his mouth...
But the biggest story in the paddock was the heat: there was no escaping the brick wall-esque inevitability of the debilitating conditions: everyone sat around panting like dogs, trying not to move or exert ourselves in any way as the conditions slowly, methodically crushed us. Although, inevitably, it couldn't last, and we soon had to cross the desert to get to the pitlane, which seemed approximately 24.5km away by the time we got there.
Alfonso de Orleans-Borbon looked worse than all of us when we finally arrived. “How are you feeling?” he asked, before continuing, “I haven't had any sleep at all. I've got my boat here, a little sailing boat, but they moored Vijay's Indian Empress next to me. Have you seen it?”
“How could I miss it? It's huge.”
“Exactly, and it's a 24 hour party boat. And the hull of my boat is so thin, it was like I had a DJ playing in my room all night. You should come over tonight, by the way...”
And if it was hot in the morning session, qualifying was even worse: we arrived on the pitwall to a track temperature of 50º, and that was before the engines were started. Every one of the drivers was dripping with sweat after the session, no matter how fit they are, but Andi Zuber seemed to be suffering more than most.
“Oh man, it was so hot in the car today!” he exhaled between gulps of his drink afterwards. “You were working hard today,” I agreed. “It looked like you were fighting the car all the way round the track.” “Did you see the on-board? Man, the whole time I was just...” and he crossed and re-crossed his hands out in front of him. “And then there was the red flag: I hated that red flag! Just sitting there as the car got hotter and hotter: by the end I was just screaming come on, clean the track, clean the track already! I'll get a broom if you need some help!”
After qualifying we thought we'd try something different with the top three guys: as our paddock is so far away from the F1 paddock we don't get many journalists dropping in from there, so we went for a walk with Nico, Vitaly and Lucas, doing the interviews as we went, until we found a backdrop that Alastair was happy with for the photos.
Unfortunately that location turned out to be in the middle of a road that suddenly became very popular: a few cars and trucks managed to drive around the three guys, who were all oblivious to what was going on behind them as they tried to out-pose each other, until we had to yell out as a bus was bearing down on them, with the trio getting out of the way just in time. “That was a bit close,” Nico stated as he walked over. “Yeah,” I agreed, “and the strange thing is the driver looked just like Pastor...”
We all made it back eventually, safe and sound, even though Nico had to pull Mark from Autosport out of the path of a bus as we walked back (“Pastor's not giving up...”) and slumped down in hospitality as the heat was starting to bleed out of the day. It was about that time that Romain Grosjean walked in, to be greeted by some good natured banter (“Are you lost?” “You don't live in this paddock anymore...”) from everyone there.
“I had to come back,” he noted as we sat down at one of the tables, “The food is the best here, and Christian always knows what I like to eat.” As if on cue, Christian walked over with a tray of lobster and prawns and put it down in front of the newest F1 driver.
Which has never happened to me before: maybe I need to start writing the F1 blog. I bet their air conditioning is better, too...