Prema Racing are possibly the calmest race team I’ve ever watched up close - stand at the Williams pitwall, as I did today to see the closing stages of the drivers’ title unfold, and you’d swear that half the team are missing, that they somehow forgot to bring a full complement of mechanics and engineers, but that they’ve decided to get on with things anyway, to make the best of a bad situation, to not grumble.
That they can seem so quiet, so peaceful in the biggest race weekend of their short GP2 career is nothing short of extraordinary.
Before free practice everyone in the team was just … ready. All teams have their routines, and they work on them for small efficiencies, incremental gains to make life easier, to make things (and cars) faster, but put a clock against them and they seem almost mechanical, robotic, honed as they are to the second, to a gleaming shine.
Sometimes it amazes the team too. Antonio Giovinazzi’s mechanic and pit board guy has been around GP2 for a long time with a number of teams, but he’s never seen anything tick over as well as this group: leaning against the railing next to me as we waited for the clock to tick down, he said, astonished, “it’s amazing that we’re here: there’s just 7 points between them and they’re fighting for the championship, but it’s only our first year!
“Sometimes I think it’s almost our first race together, but we start working and it’s so calm, so good. It just works.” And then he was off to move the pit boards slightly, to make them more efficient to fill and lift, to make the process a little easier, to gain a tiny bit more time.
During the session a couple of people came and went, and although they were in the middle of a session that could help to tell the final story of this dramatic season, Rene Rosin and his engineers made time to say hello, to spend a little time with them and then to get back to work, exactly where they left off.
Newly minted Williams driver Lance Stroll, long acquainted with the team after racing with them for a number of years, came over to say hello, to wish them luck: hands were shaken, greetings were proclaimed, and then he sauntered back to the pits, getting out of the way and letting them work.
I was taking notes for my report before looking up at the screen and seeing Gerhard Berger, a man I’ve long admired, and one of my favourite interview subjects: I smiled at his cheerful visage before looking across to my right and there he was, 2 metres away and chatting with Rene. I always forget that cameras are roaming the pitlane behind me until their work becomes obvious to me, like that.
At the time Pierre Gasly was in the pitlane, with first his sidepod and subsequently his engine covers off, but it didn’t change their pace: they worked to order, efficiently and quietly, and had the Frenchman back out on track before the end of the session, were able to converse with Gerhard and still laugh at the irony of a black cat on the screens, running out on track in front of Sergio Canamasas and surviving to tell it’s grand-kittens the tale, all at once.
After lunch I walked down to the pitlane, to see what was happening up and down, but mostly to see what was happening in the pit containing our title rivals. But neither man was there: I looked up to see Antonio laughing like a hyena with some of his yellow clad followers in the seating area outside our hospitality zone above us, and walking through the Prema pit I bumped into Pierre as he was walking in the other way, shaking my hand with his ice-cold grip fresh from holding one of the dozens of bottles of water they’ve got to consume in a place like this. We chatted for a while about nothing in particular before he waved goodbye to everyone, adjourning for a few hours to his hotel, to take a nap.
Racing drivers are astonishing for their superhuman sleeping abilities, but in a weekend that is possibly the most important in his racing career? That is next level napping.
I was back down in the pits before qualifying, looking around to see if the pressure was getting to anyone, and on cue Pierre bounded in, tiny backpack strapped to him and exuding complete chilledness. “Of course,” he laughed when I pointed it out to him, "I’ve had 4 hours sleep, I feel great!" Antonio slipped in too, all smiles and back slaps for the team as he walked around the cramped room behind the cars.
Callum Ilott was there, trying to stay out of the way while taking it all in too after flying in from Macau: the young Briton will take part in next week’s tests, and was keen to learn all he could about GP2. He’d come to the right place, and the team made every effort to make him feel included in a race weekend in which he’s not actually taking part, a nightmare for any racing driver.
Watching the comings and goings from next to him, it’s still amazing to me that a man with such a relative experience advantage as Pierre has over Antonio (who is still a rookie, as hard as that can be to remember) still shares all his data and know how with the man who is competing to stop him taking the prize he’s craved for over 2 years.
But it speaks volumes about Pierre that, not only did he see the advantage of doing so at the start of the season, knowing that 2 fast drivers would push the team forward faster, but is still willing to do so despite their positions in the championship. The pair have been close every time I’ve seen them, swapping jokes alongside the data over the season, and while they don’t avoid each other walking through the pits now, the fight clearly means that they can’t be quite as close right here, right now: civil, not besties. Understandable, and it’s hard to see one of them not being the first to congratulate the other when it’s all over, hugging them with pride.
One of the mechanics burnt his hand a little while getting the cars sorted for qualifying, not terribly, but badly enough to need binding up. It gives the team something to briefly move their mind to, and the volume of help received speaks volumes about their need for mental space. But it’s too late: Rene has a fake fight with Callum, a displacement strategy for nerves, the clock on the wall ticks down to a team meeting that doesn't happen, unneeded with everyone being around, everything having been done, decided.
Up in the pitlane I’m on their pitwall again, waiting as all the cars arrive, and they are the last cars into the pitlane, Antonio and then Pierre, the main event at last. The team is almost unnaturally quiet and calm again, and if Rene and race engineer Daniele Rossi are nervous, as always, they try not to show it, hiding an array of tics trying to betray their smooth facades.
Pierre, ever the natural, gets out of the car as he waits for the signal, removing his helmet, gloves and earbuds before dumping them unceremoniously on their golf buggy and sloping over to the pitwall to have a chat, to laugh ahead of the storm. Antonio stays in the car, alone but sticking his thumbs up for the camera before his trainer arrives with a drink, and pair devolve into their private world, smiling.
And then, the wait.
An engine fires somewhere, the spell is broken, it’s 19.05. The team start to move, I jump down off my seat to start typing, Pierre saunters back over to re-dress, Antonio puts his gloves back on, and the track commentator starts talking, it’s 19.06. Seatbelts back on, slowly, methodically. 19.08. Thumbs up from Pierre to his mechanic, who hands him his gloves: more engines fire up, including Antonio, at 19.08:30. Pierre fires up at 19.09:30, and we’re all looking at the clock now.
At 19.10 the others move into pitlane and go, but Prema stay still. Then Trident peel off, and MP, and then Antonio finally moves: it’s 19.11. Pierre switches his engine off and the pitlane is calm, quiet, still, as everyone is out on track except Pierre. His mechanics surround him, standing, and a cameraman walks around them, looking for the best way in for the shot. There are no expressions on any of them, no movement except from Rene, who can't stop himself going over, but with nothing to do he’s soon back on the pitwall.
His rivals are setting times on track: But Pierre remains impassive, waiting.
At 19.19 he finally fires up his engine. At 19.20 he leaves. The GPS map in front of us shows that he’s at the back of a circuit wide queue, just behind Nabil Jeffri until he sneaks past into turn 8, but in front of him the rest of the field files into the pitlane, like a chain.
19.27, and he starts his first flying lap, and next to his name, on the bottom line of the timing sheets, three small numbers appear, all of them purple, and it’s over: P1 by almost a second. Still there is no sound on the pitwall except for that coming from the commentator above, struggling to put into words what just happened in front of us all.
He comes straight back into the pits next time around, rolls onto the weighbridge before returning to his pit: engine off, up onto the jacks front and back, four new tyres, and wait. The others start to fire up and dribble back out, on the wrong strategy, and Antonio has to go too, at 19.30:30, to see what he can do. The screens turn red with all the departures, and then Pierre fires up and goes too, a cat among the pigeons, at 19.31. Everyone is out again, but Pierre now has the best seat in the house, waiting to see if his rivals can do anything about his time.
It’s still weirdly quiet afterwards - handshakes and backslaps around the team, but slightly restrained, perhaps because of Antonio, back in P6: replays showed him being held up on his final flyer by Luca Ghiotto, and everyone wonders in their respective heads, was it just enough to stop him going for gold? Pierre gives a calm thumbs up to everyone from the car before driving back to our pits, and the engineers walks the other way, returning too as all the teams line up their trolleys into a convoy.
We’re held by the marshals for a few minutes at the entrance to the F1 pitlane until the track is clear, and there is a bit of small talk, some good natured ribbing of the mechanic about his strapped hand, before we’re finally released, and I catch up to Rene for a chat. "That’s possibly the most underwhelming celebration of a pole I’ve ever seen."
"Sure, but we have to stay calm, right now."
"Is it just because Antonio couldn’t get there?"
"He was maybe blocked by Ghiotto, and we’ll have to talk to the stewards, but we'll see - maybe he just wasn't as quick as Pierre today. But,” he added, ominously, “tomorrow is different."
"He does like to overtake, we’ve seen they can have a good race, and everyone would love to see that.” I almost left it there, before adding, “except you, of course, because you'll have no fingernails left by the end of it!"
And then he laughed at last, a real one, before catching himself and walking over to talk to one of the engineers: to manage the next step, the debrief, the preparations for tomorrow. Because, in a race series, the search for the next gain, the next improvement, can’t wait: if you don’t make it one of your rivals will, and it’s this that drives them all on to be the one who does.
Grazie per tutti i ricordi
I love coming to Monza: it's been my favourite race of the season for years, and I have so many memories tied up in the place, from living down the road in Milan for a few years and it being my home track, to all the amazing races I've witnessed over the years, and all the personal memories which have seeped into me like the ever present sun into my bones.
But what is it like to be an Italian racing here? "It's crazy!" Luca Ghiotto laughed as we went to the fanzone this morning, "I had to have help from the guards to get through the crowd to get into the paddock today!" Which made me think: what is it like for the other Italians?
"It's funny for me to race here," Raffaele Marciello began as we stood in the truck before the race, "because in Italy they say I'm Swiss, and in Switzerland they say I'm Italian, but I just say I'm Italian! To be here in Monza is quite busy, because the organisation is not the greatest here (laughs), a bit messy maybe, but it's nice because it's so special: Monza is a different track to the others, so fast, and I love to come here.
"I was with Ferrari of course, but I wasn't famous like the F1 guys so nothing strange or crazy happened, but of course I would have people come and give me their hand, grab me for a photo or something: I'm sure they do that for everyone else as well! And in the car I know where the Marciello fans are, because they're in Ascari, and they're all in yellow!"
"It's amazing, even more because we are GP2 drivers," Luca confirmed, "how would it be if we were F1! It's crazy, and we're only the little F1! The track is incredible, and with the crowd it's such a pleasure to race here, and there will be at least 3 more years here, which is great.
"Of course we have been missing an F1 driver for 5 or 6 years, so now the fans are closer to the lower categories: maybe if I was here in 2011 we wouldn't have so many people who know me or the other Italian drivers! I have my own fan club here, and it's amazing when I leave the paddock and everyone is shouting "Luca, Luca, sign this, take a picture!"" They're all just looking for a new hero? "Of course!"
"Of course it's very different from last year when I was with F3," Antonio Giovinazzi confirmed, "although already there were people asking me for a photo or an autograph, but it's really special now. Yesterday when I finished 2nd in qualifying I saw everyone in the tribunes saying hi to me, and it was something special: I saw the people all waving to me so I waved back to them to say thank you for supporting me.
Most Italian drivers I've known have had good results at Monza - Luca Filippi used to tell me he had a secret way of driving here, but he would never tell me what it was - but why do Italians go fast here? "Yesterday I didn't go so fast!" Raffaele laughed. "In F3 I had a great weekend here, a 1st and a 2nd, but at least for me I don't think I give more because it's Italy, because you have to give everything everywhere: okay, you might have a special helmet design or something, but for me it has to be like a normal weekend where you give all you have anyway."
"Of course there is the extra power, let's say, from the crowd," Luca argued, "and I love the track and know it really well, so even apart from the crowd I feel very comfortable here, but with the crowd it makes us go even quicker! Unfortunately there was a little problem with the safety car today, which maybe stole us from the podium, but without that I was P3 behind Pierre and Norman: I'm a bit disappointed, because sometimes people are too lucky! But I don't mind, because I am sure that one day I will be lucky too. Maybe tomorrow!"
And the main beneficiary of that luck was Antonio. Does it make a difference being Italian to win this race compared to the others he's won? "Yeah, of course! It's maybe the best moment of my career to start last and to win the race here, in front of my people: it's just an amazing sensation! I was really happy on the last lap before I came in: I could see all the people were so happy for me, and it was just sensational!" You'll need a bodyguard to get out of here! "Yeah!"
And for the teams, it's scarcely any different. "For sure, racing in Monza along with F1 is really incredible for an Italian team," smiled Rene Rosin, team principal of PREMA, "it's one of the fastest circuits so clearly it's amazing, and we've had great experiences here in other series, but nothing like this!
"I'm a bit surprised how much people know us here: in other categories it wasn't like this, but in GP2 people really know us and ask our drivers for autographs and photos, and it's really nice to watch. It's quite nice to come through all the people outside the paddock here! Normally when you want to come to work you want to get started quickly, but here, like in Silverstone, it's really good to see that the drivers can get closer to the fans, take photos and autographs, even if sometimes it gets a bit crazy!"
And the guy who is best placed to know what it's like on both sides is Giacomo Ricci: the likeable Italian is a GP2 race winner, and is now team manager at Trident. "It's a fantastic sensation to run in front of our fans, especially this season because there are more people here than in the past few years, but at the same time it's a bit more pressure for the Italian teams and drivers! It's funny: every year we try so hard to make the best result in Monza, but so far for Trident it hasn't worked perfectly! But tomorrow we have an opportunity with Antonio [Fuoco] and Luca: let's see if we can get a double podium!"
Does it make a difference to the team, racing at home? "For me it's exactly the same as for the [Italian] drivers: let's say we have huge pressure here, we have all the sponsors, fans and a team owner who really desires to do well at the Italian Grand Prix! On our side we really feel a great pressure: it was a shame today for the safety car for Luca, but tomorrow I really hope we can have a good chance!"
And maybe that's what brings the Italian drivers, teams and fans together: a mutual love of an amazing circuit, and a dream that better days are just around the corner. In bocca al lupo, as they say around here.
I never knew Finns were so chatty until I came to Monza. Of course, it might be because they were drunk.
Although that didn't make much difference when I travelled to Helsinki all those years ago, when I would sit at the bar writing into my notebook as all around me there would be tables of Finnish men sitting in silence with a bottle of vodka swapping back and forth between them. Local girls would come over and ask me what I'm writing, so starved of conversation that they chose me as their chat target. Which was silly, as I'm not known for chatting.
"So, you must be a Mercedes man," the first drunk Finn, a combination of white hair, tattoos, Ferrari shirt and booze breath, said as he collared me in the store next to our paddock, to where I had retreated while I waited for Pauline and Leandra to return from their track walk, begun just before I arrived at the circuit. No I said, hoping that would bring the conversation to an early finish.
"Oh!" beamed the other one, darker and more tattooed but similarly attired in Ferrari gear and alcoholic fumes, "You are for Ferrari!" Not so much I gasped as I involuntarily stepped backwards, looking for clear air. "Then," the first one stuttered, "what?" GP2 I stated, an answer that stumped my inquisitors. "You are British?" he queried, as though that would be the magical answer to clear everything up. Australian I posited, looking for the exit with increasing fear. "Ahh!" the second one blurted, slapping his thigh with his elaborately painted arm as though he'd solved the conundrum of the Higgs Boson particle before looking at me expectantly, as though it was my turn on the giddily leaning conversational roundabout.
I thought for a minute before retorting and you are ... Dutch? "HAAHAAHAAHAA!!" the pair howled, tears streaming down their faces as their volume increased. "YOU ARE TOO FUNNY!! No, we are Finnish! FOR KIMI!! Do you want to go for a drink now?" Thanks, I replied, but I have to get back to work. "YOU WORK HERE?!?!" they blurted, but I was already out the door and headed back to the safety of the paddock.
Once safely ensconsed behind the gates I went for a walk to see who was around, and Gustav Malja was playing football with his mechanics in the open space next to the Rapax truck: he looked up and came over to shake hands, saying hi as he approached. Nice work last week I suggested. Thanks he replied, and we both went back to our own respective worlds without outstaying each other's welcome.
In the morning everyone was getting ready for free practice, with a few of the drivers watching the F1 session in hospitality while they waited. Arthur Pic was there with his trainer Emilien Colombain, whose right leg was elaborately strapped up to deal with an extensively torn thigh muscle. I think: to be honest, I was struggling to listen after he explained the damage, from which frankly grisly details I shall spare you.
Suffice to say, he's going to be out of action for the rest of the year. Which is a bit of a problem when you're a personal trainer. But your job is, well, to keep him fit? The scowl on Arthur's face suggested the thought wasn't lost on him, but Emilien put on a brave front, suggesting there was plenty he could do, even in his current debilitated state, despite the workload the pair famously put in (as previously detailed here). Okay, let me know if you need someone to kick a ball with him for you...
Free practice came and went, and when I saw Gustav eating his lunch I asked him how his session had gone. He put down his knife and fork, thought for a minute before noting messy, and returning to his meal. And with 3 VSC periods it's hard to argue with his summation, as marvelously brief as it was.
The main problem for new drivers to Monza is slipstreaming. A circuit this fast and flowing demands that you get a good tow for much of the lap to ensure your laptime is as good as it can be, but that's easier said than done: get too close and you're compromised at the chicanes and Ascari, but not close enough and you don't get the benefit of the tow.
One person who didn't seem to worry about it was Artem Markelov, but then again there seems to be very little he does worry about. Arriving in the paddock yesterday his team were practicing pitstops, and he sat in the car in a pair of shorts and little else, doing stop after stop with the same serene, impenetrable half smile on his face as he rolled back and forth time and again, the same smile he had on his face when his car stopped halfway through the practice session at the entry to Parabolica, and that he had on his face in the press conference after he had brought home his best qualifying performance for third.
Maybe he needed to pull up short in practice more often, I suggested, given the great qualifying session he'd had. To his credit he laughed, and said "yeah, maybe we will do the same for the next race, just do 9 laps and stop, then go quicker in qualifying!"
It was clearly better than Gustav's session: the Swede was just over a second off the pace, but given the closeness of the field in Monza he finished the session in P18. I asked him how he'd gone when I saw him at dinner, not having read the timesheets all the way down, and he looked up, considered for a moment, then simply stated shit.
It got a little better for him not long after, albeit at the expense of Antonio Giovinazzi and Nabil Jeffri, who saw his best qualifying result removed as the pair were excluded from the session for having inadequate tyre pressures. I wrote up the news story explaining what had happened and then walked outside to see a number of people crowding around the notice board to see what had happened, including Gustav.
Two spots better now, I noted, and the Swede smiled. Anything can happen in a race he replied, before picking up his bag and heading out of the circuit for the night, and as I watched him walk away I thought I'm not happy about this development: he's getting as chatty as a Finn.
So from now on I'll just talk to Jimmy Eriksson: at least I know I won't have to get tied up in a long, rambling chat like I do with his countryman now.
We arrived in the paddock this morning to find Antonio Giovinazzi already installed at the fussball table and taking on all comers: he looked up as we walked by before saying "the blog is not fair! You said that Pauline beat me, but you forgot to say that I beat her too!"
"And good morning to you, too."
"Sorry, good morning! But come on, fair is fair..."
And to be fair, Antonio is probably now the best fussball player in the paddock, given how many people he has beaten today. Although, to be equally fair, so he should be considering the amount of time he's spent at the table this weekend. I'm not entirely sure that he didn't spend all last night practicing, just to prove a point...
Still, it was a better start to the day than Sergey Sirotkin had: the genial Russian emerged from the bathroom in his hotel room, thankfully wearing a towel, to find a housekeeper tidying up his room. "Oh," she noted disinterestedly, "you are still here. Will I clean up now, or come back later?" "Later!" he gasped as she casually strolled across the room, leaving him stunned as he watched the door close behind her.
And when he went downstairs to have breakfast, the same housekeeper was in his lift, with the pair struggling through a somewhat awkward silence until they arrived at the ground floor. Any further plans for a dinner date are unknown at this time.
We then headed over to Arden International for the teammate's team talk, which as usual was a lot of fun. "Just remember, it's supposed to be funny," I advised Jimmy and Nabil, "so feel free to say whatever you want. First question, describe your teammate with one word."
"Stupid," Jimmy deadpanned, and the pair fell about laughing. As usual, don't miss the article in The Insider, where you'll learn about Nabil's friends and their hairdressing abilities, the pros and cons of social media, and Jimmy's surprising use of trucks in his physical training regime.
From there it was straight around the paddock to round up the drivers for a signing session in the fan zone, with the guys chatting in the back of the van as we headed over. When talk turned to the fans, Alex Lynn took the lead: "I have a few fans who turn up everywhere: no idea how they do it really, but they always seem to know where I am."
"Really?" Mitch Evans queried. "They follow you that much?"
"Yeah, it is a little odd; I've got no idea why, really." And sure enough, when we arrived at the stage his fans were already installed at the front of the retaining fence with a giant, Union flag inspired Alex Lynn banner: the Essex man walked straight over and had a long chat, signing the banner and posing for selfies before eventually heading over to sign autographs for all the other fans. "Is that them?" I asked. "Yeah," he smirked, "it's pretty great, isn't it? We all do this for the fans, of course, and it's amazing that someone will go that far for us..."
He wasn't the only one to have fans here: Marvin Kirchhöfer was in high demand too. "It feels really good to be back in Hockenheim," he smiled afterwards. "I had pole here in 2014 in GP3 Series, so I really like the place! Germans love to come to the races: sure, it's not like Monza or something where there are so many fans, but there are still a lot here, and it's a cool feeling to race in front of them.
"I don't know if they really know who I am, but you saw how many people were here asking for an autograph or a photo. And some of them even had photos of me from Formula ADAC and Formula 3, which feels a long time ago! But it's nice to see how far we've come, and that people have been following all that way."
But not everyone had fans there. Famously (in the paddock, anyway) Alexa was never able to understand Mitch's accent, and earlier Pauline was trying to transcribe an interview with him with little luck, passing the headphones over to me to translate from New Zealander to Australian to Franglais on every other line. "You're out of luck again mate," I smirked at him as we waited by the side of the stage as I pointed towards Pauline, "she doesn't understand you either."
Incredulous, he looked over and asked "you don't understand me when we're talking?"
"What?" she blurted, either because of his harsh accent or that she simply didn't hear him I cannot confirm.
"That's ridiculous," he laughed, "how come they can't understand me?"
"It's tough to know really: either the problem rests with you, or every French person in the world. So it's probably them..."
And then the race came and washed everything away. Antonio had an amazing race from the back of the grid to get up to the top five before running out of tyres and falling back to P9, later moving up to the reverse pole when his teammate was disqualified from a fine third, while Mitch moved up too before retiring with a mechanical gremlin, and Marvin gave his fans something to cheer about before he too dropped back at the end on old tyres.
Sergey, on the other hand, had an amazing race: leading from the start before dropping as his tyres wore out, coming in just as the VSC signs came out and having the pitstop cancelled, making him think the whole race had fallen apart before setting a blistering pace and coming back, having to stop again but then with fresh tyres allowing him to slice through the field and grab the win against the odds.
He's not a particularly superstitious driver, as a previous teammate interview showed, but if you see a photo of Sergey in the paddock with a towel wrapped around him, now you'll know why.
If you ask me, I think it was the fussball table that was at the heart of Antonio Giovinazzi's problems this weekend.
Arriving in the hospitality area on Thursday, everyone was drawn like a moth to the flame by a brand new fussball table which just sat their provocatively, tempting anyone who came nearby to come over to stroke her, caress her, spin and shoot with her. Poor Antonio never had a chance.
"Do you want a game Antonio?" Pauline asked innocently, seeing the undisguised delight on his face at the new arrival in the paddock. "Sure!" he fired back, a little too keenly, and they were soon twiddling their knobs with an unadulterated joy that is rare in this paddock without a helmet on. But he moved too fast: little did he know that Pauline is a notorious fussball hustler in the mean streets of Paris, but it didn't take long for him to learn.
He begged anyone who walked by to come and play with him, but it was all in vain: the poor fellow was a dry husk of a man by the time his team dragged him back to the hotel to rest ahead of the next day's activities.
And Friday brought the sun, flat and wide and heavy, as we all returned to the Hockenheimring again. The swap deal with the Nurburgring seems a bit of a shame from the outside, as no one really gets settled with anything, and also because Hockenheim is frankly a nice place to come, and an interesting place to race.
Pierre Gasly was looking to extend his recent dominance, and in Free Practice he slapped down his rivals by setting the pace in the session, albeit that the tight, technical nature of the circuit meant that the time gaps were slight, with any mistakes penalised heavily.
After the session no one was surprised to see Antonio back on the fussball table with Sean Gelael as his partner, playing against Pierre and Antonio's trainer, and that the Italian was seemingly struggling compared to the others.
"Come on Antonio," I laughed as he missed a shot on goal, which rebounded to Sean at fullback before being cooly slotted back through every player ahead of him and into the goal, "are you going to do something, or are you just going to let Sean score all the goals?"
"That's right, he knows the score!" Sean laughed out loud, adding to his friend's shame. The pair swapped positions to allow Sean to take the lead, with Antonio greeting every touch of the ball by his partner with a "come on Balotelli" snark. Pierre didn't really care what positions they played in: he beat them twice, with two different partners: "Yeah, there you go!" he laughed at the end, using his hand as a beak in his teammate's face, and Antonio's shame was complete.
In the meantime we returned to write up the various pieces needed for releases and slowly drained Pauline's M&M dispenser, with the candies patriotically displayed in the colours of the German flag, before heading back out to the pitlane again, ominous looking clouds now hanging heavily overhead but the heat of the day undiminished by them.
Pierre led the way once again, and up and down the pitlane everyone had clearly assumed the Frenchman was going to be on pole once again, but they did so without considering Sergey Sirotkin.
The Russian has had a torrid season: after finishing in the top three in his debut season last year expectations were sky high, but results have been tough to find in a year that has been blighted by mistakes and pure bad luck. Sergey looks tough from the outside, but he is an emotional bloke who has been hit hard by the lack of results, which is why his strong Hungarian weekend was just the fill up he needed to put everything back on track.
His fast lap came with just 4 minutes remaining, when Pierre and most of the others were back in the pits: Sergey's first flying lap on his second set of tyres was aborted due to traffic, and a cool down allowed him to hit his straps as the track was clearing. The sector times next to his name weren't purple, so he wasn't setting the fastest times, but they were green, so they were his best sector times, at least.
And, unusually, 3 green sectors added up to pole: a smooth total lap beat 2 purple sectors and a slightly wayward middle sector.
Back in the paddock Sergey knew it meant his plan was working: he was coming back, and although Pierre joked about it in the press conference, he knew a confident Sergey meant his job tomorrow was going to be harder than ever.
But Antonio wasn't thinking about such things: he was already back at the fussball table, looking for more competition. Along with one of his mechanics he played game after game this evening against PREMA Racing's Head of communications Angelina Ertsou and their F4 driver Mick Schumacher, son of the former GP2 test driver: the fight between the two drivers was fierce but the Italian slowly but surely came out on top, using his experience to find the results he was lacking as the weekend got under way, his smile getting wider as the sun dropped behind turn one just outside.
And even the bad news of his disqualification for a technical infringement didn't dent his newly found good mood. Which means we're going to have to keep the table, and use it as a compulsory part of the penalty process going forward.
So if you don't mind I'll stop here: I'm just off to the stewards to let them know the new rules.
I'm going to do a photo blog today, I told Pauline on the way to the track, unless there's any stories we don't know about.
Let me just check with the teams, she requested.
Nope, nothing going on here, Angelina noted, along with everyone else. And so it began.
It was early morning, the race was a long way away. Trident were relaxing, and keeping out of the sun.
It was early morning, the race was a long way away. Trident were relaxing, and keeping out of the sun.
And before long it was lunchtime, ahead of F1 qualy.
But then, this happened.
The rain lasted for about an hour, and then disappeared as quickly as it arrived. Our timetable was thrown out because of the support race up the hill, but eventually it was our turn to get ready.
Up to the pitlane, and there wasn't time to sit around.
The teams pushed their tyre trolleys out to the grid, and we all waited for the drivers to arrive.
Tyre strategy is always important, but on a circuit where overtaking is at a premium, it's crucial. There were a few last minute changes, just to confuse the opposition.
And a few teams had a bit more serious work to do, and not much time to do it.
After the race most of the teams just packed up and went back to the paddock.
But a few had something to celebrate.
While the other drivers just headed back.
But work's not finished: there's always more photos, and the press conference.
A friend and I were talking about Haruki Murakami the other day, as you do, and he asked me if I had read his non-fiction book What I'm Talking About When I Talk About Running: I'm a huge fan, like most people, but I've mostly concentrated on his fiction. You should read it, he suggested, as it probably applies to you: he runs ultra-marathons, and a large part of the reason is because he believes authors need the stamina and endurance of marathoners to write a novel. It's an interesting point of view, and I've been carrying it in the back of my head every since.
So today I thought I only need to write a blog: I should go and run a lap of the circuit.
It often works, strangely enough: I put on some tunes and start running, and ideas tend to run alongside me. It didn't take long to reflect back on a chat with Jimmy Eriksson yesterday, the bulk of which will appear in an upcoming Insider: I often joke with him about cheering up, because like a lot of people he's reasonably shy, but unfortunately for him it means he looks a bit grumpy in a public situation, whereas in person he's actually a charming and quietly funny guy.
I won't repeat the whole conversation here, but one of the questions related to the most important advice he'd ever received: bizarrely it was a few years ago when he was having trouble putting a start together, and his engineer told him a secret which he's carried with him ever since. When you are sitting on the line, he said, you need to just think of one thing: boobies. He went on to draw them on a nearby whiteboard, and on the paper in front of him, and for a week or so every time he saw Jimmy he would simply say boobies.
And it worked: from that time on, whenever Jimmy needed to get started, he would think of boobies and the rest came naturally. If only writing worked like that.
He probably didn't have anything of the sort on his mind this morning when he was chatting with his mechanics in the paddock as everyone waited to go out for free practice: we wait for F1 to finish and then the teams get moving with their trailers and trolleys up the hill and onto the track at Turn 13, while the drivers get a start and roll out at Turn 2, on the other side of the track.
There was a bit of rain overnight, so around the paddock was a bit damp, but the track was dry and the sun soon burned away the last remaining clouds: the track temperature was just over 40C at the start of practice, but scorched up to 48C by the end of the session. Pierre Gasly didn't seem to mind, setting the pace once again: Sergey Sirotkin was the only other man to sit on the top of the timesheets with a real laptime, and even that only lasted for 10 seconds until the Frenchman crossed the line once again behind him.
Afterwards it was back to the paddock to work and grab a bite to eat, and it didn't take long before it was time to get ready for the pitlane once again. Waiting to go I realised we were in a good position to watch the F1 cars on track, and it's always a great thing to do: you forget how much the cars move around, that the drivers take different lines in and out of corners, all the little things that you miss in the pitlane or watching on the monitors, because the cameras seem to oddly flatten everything out, make everything look the same.
Running the circuit this afternoon reminded me that it's not flat at all, not by a long stretch.
I watched them for a while in Turn 13, then back down at Turn 2: the latter is a spot that has always been popular for the teams and younger drivers to watch and learn about the track and what it will tolerate, what it will reward or punish them for. It's a shame that it doesn't seem to be as popular as it used to be, probably because the teams all have air-conditioning and TVs in their trucks, so why stand outside in the blazing sun?
But you really do see a lot more, watching from behind the barriers. I wish I got to watch the GP2 guys on track, but I have to write the reports and I have to know what is happening during the session, so it's not really possible.
Pierre continued to blow everyone away in qualifying: waiting until everyone else was coming in before going out was a masterstroke, to get the track to himself and teammate Antonio Giovinazzi. In the press conference he looked like the cat who got the cream, while Sergey admitted that there wasn't anything he could do to get on terms with his rival: Yeah, he needs to tell me where to improve! Everything was alright, everything felt good, but to be honest I don't know where we can find time to close the gap, really!
You've got to admire his honesty, really, although there was a bit of headscratching going on at ART as I went out for my run. They'll still be okay - ART always do well in the races - but the gap back from Gasly to everyone else was pretty big. DAMS tried to get the free track advantage too, sending their drivers out on fresh rubber early, but both of their drivers ran wide and any advantage they could have made was over as their rivals re-emerged before they could start another lap.
Coming back to the paddock I walked past their pit, where they were playing Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins at great volume. I can only hope they were being ironic. And as I walked in, Jimmy walked out and started up the hill: I was going to go and have a chat, but if I've learnt anything this weekend it's not to try to stop Jimmy once he gets started.
That, and also that if I want the blog to be any longer, I should run two laps.
Timehop is great, isn't it?
Who doesn't like to be reminded of the stupid things they've done in the past, and that they tend to do much the same things over and over again, sometimes on an annual basis. And what Timehop reminded me of this morning is that I've been to Silverstone a lot of times now, and that every time the French really like to complain about the place. And also that I like to point this out, so it doesn't look like I'm the only one moaning about coming here.
And to be fair, they do mostly have a point. The Brits love to think they are the centre of the motorsport universe, and there is a fair argument to be made to that end, but that shouldn't give them licence to do things just slightly differently to everywhere else. Because that makes them the exception, not the rule. And it also makes them very annoying when you're trying to work to a schedule that works everywhere else, but gets snagged all day long on the differences here.
At least Didier didn't miss his flight this year, which made a nice change. He was late for his flight, sure, but the flight was late too, so that didn't work. In protest his body decided to have an allergic reaction (whether it's to Britain itself or just something growing on it has yet to be discovered), and he's been complaining on an Olympian level ever since. Even a France v Germany semi final wasn't enough to entice him out after work, although he did concede that he "heard they might have won" this morning over coffee in hospitality, where he did seem substantially less allergic than yesterday.
Sergey Sirotkin, on the other hand, didn't have that much time for conversation. "Hello," he volunteered as he waited for the first F1 practice to start. When asked how he was he enthused "okay" before peering around us to see the screen in exactly the same way my four year old son does when I'm in the way as he watches an episode of Swashbuckle. And we forgave him for the same reason we forgive Arthur: he's too nice and well-mannered (when the telly's not on) to make you upset. We'll catch him later, I said: maybe in the press conference.
Oh, I can see you're getting ahead of me.
But it was a day where the past and the future crossed over constantly. Giedo van der Garde and Davide Valsecchi were both in the paddock, laughing and joking with everyone as they caught up with their old teams and colleagues. "Yeah, doing a bit of business these days, with my father in law and others," Giedo stated when I asked him what he's been up to. "It keeps me busy, I guess. And a bit of racing, LMP1, which is fun." Not much time involved though, I guessed. "No, not compared to here!" he laughed, "but I'm enjoying it, so that's the good bit."
And on the screen Charles Leclerc was testing with Haas, on the flip side of the Dutchman's career, while Giuliano Alesi walked past in his Ferrari gear, about to head over to the big paddock. Giedo was here with Steijn Schothorst, mentoring him through the paddock and giving him the benefit of his experience, and it seemed odd to both of us that only a few years ago Giedo was the fresh faced young kid dreaming of the F1 life that would (if briefly) be in his future.
One thing that didn't flash back to previous years was the traffic: this year we're staying remarkably close to the circuit, and if it's hardly the height of luxury at least it didn't take long to get into the circuit. My Timehop feed today flashed up a series of tweets Alexa and I made while stuck in traffic, followed by a photo of Jolyon Palmer, Marcus Ericsson and their trainers running into the circuit: they had abandoned their car by the side of the road and legged it to (just) make free practice. This year everyone was here with hours to spare, which makes me nervous: I can't shake the feeling that the circuit is waiting until Sunday morning for the early sprint race before it strikes us, cobra-like, when it counts.
Silverstone still reminded us that ultimately we have no control over events when Pauline and I were heading to the pitlane for qualifying this afternoon, ensuring that all the buses left early and we had to beg a hospitality minibus driver to get us the approximately 50 mile distance from the old to the new pits, making it just in time for the cars to be released. On the way over I officially turned into an Old Silverstone Lag when I complained that things aren't the way they used to be, when everyone in the paddock knew each other and we all used to pile onto one of the teams' rigs as the dragged their equipment into the paddock.
Qualifying was pretty exciting, with the lead changing constantly and a couple of red flags to break it all up. Unfortunately for Sergey he didn't notice when one of the race officials waved him to the weighbridge: by the time I noticed the investigation comment on the screens and Marco walked across to ART Grand Prix to tell them it was too late, as they'd changed his tyres: even if they could push him all the way back up a (semi) live pitlane his car had been amended, so it wouldn't have been a legal measurement.
Cue much Russian swearing from red and white car containing possibly the most unlucky driver of the season...
After the session we were walking out towards the bus stop when the Rapax guys stopped and asked if we wanted to jump on, and they didn't need to ask twice: Pauline and I were soon hanging off the side of their tyre trolley and rolling the 100 or so miles back to our paddock. "I've never seen you smile this much," she laughed, while I just watched the track roll past to my right and smiled some more in the watery sunshine.
But the session lasted longer than expected for some: when Pierre Gasly arrived for the press conference he still wasn't sure whether he'd come out on top or not, because of the investigation into Norman Nato's quick lap. "Are you sure?" he asked when I advised the PREMA man that his countryman was on the top spot. "Go and look where he's sitting, if you don't believe me." We walked around the corner and there was Norman, grinning fit to burst in the middle seat waiting for us...
It was a nice birthday present for Norman, who seemed genuinely surprised that I knew what the day meant to him, and even more so when we presented him with a birthday cake after the press conference. The Racing Engineering squad and teammate Jordan King all turned up to embarrass him with an appalling version of Happy Birthday, and despite the best efforts of the Briton it was the first birthday cake in the history of GP2 Series to be presented to a driver and not end up on their (or someone else's) face.
Not only did it not devolve into a foodfight, but Pauline and the others raved about what a good cake it was, and how glad they were to be there have a piece. Which is when I had to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming: if the French can find a reason to be happy to be in Silverstone, then surely a pattern of behaviour is changing.
What that will do to my Timehop feed, only time will tell.
We all know the best way to get things done in racing: go as fast as you can without rushing, because that's when the problems happen. Better to get things done at your own pace so you don't make any mistakes which you'll pay for later.
Obviously that doesn't include races, but they're another form of life altogether.
So I've only got myself to blame for the serious bruising on my foot. I knew we had to change the backdrop for the press conference between events, and GP2 was yesterday afternoon while GP3 was this morning, but for one reason or another no one did it when we had time to spare, and I had to rush it through this morning.
The backdrop itself was okay - it fell on my head a couple of times, but that generally happens anyway - but when I put the large strips of it onto the desk to get ready to roll together they knocked the desk name plate onto my foot.
A long, heavy, sharp T bar of steel. With the sharp edge down. Onto my toes.
I saw stars. I thought I was going to throw up. I couldn't hear anyone talking to me because of the white noise in my head. And we still had to get it changed with the drivers heading to hospitality from their trucks. With me due to host the press conference.
I would do well to remember their names with my foot throbbing, let alone what happened in the session (I didn't: I wrote their names on paper, along with some questions). I don't remember it, but apparently it happened because there are some quotes on the website. And then we had to change it again for the race press conferences.
So not an ideal start to the day.
Luckily we had a good way to ease back into life: after a hiatus of 3 years we're going back to doing the teammate interviews for the Insider. We've had a number of requests, and it's great because they're both popular and really fun to do.
So I hobbled over to PREMA with Pauline to sit down with Pierre Gasly and Antonio Giovinazzi, and it's really clear that they've built a strong relationship already over the off-season. Pierre laughed at me for wearing sunglasses in the truck (they're prescription: I'm getting old) before jumping straight into it, relishing the chance to make fun of his new teammate, who soon worked out what was happening and joined in with abandon.
They have a photographer working with them, and he was laughing away while he snapped us all gesticulating wildly as we laughed about Pierre's obsession with pizza and the pair's view on subjects like clothes, music, their philosophy of racing and, inevitably, girls. You can look forward to reading it soon, and make sure to sign up for the Insider magazine if you haven't already to get a copy.
It was a shame to leave in the end, as the company was tremendous and their truck was really comfortable: it reminded me of why it can sometimes be harder to write a blog now than it used to, as the comfort levels in the teams' trucks are way higher than it used to be, so the drivers hardly leave to come to hospitality now!
One person getting used to a higher level of comfort is Luca Ghiotto, the eminently popular Italian who steps up after a fantastic year in GP3 to show what he can do on a bigger stage. Not that he's taking anything for granted: "I'm so lucky to be with Trident," he told me as we headed over to the Fanzone for the usual video game contest, "as they were really happy with me last year, and offered me a deal to be here. I really owe them a lot, and it's great that we're all friends too."
Top ten in his first qualy won't have harmed that, either.
Luckily there was no one from the team to see him at work in the game zone, because it didn't go well for him.
"What was that about?" I laughed afterwards as we discussed his crashed as we walked over to the collected fans.
"I know, but it's not my fault, the car was crap!"
"Typical driver, always blaming the car."
"No, it was the program: I'm blaming the internet!"
Jimmy Eriksson came over to gloat (he came third), but his demeanour sometimes doesn't tell the story he might want it to.
"Did you enjoy that Jimmy?"
"Yeah, it was great!"
"Maybe you should tell your face!" I laughed. "I tell you in every press conference to smile more!"
"I'm just Swedish: we're all like this!"
"Not all of you! Maybe you need to be like Nobu, and learn to chill out..."
The Japanese driver wandered serenely past to take another photo with some fans, his new buzzcut in ample evidence.
"What's the haircut about?" I asked in the minibus back to the paddock, "trying to show a new serious side?"
"Yes," he stated inscrutibly, "and also for racing: I save some weight, I go faster." I wasn't sure if he was being serious or not until the edges of his mouth tipped up slightly, cracking everyone up.
It was soon time for the race, and it was great to be able to dump all the tension and get down to the reason we were all there: great, that is, until all the screens blacked out on the first lap of the race, leaving me to hang off the side of the pitwall shelter to try and see the screen on top of the stands opposite, just to be able to write what was happening.
Luckily (for us, anyway) it coincided with Luca running off and bringing out the safety car, and some fast work by the Force India mechanics got the screens back up before the race went live again. After the race I saw Marvin Kirchhöfer walking back to the paddock with his trainer: he pitted for a new nose after the incident, so I asked him if he'd caused it. "No!" he roared, wounded at the suggestion, "they went off in front of me, and their debris damaged my car!"
The other driver I saw on the way back was Sergey Sirotkin, waiting for his team to return after he spun out of the race from third. I asked if there was a reason for his spin and he moaned "yes, it's because I'm the biggest idiot in the world", looking so depressed that I almost hugged him. There's plenty of other opportunities to come, I stammered, but he wasn't having any of it: "No, it's unacceptable, I just can't do it" before slumping off to his truck.
Suddenly my foot didn't feel quite so bad. We got to work writing up all the reports (and the less said about the flag marshal's effect on the end of the race the better), and I almost thought about going for a run, just to see if the foot was okay, when there was a sudden downpour.
Which was clearly a sign: my foot was still hurting, the weather wasn't playing ball, so it was almost as though it was fate. So, I thought, let's have a go at putting together a blog, and see if there was anything to talk about today.
I'll tell you when I know if there was.
"It must be so glamourous" people inevitably say when I tell them about this job, about following the circus around Europe from circuit to circuit, from year to year. "All those great cities, all those fabulous restaurants and nightclubs, all that time with the drivers and everything."
I love Barcelona: I always have. It's a great, chilled out, fun town which surpasses the comments above. But the problem with this job is that the reality never quite matches up to their dreams. We don't actually see the cities we go to: most of the time, like here, we see the airport on arrival, get a cab or a car past the city to a race track out of town, shuttle between there and a hotel nearby with a gorgeous view of an ordinary freeway, and then drive back past the town on Sunday to the airport on the way home.
So this year I came out on Thursday morning instead of the evening, just to remind myself what a great place Barcelona is. I caught the bus into the Placa de Catalunya, walked down la Rambla and through the old town, past the Museo Picasso and the Arc de Triompho to la Sagrada Familia and up the hill to Park Guell to take in the stunning view of the whole city laid out in front of me.
Instead of rushing around for flights and taxis in the dark I arrived chilled out and ready for the opening party in the hospitality area, laughed with the drivers and team members as we had a few drinks before a few of us decided to head back into town for some tapas, and still managed to be in bed before midnight.
So I guess that's ruined my argument next time someone tells me I have a glamourous job. It could be worse.
But the chilled out vibe couldn't last for long - we're all here to race, after all - and Friday saw the atmosphere ramp up as the teams eased into their jobs, preparing the cars for free practice while Sergey Sirotkin, Gustav Malja and a few others watched the F1, Nobu Matsushita jumped into his car to tweak the seating position, newbie Luca Ghiotto stood deep in conversation with a mechanic, the Indonesians stood in the shade opposite the Campos pit taking in all the activity for the first time and the Russians, now old hands in the pits, sat around behind the RUSSIAN TIME truck and gentled bickered with each other to pass the time until the session got underway.
The drivers looked to be extra careful not to put a wheel wrong in free practice given the shortened period between the session and qualy, which seemed to arrive 10 minutes later, just after we all threw down a quick bite to fuel us up again. The day had started with a wide open sky and blazing sun, but as the clock ticked down to qualy the clouds snuck in like a dog in trouble with its master as the Minion toy on top of one of the Tridents supervised the team's work, Oliver Rowland hung off the rear of the MP canopy with a giant drink hanging from his mouth and Artem Markelov strided back to his pits, peering over the top of his sunglasses as he scrolled through the screen of his phone for a nugget to consume.
Alexa isn't with us in person, for the completely joyous reason of being pregnant and therefore inappropriately proportioned for the heat and grime and hours and stress of the paddock, so she has arranged for a proxy to attend in her stead in the form of Pauline, to deal with the things she can't do from her spy drone hovering overhead for 20 hours a day. Pauline is a great proxy: less blonde but just as French, and with the same amount of dry, sardonic snarkiness needed to get through a race weekend.
She's quietly enthusiastic about everything, which is winning her a lot of fans. At the press conference, as we all chatted together while we waited for the noise from the Porsche session to die down, she took a photo of the top three drivers laughing together and showed it to them. "It's a good thing you took it before the press conference," I smirked. "Usually the photos during it show one guy engaged as he answers me, and the other two looking stunningly bored. Indeed, sometimes they all look bored!"
"Well if you could ask some good questions from time to time maybe we wouldn't look like that!" Alex laughed.
He seemed in good form when we finally got started, so maybe I'm getting better at this job after all this time, or maybe he was just in his usual jokerish form. Afterwards he and Pierre were talking about the Matsushita/Gelael spat during qualy to see if they could find out what had happened when Norman came over and said something in French to his countryman: "oh right," Alex sniggered, "Norman just admitted he took them off..."
Then it was time to write everything up before dinner, which saw Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Ocon come back over from the big paddock for a bite to eat and to catch up with their old team. It's always good to catch up with our graduates, and it gave me a chance to have a joke with our current champion.
"It's lucky you raced with us last year," I began. "I mean, sure, you got pole position here and it pretty much set up the whole season for you, but that time would have only been good enough for 12th today..."
"What?" he blustered, taking the bait completely. "I could do better! Give me a helmet and let me race tomorrow!"
"You've hit a nerve!" Esteban laughed. "Don't you know he thinks he owns GP2!"
"Well, he pretty much does now!" I laughed back as Stoffel realised it was a joke and finally joined in. He probably doesn't get much of the chilled out atmosphere we have anymore in the new paddock: they may have a bit more glamour, but I know which side of the fence I'd rather have dinner.
And, clearly, I'm not alone.