Four Weekends in July
The month of July was an endurance test for everyone in the GP2 paddock, a marathon to be paced out evenly to reach the end of it after a month watching and waiting as the Formula One teams flew over to North America without them. Four rounds in five weekends, eight races in four countries, each with extreme weather and nowhere to hide, from the weather or from the scoreboard.
Heikki Kovalainen started the month with a nine point lead over Scott Speed, and a seventeen point gap back to Nico Rosberg in fifth place in the Championship, and the Finn's coronation was already being openly discussed as a matter of when, not if. The best driver in the best car, they said; you can't beat a combination like that.
But June gave the other teams a chance to try and do so at the Paul Ricard circuit during a two day test, and ART made good use of the opportunity.
The first weekend in July was Magny Cours, where the teams and drivers were champing at the bit to get back on track, ready to get back to what they do, and none were as ready as the ART team; the French team were quick out of the box at their home track, leaving the others scratching their heads in amazement at the turnaround.
Clouds blanketed the sky as the teams made the long trek from their paddock to the track for the first race, with ART's Alex Premat on pole, a Frenchman in a French team at his home race with no locals in the main event, but despite having a faster car he lost out at the start to Kovalainen and couldn't find a way past on the narrow circuit. Nonetheless it was clear that, a decent pitstop notwithstanding, Premat was going to take his first win in the series with ease.
It wasn't to be - Olivier Pla's spin at the final corner brought out the safety car, and all of the main teams immediately brought their drivers in for their stops under yellow. All of them, that is, except ART, who had both drivers at the front of the field when the cars were released again, but with no chance of holding on to the lead when they made their stops under racing conditions, handing an easy win to the Championship leader.
It was an amateur mistake, but one that would be learnt from - as the teams worked on their cars under the watchful gaze of the hundreds of fans who took the opportunity to visit the GP2 paddock, no one was in any doubt that Rosberg would make up for it the next day, starting on the front row and with the fastest car on the grid.
The sharp sun shone down on the grid on Sunday morning as the drivers formed up on the front straight before the start of the race, which saw pole-sitter Clivio Piccione bog down and get swamped by Rosberg and Hiroki Yoshimoto as the lights went out. Rosberg could smell his first win and he wasn't about to let it go, pulling away from the Japanese driver by a second a lap before slowing down at the end of the race but still winning by over 25 seconds.
For Rosberg, claiming his first win in the series was a demon off his back, and his joy was abundantly clear back in the paddock as he was surrounded by his team and a number of other people wanting to congratulate him on his stunning drive, a smile as wide as his face was framed by his blond locks and reflected in the faces of everyone around him.
Rosberg, a German by birth and upbringing despite his father's Finnish heritage, has a tendency to hide behind his words, to make jokes at the expense of others as a defence mechanism to hide his shyness, but his first win opened him up a little, as though the win gave him the confidence he wanted but wasn't sure was his due until now. It was the start of a marked change in Rosberg - the win gave him the confidence to be himself, to make jokes at his own expense, to open up to the others in the paddock and engage with them rather than watching but hiding within himself.
Further along the paddock another man was also acting differently to usual, in that he finally had a car which could get to the end of the race, and he duly claimed his first podium finish. Yoshi, as he is known in the paddock, had suffered the worst reliability record in the series, but nonetheless drove a magnificent race to take second, holding off Kovalainen in the closing stages and never looking remotely like letting the Finn past.
The Japanese girls who feature in Clivio Piccione's pit as representatives of his sponsor mobbed their countryman as soon as he returned to the paddock, giggling, taking photos and making V signs with their fingers in every one of them. Yoshi took it all in stride, winking to journalists before being handed a phone - team boss Enrique Scalabroni wasn't in the paddock, but that didn't stop him wanting to be part of the proceedings.
"Hello?" the driver deadpanned into the phone. "Oh, I did okay - I got sixth yesterday and second today. Yeah, it was not bad. And it happened the first time you weren't here - I think you should stay away for the rest of the season if that's what happens."
Just a few days later and the teams were due in Silverstone, although it didn't turn out to be as easy a task as they'd hoped. Alfonso de Orleans Borbon, team boss of Racing Engineering, didn't arrive at the track until Friday after being stuck in the tube in London as a result of the horrific bombings suffered on Thursday morning.
He wasn't the only one to arrive late, and it was clear that the tragedy was on everyone's minds ahead of the first session. But racing doesn't allow the inhabitants to dwell on things for too long. There is always something that can be done to make the car faster or more reliable, and the usual early start on Friday meant everyone was soon hard at work on setting up the cars ahead of qualifying, which saw Rosberg claim his first pole, just fractionally ahead of Nelson Piquet Jr, a reflection of their famous fathers claiming the front row at the same track twenty years previous.
For Rosberg it was a continuation of his new form, but for Piquet the front row came as a relief after his team struggled for form during the first half of the season. Like Rosberg, the Brazilian is remarkably shy, notably aware of the heavy load he carries with his famous father's name, but it manifests itself in an entirely different form - Piquet struggles to open up in front of people he doesn't know, and it can come off as arrogance or aloofness on first acquaintance. However, once he gets to know a person he becomes charm personified, with a mischievous sense of humour and an easy laugh.
Piquet seems to be permanently surrounded by every Brazilian racer not actually on track at any given time, with Felipe Massa coming down from the Formula One paddock whenever time allows and Atila Abreu spending the non F3 weekends in the GP2 paddock, and along with the team they all seem to spend every waking second thinking up practical jokes to play on each other.
But when things aren't working then the storm clouds seem to hover just above his head, and so it was after race one in Silverstone, when Piquet's car died as he was circulating to the grid ahead of the warm-up lap, destroying his best chance of taking his first race win of the season. Sitting in his pit after the race, his already dark eyes turned black as he turned in on himself, a defence against people asking him about yet more disappointment in a season which he had hoped would be the final push needed to get into Formula One.
But Piquet's disappointment was Rosberg's delight as he streaked away at the start and controlled the pace of the race ahead of Kovalainen - even a slow pitstop cost him nothing as his rival was unable to take advantage and followed the German to the line, the pair 26 seconds ahead of Premat in third place, the first double podium for ART.
Sunday was to throw up a complete surprise in the unlikely shape of Olivier Pla. The ginger Frenchman had had a wretched season so far, spinning so often that some wags in the paddock were betting on which lap he would spin out of the race. Pla scraped into eighth place on Saturday, but no one outside of DPR was prepared to entertain him holding onto the front of the grid at the start of the race, let alone at the finish.
Pla is an extremely intense driver, and could often be seen sitting at the end of his team's truck scowling with concentration as he reflects on his bad luck in the previous race. And it's this intensity that allows him to race, that got him to the first corner first and kept him there despite race-long pressure from Piccione and Speed, and later Kovalainen and Rosberg, who had climbed through the field together, fighting each other all the way.
Back in the paddock after the race Pla was a changed man - he seemed to be hovering just above the ground, and was flashing a broad grin at everyone in the vicinity like it was his new favourite toy, his best present at Christmas. The contrast with Piquet, who spun and stalled on lap eight before slumping back to the paddock furious with himself, couldn't have been more pronounced.
But it wasn't just the calendar that needed to be endured. One of the fundamental aspects of racing is that it requires a budget, and that money doesn't come for free. Ryan Sharp had also endured a torrid weekend in Silverstone, one of too many, and he and his backers were starting to ask questions as to the wisdom of continuing to invest money when the results weren't coming.
After Silverstone (two starts, two mechanical failures) Sharp competed at the Bilbao round of the World Series during the one weekend off in July, nominally to get some seat time in a car, any car. The likeable Scot was under pressure to get some results, particularly in light of his teammate Pla getting a win, and he arrived in Hockenheim needing to give his backers a reason to persist in the category.
Twelfth and thirteenth weren't enough, and to compound his problems Pla won on Sunday again, having his photo taken once more holding his trophy in the middle of a scrum of aqua blue shirts, including an outwardly smiling Sharp. It was the final straw, and he advised DPR between Hockenheim and Budapest that he wouldn't be back.
Rosberg, meanwhile, was going from strength to strength, piling the pressure onto Kovalainen by claiming a pole, fastest lap and race win in race one and another fastest lap on the way to fourth in race two. Kovalainen by contrast could only manage fifth and sixth positions, the gap at the top of the Championship standings shrinking to just six points between the pair.
Compared to Sharp, Piquet had a weekend to savour. It started poorly when, in qualifying, the Brazilian was baulked by Speed on his hot lap, losing time and positions in the process. Carrying this aggravation as incentive into race one, a strong start put the Brazilian into the lead group, and from there the motivation for revenge carried him through.
After the pitstops, Speed was sitting on the tail of second placed Premat and waiting for the Frenchman to make a mistake. It's a common theme - many people in the paddock had noticed that Speed had still not overtaken anyone on track unless the man in front had made a mistake, and while putting the guy in front under pressure is a big part of racing it certainly doesn't stir the blood in the way that, say, Adam Carroll's various moves in the early part of the season did.
It was a fact well known to Piquet, and he took maximum advantage of it. With Speed hemmed in behind Premat the Brazilian cut huge chunks out of the gap to Speed, catching and dispatching him on lap 34 when the American ran slightly wide. Speed pushed back strongly, driving Piquet across the track at the first turn, but Piquet was past, with two wheels on the grass, and was never going to back down with a podium on offer.
The sheer relief on his face as he picked up his trophy after the race told its own story - despite the problems his team had suffered he was where he felt he belonged, and the Brazilian posse were overjoyed for their countryman back in the paddock.
The next morning Borja Garcia was a surprising front row starter for the first time this season. Garcia, the reigning Spanish F3 Champion, had struggled throughout the year to come to terms with the new series; as his team boss had previously stated, his lack of experience means that Garcia spends free practice learning the circuit while the other drivers set their cars up; runs qualifying to set up the car; and effectively qualifies during race one.
This qualifying clearly went well for the Spaniard; he finished race one in seventh place, claiming his first points for the year and handing him second place on the grid for race two. When asked what he expected from the second race Garcia would step closer to the journalist, staring straight up through his heavy lensed glasses and blurt "I don't know! I've never been this high before!" and then laugh at the sheer unexpectedness of it all.
His new form didn't hold for race two, though; Garcia started well but dropped back through the grid as the race progressed, handing pole-sitter Pla the opportunity to dominate the race from the front. Pla controlled his pace well and was rewarded with a strong win, with nowhere near the stress levels or pressure of two weeks earlier.
Further back and the title contenders had a tough day at the office, with Kovalainen strongly defending his position at the first turn, pushing he and Rosberg wide and onto the asphalt surrounding the corner, before getting slightly loose and running a little wide at the hairpin - it was Rosberg's chance to overtake his rival on track and he took it, nipping through on the inside and leaving the Finn behind. He took the maximum points from race one - 14 - and another five on Sunday meant that Kovalainen would be under pressure to perform at his best just a few days later in Budapest.
And pressure was just what he didn't need at a circuit notorious for being tight, twisty and almost impossible to overtake at. "I don't think there's any reason to panic," he noted about the title battle, betraying the pressure by what wasn't said, "we just need to look at it carefully." In free practice in Budapest Kovalainen was on Rosberg's pace, but qualifying shattered his illusions - Rosberg was one second faster than fellow front row starter Neel Jani.
Ever since the Paul Ricard test, the paddock was brimming with gossip about ART, about what they were doing that could bring so much extra pace in a one-make series. And at 10.30pm on Friday night, two teams had protested the positioning of ART's steering rack, and as a result the team was sent to the rear of the grid. It was what ART co-owner Nicolas Todt was most worried about on Friday night, after missing the time set to appeal the decision by just one minute: that suddenly those who wanted to think his team were cheating, could point at this technical infraction and say 'I knew it.'
An hour of frantic Gallic gesticulation after the decision made no difference other than to keep the series organisers at the still sweltering track long into the night; the next morning Rosberg and Premat were at the back of the grid, and Neel Jani was on his first GP2 pole.
Fortunate it may have been, but Jani has put in the work throughout the season to be at the front of the grid on merit. Racing Engineering is a well resourced team, and have won the team and driver Championships in Spanish F3 for the past four years running, but stepping up to GP2 was a leap into the unknown - no one in the team had even been to Hungary before the race, and they have leaned on the more experienced Jani for information from the beginning of the season.
Finally, it seemed, the team had arrived at the sharp end of the grid, but the front row was one thing, and a race win quite another. The second race at the Nurburgring showed that Jani was able to absorb pressure from behind, but from the second the lights went out in Budapest the Swiss driver was under the most intense pressure so far seen in the series, and under the most extreme conditions.
Giorgio Pantano spent the first half of the race harrying Jani, trying to force him into a mistake, with Kovalainen immediately behind the Italian trying to make the most of his title rival starting from the back of the grid. The following pair pitted on the same lap, with the Finn being the first back out again, and when Jani pitted on lap 18 he came out immediately in front of the pair and the race was on.
The remainder of the pack were held up by a slow Xandi Negrao, who was the last man to pit and had a train of cars behind him when he finally did, allowing the ART drivers to fight their way past the slower drivers and muscle their way into the points-paying positions, running in fourth and fifth place and clearly faster than anyone else on track.
Kovalainen was pushing for a way past Jani all over the track before Jose Maria Lopez lost the rear of his car and found the wall on the front straight. The resultant safety car period cancelled out the twenty-second gap between third and fourth, with Rosberg on the same stretch of track as his rival and closing.
The Finn was frantic to find a way into the lead at the restart, but it was to no avail - Jani held his nerve and claimed a dramatic race win by just four tenths of a second over Kovalainen.
Afterwards Jani, his racing suit stained a darker blue by sweat, was understandably ecstatic, while Kovalainen, the whites of his eyes now pink with exertion in the unbelievable heat, was left trying to work out why he was unable to claim a win most people thought was going to be his before the start of the race, as his teammate Nicolas Lapierre fell into the inflatable pool his team had set up at the back of their pits, looking for relief as the dry ice his mechanics had thrown in bubbled away like an underwater volcano.
With Ryan Sharp out, the DPR team wasted no time in calling Giorgio Mondini up from the World Series, and the Italo-Swiss driver spent most of his weekend with his eyes on stalks, trying to tell people who had six months' experience in the cars how much better they were than his former car. Mondini was, understandably, well off the pace at the start of the weekend, but his race pace was showing promise and he spent the weekend grinning at his good fortune at being able to step up to GP2.
But for every driver who can push up the motorsport ladder someone has to go down, and another man who was clinging on to his position by his fingertips was Adam Carroll, who had been holding out all season for a finance deal which finally fell through entirely. It meant that Carroll, one of just four drivers to win more than one race this season, was relying on his team boss helping him to get to the end of the season rather than taking someone else's money for his seat. It was an uncomfortable reminder that, no matter how good a driver may be, his backing is more valuable than his ability behind the wheel.
But he was in for at least one more race in the series, and race two was to close the most hectic month of most of these drivers' lives. Pla took up his customary position at the front of the field on Sunday, looking like claiming his third such race in succession, but fate dealt him a harsh blow and forced him to park his car on the side of the track on lap 16, handing the lead to the ART drivers who looked as though they had cast a spell on the drivers in front of them after Xandi Negrao, Ernesto Viso and then Pla fell by the wayside ahead of the pair.
Premat claimed his first win of the season, just four tenths ahead of teammate Rosberg and 4.5 seconds ahead of fifth placed Kovalainen, who must have been wondering how the perfect opportunity to stretch his lead over the weekend had evaporated in the scorching heat: the seventeen point lead over Rosberg at the start of the month had shrunk to just seven after a weekend which the German described as "damage limitation."
With just four more rounds to go, the mid section of the marathon was run - the section that drops the runners and sorts out the front of the field, and it had distilled down to Kovalainen and Rosberg. Now it was going to be a test of who could learn the new, tricky circuit at Turkey to best effect, and it was clear that both men were going to be thinking hard about it over their two-week break.