They arrived in groups of twos and threes, a steady drip feed of people funnelling into the building under the remains of the mazy Valencian sun. It felt like a sort of homecoming, like the old gang was getting back together after years apart. It felt right.
It was the launch of the 2006 GP2 season at the Ciudad de les Artes y las Ciencias, and everyone was circling each other, seeing if the old lines still work, seeing if things had changed. Nelson Piquet Jr's sense of humour was still intact: "Winter testing seemed to go well - how did it work out for you and the team?" the opening line of a season preview interview. "Good" he replied without expanding at all, a smirk creasing his face at the inevitable sigh. Here we go again.
Adam Carroll ambled over as the actual interview concluded, his boxer's gait unchanged by his time away. "When can we eat? I'm starving." Adam, a man so enamoured by food he has been known to take before and after shots of a steak he enjoyed with his mobile phone camera, would win gold for Britain if eating was an Olympic sport. He is always hungry, in life as much as in racing.
The great and the good of the motorsport world arrived at the launch, with Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore just two of the 600 or so guests filling the magnificent venue. The launch, a grand Formula One style event in contrast to last year's more modest show, was going off without a hitch, but there was one man who couldn't enjoy it: GP2 communications guru Will Buxton.
"Is everything alright here?" the small bundle of kinetic energy asked on one of his many circuits around the hall. "Is everyone enjoying themselves? Are there any problems I can sort out?" Assured that all was fine, he pinballed off to put out fires that didn't exist elsewhere. He finally breathed after the enormous firework display had finished, signalling the end of the night.
But it was at the track the next morning that everyone could re-establish their old relationships with each other. An early start, with qualifying beginning at nine, meant everyone was straight down to work, the session over and the teams working towards the race before most of the fans started to arrive.
The band Without Grace were there though, having gone out to a nightclub after their appearance on stage earlier in the night at the launch, where they provided a live soundtrack to a 20-minute long GP2 highlights reel. They had gone straight from the launch to the club, and from there straight to the track, but sunglasses all round meant no one could tell. Walking along the pitlane they were like kids, in awe at the work going on all around them.
They walked up and down the pitlane, noticing the things that the regular members of the paddock take for granted. "Those guys have flames on their race suits!" said one. "That's so cool!"
"That guy is royalty?" asked another. "I never would have guessed... Oh God, I just called him fella!"
"I can't get over how fast they do everything," enthused yet another, "they make it all look so easy, and everyone’s been so nice. That guy with the floppy blonde hair, what was his name..? David Sears, that’s it, he was cool. I think I’m going to adopt Super Nova as my team."
But it was almost time for the first race to start, and the band had to reluctantly make way for the main event as engines were fired all along the pitlane. The teams made their way out to the grid, going into autopilot as they ran through their checks as the clock ticked down.
Back in the paddock that old familiar nervous tension was climbing, and no one was feeling it more than Rebecca Banks, Piquet's press representative. "Oh, I'm so nervous," she squealed, squeezing the hand of anyone nearby. "Was it always this tense?"
"He's on pole," came the reply. "He's in a better situation than he was for most of last year."
As the engine note increased so did the pressure from her hand, until the lights went out and she almost jumped out of her chair, as though the level of her stress would directly improve his chances in the race.
It may just have worked – Nelson was fast away from the grid and easily leading by the time they all made turn one, a lead that he gave up only momentarily during the pitstops. New boy Lewis Hamilton, by contrast, had a poor start, but he fought his way up to follow Piquet across the line at a distance on the final lap, just ahead of fellow debutante Adrián Vallés.
It was the latter who got the crowd on their feet at the end of the race – both he and his team Campos Racing are from Valencia, and it was the first podium for either in GP2, much against expectation. In the middle of one of the stands by turn two was a brass band, and they played for the next hour straight, to the delight of the rest of the crowd who danced along in their new hero's honour.
It was a perfect podium for the first race – Piquet the experienced driver expected to shine this year on the top step, Hamilton the young challenger on one side of him, and Valles the local boy made good on the other. The Brazilian made a token spray of champagne there before dropping the almost full bottle to his team, a sign that he knew how much their efforts had contributed to him being there.
On the podium Piquet played down his emotions, looking calm and assured as he collected his trophy, but backstage in the paddock he was thrilled, having achieved what he set out to do with a perfect start to his season after so much disappointment last year. It was as though a heavy weight, invisible to everyone else but abundantly obvious to the Brazilian, had been taken off his shoulders, as though he could feel the sun on his body again after years indoors.
The paddock was well and truly back into their routine – the teams were in their post race strip down of the cars, the journalists and drivers were deep in conversation about the race that had just happened, everyone with a job to do and glad to be back and doing it.
Down at the far end of the pitlane new team Trident were getting into their stride – their first race ever was already history, and while they had mixed feelings about the result (Gimmi Bruni in the points, Andreas Zuber in the gravel after a coming together with Nicolas Lapierre) there was a noticeable feeling of pride swelling their chests – they'd come to prove their worth in one of the strongest championships in the world, and it was clear that they'd done just that.
Later, as the mellowing sun slunk behind the surrounding hills and the moon made its first tentative appearance, the car park began to thin out as everyone but the mechanics started to make their way back to their hotels. Will, once again in charge after recovering from his efforts at the launch, arranged a group of journalists, driver representatives and, of course, the band, and herded them into the historic centre of the old town in search of food.
Valencia, being Spanish, wasn't ready to eat until after 10.30, but the scenery was fine and the conversation was bubbling along as everyone got used to being with each other again.
"It's like the first day of term, isn't?"
"Yes, except we didn't have centuries old castles and motor racing at my school."
"Really? You must have gone to the wrong school then."
"Clearly I should have worked on my sponsorship a bit harder."
Promises of an early night came and went like a gentle Mediterranean tide, but no one cared much – with the drivers safely tucked away in bed the night was presenting her wares to everyone else, and a latish start to the second race meant the relative luxury, in racing terms, of being able to sleep in until 8.30.
With sunglasses back in place, the paddock was refilling the next morning, everyone wallowing in the extravagance of being the main event and having the big paddock to themselves for once. Ironically all that space meant everyone stuck together in front of the pit doors in the main complex, joking and clowning around as the clock ticked down to the second race.
Before the start a Class of 2006 photoshoot was organised on the grid for all 26 drivers, who were then surprised by the arrival of a large truck to carry them around the grid to show them off to the crowd. It was a little Formula One moment in GP2, and several of the drivers were notably excited at the prospect of emulating their role models. Out in the crowd the brass band were back and blowing up a storm, and almost all of the drivers were excited to be out in front of them, particularly Vallés, José María López and Javier Villa, whose fan clubs waved banners in their honour as they passed.
Nonetheless, one driver who was less than thrilled with his weekend was Alex Premat; his first race back hadn't gone to plan and he wanted people to know it wasn't his fault. "My brakes were gone," he told anyone who'd listen the previous afternoon. Unfortunately race two was no better for him, as he retired a few laps in with yet more problems. Having just missed out on pole after Ernesto Viso, now known as Ernie to his very English team iSport, who overtook him on the final lap, Premat was phlegmatic about his second retirement after the race.
But Viso was unable to capitalise on the advantage he had, after rookie Michael Ammermüller blasted by him at the start of the race and into the beginning of a massive lead that never looked like changing. The Venezuelan had no time to worry about it, as he had Lapierre all over the back of his car on the tight and twisty circuit for the entire race.
The nature of the circuit meant that the usual GP2 dogfights were limited in number, as no one quite had the space to push past the car in front of them. One exception to this rule though was Adam Carroll, who had blasted past a number of cars in race one and was intent on repeating the performance in the second event.
It was a masterful drive, but it was all over when he just got caught out by an early braking Vallés. The Ulsterman's car was up and over in a flash before hitting the gravel trap and pitching into a series of lurid rolls. He was soon out of the wreck to a roar and a standing ovation from the crowd, which he acknowledged with a laugh and a wave, putting a smile onto the face of team boss Alfonso de Orleans on the pitwall, who presumably hadn't thought about the repair bill yet. Still, the number of TV replays the accident received, made all the easier by the random chance that both Carroll and Vallés’ cars were carrying on-board cameras, must have made Alfonso’s sponsors very happy.
"That's the first time I've rolled in 14 years of racing!" Adam laughed afterwards. "I was just up and over, I saw the sky, I saw the ground, over and over. I bet that makes the end of year highlights film!"
At the end of the race Ammermüller was a clear winner, rendering the cheerful German driver fairly speechless at the thought of winning in his first weekend in GP2. Viso held a clearly faster Lapierre at bay to claim second, while the Frenchman was pleased to have taken a podium after qualifying in a lowly 21st position after a troubled first session. Piquet had managed to push up to fourth to hold onto his championship lead, while Hamilton confirmed his promise despite another poor start to finish in the points once again.
Everyone was soon on the move once again, with the teams already breaking things down and packing things away during the race to facilitate an early exit. "That weekend just flew by," Lee McKenzie noted at the airport after her first hectic weekend doing Adam Carroll's PR, all the while keeping an eye on her new charge, who was unable to stand still in the queue, as she did so. "I can't believe how quickly it went."
"Sure," came Adam’s reply, "but it's racing – there's no point in doing things slowly, is there?"