Round Five - Monaco

David Cameron brings you a behidn the scenes close-up on the Monaco weekend
The sun sat there, fat and orange and full, shining down benevolently on to the roads at the top of the hill, twisting like a nest of newborn snakes as they writhe blindly over and around each other towards the water. In the harbour the yachts were already in place, their masts and rigging tak tak takking their Morse code messages to each other in the relative pre-race calm.

The yachts filled all of the available space in the harbour, and their decks were crammed full of the rich, the powerful and the beautiful, all jostling for position, for a view of the comings and goings in the Formula One paddock, all trying to see around the massive Red Bull floating palace looming over the paddock gate.

But what they couldn't see, beyond the fizzy drink powered behemoth and its comparatively modest competitors on the other side of the fence in the paddock, behind the low rise office block behind it and along the road to the car park at the base of the cliff that pushes the royal palace grandly up towards the sky, was the Monaco home for GP2.

"I'm freezing," said Hiroki Yoshimoto, hugging himself inside his BCN fleece as he sat in the hospitality area on the first floor of the concrete structure. "It's always cold here. Its not exactly the glamour of Monaco, is it?"

"Maybe," said his companion, "but the view is nice."

The Mediterranean sat there, flat and blue and shining, outside the car park and beckoned through the large openings on either side of the hospitality section. The driver and his friend got up and walked downstairs to join the other drivers, who were already basking like lizards outside, drinking in the sun and the sea in equal measure as they waited for the session to start. No one there could resist the syren's call for long, and most of the drivers could be found outside in the sun all weekend.

Unfortunately for the mechanics they had no choice but to resist, stuck as they were in the gloom inside. Ten teams wound around the support pylons on the ground floor, while the remaining three were upstairs between hospitality and a gaggle of Formula One trucks, and everyone had their heads down over the cars, preparing for the most difficult racing weekend on the calendar.

It was Thursday morning, and the cars were about to be rolled down to the pitlane for the first practice session of the weekend. "Hey Yoshi," a journalist called over as he soaked up the sun, his overalls at half-mast and sunglasses firmly in place. "Are you going to complete a lap this time?" The driver pulled a face in reply, one that he was used to showing: half wry amusement, half pained grimace.

The Japanese driver had been unable to turn a single lap in either practice or qualifying after gremlins struck this time last year and, despite flying out his backers from Japan, at great expense, he was unable to compete in the race he had dreamt of entering since he was a small boy living on Australia's Gold Coast.

His first lap around the prestigious street circuit was slow and steady, one to be banked and forgotten for insurance purposes before he could relax and enjoy his time on track, secure in the knowledge that he would be allowed to take part in the race, come what may. He was soon up to speed, leaning on his tyres and pushing his way up the timesheets to ninth in a session topped by Lewis Hamilton, half a second ahead of nearest rival Jose Maria Lopez.

Friday morning in Monaco means pressure: a second practice session at nine in the morning gives the team some all-important data on track conditions, but with the session just half an hour before qualifying any problems on track would punish the teams exponentially. And so it proved: Yoshimoto was the first driver to drop under 1:25 but he was soon in the wall, having ridden the kerb too much on the exit from the swimming pool and been thrown across the track as his team groaned at the knowledge of the rush of work to come.

Hamilton took up where he left off and put his car on top, keeping a little bit in reserve to avoid any injury to his car, which left a hair's breadth for Franck Perera to set the best time in the session by just 0.007 seconds, confirming his long held view that his car could be on top again despite the team's problems during the early part of his season.

The BCN mechanics swarmed around Yoshimoto's bent car when it was returned to them at the end of the session, working feverously to repair the damage to the front wing and front right suspension. It's driver stood across the pitlane watching, an inscrutable look on his face behind the ever-present sunglasses as he sipped from his water bottle and studiously ignored the photographers around him.

His car was still up on the jacks as the rest of the field streamed through the narrow pitlane exit at the start of qualifying, the fight flaring up now to take advantage of the clear track to set a good time. Hamilton set the early pace and then just got faster, brushing the walls here and there as he did so. "You need to treat them like friends, you know," he later claimed, "and just lean on them every now and again."

Early in the session Giorgio Pantano came to a halt next to Hamilton's friend at the Rascasse corner, bringing out the red flags as the Italian skulked around the corner and back to the pits, a black cloud hanging low over his head as he assumed his weekend was already over. At the restart Hamilton went even quicker, managing the traffic superbly as Olivier Pla jumped up to second behind him.

Pantano was given a get out of jail free card when his teammate Jason Tahinci spun harmlessly at the Mirabeau. The red flags were out once again for the combination of this and Fairuz Fauzy's loop at Massenet, and when the young Turk's car was brought back to the pits his team swarmed over it to install Pantano's seat and replace the number on the front of the car with a gaffer taped six, so they could send the Italian out once the circuit went green again.

Once again Hamilton was the quickest man on track, holding the rest of the field at bay until he started his quick lap. Two drivers who were not so lucky were Ernesto Viso and Olivier Pla: the former put his car into the wall at Ste Devote in a similar fashion to his qualifying shunt last year, leaving his French rival nowhere to go but into the side of his car as teammate Clivio Piccione behind them took to the escape road to avoid the pair.

Surprisingly there were no red flags for the incident, but waved yellows slowed everyone down until the cars were craned out of the way. Once the track was clear Gimmi Bruni took second off the stranded Pla, only to give way to a quicker Perera, who nonetheless was reminded of his place in the pecking order when Hamilton went faster again, claiming pole in the process by over two tenths of a second, surprisingly his first official pole of the year.

"I think that was the best qualifying session I've had in terms of managing the traffic," he noted afterwards. "Slow down at the beginning of the lap, because people slow down at the end of the lap but I made sure I had a huge, huge gap each time, and I never had any traffic. We've been quick all day, we made some changes and they were really good, and in general it was really good to drive. We're in a very good shape to take the win tomorrow: I'm hoping to be good at the start tomorrow, and then just bring it home.

"And," he added ominously, "I'm sure we will."

Further back and Pantano's experiment hadn't worked: he was eighteenth and had a mountain ahead of him, while Yoshimoto was even further back after qualifying on the back row. "I can't believe my luck here," he noted afterwards, "but at least I'm in the race this time, I guess."

After qualifying the mechanics and the engineers were back into the cave, back with their heads down over the cars to get them into shape for Saturday's race, while everyone else went for lunch. Afterwards everyone was as a loose end as to what to do: the journalists had their quotes and filed their copies, the drivers had finished their debriefs and were sat outside to catch the sun, the team bosses had spoken to the team managers to make sure that everything was running smoothly, and the engineers had instructed the mechanics on how to set up the cars.

By early afternoon, before qualifying would normally happen, everyone had done their job. The drivers disappeared; the locals to their homes, the others to the Formula One paddock or to their hotels, and everyone else went off to wherever it was that they were staying, every single person thinking 'what have I missed?' No one could think of anything they had forgotten to do, and yet they all felt guilty about leaving the paddock so early.

The next morning and everyone was in early to avoid the traffic, to feel like they were part of a racing team, to be part of the gang while Monaco happened all around them. The mechanics worked on the cars, cleaning and tightening and discussing, the drivers sat outside drinking in the sun and the sea, and everyone else looked for something to do in between.

And, finally, it was time for the race. The teams pushed their cars down the lane towards the pits for the last time, the ever-present sun beating down on their necks, and the drivers walked with them, helmets in hand as they chatted to each other, the usual stilted conversation where they try and fail to take their minds off the job ahead. Unspoken went the thought 'this is the one, the race that counts more than the others, the one that I really need to win.'

Strap in and go, they say, and Hamilton did just that: as the lights went out he made a perfect start and led Perera into Ste Devote, with Pla barging his way past Bruni just after them. But behind the first four there was chaos.

Tristan Gommendy was in trouble right from the start: crowded after the lights went out, he looked in vain for a gap before finding the wall and bouncing back into the pack. Lopez was filling the space the Frenchman needed, and he suddenly had Gommendy riding over his rear wheel and was suddenly pinwheeling into Javier Villa and Nelson Piquet Jr.

Gommendy, momentum now controlling his out of control car, found the back of Nicolas Lapierre's car, bouncing his countryman high into the air, taking Lucas di Grassi's rear wing as he went, before gravity slapped him back down to earth with a bump, his broken car throwing itself at the barriers at Ste Devote with wanton abandon.

The drivers pulled themselves from the wreckage that had been their cars and walked back across the road to the pits. All the drivers, that is, except for Lapierre, who was being laid down on a stretcher as the pain in his back made itself known to him.

Piquet and di Grassi managed to limp around the track, waiting for the red flags that never came, while the others were joined in retirement by Bruni (car broken on the kerbs after Pla's robust overtake) and Adam Carroll (engine stopped, started, and stopped again at Casino Square) as the field came around to find out that their race was still very much on.

Hamilton knew what he had to do: drop Perera and build a gap before the stops. Perera knew what he had to do: try to stay with Hamilton to put himself in a good position when it was time to come into the pits. Both succeeded, in their own ways.

Perera was the first of the lead pair to come in, ten seconds off the lead but well ahead of his pursuers, who couldn't live with the pace of the top two. Coming out well clear of Alex Premat, now third after Pla found the wall on the exit from the swimming pool complex, he pushed and pushed, looking for an advantage from his fresh tyres.

Hamilton was in just three laps later, his engineer awake to the time he was losing to his rival. One safe and sedate stop later and the Briton was back out in the lead, now just three seconds ahead but with an all important backmarker buffered between them.

It was enough: after 45 punishing laps around the principality Hamilton claimed the win ahead of Perera, with Premat a distant third.

"It's quite an emotional experience winning here in Monaco," Hamilton gushed immediately afterwards. "It's historic, and it's something that, growing up, you dream of. It's something that, in Formula 3, I had accomplished, and then to come into GP2 in only my first year and win here, well, I couldn't ask for more.

"For years I watched Senna's onboard footage in this place, and in part of this race I was thinking to myself 'wow, I'm racing this circuit, and this is what Ayrton did, and I want to do the same.' And, luckily, I did it."

Beating the Englishman back to the paddock was the only race that Pantano and Yoshimoto could win, and they both achieved it easily: Pantano had taken advantage of an early stop and put his car up to fourth with a strong drive in clear air, but his hard work came to nothing when he broke his car on the kerbs at Ste Devote, while the Japanese driver retired in the pits when his car stopped from seventh in the race.

Back in the paddock and the tear down was in full flow, with the teams forced to make space in the car park for a number of Formula One trucks that needed the space. Everyone worked despite their concern for Lapierre, who had been taken off to hospital for a check up but hadn't returned. "I really don't know," said a very stiff Gommendy, now back from the medical centre but unable to move his neck or torso, his face suggesting he knew more pain was on the way tomorrow. "I saw him being treated, but he didn't come back with me."

"We haven't heard anything yet," said one of the Arden mechanics, cleaning the remains of the car like a mother waiting for bad news. "I'll give you a yell when we know something."

The news finally came in as the teams were packing away their last pieces of kit: two compressed vertebrae, out for six weeks. Could be better, they all thought, but it could have been worse.

With everything squared away it was almost time to leave, when Hamilton bounded upstairs in the GP2 bus looking for information. "Do you have results from the race yet?" he asked as they putting their laptops away.

"We haven't received them yet, but I'm pretty sure you won."

"I had a feeling I might have, but I just wanted to check!" he laughed. "No, I just wanted to go over a few things with my engineer before we left."

"We'll email them to you tomorrow if you'd like. Besides, you just won; you should be celebrating down at the Amber Lounge!"

"Yeah, but I always like to make sure that we've covered everything before I leave the track. I hate feeling like I've missed something."

"I didn't think there'd be much more to cover, and besides: everyone else has already gone back to get changed for the club. It's ladies night tonight."

"Really?" he asked, that soon to be famous smile emerging once again. "In that case, I'll see you down thereā€¦"


on Thursday 8 Jun 2006 - 19:43 by Donna

About time too... good blog as always, David.

Why no press conferences in Monaco - not enough space, or was Barcelona a one off?

And if the drivers are looking for something to do, (what do they do all day Saturday before the feature race? Surely there's only so much telemetry to be looked at!) why not get one or two of them to write something for the blog?

on Monday 12 Jun 2006 - 06:30 by Serena

I like Donna's suggestion there. :) One or two entries by a GP2 driver here will be a lovely addition to compliment the usual entries here. And as usual, thanks for the newest update on Monaco! It is amusing to get a glimpse of what everyone's up to at this special circuit. Can't wait for the entry on Silverstone.

Sad to know that Nelsinho lost his lead on the championship, but I do believe that he'll push hard for more wins in the upcoming races.

on Wednesday 14 Jun 2006 - 13:47 by Donna

Whose idea was it to have the 'Get Well Soon' t-shirts at Silverstone?

on Saturday 17 Jun 2006 - 00:11 by Robinho

only way that hamilton dos not have title challenge is becase nelsinho has bad luck and carroll has bad luck too. hamilton has best car so he has best result. carroll and piquet better drivers allthough.

on Saturday 17 Jun 2006 - 17:30 by Donna

Robinho - whilst I don't doubt that Hamilton has the best team behind him, he still has to get the job done - and he does it very well indeed!

on Monday 13 Nov 2006 - 17:02 by SENNA IS THE BEST

"OUCHHHH !" Thats what Christian Horner said after he saw the crash.

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