It always feels very special the first time you enter the pitlane on the opening of a new season. It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. Today, it felt even warmer, the temperatures having risen to 31 degrees in Sepang minutes before free practice. You also have to find out in front of which F1 garage each GP2 team has set up camp this year. The pitlane is busy. The pitwalls are even busier and I walked up to Force India’s box where Ocean Racing is this season. “Can I sit here?” I asked Tiago Monteiro who kindly appointed me a seat. I took place on the far end with my note pad and my iPhone burning in my hand from tweeting a bit too much. “Can you take a picture of Rio?” seemed to be the most popular question I got but seeing how Carlin’s pit was on the other end from where I was standing and with my leg still hurting from my accident last year, I made a mental note to take a picture of the Indonesian hero before qualifying.
Five minutes before the pitlane opened, the engines started to roar and I had butterflies to my stomach. “The GP2 engines sound AMAZING” tweeted a fan from the grandstands. Yes, they do. The lights turned green and the 2012 season officially kicked off! It was not a surprise to see Jolyon Palmer set the pace in the morning session: the young Brit had been quick all pre-season testing, feeling at home at iSport. It was no surprise either to see Davide Valsecchi just 0.1s behind Palmer. The Italian driver is after all racing at DAMS, the team that bred our last GP2 Champion and now F1 star Romain Grosjean. With Max Chilton, Giedo van der Garde and Fabio Onidi also finishing high in the results, it was a reflection of what testing had established earlier this month.
So when qualifying started, the only questions we had were if it was going to rain and which tyres the drivers would opt for. This season, Pirelli provides each drivers with Prime and Option rubbers. It’s all about strategy...but it’s a bit difficult to keep up with even from the pitlane. Technical Director Didier Perrin sat next to me on Force India pitwall: “I think I can tell you who is on Options so far: Chilton, Calado, Ericsson and Melker”. We glued our eyes onto the screens and watched as the twenty-six drivers took to the track. Esteban Gutierrez was the first one, visibly eager to make up for a disappointing free practice, but the poor Mexican could not really find a good lap and was never a contender for pole today. Valsecchi charged to pole after only 3 laps and the rest of the session was all about who would challenge him. Answer: no one. And it’s not for a lack of trying! Five drivers ended within the same tenth of a second. Nineteen drivers in total finished within the same second. Talk about close racing!
I rushed back to the paddock after the chequered flag to write the report. Once it was all published, I made my way to the DAMS garage where Davide was working with his engineer. “When do you need me?” he asked. “Now” I smiled. The great thing about Davide is that he is very straightforward. He gives you the truth as he knows it. It’s quite refreshing. The downside of his great openness is that you generally ask only one question and he gives you a fifteen minute long answer. Which is great. Until you have to type it! But today, he was more poised. A new Davide. Still very straightforward, only giving shorter answers. I then proceeded to Arden. “I’m all yours sweetie” said Luiz Razia as soon as he saw me. The young Brazilian revealed that P2 was all he could get today, “But I am happy with this result of course. It’s really great for the team and for me”. He told me that the key for tomorrow will be the start: “It’s the first race of the season. Some drivers tend to get overly excited. I need to stay calm and then we will see. As long as it does not start to rain on the grid. Then you will see the mechanics running in all directions! It will be a bit of a panic.” I left sweet Luiz and walked two doors down to Carlin. I was happy to do so. It was going to be the first time I’d get quotes from Max Chilton who was quite unlucky in 2011. I found him in what can only be described as a small cupboard with overalls and underwear hanging on the side. I averted my eyes and proceeded with the interview. Max was so happy although a bit frustrated: “I lost time in my fastest lap, stuck in traffic and then I found a car on the last corner. I am sure I had the pace for pole today.” But what about tomorrow? “It would be really great for me and the team. I want to finish at least third of course, but I will probably go for more if I can”. To be continued...