I saw the light

I saw the light

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.

They can’t.

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.

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