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The Bridgestone e-reporter GP2 diary - France 23 Jun 2008

Bridgestone e-reporter finalist Olivier Cougard talks to Malcolm Von Berg, fitting team manager for Bridgestone, French Grand Prix, Magny-Cours, 20 June 2008. © Bridgestone Bridgestone e-reporter finalist Olivier Cougard talks to GP2 driver Karun Chandok, French Grand Prix, Magny-Cours, 21 June 2008. © Bridgestone Bridgestone e-reporter finalist Olivier Cougard talks to GP2 driver Bruno Senna, French Grand Prix, Magny-Cours, 20 June 2008. © Bridgestone Bridgestone e-reporter finalist Olivier Cougard and GP2 driver Mike Conway, French Grand Prix, Magny-Cours, 21 June 2008. © Bridgestone Bridgestone e-reporter finalist Olivier Cougard and GP2 driver Giorgio Pantano, French Grand Prix, Magny-Cours, 21 June 2008. © Bridgestone

Since its inception in 2004, the GP2 Series has established itself as a serious breeding ground for Formula One talent - with the likes of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton as evidence. And official tyre suppliers to the series, Bridgestone, are helping to do the same for motorsport journalism, with their e-reporter competition.

The nine 2008 finalists will each get to report from one European round of the series, and will be supplying Formula1.com with details of the GP2 action, plus a diary reflecting their experience as a first-time paddock correspondent. For France, it’s 25-year-old Frenchman, Olivier Cougard...

Qualifying report - Senna on pole, and in the barriers
Bruno Senna clinched a controversial pole position on Friday ahead of local favourite Romain Grosjean and Racing Engineering’s driver Giorgio Pantano. Indeed, in his fastest lap the Brazilian lost control at the chicane prior to the straight line, spun and crossed the line before crashing into the barriers. Result: 1:22.250 and pole position!

But the iSport International driver seriously damaged his single-seater and lost his rear wing in the middle of the track, causing a red flag. The Brazilian explained: “I used the kerbs too much, then I lost the car. Fortunately it was quick enough to take pole position.”

In the last five minutes of the session, Grosjean tried to threaten the pole position holder but finally had to surrender by 37-100ths of a second. Taking second place, the ART driver enjoyed his best performance in qualifying of the season. Nevertheless, he looked a bit disappointed: “I was in a fast lap when the red flag came out. I think I could have been top of the list today. It’s a pity.”

But the battle for the middle slots on the grid was also very exciting. D’Ambrosio, 13th and Conway, 14th almost touched during the session. And lots of drivers such as Tung or Maldonado went into the gravel.

Difficult GP2 debuts for the newcomers: Estonian Marko Asmer (FMS) will start down in 23th, two places ahead of BCN's Brazilian driver Carlos Iaconelli. And a special mention for Romanian DPR driver Mickael Herck, last on the grid, but still handicapped by his wrist injury. “I have no strength in the arm. I won’t take any risks for the race, if there is a problem, I’ll stop”, he confessed.

Will Bruno Senna be the first driver to tally two GP2 Series victories this year? The cards are in his hands, but will they be the right ones to win?

Friday diary
I had about an hour this morning to admire the beautiful sunrise and the countryside on my way from Vichy to Magny-Cours. A brief moment of respite before the action.
I first met Alexa Quintin, GP2 Series head of Media and Communications, who explained how the GP2 Series schedule works.

The first GP2 practice session gave me a good overview on what the qualifying session was going to be: lots of driver mistakes, but also the top 10 drivers battling neck and neck.

I eagerly awaited lunchtime. Not that I was hungry, but because I had the opportunity to meet one of my favourite GP2 drivers: Bruno Senna. Myself and German and Brazilian journalists spent a fantastic hour chatting with Bruno over lunch. I was really amazed by his resemblance to his uncle Ayrton. Bruno has a lot of charisma, maybe it is a Senna family ‘trademark’. He explained that one of the keys to success here in Magny-Cours will be to master the Bridgestone medium compound. A tyre compound he is using for the first time this season.

After lunch, I had a quick wander around the Formula One paddock, and noticed that access is really restricted compared to the GP2 paddock. Indeed, even if the two paddocks are separated by only 100 metres, they seem two different worlds to me. At 15.55 on the dot, I rushed to the GP2 hospitality to report on the qualifying session. “That was a special one!” said Alexa. And I totally agree.

A quick tour in the GP2 paddock to get drivers’ reactions and I was already on the road to the restaurant for a media dinner with the French press hosted by Bridgestone. The food at the restaurant was as good as the useful tips I received from the French journalists. Bring on Saturday.

Saturday race report – Magny-Cours: Pantano’s playground
After 2006 and 2007, Italian driver Giorgio Pantano won the GP2 feature race in Magny-Cours for the third time in a row on Saturday. Lucas di Grassi, second, made a convincing comeback with Campos and Venezuelian Maldonado completed the podium in third place.

Pantano was lucky in France. Indeed, he was the only one of the top three drivers in the championship standings who was spared from mechanical failure. Early in the race, it seemed the victory would be decided between Senna, Pantano and Grosjean. Conway, on a different strategy, was leading after the leaders’ pit stops - an initiative that paid off as he picked up eighth at race end and will hence be on pole for race two.

But the first drama came on lap 21 when pole sitter Senna had to retire because of a clutch failure. Grosjean, who made a splendid pass on the Brazilian at the hairpin two laps before, took the lead after Conway’s pit stop. Staying within a second of each other, Grosjean and Pantano put some clear air between themselves and Di Grassi who was in third.

The second drama occurred on lap 33 when Frenchman Grosjean started slowing down. Hydraulic failure - his race was over. “I wasn’t fortunate today. I was controlling Pantano when I saw the hydraulic pressure alert. I tried to spare the car. But it didn’t make it,” said Romain regrettably afterwards. Lucky Pantano just had to finish the race to become the first driver to score a second victory in the 2008 GP2 season.

Further back, the ‘Oscar’ has to go to Super Nova’s driver Parente who started last on the grid and finally took P9. “That’s the most frustrating place. We decided to pit early in the race. The car was perfect until about three quarters into the race when my tyres begun to seriously degrade,” said Parente.

Taking 11 points, Pantano’s was an excellent result for the championship. He is now standing nine points ahead of Bruno Senna and 16 ahead of Grosjean and Parente.

Saturday diary
The first thing I noticed early on Saturday morning was the heat that had already engulfed the GP2 paddock. I selfishly thought that these high temperatures might make things harder for the drivers, not only physically but also for the tyres during the race. Exciting!

Then, I interviewed two ART Grand Prix team members: team manager Frederic Vasseur and French driver Romain Grosjean. It was impressive to see how relaxed Romain was just a few hours before racing on his home soil.

I had lunch with Trident’s driver Mike Conway and British journalists at the Bridgestone motor home. The first thing that struck me was the determination coming out from Mike’s deep blue eyes. Then, I discovered a genuine man, willing to talk freely about various subjects. He also underlined the importance his two managers, ex-F1 drivers Mark Blundell and Martin Brundle, hold for him. Well it’s true - their combined extensive experience will certainly be useful for Mike’s development.

I had a quick look at Ferrari’s brilliant performance in the F1 qualifying before reporting on the GP2 feature race. Apart from Senna and Grosjean retiring, the race was quieter than I expected.

Then I spent half an hour getting some post-race reactions from drivers around the paddock and in the garages. And I must admit now I feel at home in the GP2 paddock. During the press conference, I admired Pantano’s bright and large smile - contrasting with Grosjean’s disappointment.

The last thing I did before leaving the track was a quick tour of the paddock. Enough emotions for me today - I need to keep some strength for tomorrow…

Sunday race report - Buemi the tightrope walker
Despite the weather looking ominous before the race, the best option was to put slick tyres on this Sunday morning. Trust Team Arden proved to be shrewd today and made a fantastic double with Sebastien Buemi’s victory and Dutch team mate Yelmer Buurman finishing second. Luca Filippi’s third place was the only satisfying result for ART Grand Prix during their home event.

“This is the most beautiful victory of my career,” said Buemi after the race - a race he started from position 21 on the grid, and one during which the young Swiss succeeded in staying out of trouble.

And the troubles were numerous from the start to the chequered flag. Pole sitter Mike Conway took the lead but didn’t keep it for long. As the track was drying, he was forced to pit to put on slick tyres. So did Petrov, but a bit late to hope for a points finish.

Early in the race, D’Ambrosio, Soucek and Grosjean went off track. “Let’s forget about this weekend,” commented Grosjean. Buurman and Buemi started to gain positions thanks to their team’s clever strategy. On lap eight, the Dutchman was leading by three seconds ahead of the Swiss. Later on, Race One winner Pantano touched with Petrov at the Adelaide hairpin, causing him to retire.

Further back, Villa, Hanley, Zuber and Kobayashi were fighting tooth and nail for P10. A surreal scene occurred on lap 20 when the two Trust Team Arden drivers raced wheel to wheel. Buemi finally emerged ahead. Ten seconds behind them, Parente seemed set to secure third place but unfortunately had to retire because of a hydraulic failure. And two laps before the finish, Senna lost two positions to the benefit of Filippi and Di Grassi and ended up fifth.

Conway’s comeback after pitting granted him sixth position; DAMS driver Kobayashi set the fastest lap; and after 43 minutes, Buemi sealed a fantastic victory, winning a tremendous race.

Magny-Cours made things clearer in the championships standings. With 35 points, Pantano is now leading, seven points ahead of iSport International driver Senna. The non-scoring weekend for Grosjean lost him one position in the standings. He is now fourth behind today’s winner Buemi.

In the teams’ championship, iSport International are top of the league with 41 points, but Racing Engineering stand just three points behind.

Sunday diary
The last day of my first weekend at a GP2 Series race. I don’t want to think about this. When I arrived in the GP2 paddock today, mechanics and engineers were examining the sky. It was raining on and off before the start of Race Two. Tyre choice will be crucial today.

Whilst watching the race in GP2 hospitality, I could hear the noise of the rain falling on the roof. Such changing conditions must drive teams and drivers mad. And it did. Once the race finished, I knew that I would have difficulties not to go over the 300-word limit of my report!

The fact that the teams start taking their garages down straight after the race surprised me. I was wrong when I thought they would take a moment of respite before leaving Magny-Cours.

Therefore I decided to wander around the paddock one last time. There were pieces of cars, tyres, cables and cans obtruding the passage. Sebastien Buemi and Vitaly Petrov were two of the few drivers who had not already left.

Leaving? No way! But I have to accept the inevitable. My e-reporter weekend is almost over. One of the most amazing experiences of my life is about to end. The motorsport journalist’s life is tough, but so gratifying and exciting. I sincerely encourage every young person who has an interest in motorsport journalism to enter the 2009 competition. Believe me, you won’t regret it.

My last words will be for all the people with whom I spent this amazing weekend. A very special thank you goes to Debbie, Clarisse, Alexa, Rachel, Rupert, Andy, Malcolm and all the members of Bridgestone’s crew. I hope to see you all next September in Monza. And if not, be sure that you will find me, equipped with a notepad and a pen, wandering a Grand Prix paddock sooner or later.

For more on the Bridgestone e-reporter competition, click here.