Paul Ricard

 

 

“One or more official testing sessions will be organized by the Promoter of the Global Grand Touring Challenge in coordination with the National Sporting Authority. These will be mandatory for all teams.”

 

—GGTC Sporting Regulations

 

THE PHONE rang at the worst moment, when Mark was helping to lift the spare windscreen into the packing case. Balancing it on his elbow, he twisted round and finally managed to pull the mobile phone out of his jeans pocket and look at the screen. The boss. “Dave!” he yelled. “Come and hold this for me? It’s Randy at long last!”

Dave, short and compact, pulled himself out from under the sports car and grabbed the windscreen. “Randy!” Mark said, both hands finally liberated. “Where have you been? The cars go off tomorrow for the test days, and we still don’t have the final driver lineup.”

On the other end of the line, Mark was sure he could hear the sea. Randy must be out on his boat. “Mark, mate, calm down,” the team owner said. “I’ve got it all sorted. Signed, sealed, and delivered. And he used to do Formula 1, so he’s going to be brilliant. Go out there and get that title, Mark! I’m counting on you!”

“It’s not that easy, Randy,” Mark said, straightening up as another of the mechanics darted in and took over the manhandling of the windscreen. “Have you seen the lineups already announced for this season? There are going to be at least sixteen competitive cars going for….”

“Mark! No negative thoughts! Just wait until you meet your new teammate! He’ll blow your socks off.”

“Yes, but who—” Mark asked, trying to get a word in edgewise.

It was too late. With a brief “Catch you later,” Randy hung up.

“Did you ask about the brake discs?” Dave called from across the workshop.

“No time,” the team manager replied, putting his phone back in his pocket. “He didn’t even give me the name of my new teammate! But go ahead and order the brakes, Dave. I’ll sort it out with Randy later. If he’s investing in former Formula 1 drivers, he’s not going to be skimping on the minor details.”

“Randy does realize this is GT racing we’re talking about, doesn’t he?” Dave asked. “Grand Touring. Sports cars, two drivers, sprint races. It’s all in the teamwork, the strategy, the quick driver changeovers. We don’t need another prima donna.”

Mark sighed and picked up the windscreen again. “Oh well, at least he’s found someone. I wouldn’t get very far sharing the car with myself, would I? Come on, Dave. At this rate we’ll never be ready.”

 

 

“AND HE really didn’t say who it was?” Dave said later, stirring sugar into his coffee as he relaxed on Mark’s scruffy sofa. “I mean, you’ve had Katie back at the race organization office on the phone three times already asking for the lineup. What are you going to tell her next time?”

Mark, sitting opposite him, stretched out his long, denim-clad legs, which were cramped from working under the car for much of the day. “You know Randy. He most probably thinks it’s some kind of great surprise. No matter that Katie will kill me if she thinks I’ve been keeping secrets from her. Not to mention that new press officer, whatever his name is….”

“Tony? Tom? Something with a T,” Dave mused.

“Trevor? No—I’ve remembered—it’s Tim. Doesn’t matter—I’m going to have to come clean with Katie. At least she had a couple of run-ins with Randy last year over unsigned documents and late information, so she understands what we’re up against. And I think she still feels sorry for me for the mess with Brad.”

“Don’t even mention that name again,” Dave said with a shiver. “We should have fumigated the trucks. I was thinking of getting some garlic. Or holy water….”

“I think that’s vampires you’re thinking of. He’s just a racing driver. Just—not a very nice one.”

“And that’s the understatement of the year,” Dave said before gulping down his coffee and jumping up. “You’re too nice for your own good, Mark. Brad screwed you up, got all he could out of this team, and left when it suited him. But I bet that if Randy said he was driving again, you’d just sit back and accept it.”

Mark shook his head. “Not likely. If he even comes near me, I’m off. And in case you don’t believe me, I said exactly the same to Randy. Brad’s bad news. Not just for me or for the team, but for the whole championship. I’m very pleased he’s racing elsewhere this season.”

But Dave looked dubious. “I’ll believe it when I see it, Mark. But I hope you’re right.”

 

 

THE DAY he left for the test session in the south of France, Mark still had no definite news on his new teammate. “The seat fitting’s going to be the awkward thing,” Dave had grumbled. “Ex-Formula 1—he’s bound to be a midget. And you’re tall for a driver! We’re going to be adjusting seats and losing time in the pit stops!”

Mark had tried to calm down his right-hand man. “Don’t worry, Dave,” he had said. “No matter who it is, we’ll cope.” He’d meant it at the time, but now, alone in his car, with just the motorway in front of him, he couldn’t help thinking back over the past season. And Brad.

Brad Wilkins was a brash, successful, and arrogant driver who had been one of Randy’s friends. Yachting, skiing, fast cars, and an even faster lifestyle. Brad was much in demand among Randy’s rich friends as a pro driver, coaching them to drive their Ferrari and Maserati cars, accompanying them in their trophies and cups. But after many years out of the competitive limelight, Randy had given him a real chance at a title, placing him alongside Mark in his professional team.

Mark gripped the steering wheel tightly as he remembered their first meeting. Brad had strolled into the workshop with Randy, looking around dismissively. He’d shaken Mark’s hand, but had not met his eyes. His comments, somehow simultaneously praising Randy and putting the rest of the team down, had struck Mark deep. He’d known immediately that no good would come of it.

The contract had been the second indication of the problems that lay ahead. Brad was to be the lead driver, and to get the new tires in any session. He was to travel business class, to get first refusal at spare passes, and to receive any other bonuses that might be on offer.

And it soon became clear that while everyone else on the team was ready to muck in, to help clean, pack, and mend if necessary, Brad set himself apart from all that. He considered himself the boss’s friend, not one of the men.

All that would have been acceptable, Mark thought, if only they had won. But Brad, possibly used to his easy life with his rich patrons, had not been as fast as in his heyday. He’d made mistakes, blustered and bluffed about issues with the car whenever he failed to live up to expectations, and generally behaved like a prima donna, blaming Mark, blaming the tires, the car—anything but himself.

The atmosphere in the team had become poisonous by midseason, and Mark had been sure he was going to lose the two youngsters in the second car, who were growing increasingly tired of pandering to Brad’s whims. Matteo Malani, a fiery young Italian with a mop of dark hair and a tendency to lose what brains he had when the helmet visor went down, was normally complimented perfectly by Mika Jarvinen’s Finnish cool. But when the two of them began slipping away the minute the sessions ended, instead of hanging around the garage, chatting, and helping out, Mark knew things were bad.

It all exploded on one of their long overseas trips. From the outset, it was clear Brad did not want to go to Asia for the double-header season finale. E-mails had flown between Brad and Randy, where the driver had stated his opinion that the team would do better to stay in Europe and test for the next season rather than attend the last races. But the entries had already been paid for, the plane tickets bought, and Mark had been determined not to let the organizers down. A sulky Brad turned up at the last minute for the drivers’ briefing, clearly not paying attention, and earning a reprimand from the race director. Less than an hour later, he was out on the track for the free practice session.

A spin from one of the Victory Ferrari cars, going into the gravel at an awkward corner, had brought out the red flags. All cars proceeded back to the pits. But instead of slowing down, Brad had accelerated, ignoring all the flags waved at him. Setting his best time under red flag conditions, he had finally returned to the pits, totally unrepentant.

Brad and, consequently, Mark were excluded from the event. Less than an hour later, Brad had left the country. Although he could never actually prove it, Mark was certain the flight had been booked in advance, that Brad had no intention of actually racing. He’d heard rumors that Brad had been seen in Italy later that week, testing.

For Mark, that had been the turning point. He’d rung Randy up in his luxury Californian retreat and told him to make a choice. “It’s him or me,” he’d said, voice shaking with emotion.

He had almost been surprised when Randy had chosen him. “You got it, Mark,” he’d said, gruffly. “But in return, I want to see some results.”

He’d gotten them at the very next, and final, round of the season. Flying out a reliable friend to step in for Brad, Mark had claimed his best result of the season, finishing just off the podium. The relief had been amazing, not only for him, but for Matteo and Mika, whose confidence had soared as the atmosphere in the team changed.

And now he was heading for the first test of the new year, where he would meet Randy’s latest surprise signing. “Former Formula 1 driver…,” he muttered, thinking back to some of the more disastrous arrivals in recent years. You needed to be selfish for single-seaters. Every man for himself, your teammate as your closest rival. But in GT racing, all that changed. The setup had to suit both drivers—and there was no point destroying the car to lead into the pit stops if it was then such a wreck that the second driver couldn’t get it to the finish line.

“Randy, what have you done this time?” Mark mused as the car ate up the kilometers and the scenery grew steadily more Mediterranean. The hands-free phone interrupted his thoughts, jarring against the music from the car’s CD player. He flipped the switch.

“Mark, I am at the track.” Matteo’s strongly accented voice was easily recognizable. “They say I need pass.”

“I’ve ordered passes,” Mark said, brought abruptly back to the day-to-day problems of the team manager. “Have you checked at the accreditation center?”

“Accreditation center?” Matteo sounded lost. “I no find.”

Mark suppressed a sigh. Sometimes, his drivers acted as if they were five years old. This was a young man who’d spent most weekends at a track since he started karting at eight, but he couldn’t find his own pass. “Ring Dave,” he ordered, his voice slightly more brusque than it should have been. “He may have picked them all up.” Thank heaven for Dave! Before he’d been hired, the team had been in chaos. “Matteo? You have Dave’s number?”

“Ah, I find welcome center!” Matteo said. “Mark, who our new teammate? You know, yes?”

“I know, no!” Mark replied. “Randy he no….” He caught himself slipping into Matteo’s basic English and stopped. “Randy hasn’t told me yet. We should find out later today.”

“He better not be like Brad,” Matteo said ominously. “Or Mika run him over.”

Mark hung up and adjusted his seat, laughing softly. Mika, blond-haired and blue-eyed, looked like an angel, but had far from angelic habits. As well as being a demon on the public roads, he had a wicked sense of humor and a taste for childish practical jokes. Drivers who crossed him, on the track or off, looked around warily for at least the next couple of races.

Dave, ever efficient, had left a car pass at the gate. Mark let out a deep breath he had not realized he’d been holding as he headed toward the paddock. Toward home. Where he belonged.

He parked neatly outside the paddock—no point incurring anyone’s wrath at this stage of the season—and headed straight toward the blue-and-yellow Randolph Racing trucks. Inside the garage, the two gleaming Saleen cars shone in the similar livery. Mark walked all around them, checking for the smallest nick or scratch. “Got the stickers yet, Dave?” he called out, seeing the other man approach.

“And hello to you too,” Dave muttered, but with a grin in his eyes. “No, they’re not ready yet. I just checked on Katie and she’s up to her ears in boxes. You can try if you like. She likes you; you may get something from her, but I wasn’t man enough to risk it.”

“No, I’m not going near her until I have the name of the fourth driver,” Mark said, opening the door and sliding into the cockpit over the roll bars. “Dave, I haven’t put on weight, have I? I’d swear this is smaller than last year.”

“You could remove your parka, Boss,” Mika said, coming into view. “Anyway, that’s my seat in there, and I’m half your size, you know!”

The blond driver pulled Mark upright and threw his arms around his team manager, thoroughly hugging him. “Had a good winter, Mika?” Mark asked.

“Out skiing every day,” he said. “Matteo came up for a few days—we had a great time out with my mates.”

Mark groaned. “I know your sort of good time! Are we going to have dozens of lovesick teenagers turning up to gaze adoringly at Matteo this year?”

Mika grinned evilly. “Actually, they are stalking him on Facebook! I signed them all up as his friends while he was asleep!”

Mark shook his head, smiling. These two made him feel so very old at times.

Around the lunch table, the speculation between the teammates was all about who the fourth would be. While Mika and Matteo made more and more outrageous suggestions, Mark brooded over the year ahead. He knew the team was stronger this year; the cars were fast and well-prepared, and both young drivers had a solid year of experience under their belt. But he needed a good teammate to make the whole thing gel.

“Could be Frentzen,” Mika said, waving a spoon in the air between mouthfuls of chocolate mousse. “He tested the car last year, when he was the official test driver. He could be interested.”

“What about Schumacher? Ralf, I mean?” Matteo joined in.

“All I know is that our new driver has a pass waiting for him at the gate, and he’d better be here before the sign-on finishes,” Mark said, bringing the conversation to an end. “As long as he’s got all four limbs, fits approximately in the same seat as me, has a homologated helmet and valid license, I’ll be happy.”

“Spoilsport,” Mika said before poking out his tongue. “You just don’t want to join in the game.”

Mark shook his head and got up from the table. “Sorry, guys. I need some time to think. Take your time over dessert, but make sure you go and sign on for the tests as early as possible. You do have your licenses, don’t you?”

Blond and dark heads nodded vigorously, although Mark noticed a fleeting moment of panic in Matteo’s eyes. “And don’t forget to get your portraits taken,” he added. “Whatever you do, don’t get on the wrong side of the press department at this stage of the season!”

He strode determinately out of the panoramic restaurant, nodding and waving to acquaintances as he went, but resisting all urges to stop. He needed a few minutes’ peace and quiet. But as he reached the staircase, a voice called after him.

“Mark Hunter? Are you avoiding me?”

Recognizing the voice of Katie Blythe, the team coordinator, he stopped and turned round, smiling, as she caught up with him and threw her arms around him. “Not avoiding you, Katie, but I thought I’d wait until I had more news,” he said before kissing her on the cheek.

She was plump and pretty, looking rather like a primary school teacher, with round glasses and a comfortable, comforting look about her that he knew could turn, in the blink of an eye, into a fury if drivers were misbehaving. “I presume Randy still hasn’t told you who your teammate is going to be?”

Mark shrugged. “You know Randy.”

“All too well,” Katie said with a grin. “Still, whoever he’s picked, it can’t be worse than Brad.” But then her face fell. “I still have flashbacks to last season when he ignored the red flags. I knew they were going to exclude you, and there was nothing I could do.”

“Not your fault, Katie,” Mark said, giving her arm a quick squeeze.

She looked straight into his eyes and almost smiled. “I promised Dave I’d give him the stickers as soon as they were ready. D’you want to come and pick them up?”

He followed her to the race office and picked up the pack of decals. He was just heading down the corridor when she called him back. “Mark! Don’t forget to sign on for the test!”

Mark turned back toward her. “I left my license in the garage, Katie. I’ll come by later. With my new teammate. Okay?”

“Only because it’s you,” she said, hiding again behind her computer. Then she smiled. “Nice to have you back, Mark.”

He headed back to the garage and checked on the mechanics who were putting the finishing touches to the car. He was busy fitting his HANS unit to his helmet when the pit door opened. He glanced up and saw a man standing there, dark baseball cap on top of messy blond hair. “I was looking for Randolph Racing…,” he said. There was something familiar about his face, even in the shadows. He carried a helmet bag.

Mark stood up. “You’re in the right place,” he said, moving over to shake his hand. “Mark Hunter. Pleased to meet you. Could you be my mysterious new teammate?” The stranger took off his hat and looked up at Mark with bright, green eyes. And suddenly things clicked into place. “Jordan Matthews?” he questioned.

Matthews nodded. “That’s me. I didn’t think anyone would recognize me in Europe, though. It’s been quite some time.”

Mark shook his hand warmly. “It must have been—what, ten, twelve years ago? I was still dreaming of Formula 1 glory and you were my hero. But then your contract wasn’t renewed, and I lost track….”

“You and most of the planet,” Jordan replied, squeezing Mark’s hand. “They sent me to the United States to improve my racecraft, but instead I spent too much time in the walls. Can’t say I like ovals. I ended up following some of the Brazilians, thought I’d give stock car a try. But I ended up doing driver training and testing. Met Randy there when he came to sell some of his GT3 cars to the guy I was working for. He seemed to like what he saw, and offered me this route back home.”

Mark sank down onto the nearest chair, a thousand thoughts speeding through his mind. Somehow, from what Randy had said, he’d been expecting an experienced, fast driver with plenty of recent race experience. Someone fresh from the DTM or Le Mans. Not a former hero who’d been totally out of the limelight for nearly a decade. How would he get on behind the wheel of the rather temperamental Saleen?

Jordan gave a small cough. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re faced with a has-been, when you’d been promised a top driver.” Despite shaking his head, Mark knew his eyes said this was the truth. “I promise you I’ll do my best. I know I’ve still got what it takes. And I want to get back to top-level racing. Randy thought he saw something when I tested his cars. But if that all proves to be wrong—I’ll be gone, Mark. I’m not going to hang around to make a fool of myself again.”

Running a hand through his dark curls, Mark looked Jordan straight in the eyes. Those green eyes that had stared out of so many magazine covers a decade ago. Could this actually work? There was something there, something he recognized. “Okay,” he said. “Not that it’s my decision anyway—that’s all down to Randy—but we’ll give it a go. Come on, let’s get you in the car and familiar with the controls.”

Jordan smiled—a small, almost shy smile—and his eyes lit up. He reached for Mark and squeezed his shoulder. “I won’t let you down, Mark. Thank you.”

 

 

“WENT WELL, didn’t it?” Dave opened one eye and glanced at his boss and lead driver. “Matteo and Mika seem to have improved over the winter. And Jordan—well, he surprised me. Not what I expected.”

Mark nodded, keeping his gaze on the road ahead. “He seems sensible. Cautious. I think he’ll do.”

“Nothing like Brad. You wouldn’t think he’d done Formula 1. Not that I can remember him….”

“Philistine,” Mark said affectionately. “It must have been twelve years ago now. He was plucked out of one of the lower formulae—Formula 3, or even Formula Renault—and he wasn’t even the champion. He was only about twenty, and the team had to fight to get him his superlicense. I seem to remember there was some sort of big row. But when the season started, he was on the pace right away. A real wonder boy. His teammate was Patrice Bernard—he wasn’t the brilliant driver he’d been, but he was still winning races and fighting for the title. But Jordan was right up there with him. His face was everywhere. I was a couple of years older, and to me, he was the inspiration, the possibility—everything. As well as plenty of envy and a real sense that I’d left it all too late. I mean, there he was at the very top, and I was hardly getting started.”

“But what happened to him?” Dave asked, pulling a packet of sandwiches out of the bag by his feet and passing one to Mark. “Good rookies don’t just vanish.”

Mark took a bite of sandwich and shrugged. “The next season, he just wasn’t there. The team said they’d placed him in a US team for more experience. There was something about contracts; it all got very murky. But he just seemed to disappear.”

“Well, his speed hasn’t disappeared. I know he was holding back and taking care today, but I think he really has potential.”

It was true, and Mark knew it. Jordan had been on a Formula 1 podium. Had raced at all the leading circuits. He’d been on the front pages of Autosport and Auto Bild. He was in a different league…. Mark felt a familiar dread rise up inside him, the feeling that he was not quite good enough, not up to the level of his rivals. He took a deep breath. “He’s better than me. Much better—and everyone will soon know it. How on earth am I supposed to drive with someone like him?”

“He doesn’t know a thing about GT racing,” Dave said through a mouthful of ham sandwich. “He may be fast, and I think he’ll come to grips with the Saleen pretty quickly, but he knows nothing of GT race strategy. You may not be the fastest driver out there, Mark, but don’t sell yourself short. You have solid experience, and excellent racecraft. Bloody Brad!”

Mark glanced at him. “Where did that come from?”

“You never used to question yourself like this before Brad came into the team.”

With another bite at his sandwich, Mark mulled over the words. It was true. Before Randolph Racing, before Brad, he’d been quietly confident in what he could achieve. But Brad’s continual sniping and complaints had made him doubt his own abilities.

“If Jordan’s really good, perhaps I should stop driving and concentrate on management,” he mused.

“If Jordan’s really good, you should concentrate on going for the title!” Dave countered. “Now shut up and eat your sandwich. It’s a long way to Calais!”

“Yes, Boss,” Mark said with a grin. “Eating up, Boss!”