Some returned from lunch having swallowed little more than a dictionary, but the heat was on.
As Rubens Barichello led the charge round the Formula One circuit in Monza, this was the finishing straight in the semi-final of the National Scrabble Championships at the Great Barr Hotel.
You would have expected nerves to be jangling, yet the atmosphere was convivial and the 56 players, coming from as far afield as Stirling and the Isle of Wight, showed a surprising mix of relaxation and steely determination.
While Villa’s 1-0 win in the Second City derby proved to be a tense, tactical affair, here the accent was on enjoyment and on the sheer thrill of putting the grey matter to some serious Sunday afternoon work.
Only two players would make it through to the grand final, to be held in London on October 18. Each contestant was facing his or her last few matches out of the gruelling 14 they would have to take part in over the weekend.
Those at the top of the leaderboard were conspicuous by their absence from the bar area as luncheon was served, appearing just ten or 15 minutes before battle re-commenced.
Second-placed Craig Beevers, 28, from Stockton-on-Tees, was waiting to see if he would keep his toe-hold on a place in the final.
Unemployed Craig, who dabbles in photography, started playing seriously six or seven years ago when he was a student in Sheffield.
His main claim to fame is winning the final of evergreen TV quiz Countdown two years ago.
He trains using a specialist computer programme Zyzzyva, which sounds like a particularly bad hand in Scrabble, but which throws up sets of seven letters which players have to organise into high-scoring words.
“Most games I’ve won have been fairly comfortable so far but even if I win my next two games I could conceivably finish third or fourth,” said Craig, who was ranked sixth at the start of the tournament.
“I like the game because there’s a luck element and a knowledge element. Intelligence, skill and mathematics are all combined. Every game feels different, unlike chess, where it just feels repetitive.”
Heading the field was civil servant David Webb, 47, from Harpenden, a married father-of-two.
David, who has been playing Scrabble for 17 years, and who also uses Zyzzyva, once won a house on Bob Holness’s Saturday evening general knowledge quiz Raise The Roof and has also reached the semi-final of Countdown.
He said: “I study words three hours a day – two hours before work and an hour in the evening. It doesn’t disrupt family life because I get up while they are still asleep to practise.
“There’s no animosity here, just the best players in the country. It’s a friendly atmosphere. You need to be relaxed because it’s the sub-conscious mind that does all the work and you have to give it its best chance.”
He said his highlight so far had been using up all his letters on two “low-probability words”, meaning those without the letter E – dadaisms and whiprays.
Adjudicators, using a special Collins Scrabble dictionary, allowed one player the word “gobshite”. Other unlikely words permitted included tughrik, leisler and syndetic.
Youngest competitor, 19-year-old Aston University student Austin Shin had fallen off the pace into 12th position by lunchtime.
“I don’t really set myself a target,” he revealed.