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Archive for the tag “COTA”

Reflections in the Texan sun

Another superlative performance from Seb Vettel.  I watched the race with my friend, Nigel Roebuck, and had a lot of fun constantly eulogising Seb’s performance in the face of Nigel’s ever-valiant hopes for Fernando and Ferrari.  I was part-joking, of course, but it still has to be said:  it doesn’t matter how good the car and the team have become, the guy in the cockpit still has to do the job on Sundays.  I asked Seb afterwards if by his standards he had made any mistakes in Austin. He allowed that he had run wide a couple of times under braking for the hairpin.  There was nothing Michael-esque in his reply:  this was genuine humility in the face of what is obviously a moment of perfect harmony for Seb, Adrian Newey, Renault and the all the guys behind them.  It is a pleasure to watch them all at work, although really understanding the depths of their achievement is of course very difficult: that is only for the engineers to know, and for Seb to demonstrate.  That is why Formula One is such a difficult sport to capture.  Everyone wants a “great race”:  what they really mean is “lots of overtaking”.  Seb actually drove a “great race” in Austin but in today’s world it’ll inevitably be lost in all the headlines about boredom and processional motoring.  Behind the scenes, Kenny Handkammer and the RBR mechanics not only had the gearbox off Vettel’s car on Sunday morning but also most of the rear suspension.  It was the culmination of three days in which they were always the last to leave the circuit.  That isn’t a reflection of the other teams:  it’s a reminder that an Adrian Newey car – without question – is the most tightly-packaged in the pit lane. It’s what tiny aerodynamic details are all about. That’s why looming wires occasionally chafe on RB9s.  That’s why Kenny and the boys have such long working hours. Then, in the race, they managed to change Mark Webber’s four Pirellis in 1.923sec, which I think is another F1 record, but I may be wrong.  To my eye, Seb’s only real error was in doing his post-flag celebratory donuts down at the hairpin, where nobody sits.  Neat, concentric circles would have sent the Turn One crowd into some sort of F1 delirium.  Anyway, here is a rather foggy shot of Seb leaving the Media Centre with a stetson-wearing Romain Grosjean. There was a subtle moment in the press conference on Saturday when Romain was joking about having to wake up a little earlier for the 0900 start.  Although he was off-camera at the time, Seb was listening to Romain’s every word and laughed at exactly the right moment.  You might think that this is pretty standard procedure but, believe me, after years of watching drivers chat rudely amongst themselves when the camera moves away from them, this for me comes under the heading of “good manners”. Another reason I’m a Vettel fan.  photoj

I thought Romain also drove beautifully. He’s found a soft consistency with his foot- and handwork that has in the past few races elevated him to a position of “team leader”, regardless of the team for which he works.  He delivers in qualifying, he races in a groove, he manages tyres and air leaks from the engine, he knows how to pass.  His development has been captivating and reminds me of the time when he had lost his Renault F1 drive and had to dig deep, driving the Ford GT and AutoGP cars in front of empty grandstands.  Romain kept at it.  He knows how narrow is the line between racing for a top team and having nothing to do.  He is a winner in the waiting.  No doubt about that.

Lewis Hamilton on this occasion was the Merc driver who wrung the best from what is still obviously a difficult car.  A Lotus E21 the Merc will never be – let alone an RB9.  You could almost feel Lewis’s frustration at having to drive yet another “tyre management” race but drive it he did, to his credit and to his obvious relief.  I know Lewis has been getting increasingly frustrated with the damage that can be done to your Pirellis when you’re not running in free air – India was a classic case in point – so on this occasion it would have been satisfying, I think, for him to drive “Nico’s Abu Dhabi race” and Nico to find himself in recent Lewis territory.  In other words, it isn’t just Lewis who can’t get the tyres to work in certain ambients and certain degrees of turbulence. I guess there’s a little squabble taking place of the minor positions in the Constructors’ Championship and to this end this was another good day for Merc and and a “difficult” one for Ferrari.  Fernando drove another Fernando race – tough in the face of difficulties – but nonetheless had to be at his best to beat Nico Hulkenberg’s Sauber.  Nico H was also brilliant: as he crossed the line, waving his arm in triumph (well, in celebration of achievement) I couldn’t help thinking that he might after all be better just staying at Sauber in 2014.  Tom McCullough and the boys are moving Swiss mountains right now.

Another stand-out, for me, was Valtteri Bottas.  We’ve had him on the show several times and you know that Rob Wilson, who has coached him, long ago described him as another Kimi. This Williams year has been plagued by no grip (and thus balance) but finally, in Austin, the clouds began to clear. In the low-grip conditions of Austin Saturday Valtteri was fast – just as he had been in Montreal in the wet and semi-wet.  Like Kimi, Bottas drives primarily in straight lines with gorgeous, Jarno Trulli-like transitions. He doesn’t look quick in the way that Romain Grosjean looks quick. He is, though. He’s deceptively quick.  He’s one of those guys who is always thinking ahead of where he is.  He is manipulative rather than reactive. He makes it look easy.

In the race he was fast and consistent from a very neat start.  I loved the bit where Jonathan Eddolls was on the radio, telling Valtteri to cool it and look after his tyres at precisely the moment his driver was passing Esteban Gutierrez round the outside of a very quick right-hander. Walter’s a racing driver of enormous talent and brio.  Here he is, chatting to the English-speaking press after the race (Jonathan Noble and Tony Dodgins directly in front of him).  I asked him afterwards where this race rated in terms of enjoyment in the context of his career so far.  “The best,” he said simply, and with a smile.  Of course.photof

There’s plenty more to talk about, of course, but let’s leave that for next week’s show.  We’ll be chatting to Craig Scarborough about exactly what Williams have done to elevate their pace and also looking ahead again at 2014. In the meantime, here are a couple of “pack-up” shots from the post-race Austin paddock. I don’t know how the mechanics find the energy to do all this stuff after three hard days of practising, qualifying and racing…but they do. Look at all the gubbins needed for the Mercedes pit stand – which is another bete noire of mine. Why do we need those pit stands at all? Wouldn’t it save a collective fortune in freight, and ongoing development, if the pit-perchers do what they do from the back of the garage? photobphotodphotocImages: Peter Windsor Collection photoa  

Notes from Austin

  • _N7T6661Fernando Alonso looked fit and well after qualifying despite his recent nerve/back troubles.  He was beset by headaches for the week after Abu Dhabi (when a hop over the rumble strips did the damage) but he’s fine now, citing adrenalin as the greatest cure in the world.
  • I love the small, relatively cramped team hospitality units at the COTA.  You’re there in Ferrari, chatting to Luca Marmorini about the 2014 fuel-flow restrictors, and the next thing you know you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with Felipe and/or Fernando’s Friends.  After chatting earlier to Sahara Force India’s Andy Stevenson about his team’s third Brembo brake disc failure this year (Adrian Sutil’s broke in qualifying in Texas), the thought occurred that Felipe is going to have a bit of a pedal-shock when he first drives a Williams.  To my knowledge, Felipe has never driven with Carbone Industrie brakes – and they are very, very different from the Brembos.  As different, perhaps, as the new V6 turbo engines will be from the current V8s.  Felipe said that he’d tried CIs a few times at Ferrari and doesn’t like ’em.  “I will have to make some changes at Williams,” he said with a smile.  Hmm.  It’ll be interesting to see where Williams are at, brake-wise, come January/February next year.
  • Speaking of those SFI brake failures, the thinking at Brembo is that SFI have an installation problem.  Ferrari, for example, have had no such issues at any point this year.  Fair enough – but then you would always expect Ferrari to be atop the Brembo totem pole.  It’s a bit worrying, therefore – both for SFI and Brembo.  Add a couple of issues at Lotus with Hitco, and you have a surprising number of brakes failures in a year when other (historically-fragile) car components – hydraulic systems, electronics, clutches, transmssions, engines, etc – have been virtually rock-solid.
  • One of the sights I miss at modern F1 races is that of the washing line – the drivers’ sweaty overalls hanging out to dry between practice sessions.  They all used to do it.  Now, like Vespa scooters, I guess such displays are against Community Paddock Rules.  I did see this, though, after Friday practice, proving that there’s life in (crowded) F1 paddocks after all. I shot these sun-drying overalls through the fencing in the hope that you won’t report the culprits.photo5
  • It’s difficult to have fun on the roads in the US, but that all changes on the motorway leading to the COTA.   Not only does the road have plenty of sweeping bends in amongst the prairies and the grazing cattle;  the speed limit is also an amazing 80 mph (85 mph on the return lanes, oddly).  I can’t think of too many places in the world these days with speed limits that high, so all credit to the Texans.  My Hertz Chevvy loved it – and that’s saying something.photo2
  • I know I go on an on about “F1 improving its show” but I can’t let this race pass into history without commenting about the almost non-existent support package for the US GP.  Last year we at least saw Historic F1 cars – and gorgeous they were too, even if the owners were not allowed to use on-board cameras and the races were confined to the less-populated stages of the day.   We also had Porsche Supercup (American version).  This year the Historic F1 cars were nowhere in evidence – and nor were the Porsches.  The sum total of the USGP race cars was the F1 race (obviously), preceded at 9:30am by an (admittedly fascinating) Historic Formula Atlantic/Formula B race and then a bunch of unruly stockbrokers doing about $50m-worth of damage to expensive-looking Ferrari sports/road cars.   Why no Historic F1s in a country in which (a) F1 is trying to “sell its brand” and (b) has enormous F1 heritage, by which I mean Phil Hill, Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Richie Ginther, Peter Revson, Eagle Weslakes and a race history that stretches back to 1959?  Why no Eagle on the circuit before the race, driven by Dan himself?  Why no Mario in a Lotus 79?  And why no Pro-Celebrity race, bringing in some Hollywood stars to spice up the day – especially in a year of relatively-predictable Seb Vettel domination?  Americans like shows – they’re used to shows – and it’s not difficult to enhance the F1 show with a few simple bolt-ons.  As much as I enjoyed watching (late on Saturday and early on Sunday) a Fred Opert Chevron B39 alongside a Ralt RT1 – and the mid-field laps of a nice Lotus 41C – and seeing Mario on the podium, presenting a trophy – I don’t think this is the sort of event that sits particularly comfortably – alone – as the main support race of America’s Grand Prix.  Fred Opert himself?  He was in Texas, supporting his man (Nico Rosberg, son of his former star driver, Keijo).
  • Which reminds me of one of the first Long Beach Grands Prix, when there was a decent Pro-celebrity race.  Poor old Clint Eastwood wasn’t particularly quick but luckily couldn’t hear the large-bellied guy sitting on his Winnebago’s roof on the outside of Turn Two (where I also happened to be watching).  “Hey Clint!” he would say, lap after lap.  “Where’s Dirty Harry now?!”.  Anyway, here’s a flashback to the first Long Beach GP in 1976.  Not a bad guest list:  Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, Rene Dreyfus, Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Maurice Trintignant. Sadly many have passed away.  As I say, though:  why no Dan in an Eagle at the COTA – or Stirling, for that matter?  He did win the second US GP (at Riverside, 1960). 1976 United States Grand Prix West.
  • Tim Mayer (son of Teddy), was a Steward at this year’s US GP.  It was 50 years ago that his uncle, the very rapid Timmy, signed to drive for Bruce McLaren’s new team prior to the (January-February, 1964) Tasman Series.  Timmy was instantly quick, almost dead-heating with Bruce at Teretonga and running right up with his team leader on several other circuits.  Then in March, at Longford, Tasmania, Timmy died when his little Cooper became airborne over one of the bumps and spun into the trees.  Tim, his nephew, is today an FIA Delegate and Director of ACCUS (Automobile Commission of the United States).  Timmy brought his mechanic, Tyler Alexander (left, below) to Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd.  Tyler then went on to become an integral part of the McLaren success story.1964 Tasman Cup Championship.

What do you do when you’re sitting in a Texan taffic jam? Watch the sunset…photo4

Images: LAT Photographic; Peter Windsor Collection

Notes from the Circuit of the Americas

General overview: Full marks to Ferrari for exploiting the five-place grid penalty for a “gearbox change” on Felipe Massa’s car. Felipe has been widely criticized all year for the lack of “support pace” he has displayed in the second Ferrari but in my view he is, and always has been, the perfect counterpoint to Fernando.  He’s fast enough to be helpful but compliant enough, and low-key enough, not to be any sort of threat to Fernando – or even an “annoyance”.   Jenson Button has not been that at McLaren (an “annoyance” factor, that is) but there’s no doubt that he has “taken” points from Lewis this year – and vice versa.  Ditto the situation at Red Bull – Seb Vettel and Mark Webber.  At no race has Massa ever compromised Alonso’s ability to reap the maximum available points of the day.  You could argue, of course, that part of playing a team role is to take points from the opposition – and that is true.  When you have a driver like Alonso, however – or Lewis Hamilton – you always have to assume that they will be your main championship contenders.  To “take points” from the opposition in the case of Massa or Hamilton in reality means beating the Red Bulls.  And that is a task best left to the Number Ones.

Never, though, have we seen a team move its number two driver back five places in order to maximize the chances of its number one.  Of course, it should be remembered that this was only the second time in 2012 that Massa has actually out-qualified Alonso (and on this occasion Felipe’s pace was thanks mainly to the disappointing updates on Fernando’s car) – and that Ferrari are the only top team to operate a genuine “Number One-Number Two” driver pairing.

Nonetheless, Felipe played the perfect team game in Austin – and totally justified his position as Fernando’s wing man.  By contrast, one can only imagine the dramas if Ferrari had been running, say, Sergio Perez, Paul di Resta or Nico Hulkenberg in the other car (drivers that the media in general have been touting all year as suitable Massa replacements).  Their palpable irritation would have been leaked to their national media, even as they displayed a brave face in Austin.  And so the distractions would have begun…

Ferrari received plenty of post-race criticism from the international press, all of which was based on the argument that racing should be “fair and equal”; that teams should respect “the spirit of the regulations”; and that no driver’s chances should be compromised by team orders.  As I see it, there is no difference between Felipe slowing in the closing laps in order to give track position to Fernando – a difficult thing to orchestrate pre-race, because you never know where the opposition is going to be lying – or ceding five positions on the grid. Actually, the latter decision was definitely the right call for the simple reason that Fernando’s new grid position (a) moved him further from the potential mid-field first-corner skirmish and (b) swapped him to the clean side and to the outside.  I joked with Fernando after qualifying that he was again going to have to execute one of his demon round-the-outside maneuvers at the first corner – he laughed back in agreement – and so it proved.  He out-accelerated Nico Hulkenberg and Kimi Raikkonen via the intermediate gears and used the outside line to pass none other than Michael Schumacher on the exit of Turn One.

Fernando loves using the outside of the first corner in any race on which he doesn’t happen to be on the front row – but such a move can be dangerous, of course.  Had Ferrari not exercised their “gearbox option” with Massa, Fernando would have had a difficult time moving from the inside file, for the wide entry to Turn One in Austin invited three-abreast – and in some cases four-abreast – approaches.  And there was a skirmish:  Kimi Raikkonen was tapped by Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India in Turn Two and Pastor Maldonado ran to the outside run-off area in avoidance.  Fernando, from P8, could have been in the middle of all that.

One question of intrigue, I think, will be whether we see more grid-shuffling of the type we saw in Austin.  If Mark Webber qualifies on the pole in Brazil, for example, and Vettel is, say, fourth, would Red Bull take a gearbox five-penalty hit on Webber and move their title contender onto the clean side of the road and a little further to the front?  That’s a difficult one, because Webber is quick enough, of course, to be able to beat Alonso…

Braking for Turn 1: The steep upwards incline of the track at this point enabled the quick guys to brake amazingly late into Turn 1.  In general, I try to stand at the point of the latest braker for corners like this but in qualifying, as the hour progressed, I was obliged to move nearer the apex virtually by the minute (as the track picked up grip and the fast drivers switched to options Pirellis).   By the end, Lewis Hamilton, Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado all seemed to be braking at about 75metres (from seventh gear down to second).   Impressive stuff.

It was also interesting to listen to the downshift sequences of the different drivers.  Grosjean and Bruno Senna, for example, flick down through the gears as quickly as possible – 6,5,4,3,2.  There is barely a pause between each gear selection.  The pause, when it comes, is between the selection of second and the first application of mid-corner power.  Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso, by comparison, consistently paused after selecting fourth – as in 6,5,4…pause…3,2.   At first I thought I was imagining the difference but the sequences were repeated, lap after lap.   I think this is because the latter group “save” the selection of third and then second for the moment when they are about to impart the first steering load into the car:  the simultaneous downshift gives them more control of the rear when the need it most.  From the outside, the pause also seems to add to the time available – a bit like the pause at the top of a golfer’s backswing gives the impression of there being all the time in the world in which to hit the ball.

So there is still an art in clutchless, paddle-downshifting, even if it doesn’t re-ignite the glorious days of heel-and-toeing!  (I can only imagine the perfection of drivers like Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Michele Alboreto, Carlos Reutemann and other artists on this section of road:  the shame is that we no longer get to hear the foot-hand co-ordination of drivers like Seb Vettel, Fernando and Lewis.)   It seems strange to me that Jenson Button’s downshift pattern resembles that of Romain Grosjean (albeit slightly less rushed) when Lewis, quite audibly, is doing something very different.  I doubt that telemetry is accurate enough to be able to identify these “pauses” – we’re talking milliseconds here – but I may be wrong.

“Becketts”: Turns Four, Five and Six – all the turns were marked by vertical marker posts  – resemble Becketts at Silverstone.  Most drivers to whom I spoke said Becketts is in reality a tad slower, although the greater run-off area in Austin – the moonscape – gave a different impression from the outside.  Felipe Massa was absolutely brilliant through this section in qualifying, taking the first left-hander, and the next left, flat in seventh and then downshifting to sixth precisely as he clipped the apex kerb there with his left front.  The thought: “Can the Ferrari take the load on the right-front??” flashed through your mind as he flicked the car one way and then the other and then it was down another gear for the tighter right-hander.  Maldonado and Grosjean downshifted twice where Felipe was going from seventh only to sixth – which may explain why Romain was a bit non-plussed when I talked to him about this piece of road after qualifying:  “Yes, it’s quite fun,” he said, but the next section is much more demanding…”  I was a bit confused, at first, because “the next section” on my circuit map was actually a nice piece of undulating road killed by some pretty slow corners.  Sure, the entries are blind, but we’re not talking 185 mph here…  Nonetheless, it was to this that Romain was referring: “It’s really difficult.  Blind entries, difficult approaches.  You have to get it just right…”

Lewis was on a different plane, I think.  When I chatted to him on Saturday afternoon about Turns Four, Five and Six his eyes just lit up and almost did the talking for him:  “What a section of road!  Really quick!  Awesome!”

The Pirelli compounds: In general, it looked as though the drivers who “energize” the tyres fared much better in qualifying than the drivers who “nurse” them.  Jenson is never going to be more than a few degrees out of line, regardless of the circumstances – and nor is Nico Rosberg.  Lewis and Michael, by contrast, thrive on “bending the sidewalls”.  No-one can blame Pirelli for bringing such conservative compounds to a new race – and the proof of their quality came with Lewis Hamilton’s race pace on Sunday.  If ever a car has been sensitive to tyre temperature windows this year it has been the McLaren;  and yet on both the medium and the hard it was a gem of a car – a Red Bull match with greater top speed.  That’s the sort of pace that Lewis has shown at circuits like Singapore and Abu Dhabi and so it was only just that he was finally able to win again.

Overtaking, etc: I was astonished by the number of drivers who predicted on Saturday afternoon that “overtaking” was going to be difficult in the race.    I guess such predictions have become “security blankets” for drivers who fear the worst but you didn’t have to be an F1 mastermind to see that the Circuit of the Americas was going to present no problems at all.  The wider entries to such corners as Turns One and Eleven did exactly what they were designed to do – ie, promote overtaking – even if they did look a bit odd when you walked the track on a Thursday.  Circuit designers used to pride themselves on having exactly the same track width for the entire lap, regardless of the topography:  COTA has changed all that – although I think that the entry to Turn Eleven (the hairpin at the back) is very similar to that at Magny Cours (in reverse).    The shame is that the three-apex corner near the end of the COTA lap had such a slow entry speed.  Such a design works in Turkey because of its entry speed;  in Austin it was more of an accelerative, TV corner than it was a dramatic one.  Having said that, qualifying brought a new slant:  who could hit the DRS switch sooner at this point of the lap?  My post-qualifying poll was not sufficiently all-embracing to be definitive but said Grosjean, and the two RBR drivers, did seem to be flattening the rear wing about mid-corner.   (This sort of bravery will not be possible in 2013, when DRS useage on Fridays and Saturdays will be limited only to the DRS Sunday zone.)

The garages: There was not as much room as normal in the Austin garages – which to some extend is a surprise, given that the detail design and architecture was carried out by Hermann Tilke.  The problem was the available flat land between the last corner and the incline on the straight:  add the US-spec fire evacuation steps not required on the other circuits and you have a problem.  As Hermann tells it, Pirelli were originally not going to be operating from pit lane garages.  When that was changed, each team had to switch from three garages to two-and-a-half.  “In reality,” he said, the garages are about 15cm narrower than normal, given all of that.”  What I didn’t understand was why the garages were not built to a larger depth.  There was plenty of room in front of the garages for a few metres of additional garage space, and a covered walkway at the back of the garages could in reality have been the back wall of the garages, offering two or three metres more space.  (Judging by the number of times we’d see a Jenson or a Felipe sprinting from luxury portaloos, there also seemed to be fewer bathrooms than normal in the new complex.)

The beauty of imperfection: I’m sure some of the F1 establishment will be complaining even as I write but, for me, one of the great things about Austin was its imperfection.  It’s a bit like India in that respect.  Dodgy power supplies and drainage issues are part of the scenery, the atmosphere, in India:  and if you’re going to create a US GP around a brand new facility why not capture some of the charm, say, of Watkins Glen, and have the F1 high-rollers grouping in temporary buildings behind the garage area?  The Austin circuit was built for the bargain-basement price of $300m (compared with the $1.2bn spent on Abu Dhabi) and that meant fewer luxuries and more essentials – an ethos perfectly in tune with these economic times.  And still they didn’t skimp on the real necessities – by which I mean the design of typeface for the building titles; the use of local limestone on some of the paddock structures; decent, free, wifi; and the track itself, of course.







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