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.
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.
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? Images: Peter Windsor Collection