PADDOCK

02/08/2017

There goes the fear

There goes the fear

Everyone’s a little afraid of Budapest.

It’s not the people, who are stern but helpful once they know what you need, and it’s not the city, which is beautiful in a ‘could use a power wash to remove the grime to show how stunning it is’ kind of way, but it’s more about the weather.

Every time I come to Budapest I think of 2005, when the hospitality area was a couple of awnings off the double decker bus that was our office: we worked ludicrously long hours in the sweltering heat, and when ART were disqualified for an infringement of the technical regulations, meaning Nico Rosberg (whatever happened to that guy?) and Alex Premat were relegated to the back, it caused a huge uproar.

Luckily that sort of thing couldn’t happen these days.

But on that Saturday the heat was so extreme, so overwhelming, that Will Buxton (whatever happened to that guy?) and myself would take it in turns to work upstairs, sweat literally dripping off our heads and onto our laptops, until we couldn’t take it anymore and had to swap with each other. A tyre guy came up to see us and had his thermometer in his pocket, and measured the temperature at over 50˚.

I’m surprised we didn’t have Heikki Kovalainen move in for the weekend. I guess we didn’t have towels, so it couldn’t technically be a sauna, but that and the wood was all we were missing.

So everyone knows it’s going to be sweltering, dry and oppressive, and also that it’s almost always the last round before the summer break, so everyone has one eye on getting a bit of a holiday in before Spa. And it’s a tough place to race anyway given the tight, technical nature of the circuit, despite the new asphalt at least making it a bit more predictable, so there’s always a bit of fear getting onto the plane to go to Budapest.

But everyone expected to at least arrive there.

My flight was late to take off - so far, so August in Europe - but it was a really rough flight once it got off the ground, and it didn’t take long to see the clouds forming as we headed towards Hungary. The pilot warned us that there would be further delays because if the weather, and it was a pretty tough landing, but at least I arrived eventually.

It was only on Thursday that I realised that some people had only just made their flights (including Esteban Ocon, who was wait listed until the airline was advised who he is) because of overbooking, while others (including a lot of Williams staff, and a fair few F2 folks too) were diverted to other airports in other countries to avoid the storm sitting over Budapest.

The storm was so heavy, and traffic so bad, that there was no choice but to go to the hotel and work from there, instead of going to the circuit. I have a heavy rain jacket as part of my uniform but I always leave it in the truck, just like most of the rest of the paddock. Wonderful, I thought, we’re all going to look like drowned rats tomorrow.

But, as if by magic, the storm disappeared overnight, and the usual sun was installed on Thursday, albeit with temperatures initially well down on usual. It was actually pretty glorious by the time we had to take the race winner’s photos, with Charles Leclerc doing his usual complaining about how far we had to walk, and how he wanted to do something interesting for once, something different to the usual.

So we put him and Nicholas Latifi into a drain in their race suits. That seemed to keep him quiet.

To be fair, we usually have this discussion about boring vs funny photos, and since Leclerc is usually in the photo he’s generally leading the discussion. He doesn’t want to have a boring photo, but since the shoot is at a different circuit to the one on which they won we can’t really use any landmarks, as they won’t fit.

I quite like have really well shot but otherwise dull backdrops, because I think the drivers should be the focal point. But drivers tend to be a lot more shy than you would imagine, and want to have something to take the focus away from themselves, or to at least make it funny so that’s where the attention goes. Leclerc usually questions why we want to do something funny too, so we can’t win.

We took a couple of standing shots, but they didn’t do much for us. And then we saw the drain, figured we could have Latifi pushing Leclerc into it (because why not), and from there it was only a small step to putting them both in and pretending to bobsled. Job done, and on the walk back Nicholas regaled us with stories of his favourite donut Instagram site (@therollingpinto if you’re interested, and currently they have a picture of a cake with a football with Nicholas written across it…). He’s more than a little obsessed even though, amazingly, he never eats them.

Then it was time for the Pertamina Arden Team Talk, in which Sean and Norman spent more time talking about Batman than racing (or girls, remarkably), and Nabil Jeffri’s Lightning Round, in which he bared his soul about his year to date, and then it was over to the drivers’ briefing, which was all going swimmingly until Jordan King’s phone started to ring, and his church bells ringtone broke the meeting up as everyone started giggling uncontrollably, except Jordan himself, who tried to switch it off as though nothing had happened.

On Friday the weather wasn’t the only return to regular service: Charles Leclerc hit the ground running to top the morning session, overturning his own quickest lap 3 times before grabbing P1 a third of the way through the session. Nyck De Vries had the only notable incident, juddering over the new larger kerbs at turn 11 and into the wall, with the Rapax team sighed in unison at the thought of the extra work they now had in the few remaining hours before qualifying.

To be fair, Oliver Rowland was close: less than a tenth off Leclerc, with the same gap back to De Vries, and had held a little in reserve, as usual. Would this finally be the end of Leclerc’s pole run? Could Rowland finally take the spot? Unfortunately for his rivals the answer is both yes and no, but not in that order.

The Monegasque driver was simply untouchable in qualifying, despite a red flag on his hot lap for a spin by Sean Gelael: Leclerc simply returned to the pits until the track opened, headed back out to set the pole lap by almost half a second and returned, to the astonishment of his rivals. He went back out on his second set behind everyone else, ready to play clean up, but there was no need: no one could get close to his time, so he returned without needing to make a second run.

He might as well have gone for a nap, or back to the hotel for a swim. And when he got out of the car, he looked like he had.

Leclerc sat in the press conference with Rowland and Artem Markelov, and it was a bit of a glum affair for the others. “PREMA gave me a great car,” Leclerc noted, stating the obvious, “and I’m very happy about the lap this afternoon: this morning I was not happy with the way I drove, but this afternoon I’m happy with the lap I delivered.

“It’s a good pole position, and we knew that the position would be very important because here in Budapest overtaking is quite hard, so we will have to do a good start tomorrow and try to keep the lead.”

It wasn’t until a while later that Leclerc was called to the stewards’ office, and he had left the circuit before the news emerged: he had been disqualified from qualifying for using a part on his diff which was made from brass rather than steel, and as such did not comply with the material requirements in the Dallara User Manual, which is a breach of the technical regulations.

We got the message via our phones so we could draft a story up for the announcement, and it’s always a bit weird to know something like that before everyone else: the world seems slightly different, but sitting in hospitality everyone looks exactly the same. You know that there will be uproar, so you just want to enjoy the relative peace for a while.

And then you draft the story, and redraft it, and make sure everything is going to be exactly, precisely correct, as you know that a lot of people are going to read it: it’s not like this blog, it actually has an effect on the weekend in real time.

And then you release it.

Neither Leclerc nor new poleman Rowland were available for a quote, which is probably just as well: Leclerc would have had to decide which language to swear in, although Rowland wouldn’t have that problem, and could be relied up to utter something suitably Anglo-Saxon and robust in his delight.

Saturday saw the blast furnace conditions arrive in force, just in time for race day. Following on from Silverstone we had another driver parade and, while they all now love doing it, they are less enamoured with waiting around next to the pitlane for the truck, particularly given the heat, and the fact that I’d pulled a few of them out of the food line in hospitality.

“But I’m hungry!” was the uniform response, to which I could only remind them that all of their teams were aware of the timings, and would have told them to either go and eat early or wait until after. To which they all replied, “but I’m hungry now…”

They’re all troopers though – they have to be, to be racing drivers – and they sat diligently outside the pit entrance, waiting for the overrunning Porsche session to finish and moaning intermittently (or in Oliver Rowland’s case more or less constantly, at me) until the gates opened and they could file onto the truck to wave to the fans and to say rude things about each other when the TV camera wasn’t on them.

The heat was only rising during lunch, and after F1 qualifying but before our race all of the drivers were hiding away out of the sun as their cars baked in the forecourt of the paddock, waiting for release. When we finally got into the pitlane the screens noted that the track temperature was 52˚, but no one blinked at it as we all went through our pre-race routines and got ready to go. And there was nowhere to hide when the lights went out: Rowland might have collected the points for pole but Markelov was P2 in the championship and looking to close the gap to Leclerc, blazing away when the lights went out to lead Rowland, Jordan King and Nicholas Latifi into turn 1.

Budapest rewards the prime strategy (start on softs and switch to mediums), which is why so many of the field use it: there is often an early safety car, and even if there’s not it’s still generally quicker, as evidenced by the overwhelming majority of drivers using it. Alex Albon was the highest placed gambler to start on mediums in P11, with only 3 drivers towards the back chancing their arms: Sergio Sette Camara, Louis Deletraz and, of course, Charles Leclerc.

The Monegasque driver, on full tanks and harder tyres, ate through his rivals like a lion breaking fast, finishing the first lap in P12 and looking for more: unseen by the cameras concentrating on the front of the pack, Leclerc and Albon were engaged in a fierce battle for supremacy, the former teammates reopening last year’s blazing title fight from GP3 as they locked horns over who would have a clear track when their rivals pitted.

King was the first to lose his tyres, with Latifi sneaking past him before the Englishman could pit for fresh rubber, while at the front Rowland made a great stop on lap 11, Markelov came in next time through to cover but lost time in the pits, emerging 2 seconds behind his rival and with everything to do all over again. The Albon/Leclerc fight was now prime time, at the front of the pack: Leclerc clearly had the better car, but a moment of wildness when he tried to go around the outside of Albon at turn 4 but got airborne off the huge new kerbs instead would have worried his team, advising him to call time on the war to make sure his car was still intact.

It wasn’t long before they re-engaged, with Leclerc eventually muscling his way past at turn 2 after Albon braked slightly early at the corner before, but the fight had come with a price: Rowland was now only 10 seconds behind and closing, leaving the pair with no way to pit and return before the Englishman and his entourage were through and gone.

And so it proved, with the prime strategy demonstrating its worth (Rowland was about to overtake Leclerc for the lead when he pitted), but good fortune was to smile on Leclerc once again: re-emerging in P11 behind Robert Visoiu and Sergio Canamasas, the pair soon came together, retiring at turn 1 to promote the Monegasque driver by 2 places and prompt a safety car, bringing all of his rivals together right in front of him just as his tyres were at their best. At the restart he passed 3 of his rivals at turn 1, and he could smell the fear as the others tried to stay away.

Out in front Markelov had been biding his time, and he thought it had arrived at last: on better tyres he launched up the inside of Rowland out of the final turn and was closing fast, with the Briton seeing the threat in his mirrors and slamming the door closed, leaving the Russian with no choice but to brake heavily and get swamped, or to keep going and hope. Markelov, ever the optimist, kept his foot down, found the grass at the pit exit and jumped the kerb before launching across the track and into the wall at turn 1.

Rowland slowed to let his rival fly past, and Latifi saw his chance and went for it: Rowland had just enough tyres left to direct his teammate wide at turn 2 before the safety car came out, staying there until the final corner for a DAMS 1-2 ahead of De Vries, who’d made a great start before wisely staying away from everyone, with Leclerc forging up to P4 from the back of the grid.

All the talk in the press conference was about Markelov’s huge shunt, which was still under investigation by the stewards, but Rowland was satisfied with his part in it, with the stewards soon agreeing with his perspective: “He got a pretty good run out of the last corner, and I was struggling a bit with my tyres: he got a good run up the inside, I defended, and I’m not sure where he was going to go.

“I went all the way to the inside, and I guess he was expecting me to maybe leave a car [width] but there was nothing there, and he went on the grass. I think the rule is if there is any part of the car alongside you’ve got to leave a car, but he was still behind me when I closed the gap. He had quite a lot of momentum when he committed to it, and he went on the grass: he couldn’t go left at that moment.

“But we’ve been on the podium consistently since Monaco, and I think the qualifying recently has been extremely positive: we came second here, and only Charles was better than me, so I’m quite happy. I’m second in the championship, I’ve closed the gap a little bit to Charles, but we’ve still got a bit of work to do on qualifying. As a team and a car the result of the 1-2 shows we’ve come a long way, and done a good job.”

Sunday morning is always a rush, with 2 races to be run through before F1 wakes up. The track was substantially cooler than the day before, but it made no difference to Nobuharu Matsushita, who made a stunning getaway from P4, running inside and around Norman Nato before stealing a match on poleman and teammate Albon, who was soon squeezed between Luca Ghiotto and De Vries, with the pair running down the hill behind the Japanese driver and in front of Rowland, hungry to steal anything he could for his title fight.

With tyre management uppermost in everyone’s mind it was a while before anyone was willing to chance their arm: De Vries finally spotting a chink Ghiotto’s armour on lap 21 and pouncing at turn 2, leaving the Italian in the clutches of Rowland: the Briton later advised that he recalled a move Daniil Kyvat had made on him a few years back and emulated it, sliced inside Ghiotto at turn 6 (albeit not hitting him as the Russian had) and leaving a line through for Leclerc to use too.

A VSC period gave everyone a breather after Visoiu slid into the side of Nabil Jeffri and retirement, and at the restart the Malaysian ran over the turn 4 kerb and launched into Canamasas, with the Spaniard spinning into retirement and prompting another VSC period to remove his car from turn 5, with the restart being less eventful this time around. On the penultimate lap Rowland was able to use his superior tyres to run around the outside of De Vries for P2 but Matsushita was gone, and the top 3 were once again trailed across the line by championship leader Leclerc.

“I always have confidence with the start,” Matsushita noted afterwards, “and today I knew it would be good because of the grip. This morning there was a GP3 race so I put down more power, and it was a good start! We’ve had some difficult weekends after Monaco, where we always had the pace but I couldn’t make it work, but I think Spa and Monza are our favourite tracks, we were quite quick there last year, and I hope it will be another podium like these guys and we can continue like that.

“I want to be in the top 3 this year, so I will push!”

Rowland was unsurprisingly delighted with his weekend, having closed the gap to Leclerc in the title fight with a huge haul of points: “after Silverstone race 2 I was disappointed with myself as there were too many errors on my part, probably because it was my home race and I was enthusiastic. But it was starting to get to the stage where Charles was gone and that I was fighting for 2nd, and I didn’t want to believe that.

“Obviously anything can happen, and after this weekend we’re right back in there: we’re not quite with him but we’re closing, and if we keep this pace we can challenge him to the end of the year.”

It was a good moment for the Briton, and great for the championship to close the fight at the front, but Leclerc still managed to finish P4 twice from the back of the grid: if normal service resumes in Spa-Francorchamps it’s likely that he’ll start a little higher next time out. And if it’s not normal, then who knows?

But then again, no one is going to be afraid of a bit of weather in the wilds of Belgium: it’ll be expected.

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