PADDOCK

12/10/2017

Close to the edge

Close to the edge

Behind the scenes in Jerez

I’ll admit, when we were first talking about a standalone race I thought it would be great: none of those F1 types filling the planes and hotels, we get to work in the big paddock and have more space for everything, we might even get to stay at the fancy circuit hotel for once. What’s not to like?

And that turned out to be exactly how it went. The end. Short blog this week.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t exactly how it went. It turns out that all those FOM people actually do a lot of work, and that our handful of brave warriors at F2 would have to replicate the work of hundreds of dedicated, full-time employees. But that shouldn’t be a problem, should it?

By the time the race weekend finally came around, I was worried some of us wouldn’t actually make the plane, so much work did we have to do before getting there. And part of me thought that might be a good thing, considering what faced us. We had more journalists, by a factor of five. We had the circuit’s PR folks to deal with. And TV and timing and regulators and banners and hospitality and media and photographers and parking and tabards and …

But it all got done, like it always does. Turns out we’re not bad at this job. And sleep is largely overrated.

We had a pretty constant queue outside our office, though. Jack Aitken was first up, and if his mind was on the title battle to come (and it was) then he didn’t allow it to show as he gave us one of the best Lightning Rounds we’ve had, and which I highly recommend. There’ll be a big interview to come too, between now and Abu Dhabi.

And a new feature starts this week too, Gear Box. We started with Alex Albon because he was the inspiration for it: so many times he’s told us about the lucky charms and other items that his Mum makes him bring with him that we just figured it would be interesting to look at what the guys always bring with them to a race. Let us know whose bag you’d like us to peer into next time.

It wasn’t until we got onto the roof that we realised just how hot it was in Jerez. “It’ll be great,” Zac the photographer assured us, “good views all around, lots of light, it’s got everything.” And it was great, unless you were wearing a race suit like Monza winners Antonio Fuoco, Luca Ghiotto and George Russell.

“Oh man, do you really need to use that up here?” Luca asked as I blinded him once again with the light reflector.

“Can I wear my sunglasses?” asked George.

“Are they sponsors?” we reverted.

“Um, they could be…”

“…” said Antonio, squinting.

And then we ripped through the list: Sebastien Philippe for ART’s latest teams’ title and their group photo, the Facebook Live interviews with Tatiana Calderon and Sergio Sette Camara, get George Russell to drive us around the outside of the track to find a place for his photoshoot (“are you sure we can’t drive on the circuit?” “No, Alexa had a dream about that: even without F1 on track it would be too traumatic…”), Lightning Rounds, Trading Places.

We finally got around to interviewing Charles Leclerc for a forthcoming feature too, which was really comprehensive and quite interesting. I know, we’ve had him all year, but we didn’t want to rush into it. Hope it will be worth the wait. Got some nice shots of him for the championship, too.

Once the track activities came, time took control: in retrospect it felt like we shoved 2 free practice sessions, 2 qualifying sessions and 4 races into the same time we had to do all the Thursday activities. And it was strange to watch it all on a tiny, dark television set in a fake wood panelled office with no windows, after spending so many years sitting on a pitwall. First world problems, indeed, but it meant that we were removed from what was going on, not seeing the teams with our own eyes, which made writing the reports a lot harder than usual.

Still, it’s not like there were any championship in the balance or anything. Oh, wait a minute.

Speaking of which, Charles was clearly looking to wrap the whole thing up this weekend. He mentioned putting Monza behind him in a manner which betrayed the fact that he clearly hadn’t done any such thing, and even if his default emotional setting is calm and measured, partially because he likes to be sure he is perfectly correct about everything before he opens his mouth to speak, there was obviously more going on in his head than usual, dealing with a championship which was so important to him in a season which has been an emotional rollercoaster for him.

At least the weather wasn’t going to affect anything: the glorious sun shone down all weekend long, warming all of us from more temperate climates who had been dealing with the harsh truth of autumn and the turning of the seasons.

Leclerc grabbed the top spot in yet another free practice, setting the tempo of the weekend and denying his rivals even a crumb of hope. Oliver Rowland and Nobuharu Matsushita set the pace before Ralph Boschung got caught out behind traffic, beaching his car on the kerbs and destroying his own weekend at a circuit on which he had never previously driven and prompting a red flag period to remove his stricken car.

As soon as the track was green again all the other drivers were straight back out, trying to pick up as much data about the newly resurfaced track as they could, and Leclerc wasted no time in grabbing the top spot before getting to work on his race simulations, holding it all the way to the flag ahead of Rowland and Nyck De Vries.

And then, as soon as the session report was written, posted and promoted, it was time for qualifying. On a track where everyone thought overtaking would be impossible, it was clearly the most important moment of the weekend.

Leclerc grabbed the top spot early before returning to the pits while Ghiotto and Sergio Sette Camara bickered over P2, with the Monegasque re-emerging to improve on his best time at the halfway mark. But he clearly thought Ghiotto was too close: Leclerc strapped on a third set of tyres before heading out again, with the Italian improving once more but Leclerc raising the bar again to claim pole by just two tenths from the Italian and Sette Camara.

An extra set of tyres was a huge risk to take, but it was a gamble Leclerc was willing to take: “We went for a bit of a strange strategy for this qualifying, because we went for 3 sets of new tyres: we went on prime first, and we were quite impressed because we were the fastest at that time, and then we went for softs, which was very good. After the 2nd set Luca was very close, so we decided to go for a last set of softs, and it all went very well.

“We worked a little bit on the car and I am very happy with my lap, but I definitely think it helped to use 3 sets and to be sure of the references I took for the last lap. We did this strategy because here in Jerez it’s quite difficult to overtake, and we want to win the championship this weekend, so we have maximised our chances by doing a good qualifying to be well placed in Race 1.

“Now we have to work on the start to make sure we keep it tomorrow.” Going unsaid was that he needed it to work, because if the start didn’t come off and he got caught out, the tyre problem would potentially bite him in the sprint race.

But outwardly he didn’t look phased, having his usual game of football tennis with Fuoco afterwards and settling into the race weekend routine that had got him this far. Although it seemed that he was pushing the normality angle a little further than it wanted to go when the pair were still playing as we left, the sun already down and the bright orange moon huge and fat and low in the sky.

We followed it to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, on the coast just down the road from Jerez, at the invitation of Alfonso de Orleans-Borbon, the gregarious owner of Racing Engineering: it is their home base and they were keen to show it off to the paddock, with most of the other team bosses and some of the drivers making it along for a bite to eat and a drink or two.

It was a beautiful night, warm with a slight breeze carrying the last of the summer’s crops (or something less pleasant from some nearby horses if it was blowing the wrong direction), just perfect for having a chat and catching up with people that we see often enough but don’t really get to speak with about anything other than whatever is happening at the track at any given moment. A few of us went into town afterwards to keep it going, taking a little of the local ham and some wine to unwind before the storm to come.

But the next morning was back to work, and if the paddock’s attention was briefly consumed with the GP3 title battle between Russell and Aitken, not resolved but clearly listing heavily towards the former, it was soon focused on Leclerc. He had 2 jobs to do: hold onto the lead at the start, and stay ahead of Rowland at the stops.

Whatever he and the team worked on overnight, it worked: Leclerc easily contained Ghiotto at the start before heading off into the distance, while Rowland took some risks but squeaked past Sette Camara and Alex Albon on the first lap but was unable to do anything about Ghiotto until just before the stop, where an uncharacteristic error gave the Briton a line through for P2.

Most of the grid was on the expected tyre strategy, soft/medium, with Nicholas Latifi and Fuoco the most high profile abstainers, pinning their hopes on something unusual happening to propel them up the grid after a poor qualifying session for both. The title contenders were more conservative, naturally, but it was Sette Camara who was the first driver in the points to pit, coming in early to get the undercut and making himself the target for the majority of the field as he did so.

Ghiotto soon followed, emerging just ahead but unable stop the Brazilian coming through on warmer tyres, as did Rowland (who soon made amends by re-passing): out in front Leclerc held on for a few laps and had a big enough lead to stay ahead after his stop, re-emerging in P5 and soon moving forward through the 4 drivers on the alternate strategy ahead of him.

If it was impossible to overtake on the tight, technical circuit, no one told the leaders: Leclerc, Rowland and Ghiotto were soon putting that view to the sword, overtaking at will (albeit with a tyre advantage) as they moved back up the field. Latifi was the last man to cede, handing the lead back to the Ferrari Academy driver on lap 19 before pitting himself to see what he could salvage from the remainder of the race, leading Antonio Fuoco on the alternate strategy.

And then, a collision between Santino Ferrucci and Matsushita threw the whole race into the air.

The safety car was soon out, packing the field back together again as the marshals removed the cars from turn 1, and the race was on its head: the few drivers on the alternate strategy now had a huge advantage, sitting on fresh softs right behind the other drivers on old mediums as the race ran live again, with a few brave souls chancing a second stop to see what they could do.

Leclerc and Rowland pushed hard to break from the rest of the field when the race went live, forming a small but crucial gap back to Ghiotto, whose tyre disadvantage was soon working against him: Fuoco stormed past Sette Camara and the Italian, as well as impressively mugging Latifi on the same strategy, to put himself in a podium position as the laps ran down.

On the final lap Leclerc tyres were spent: he slowed dramatically, bunching up Rowland and Fuoco just as they found a battle between Sean Gelael and Louis Deletraz on fresh tyres and running at a pace the top 3 couldn’t match. The pair were tripping over each other as they tried to stay out of the podium fight but were also looking for an advantage over each other, handing Leclerc a moment of luck as Rowland and Fuoco were unable to get around the backmarkers in the final sector: Leclerc tumbling over the line first, owing more than a little to good fortune as he claimed his 6th victory of the season by just 0.2s, and with it came the 2017 F2 title.

Leclerc was delighted, naturally, but it was a gamble that ran very, very close to falling flat, and he knew it. “On the option tyres we were very, very quick, but then we were struggling more than Oli on the prime tyres: I don’t really know why for now. I pushed a lot, and when he was doing quite quick lap times I told myself he maybe just wanted to catch up a little bit and he might not be keeping the tyres, but actually he stayed on this pace until the safety car!

“Just before the safety car I started to pick up the pace also, and we were more or less equal: he was a little bit quicker, but not as much as the laps before. But when we saw the safety car I thought okay, it’s going to be a lot harder now! I was pushing to keep the gap up, and when the safety car came out I had no tyres left and I was a bit scared!

“After the restart the tyres seemed to cool a little bit and the team told me ‘last lap’ so I thought perfect, only 1 lap to do so I will push like crazy, and then they said ‘no, 1 lap more’ and I thought another lap, okay, I can push again. But there was 2 laps more, and I had absolutely no tyres left! That made things very, very hard but I managed to stay in front, and I had Sean behind me who was cutting the gap between me and Oliver, so he lost a bit of time.

“But I’m very, very happy overall, and we just need to work for tomorrow on the prime tyres…”

Would it matter to him? Maybe not, but given how close the PREMA team are the words he spoke about wanting to help them bring home the Teams’ title sounded true, and the team were burning the midnight oil as they worked on maximising their returns once more in the sprint race deep into the night.

The temperatures were soaring once again on Sunday, and with the GP3 title resolved in Russell’s favour attention returned to the F2 race: with the drivers’ fight done and not much to lose (although the teams might disagree), the chances of a good race were high once again.

Newcomer Alex Palou had done a tremendous job to grab P8 in the feature, claiming pole for Sunday and defying the pressure of expectation from the home crowd (as well as a delay caused by a technical issue with the safety car) to tear off into the lead when the lights went out, easily containing Ghiotto into turn 1 for the lead.

The Italian was burning for a good result, after dropping from 3rd to 7th on old tyres because of the safety car on Saturday, but his Sunday was soon looking even worse as he and Jordan King came together out turn 2, with Ghiotto nudged into the gravel and falling to the back as Latifi, Artem Markelov, Rowland, Leclerc and Fuoco followed on behind the Briton.

King, who had stopped twice in the feature to move up to a creditable 6th at the flag, must have thought his recent bad luck has dissipated, but he was wrong: he was soon looking for a lift back to the paddock when his engine let go spectacularly on the back straight on lap 3. Palou flew off into the distance, Latifi and Co were using their experience to preserve their tyres, and a number of drivers were weighing up the benefits of a pitstop, as had been flagged as a possibility ahead of the race.

Fuoco and Leclerc made it real, coming in around the halfway mark and making the others reconsider the option: Ghiotto had spent his tyres trying to fight his way back up the field, and was soon in too, on lap 18.

Palou was already falling back to the pack, with Latifi weighing up his options as Markelov sliced by the Canadian on lap 22, grabbing the lead at Dry Sac and flying away, once again proving his mastery of the Pirellis as Rowland caught up to his teammate: the DAMS pair were soon through Palou but were unable to do anything about the Russian out front, who won by almost 12s.

Leclerc and Fuoco were slicing back up the grid, but the Monegasque’s tyres were not up to the job, having worked too hard in qualifying: after overtaking his teammate along with much of the field, his last lap saw him drop like a stone, handing P4 to Ghiotto after a stunning recovery drive ahead of Fuoco and De Vries, with the new champion just holding out Palou for P7.

Markelov was his usual chilled self in the press conference when asked about his ability to get the best out of his tyres. “It’s a secret!” he laughed, smirking at his rivals’ inability to stay anywhere near him in the closing stages of the race. “I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a feeling I have with them: I know some lessons on how to save the tyres for the whole race.

“Actually yesterday was a bad race for me, but I had some experience from this and saw how the tyres were working all the race: today we looked at a pitstop as well as going the whole race on one set of tyres, and we chose this as Plan A. I was just trying to chill for the whole race and get some game later in the laps…”

Leclerc didn’t look much like the new champion afterwards, sullenly disappointed as he was to have been mugged on the last lap by so many of his rivals, but that lap was the shape of his gamble made real: if Ghiotto had been a fraction faster in qualifying or he’d made a better start, if Gelael and Deletraz hadn’t stopped twice for fresh tyres, if Rowland or Fuoco had found a way past, if the safety car had come in a lap earlier, if any of a number of things hadn’t gone perfectly, the championship would be still on.

But they did: he was champion, and motorsport is all about these fine margins, these calls that come off, this pushing everything to the edge and just hanging on. And if the price of a championship is a few lost positions after it’s done, well, that seems like a price worth paying, even if the F1 paddock wasn’t here to see it.

There’s plenty of time to catch up with them in Abu Dhabi. We might be happy to see them back too.

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