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DT’s 10 THOUGHTS… On China and beyond

17 Apr 2018

A celebrated Formula 1 journalist with more than 500 (consecutive) Grands Prix’ experience, David Tremayne is one of those familiar paddock figures who has seen it all, met them all, and written about it all, over almost five decades of F1 racing. Here, he shares his thoughts after round three of the season in China…

1. Ricciardo - hard not to love

I love drivers like Daniel Ricciardo. They have passion and fire and if you give them even the tiniest opportunity, they make something beautiful out of it.

For those who moan that F1 is predictable, tell me what was predictable about the Chinese GP? The best race so far in what is fast developing into a great world championship fight between three teams.


Red Bull’s tactical decision-making was superb, and bringing Max Verstappen and Ricciardo in when the Safety Car appeared on the 31st lap was simply brilliant. Never was a victory more deserved, because that was fast, ballsy stuff, and that’s what makes racing exciting.

As, of course, were Ricciardo’s passing moves. He caught Lewis napping in Turn 14 and made him open up the steering to give him room. And he toughed it out with Valtteri in Turn 6 and likewise forced him to concede. There’s an art to that which Max is still learning. But Daniel can do it almost intuitively, and what’s beautiful about it is that he does it without unruly contact.

“Sometimes you just have to lick the stamp and post it,” he said of the move on Lewis. Didn’t that make you smile, maybe even laugh? Here’s a guy who is so very rarely visibly down (Monaco 2016 is the only time I can really remember seeing him wholly teed off), who really looks like he enjoys being a race driver. With whom it’s a pleasure to celebrate when they win, even if you only do that inwardly.

Don’t be surprised if we see more of that from DR, and from Max, especially somewhere like Monaco…

 

2. Was Seb right?

Is the Mercedes W09 still a diva, or even more of one?

Digging back through my notes I found an interesting quote from Sebastian Vettel after pre-season testing in Barcelona in which he postulated that perhaps Mercedes avoided running the ultrasofts there because they were having trouble generating temperature on the softest Pirellis.

It made you think in Shanghai, where the Mercs looked okay on Friday but went downhill on Saturday and, in Lewis Hamilton’s case, on Sunday.


"I'm trying to understand why we don't have the pace,” Lewis said at one stage. "For some reason Ferrari’s car is working everywhere. It's very strange. You go to Bahrain where it's very hot and we would expect Ferrari to be strong, but they are even stronger than we expected.”

In the end he was lucky to finish fourth in the race, and said afterwards that his car was unstable and turned in poorly, losing huge amounts of performance, in a race in which his team mate Valtteri Bottas led and finished second. I’d love to know what settings each of them was running.

And I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in the debrief when Lewis asked why pitting him the way that race-winning Red Bull did Verstappen and Ricciardo under the Safety Car on the 31st lap, wasn’t on Mercedes’ radar. He was already unhappy with some aspects of strategic thinking after Bahrain, so it looks as if the Silver Arrows have factors on the car and in the control centre to assess and rectify before they get to Baku.

 

3. Max will come good

Some think Max Verstappen is a hothead who needs to calm down. One is probably Sebastian Vettel, who fell victim to him in Sunday’s race.

After his clash with Lewis in Bahrain, which the latter described as the sort of mistake a young driver makes, it seems that Max might be pushing too hard. And team mate Daniel Ricciardo’s victory won’t have helped. Max looked distinctly down in the dumps in the Emirates lounge at Pudong Airport on Sunday night.

But I like drivers with spirit and the will to have a go, who don’t give up. Racing needs them. He’ll learn and he’ll get it right.

 

4. An insight into the incredible mind of a Grand Prix driver

Have you ever wondered just what it means when drivers talk about deltas, especially when running under a Safety Car? Well, Lewis was in a relaxed and voluble mood after his evening post-race debrief with the media, and made some interesting comments about the previous race in Bahrain.

Part of his problem in the race there was poor reception in his helmet radio, which left him unsure at times whether he should be pushing hard after Vettel, or conserving his tyres. Sometimes the team wanted 1m 35s laps from him, at others 1m 34s. How hard is it to judge that?


“Well,” he said, “obviously I get a lap time read-out on my dash when I cross the start/finish line so I know whether I’m on target. But I know the deltas that I have to hit as each lap unfolds, so I can see them out of the corner of my eye and know whether I’m hitting them.”

All this at up to 200 mph, or about 90 metres per second, remember.

“And you can feel from whether the tyres have grip if you are going quickly or not.”

He said it all so nonchalantly that it was easy to forget that the tyres behave in such a deliberately capricious manner. Shortly before his presser, team mate Valtteri Bottas had revealed the knife-edge of tyre efficiency that drivers live on in a race. “You probably drive 80% of the race track to the limit of the tyres’ temperature window,” he said, “but if you go over that limit in two corners, by the third the tyres are slower and of course you lose time…”

Somebody asked Lewis wouldn’t he just prefer if it were like the old days, when you were flat-out all the time, really racing?

“Of course,” he replied. “I would love that, but it’s not the way it is. I see this as a very technical era, not less exciting, which means that you need to be smarter. It’s just a different skillset that you have to use than if you were pushing all the time, flat-out. I liken it to having money to spend on the race; if you end it with money still in your pocket because you didn’t push [spend] hard enough, that’s what is frustrating.”
 


5. Another tyre gamble that paid off

Was medium, soft, ultrasoft a step too far for Pirelli?

The Italian company admitted it was a gamble aimed at spicing things up, and it saw the top four set their fastest times on ultrasofts in Q3 but only after choosing to qualify on softs in Q2. Most pessimistically expected the ultrasofts to fall apart after 10 laps, but the Red Bulls got 17 out of them, while Mercedes and Ferrari stopped soft-shod Hamilton, Bottas and Vettel respectively on laps 18, 19 and 20, though Raikkonen went to 27.

Overall, I’d say the new step-gap strategy was a gamble that worked quite nicely, albeit aided most spectacularly by the Safety Car.

 

6. A great idea

A while ago my best friend had the brilliant idea that Lewis Hamilton should don a hoodie and go into the stands at Turn 1 in Montreal (she’s Canadian) during a support race, and then see what happened when fans spotted him.

Well, in Shanghai Lewis ventured into town, leaving ‘secret’ gifts for fans to discover. Later, when he hooked up with some lucky ones who’d taken pics with him 10 years earlier, their reactions were priceless. Who said never meet your heroes?


7. Toro Rosso’s fall from grace

Speaking of heroes, the way in which Toro Rosso fell from heroes to zeroes between Bahrain and China was an extraordinary indication of how tight things are right now.

Frenchman Pierre Gasly said that his STR13 had “lost all its strength" overnight, and he and Brendon Hartley qualified only 17th and 15th respectively. Then, of course, they collided disastrously on the 30th lap at the hairpin. Quite hard.

It seems they were due to switch; Pierre thought he saw his team mate opening a gap, Brendon was going to let him pass on the exit. Ouch!

Surely they’d have liked another back-to-back race to get over this one quickly…

 

8. A word on Shanghai

Somebody mentioned the other day that Shanghai International Circuit has hosted more Grands Prix – 15 – than Brands Hatch did – 12. Extraordinary! For me, it’s a great track, on which you can overtake – as Daniel Ricciardo reminded us.


And the race is getting more popular each year. Standing on the grid on Sunday I was impressed to see the enormous grandstand absolutely packed with fans. And you are always struck by the two aerofoil-shaped mega structures that span the track. One houses the vast press room, which affords excellent views – but only if you stand back from the windows on either side...

They’re covered in a black-spotted film through which you can see if you distance yourself sufficiently, but once you get too close it plays tricks on your eyes so that all you tend to see is the dots. Interesting! Presumably, it’s a safety thing.

 

9. Extra fun downtown

Taking it to the fans was the theme of another F1 downtown festival in Shanghai, backed by Heineken.

In my opinion, the best-run ‘town’ race is the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. Everyone has a blast watching things at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve on the Ile Notre Dame, then heads downtown to Rue St Catherine where the celebrations continue long into the night. It’s the perfect fit.

There were no racing cars running in downtown Shanghai, but the combination of loud music, good DJ’s and the racing theme proved very popular and hopefully will attract more spectators to next year’s race.

Next stops for the road show: Marseilles, Berlin and Miami!
 


10. Hot Laps look the business

The new-for-2018 Pirelli Hot Laps programme does it the other way around - taking the fans at races to the cars. It’s been received very well this year, and was in full flow at Shanghai International Circuit with Mercedes 300 SLRs, Aston Martin DB11s and McLaren 570s chauffered by drivers of various calibre.

I watched for a while, and didn’t see a single passenger step out with anything but a huge grin on their face.

F1’s efforts to break down the walls between racing and the fans seem to be working very well.