Sunday, November 30, 2008

Focussing on the job rather than the fans

Don’t be surprised if a driver brushes past you in the build-up to the race instead of politely stopping to sign some autographs. It isn’t rudeness. It’s concentration. By this time, drivers are beginning to get completely focussed on the race ahead; even the slightest distraction can put them off. Drivers often find that if they stop to sign one autograph, they’ll suddenly be besieged by hundreds of fans and won’t be able to escape for several minutes. So wait until the pressure is off; then drivers often have little problem in signing hats, photograph, or books. Just remember that there is a time and a place for everything.
Former world champion Jacques Villeneuve has perfected a routine for letting people know when he is or isn’t in the mood for meeting and greeting. Before a race, he puts his crash helmet on in his motor home and then strides purposefully across the paddock. The protection of his helmet (and his earplugs) means noone can catch his gaze and he can focus on what he does best – driving his Formula One car very fast.

Psyching up for the race: It’s a mind game

Most people find it difficult to keep their concentration level up at the best of times. Think about how many times maybe you’ve started day-dreaming in a difficult exam or let your mind wander when the pressure is on at work. Formula One drivers can’t afford the luxury of “spacing out”, especially when the lights go out to signal the start of the race. That’s when they really earn their money, and they can’t afford to let a single opportunity slip through their fingers.
Even when the driver sits on the grid, with the fans cheering him on, television crews wanting to interview him, and pretty grid girls holding up his race car number, he rarely thinks about anything other than the Grand Prix itself. In his head, he’s thinking about how to get his start right; where the best place to overtake is if he gets the jump on the cars ahead when the lights go out; and what to do if his car is slow away.
Once the race is underway, the driver thinks constantly about how fast he needs to drive, where the best places to overtake are, whether he needs to look after his tyres or be more economical with his fuel so that he’s better placed at the end of the Grand Prix. It’s no wonder that at the Monaco Grand Prix, with more than 2,000 gear changes during the race and the entire track lined by barriers, drivers are absolutely shattered at the end. They certainly deserve a drink of champagne if they win!
Keeping concentration levels up isn’t easy to do; that’s why drivers often sit in a quiet room before the race starts so that they can get in the mood. Beyond their own preparation and determination, the teams help their drivers as much as they can, through the radio systems that they used so effectively in practice. The best teams constantly tell their drivers about the positions of other cars, just how fast they need to drive, and when they’re scheduled to stop for fuel and new tires. The teams also use pit boards (special boards with numbers on counting down the laps to go, the time difference between cars in front and behind, and instructions like to slow down or come into the pits) to advise the drivers, although these aren’t always foolproof. Sometimes drivers have misread their pit boards and come into the pits too early or run out of fuel because they didn’t think they needed to stop.
It’s very important that drivers never lose their concentration, even for a split second. One of the most famous occasions when a driver slipped up was in the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix. Ayrton Senna was leading the race by a huge margin with only a few laps to go. His arch rival for the championship, Alain Prost, had just got up to second place in the race. Senna was so worried, despite his massive lead, that he lost concentration and clipped the barriers –crashing out of the race. Senna was so upset, he didn’t return to the pits. Instead, he locked himself away in his nearby apartment until the next day!

Race Day Rituals in Formula One

Here’s a run down of what the driver must do on race day.
  • Warming up: If the weather conditions are different from the rest of the weekend, a warm-up may be scheduled for Sunday morning. This enables the driver and team to get the final feel for the car before the race.
  • Meeting sponsors: At every Grand Prix the team’s sponsors have their own hospitality boxes where employees or company guests are entertained throughout the weekend. Drivers usually have to meet and greet these guests early on Sunday morning and often must take part in a question-and-answer session. Meeting and entertaining sponsors on race day may seem very distracting for the driver, but it is just a normal part of being a Formula One star these days.
  • Making an appearance in the merchandise stand: Although the driver will be thinking solely about how his car is and the race by now, the team may require him to make a small appearance at their merchandise stand. This appearance gives fans a chance to see the driver and get an autograph. Of course, while they’re at the merchandise stand the fans will also probably buy a cap and T-shirt, too. This is just another part of the business of Formula One.
  • Attending the drivers’ briefing: The driver may have had a short time to himself by now, but then he has to attend the official Formula One drivers’ briefing. During this briefing the race director runs through the procedures for the day and advises drivers of any specific problems with the track or the running of the event. This briefing also gives drivers a chance to get their own questions (about driving etiquette or safety concerns, for example) answered. Drivers must attend this briefing. Any driver who misses this briefing is handed a huge fine and may even be thrown out of the race.
  • Participating in the drivers’ parade: After the briefing, the drivers are taken out into the pit lane and on to the circuit where they climb aboard a special truck that has a special open platform on the back. This truck takes them on a lap of the circuit where the fans can see them in person (rather than only their crash helmets) and a few lucky marshals can get autographs. This parade also allows the track commentator to get a last interview with the drivers before the race.
  • Taking final reconnaissance laps: Shortly before the race, the teams will have had their cars released from the parc ferme (the holding area where the cars have been locked up all night) and, half-an-hour before the scheduled start, the pit lane will open to allow the drivers their final reconnaissance laps. This marks the countdown to the race proper before the drivers form up on the grid.
  • Racing: This is the main attraction of the day – for both the fans and drivers.
  • Attending post-race functions: If a driver has been successful and finished in the top three, he is escorted up to the podium where a local dignitary hands him his trophy and where he gets to spray (and be sprayed by) the champagne. From there, the drivers are taken to a special press conference, one for television and one for the written media, before facing more television cameras and journalists out in the paddock. Even drivers who haven’t finished in the top three are often be chased by reporters who will want to know what went wrong or what they thought of the race. After the journalists have returned to the media centre to write their reports the drivers often sit down with their teams for a final post-race debrief to work out how well they did, how they could have done better, or how it all went wrong!
  • Getting home: Because drivers’ schedules are so packed they like nothing more than getting home straight after the race. That is why, as soon as they can, they head for the local airport to catch a commercial flight home or jump into their own private jet. This is often the only time that the pressure is off and a driver can relax, even if he is completely shattered from his job on the track that day.

Lending a helping hand: Working with team mates

Drivers must work well with their team mates so that they can get through as much work as possible. Sometimes the different team mates can work on different set-ups, evaluate different types of tyres, or try out each other’s set-up. Although the two drivers may be very competitive against each other, there are times when they have to put these differences aside to actually help the team.

Getting the car just right

Sometimes the driver and team find that they’ve found the perfect set-up straightaway in practice, but this doesn’t happen very often. Even when it does happens, it doesn’t mean that the driver and team can sit back with a cool drink and watch the other drivers at work. They still have a lot to do themselves: They must work out their tyre choice for the weekend, and they can prepare other things for the race – like brake pads – or even try out new components to see whether they can make the car go even quicker. One of the most difficult challenges is when the driver says he is happy with how the car feels, but his time is very slow. In these circumstances, the team may have to make adjustments that make the car quite difficult to drive in order to bring the speed up.