Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sussing out the details

When an experienced and successful driver, such as Michael Schumacher, travels around a track – even one he’s driven many times before – he isn’t looking at how best to drive the track, he’s investigating any small changes that may have been made since last time he was here. He wants to know stuff like
  • Where the protective barriers are placed
  • How many layers of tyres are protecting key spots
  • Whether the track surface has changed anywhere, and if it has, how the grip levels now compare to the grip levels before
  • How deep the gravel traps are (some gravel traps literally beach the car if you go off into them, others can be driven gingerly across)
  • Where the access roads for the rescue vehicles are. (These roads can double up as a useful route back onto the track if you go off.)
  • Where the marshal posts are. (At each marshal post, a circuit worker is available on a motorcycle to give a driver a lift back to the pits should he need it.)
By observing key details of the track, experienced drivers gain important information that they can use to their advantage during the race. Take Michael Schumacher, for example. Few drivers equal his skill and knowledge of the various tracks, yet he doesn’t rest on his laurels. He susses out the details of each track he races on and uses these little details to hone his approach to the track. You’ll often see Schumacher in the practices pushing like crazy through specific corners, establishing where the absolute limit is. He can do this safe in the knowledge that he’s checked out the gravel trap and knows that, if he goes off, he’s not going to lose the rest of the session because his car got stuck there. He only pushes in this way on those corners where he knows he can rejoin the track.

Getting to Know the F1 Circuit

Most drivers are already familiar with all of the Formula One tracks but in each season there is always a handful of rookie drivers. These drivers may be familiar with some of the tracks – having raced on them during their time in the junior formulas on the way up to Formula One – but some of the circuits will be completely new to them. Furthermore, with new tracks being added to the calendar on a regular basis, even the experienced drivers sometimes have to learn their way around.
So how does a driver learn a track? The most obvious answer is by driving it. Far more is learned on a driver’s first lap out of the pits than from any other method. But drivers occasionally check out simulated Formula One computer games, which enable them to at least know which corner follows which as they make their way out on their first lap. But most drivers agree, as good as these games are, they aren’t a substitute for actually driving around the track because they don’t come close to giving the sensations necessary to get a feel for the track.
Another method of learning the track is to arrive early and walk it. Turn up at a Grand Prix venue the Wednesday before the race and you’ve a good chance of seeing drivers either walking, cycling, riding a motor cycle, or driving a hire car around the circuit. Not all drivers do this. The rookies usually do, of course, but even some of the experienced drivers do it too. Multiple world champion Michael Schumacher is renowned for his thorough preparation, and he invariably takes a trip around the place just to remind himself of its details.

The jet set

The really top Formula One drivers spend millions on their own private jets (Citations are a favourite). Drivers close to the top tend to lease the jets. Although a few drivers have pilots’ licences, none fly their own planes to and from races. Their schedules are already busy enough without the hassle of planning flights. Instead, these men use special agencies that supply a complete service, including pilots.
Flying to and from races used to be quite a popular pastime for Formula One drivers back in the 1970s and 1980s, but has since fallen out of favour as the drivers’ professional lives have become much busier.