On Bahrain

Bahrain Curbing c/o GP2 Media Service

Bahrain Curbing c/o GP2 Media Service

So, I’ve done it. I’ve bitten the metaphorical bullet and booked my flights to Bahrain. I waited as long as I could to see how the situation played out, and following the confirmation yesterday from Bernie, the teams and the Bahrainis that the event would actually be going ahead as planned, I took the plunge and made my booking.

Now there shouldn’t be any real surprise in this, should there? You can see the headline – Random Bloke in Does His Job Shock. But many of us in the media have been questioning whether or not we would or even should be attending the race.

I was one of very few media to be in Bahrain during the original risings in February last year, as I was present in Bahrain for the GP2 Asia race weekend that never took place. Following the events of those few days, I have to admit that the thought of going back had filled me with some dread. It’s not that I dislike Bahrain. I don’t. I have always enjoyed going there and have always enjoyed going to the Bahrain International Circuit. And with the exception of 2010 when the unnecessary circuit changes were made I think the track layout has lent itself, more so for GP2 than F1, to some pretty good racing too.

The route to the BIC was lined with tanks on my last visit to Bahrain

The route to the BIC was lined with tanks on my last visit to Bahrain

The problem that we all face right now is that Formula 1 has been politicised. Whatever the sport had decided to do would have upset somebody. If the FIA had cancelled the race, then it would have sent out the message that the sport was unhappy with the way in which the ruling regime had conducted itself and that would have been seen as a tacit show of support for those rising against the ruling elite. Conversely, by not cancelling the race Formula 1 has, through no fault of its own, thus shown tacit support for the ruling elite.

Sadly, it was always going to be a case of “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

It is an impossible situation to be in, and one in which I do not envy either Bernie Ecclestone or Jean Todt. The ruling regime clearly want the Grand Prix to be a sign that things are back to normal in Bahrain, and to use it as a point of unity for the country. And I truly hope it can prove to be just that. Sport can be a healing tool for unrest, just look at the Olympics and the fact that so many nations caught up in conflicts have competed side by side with one another over the history of the games.

But an international sporting event is also a very good tool for those with an agenda to get their message out to a wide audience.

Ecclestone himself admitted just a few days ago that the Grand Prix in Bahrain could find itself at the centre of such a demonstration, but that such a vulnerability made it no different to any other Grand Prix on earth. If somebody wanted to make a scene, he said, there is little anybody could do to stop them, regardless of where we race.

Of course, Bahrain is not the only country in which we race which suffers from questionable human rights. Bahrain is also not the only country which has experienced violent unrest and death over the last 12 months… London burned last summer amidst violent protests and yet the British Grand Prix is under no threat. Yes, the London rioters were more interested in stealing a new pair of shoes than they were in fighting for democracy, but incredibly, and despite the gaping holes in the comparison, this is an argument which has been raised in support of maintaining the Bahrain Grand Prix and is thus why I bring it up here.

However, it is due to the longevity of the violence, and the continued insistence by protesters that the Grand Prix is part of the problem rather than being part of the solution, that there are still genuine fears that all will not be peaceful.

Bahraini Media coverage of the Demonstrations. February 2011

Bahraini Media coverage of the Demonstrations - February 2011

Yesterday in London, my Fleet Street colleagues were invited to a media luncheon at the Royal Automobile Club, at which the Bahrain International Circuit Chairman Zayed R Alzayani refuted the need for additional security.

“There’s no need,” he said. “You will come out and you will see — it is business as usual. There are some clashes with police, isolated in villages. Some of these clashes are very small — 10 or 15 people — but it gets blown out of proportion and made to sound as if the whole nation is rising up.”

Bernie Ecclestone himself blamed the media for inflaming the situation. “Seriously, the press should just be quiet and deal with the facts rather than make up stories.”

But the facts are, some of us are still scared.

I am still awaiting news on whether my media visa has been accepted. Without it I will not be going. Even with it, there are still fears over the safety of the media at large. Many have been detained in the Gulf state over the past 12 months and even with an F1 media visa there are no guarantees that we will not be looked upon with suspicion.

There is an allocated media hotel and media shuttles have been laid on. I will be avoiding both. It’s just too much of an obvious target for those wishing to get their message across to an international audience.

Maybe I’m getting overly worried. And I hope that I am. I hope we get out there and everything is fine, that Bahrain is the place I remember and that we have a great weekend of racing in which media, teams, drivers and fans are able to compete in and enjoy a race weekend like any other.

I hope that the Grand Prix can unite a divided nation and help to bring happiness to a country which has been put through a year of misery.

And I hope that we are able to leave after the chequered flag with happy memories of our return to Bahrain, not because the voices of the people who have been silenced since February 2011 have once again been suppressed, but because the line we have been handed about the race uniting people is one which genuinely resonates throughout Bahrain and brings people of different faiths and opposing politics together, to celebrate under the banner of sport.

BIC exit - February 2011

BIC exit - February 2011

A win-win situation for F1… incredibly.

Sergio Perez, Sauber - Winter testing, February 2011

It has been a while since I’ve put pen to paper, and for that I can only apologise. A combination of a heavy season, some personal stuff, and a bit too much time talking rubbish on twitter have all contributed to me perhaps not making enough time to write.

There have been a few topics on which I’ve wanted to write recently, but interestingly, as time has passed, they have all seemed to merge into one topic. So maybe it is just as well I waited.

There is a great deal of talk doing the rounds at present about a return of in season testing, and I for one think it’s about time. It’s one of the only decent suggestions FIA President Jean Todt has managed to come up with thus far in an otherwise lacklustre presidency which, this year in particular, has seemed to lack direction, conviction and fortitude. The return of in season testing, however, is to my mind essential on a number of levels. But it needs to be done right.

My suggestion, as I have declared a few times this year on SPEED, is to have a one day test on the Monday after each European Grand Prix. It’s a system used by motoGP and works well in that category. What it would mean for Formula 1 is that the teams would be able to rest easy on Sunday after the race and actually enjoy their celebrations rather than having to pack up the paddock and disappear off to new lands. The cars, the teams, the equipment, the timing infrastructure… everything is in place. The fans are there too.

My tweak however, would be to only allow a team’s reserve driver to do the testing. Here’s why…

Teams no longer have test drivers. Because testing, quite simply, doesn’t exist at the same level that it used to. There was a time when the likes of Alex Wurz, Pedro de la Rosa and Marc Gene were some of the highest regarded drivers in the sport, not so much for their racing acumen, as for their incredible feedback and for the incredible insight they were able to give their teams in the testing and development of a Formula 1 car. F1 2011 has no need for such men. And it’s a huge loss.

Lucas di Grassi tests for Renault, 2005

I’ll give you an example: Lucas di Grassi. A driver of staggering talent, and an incredible development driver. He was the favoured son of Renault and his skills are so well regarded that he has recently been hired full-time by Pirelli to act as their tyre tester and developer. If this was the same Formula 1 of a decade ago, I have no doubts that Lucas would be held in that same bracket as the Wurz’s, Gene’s and de la Rosa’s. The go to man if you wanted a quick car.

But it’s about more than that. Teams no longer have the need for test drivers so instead they have a reserve driver. But are reserve drivers actually reserve drivers at all? Sauber, for example, have promising young Mexican GP3 champion and GP2 race winner Esteban Gutierrez on their books as their reserve driver. But when Sergio Perez felt he could not take part in the Canadian Grand Prix following his huge Monaco shunt, Sauber’s reserve driver was not used. Despite there being a question mark over Perez going into the Montreal weekend, Sauber hadn’t even brought Gutierrez to the race. Instead of using their reserve driver, then, Sauber was forced to ask McLaren, minutes before second practice, if they could borrow Pedro de la Rosa for the weekend.

Another example is Renault, the F1 team with perhaps more reserve drivers than any other in the sport. But when their lead driver Robert Kubica was dreadfully injured pre-season, which of their 176 reserve drivers was called up to replace him? Senna? Grosjean? Well, both of them have F1 experience. And yet neither got the shout. Instead the role fell to Nick Heidfeld.

So what’s the point? What is the point in having a reserve driver if you’re not going to use him? It’s like Fabio Capello making up his England national football team and keeping a few promising youngsters on the bench, and when he needs to make a substitution making the shock decision to give Geoff Hurst a call.

I mean this not as a slight on Pedro or Nick who are immense talents… but surely we have got to look to the future of this sport, have we not?

It seems to me that only Force India, Toro Rosso and Lotus have got this reserve driver thing figured out. By giving their reserve driver time in their cars on Fridays at races, they are not only able to observe and analyse that driver’s potential as a future racer, but they are able to give that driver the experience of the car that he will need should the unfortunate happen and one of the main drivers need replacing. The teams are also getting a fresh opinion on car set-up and direction. Naturally they’ll want to go in the direction that best serves their race drivers, but the more information from the more sources that they can get, the better their chance of moving up the field.

Ricciardo has been given time to develop and impress.

Toro Rosso, this season, has been a prime example of using a reserve driver. That Daniel Ricciardo is talented has never been in question. He is clearly a big favourite with the Red Bull bosses too. He has shone in Friday outings, and there had been talk all season of him getting a call up to race in 2011.But with both Buemi and Alguersuari putting in great performances of late, there was no way that STR could replace one of them without causing a stink. The obvious thing for Red Bull to do was to put him in at HRT, alongside Tonio Liuzzi who Red Bull know well from his days at STR when the Italian raced alongside, amongst others, the current world champion Sebastian Vettel. The German and Liuzzi were fairly closely matched, with Vettel just edging the Italian. If Ricciardo can get even close to Liuzzi, it’s a good sign.

Ricciardo’s first race meeting as an F1 race driver was Silverstone and he in no way disgraced himself. But ask yourself… would he have been able to get as close to Liuzzi had he not had the recent, relevant experience of driving an F1 car every race weekend for STR? I doubt it very much.

There are a wealth of good drivers out there who are all vying for their shot at F1. But with testing so limited, how many will get their shot? How many more seasons will we see the likes of the Trullis, Heidfelds, de la Rosas getting back into F1 cars, when the future stars of this sport are left sitting on a pitwall, or even worse left sitting at home, because they “lack the necessary experience.” Experience, which could be gained if they were simply allowed to test.

Signing a young driver as your reserve, and then not using him because he lacks experience makes a mockery of the very appointment. If you’re not going to use him as reserve, sign him as your “youth” driver, or whatever you want to call it.

But it isn’t the teams’ fault. They have been forced into this position by the limit on testing. Do you honestly think Red Bull would have given Ricciardo time in Vettel or Webber’s seat during Friday practice? Would Ferrari have allowed Jules Bianchi to step into one of the scarlet machines in place of Alonso of Massa, or would Ross Brawn have given Sam Bird the nod over Michael Schumacher or Nico Rosberg at Mercedes for practice 1?

GP2 racer Sam Bird is highly regarded at MercedesGP

Because of this, we need a rethink. We need to do something that will allow the young drivers to build their experience should they ever need to step into the breach, whilst at the same time allowing these youngsters the opportunity to show their worth to the teams in order to keep the evolution of this sport’s talent pool fluid. We need a reserve driver test day after every European weekend.

The other bonus about running this system is that the majority of F1 teams employ reserve or junior drivers who compete in the GP2 Series. GP2 races take part… yep, on European F1 weekends. So everyone’s in the right place. It is just such a simple concept.

It would, of course, mean that back to back races would have to become a thing of the past, in Europe at least, but when you have a frankly bonkers situation such as we had this year when you run Barcelona before Monaco, and Monaco starts a day earlier than most races, I think seeing the back of back to backs in Europe probably wouldn’t be that much of a bad thing.

The recent off throttle exhaust blown diffuser confusion is another fine example of why a bit of testing might be a good idea. With a mid-season shift in regulation, everybody went into first practice at Silverstone running blind, on a new track configuration, and in the wet. Nothing meaningful was learned. By the afternoon the goalposts had been moved in time for practice two, but again nothing was learned. So we wasted a day, and everyone went into Saturday once again running blind.

Imagine if we’d had a one day test post Valencia, either on the street track or at Ricardo Tormo up the road. A full day of testing, with the FIA in attendance, might have seen these issues ironed out earlier. It might have avoided the frankly ridiculous situation we were faced with, and are now faced with, where we’re returning to what we had before.

There’s also a safety issue. While today’s cars are incredibly safe, it hasn’t been too long since Felipe Massa’s monstrous accident at the Hungaroring which he had, incredibly, touched upon in the days leading up to that weekend when, in an interview I had carried out with him for GPWeek magazine, he’d said he was worried that a lack of in-season testing was causing people to run new parts on cars under the pressure of a race weekend and that at some point in the not too distant future something was going to break and someone was going to get hurt.

Bringing back testing makes sense from all angles. It allows development within a season, and increases safety potential. If run, as I think would be the most preferable option, on a Monday after a race, it would be neither a financial nor a logistical burden for the teams. And, if run with young reserve drivers, it would ensure that the future generation of F1 stars are brought up to speed, given the experience and given the chance to shine, rather than being constantly overlooked for their lack of experience.

Everyone wins. For once.

Wing Regs in a nutshell

Here is a very simple guide to how the new DRS wings will be used this weekend in Australia.

DRS can only be used if car A is within a second of car B at the timing beam on the run in to Turn 14, which is noted by a line across the track.

Between Turn 14 and the beginning of the overtaking / activation zone at Turn 16, the driver of car A will be notified that he can use the DRS in the overtaking zone.

If car A is within a second of car B at the timing zone, but driver B pulls into the pits at the end of the lap, the driver of car A can still use DRS in the overtaking zone.

If car A has been lapped by the driver of car B, but car A is still within a second of car B at the timing zone, the driver of car A can use the DRS in the overtaking zone.

If the track is declared wet, the DRS cannot be used.

DRS can be used at any point around the track in all practice sessions (including qualifying) unless otherwise stated by race control.

For reference, the detection point for the gap between drivers is 13 metres before Turn 14, and the activation point for DRS is on turn in for Turn 16, 867 metres before Turn 1.

A view from inside Bahrain

I am currently in the media centre at the Bahrain International Circuit, and as such I thought I would give you guys an update on the situation here in Bahrain, as it seems to be the top news story on most international news channels this morning.

We arrived in Bahrain last night, and the airport was relatively quiet. Despite this, I and about five of my colleagues had our passports taken away with no explanation. After a 15 minute wait, our passports were returned, again with no real explanation as to where they had been taken or what had been done with them other than that it was part of new procedure. How this will work over the Grand Prix weekend when the airport is set to become far busier and with a sudden and vast influx of international media remains to be seen.

Police presence, at least in terms of officers in uniform, was no greater than usual at the airport but outside the terminal the number of blue flashing lights on every roundabout was noticeable. We emerged in the middle of a pro-government, pro-King demonstration, with traffic jams all the way into Manama. People were waving the national flag and carrying pictures of the King.

There were no issues getting to our hotel or checking in. However the roads, which are usually busy, were noticeably quiet. We were told to avoid Pearl Roundabout and the Sukhs, and to stay in the hotel, but I took a 5 minute walk around the corner to grab a kebab and I found no trouble and everyone was in a very friendly mood.

Today we could not take the normal route in to the circuit as the main motorway out of Manama and down to Sakhir includes a flyover which crosses Pearl Roundabout where the main demonstration is taking place. News reports overnight suggest that the demonstrators were moved on from the Roundabout last night, with two further people reported shot dead. This roundabout has many hotels around it, some of which are used by F1 teams and media on race weekend.

There was a heavy traffic jam going into Manama as cars were turned off the motorway, and by the side of the road we noticed at least 30 tanks and various other military vehicles pounding over the sand, moving towards Manama. I have just seen that Reuters is reporting 50 armoured vehicles are moving into Manama, and I would agree with this estimation. “Armoured vehicles” however, seems something of an understatement. They are tanks.

Tanks on the motorway rolling into Manama

At the track itself there are rumours that today’s GP2 Asia practice and qualifying sessions may not take place as medical crews may have to stay in Manama and without their presence at the circuit, no running can take place. I will keep you updated as to how this situation develops. For the moment the internet is working fine, but the guys at the track have warned us that the web is intermittent all across the country.

The general feeling from those I have spoken to at the track today is that these demonstrations are something of an inconvenience. Those I have spoken to today seem to be pro the ruling family and government, and told me that, in their minds, these demonstrations are nothing new but have taken a greater significance in the eyes of the international media due to recent events in Tunisia and Egypt. The BBC is reporting that the demonstrators are seeking:

• political prisoners to be released
• more jobs and housing
• the creation of a more representative and empowered parliament
• a new constitution written by the people
• a new cabinet that does not include Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been in office for 40 years

The King has reportedly handed out 20,000 new homes recently in a bid to appease those who are demonstrating for a better quality of life. February 14th marked the 10th anniversary of Bahrain’s new constitution.

There remains an underlying tension in the country however and one can feel it keenly. Recent pushes towards greater democracy in the Middle East appear to have given the people a voice they perhaps felt they did not have before. Whether in the majority or minority, this is a voice they now want to be heard. Speaking to another local last night, he told me that all the people really want is to have a Prime Minister who is not a member of the King’s family. Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa has been Prime Minister of Bahrain for 40 years.

Naturally we are watching how events unfold, and while as of yet there is no real feeling of fear from our side, the underlying tensions make the atmosphere here quite unsettling.

UPDATE: 11:20 LOCAL TIME – All track running has been cancelled today as the medical crews usually present at the track are on stand by in Manama’s hospitals in case the situation at Pearl Roundabout escalates. Practice / Qualifying will take place tomorrow morning with the race in the afternoon…

Austin F1 site receives unanimous approval.

The site of the Austin F1 track c/o http://www.sutton-images.com

Some great news from Austin, Texas, just arrived in my inbox. The press release is pretty self explanatory, so I’ll let it speak for itself!

Austin Environmental Board Unanimously Approves The Formula 1 United States Grand Prix™ Site

Austin, TX – November 5, 2010 — Developers for the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix™ today announced that the Austin Environmental Board unanimously approved the site plans for the future Formula 1 United States Grand Prix venue, in a 6-0 vote, that is scheduled to host its first event in 2012. This week’s City Hall vote with the Austin Environmental Board (considered the most difficult of the permits) is one of the last few hearings the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix developers will need from city/county boards and commissions to begin construction of the world-class facility.

“This project is on track,” said Richard Suttle, an attorney for the F1 promoters. “In fact, the development plan is right on schedule. And, with the help from the city and county, we’ve been able to not only stay on track, but may even be ahead of schedule,” he continued.

“Meeting with city officials to ensure the future facility meets all environmental and zoning requirements is not only standard procedure to move this project forward, but also an opportunity for us to show that we are committed to partnering with city officials in the construction of this international venue,” said Suttle.

“We are pleased with the unanimous approval from the Austin Environmental Board and know that the site will continue to remain on schedule for the 2012 opening,” Formula 1 United States Grand Prix Chairman Tavo Hellmund said.

The Ultimate Experience. Part 2.

I awoke early and stretched out like a starfish in my monster bed which could, quite happily, have slept about seven people. This was most definitely the life. I flicked through the options on my digital remote and tried to turn on the TV, but actually ended up turning up the air con. After five minutes of not being able to figure out how to turn on CNN, I though that it might be a better idea to get a shower.

It was at about two minutes into my shower that I realised something was wrong. Did I usually look at my feet this much? Come to mention it, didn’t I almost walk into the bathroom door because I’d been staring so intently at the floor?

Oh crap. This wasn’t good. I actually couldn’t lift up my head.

Last night’s two-seater ride in the F1 car had really taken its toll on me. My body ached a bit, but my neck… well, my neck was suffering.

I strained my head to look over at today’s itinerary.

I think the expletive that came from my mouth may well have woken up my neighbours. Yep, you guessed it… first thing on today’s list was the physical examination and weight training.

Yes Jules, very clever. Now stop showing me up...

I’ll be honest. I hated the next few hours. Not only were we being put through our paces in physical training, but I was going one on one with the lovely Leone from CNN Abu Dhabi. That’s right. Any contests I failed, I wouldn’t only be faced with the stinging slap of failure, but it would be failure to a girl.

She whooped me. In every… single… test. Bar one! But more on that later.

First up were the weight exercises. Lifting weights up to various heights, holding them there or swinging them round, for most tasks I ended up screaming profanities after 30 seconds and giving up after a minute. Yes I know that sounds pathetic, but I honestly hadn’t done anything resembling physical exercise, save for what resulted in my daughter, for over five years. I had started going running when I knew I’d be going to Abu Dhabi, but a few miles jogging around Chipping Norton was never going to net me the Mr Universe title.

There was a steering wheel with weights attached to it (I fared a bit better on this one), a balance board to show the manoeuvrability of one’s arse (not so much on this one) and then the challenge I’d really been looking forward to. A race helmet, with a rather large weight hanging from it.

On the right side of my head, I managed to hold it up for a minute and a half. And on the left side? Five seconds. Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up. Five seconds. Something in my neck went ping, my head dropped and I literally couldn’t move my head. Leone lasted four minutes. Johnny Herbert nearly pissed his pants when I told him I’d lasted five seconds. It doesn’t take much to make Johnny laugh, but I honestly thought he was going to collapse.

My neck is about to let go with a worrying snap

The one challenge I actually did well on, was the one challenge that all the docs expected me to fail. The lung capacity test. As the only smoker in the group, there was an expectation that I’d be pretty bad at this one, but I had a few secret weapons. One, I’m not a massive smoker. I know that doesn’t make a difference because you’re either a smoker or you’re not, and even as a social smoker you’re still expected to have worse lungs than someone whose breath runs fresher than the air over the Swiss alps. And two, I used to play the trumpet and French horn. Plus I used to be a chorister. I was pretty sure my lung capacity was better than average.

And it was. Buxton scored 128%. That means my lungs are almost a third bigger / stronger / generally better (I don’t know, I’m just making this bit up) than the average chap of my age, weight, height etc.

All in all, a massive result.

With the morning session survived and my neck on the road to recovery it was lunch and then a fun few hours spent on the Playstation simulators running the new F1 2010 computer game. I must admit I’d been very glad when the announcement came along that Codemasters would be making the new game. My favourite PS3 game up to today had been Racedriver Grid (another Codemasters game) and the attention to detail on tracks like Spa and Istanbul had left me breathless, as had the online capabilities and difference in car characteristics.

The F1 game takes the example set by Racedriver Grid and takes it to a new level. If you haven’t played it already, get out there and buy a copy. It is, quite simply, one of the very best computer games I have ever played… although the time trial section is so annoying I stopped playing. If you screw up a lap that lap is scratched. Fine, no worries. But if you cock up again and run wide, your next lap is scratched, too. So I was tootling around waiting to start the next, next lap and I ran wide through Ascari at Monza and up came the message that my next lap wouldn’t count either.

“Well balls to that,” I thought. And I quit. Because that doesn’t even happen in actual F1. “Oh sorry Fernando, you cut the corner so we’re not just going to take away this laptime but your next two as well.” Wouldn’t happen, would it?

Yes, I know it is a game, but games should be fun. The second they’re annoying, they’re not fun.

It’s a great game though. And yes Codemasters, I’d love a free press copy if you’ve got one.

Anyway, back to Abu Dhabi.

We made our way over to the pits and there, sitting in a Radical, I saw Bruno Senna. He was ashen faced. He looked over to me and made a small circle with his forefinger.

“You ok?” I whispered

“My arse,” he whispered back. He looked at his curled up finger… “It’s this tight. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

Turns out the person, and I will say person in a deliberately vague manner so you can’t guess who he was talking about, had driven slowly, in the middle of the track and then built up speed but had still not figured out how to use the brakes. Or where the racing line was. Bruno had bricked himself. Poor chap.

Mr Senna is about to show me how to drive a Radical

I got into one of the Radicals in the passenger seat and awaited my instructor. And in jumped Bruno! Wow! Well this was a turn up for the books. Last night he’d driven me in the F1 car and now I’d have the honour of him instructing me.

We took a quick lap of the track together and then it was my turn.

“I’ve got to say I’m a bit nervous mate,” I told him before we left.

“Just remember you’ve got nothing to prove. Just go out there and give it your best, but only go as fast as you feel comfortable. There’s nobody to beat.”

And with that, we were off. The Radical felt like it had the power of the Aston Martin and the weight of the go kart. The brakes had no ABS and there was no traction control though, unlike in the Aston. A quick squeeze of the throttle showed she was a feisty little minx, too.

Lap after lap, I increased the speed. Bruno’s hand signals were clear and minimal. Be it pointing to the rev counter to show where I needed to be changing gear to avoid short shifting, telling me to go flat, to brake harder, to use less kerb, I had no problem understanding his gestures… especially the one that said “Back off at that corner you nut bar.”

After three laps I was flat on the straight and braking at the 100 metre board. I kept it flat in fourth through the double right at which I’d lost it the day before in the Aston. And I backed off at the corner Bruno had asked me to. With each lap it felt as though we were carrying more speed through the corners, as though the lines were getting cleaner and the rhythm was coming with ease. I was having a ball. And then the chequered flag fell.

We removed our helmets and Bruno shook my hand.

“How was it?” I asked. “And be honest.”

“Honestly? I was really worried when you told me you were nervous… because that made me nervous. But you had no need to be. That was really good. I’m actually quite impressed. With some work and some practice, there’s no reason why you couldn’t be OK.”

“Seriously? I mean, seriously?”

“Seriously. You know me. I find it very difficult to bullshit people. It was good. Apart from that corner where I asked you to back off. There I got a bit scared. I felt you were on the limit and even though you were in control, if you’d gone over the limit I was the one closest to the wall.”

“Fair point. Thank you, it means a lot to hear that from you.”

Formula Yas, here we go. The closest I'm gonna get to driving GP2.

And with those words ringing in my ears, and a stupid grin plastered across my face, it was time for the final drive of the two day experience. The Formula Yas F3000 cars. To be honest they look more like first generation GP2 cars than F3000 cars and with flappy paddle gearshift instead of the old F3000 style stick shift that Alan van der Merwe and Tonio Liuzzi and told me to expect, I was massively excited about this one.

Bruno told me that the Formula Yas cars reacted almost identically to the Radicals, so just to do exactly what I’d just done with him and I’d be fine.

I lowered myself in, pulled my straps tight and stretched my gloves over my hands. Gripping the steering wheel I looked left and right. A marshal pointed at me and I hit my ignition button, blipped the throttle, engaged first gear, brought the revs up to 3000 and lifted the clutch. Away we went. No stalling, my confidence was high.

I followed Johnny Herbert down the pits and waited for Nabil and Sanjeev to catch up. Down the hill, into the unbelievably tight left hander under the tunnel and then up the hill and out of the pits, for the first time I was out on the Yas Marina circuit, in a single seater under my own steam… and it felt great.

With each lap we upped the pace, and as I swerved all over Johnny’s rear wing I egged him on to go faster. Coming through a chicane the back end stepped out on me as I took too much kerb, but I planted the throttle, gave it a dab of oppo, and shot off back under Johnny’s rear wing. On the straight I got that wonderful feeling of my helmet being pulled up again, just as I had in the F1 car, but this time when the brakes went on I was ready for it. When I turned in to the high speed corners, I knew which way to lean. I knew what was coming, and I was in control.

All of my physical worries were gone. I was just loving this too much.

But once again, it was all over too soon.

I pulled the 3000 into the pits and jumped out, thanking everyone I could find. Johnny walked over and I hugged him.

“You’re slow old man,” I grinned?

“Slow? I was waiting for you to pass me, or at least put a move on me to tell me to go faster.”

“We weren’t allowed to pass. I thought sticking my nose up the inside of you was warning enough.”

“I never saw you. Are you sure you did that? Don’t remember. You must have been too slow. How’s your neck?”

“Shut up Johnny.”

We were still laughing when we arrived for the farewell bbq that night by the marina. I honestly don’t think anybody wanted to go home, but like all dreams it had to come to an end at some point. Everybody had experienced something new. Whether it was Rod who’d swapped a dragster for a single seater, or the F1 boys who’d got to sit in a dragster, the competition winners who’d had two days they would never forget or the F1 media who had suddenly been given the most incredible insight into the sport they cover… everyone came away with stories they’ll be telling forever.

For me the whole experience was unforgettable, but one of the biggest highlights came one week later in the Japanese Grand Prix paddock in Suzuka. I was in the media centre, and three Brazilian journalists came up to see me. They told me that they’d just come from Bruno Senna’s Brazilian media time and that they’d started talking about his time in Abu Dhabi.

“And you know what? He mentioned you. We didn’t ask him or prompt him to tell us anything, and he just came out and said, ‘You know who could race if he wanted to? Will Buxton. He impressed me.’”

I’ll be talking about those two days for a long time. But I’ll be dining out on that quote forever.

What an incredible experience. What an incredible track. What an incredible opportunity.

Now, if I can just find half a million dollars, maybe I should give Colin Kolles a call about that second HRT seat alongside Bruno for Abu Dhabi…

Bruno and his Abu Dhabi HRT team-mate... if I can find the cash.

All images c/o Darren Heath

The Ultimate Experience. Part 1.

The Yas Hotel - Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi

It was a pretty exceptional invitation: normal bloke to racing driver in 48 hours. Come to Abu Dhabi, flights and hotels paid. We’ll pick you up from the airport, put you up in the Yas Circuit Hotel (yes, the one that spans the track) and for the next two days you will be a racing driver. We’ll train you mentally, physically and we’ll put you in some exceptional racing cars with tuition from F1 drivers past, present and future.

You just don’t say no to something like that.

And so it was that, immediately after the Singapore Grand Prix, I flew to Abu Dhabi for two of the most amazing days of my life.

On arrival in my palatial room at the Yas Hotel, there was a bag waiting on the desk. In it sat a pair of Puma racing boots and gloves in my size, an itinerary, a welcoming letter and a disclaimer to sign in case I nerfed myself into a wall.

After a restful night’s sleep, I met up with my colleagues and friends for breakfast, where we were told how the two days was going to pan out.

First up for me was a morning of mental training with Dr Riccardo Ceccarelli, head of Formula Medicine and Robert Kubica’s personal trainer. The tests were tough. All based around a computer programme created by Formula Medicine, we would have our reaction times, concentration and memory put through their paces. Then we’d learn breathing techniques to calm us and focus the brain, before being put through the challenges once again.

Hot Rod Fuller blitzes the reaction tests. Well he would, wouldn't he.

I impressed with my concentration. Kubica has the record of 100% on this challenge, but I achieved 92% on my first try and 96% on my second. The good Doctor seemed impressed, as he did when I underwent a resting heart rate challenge. I scored an average of 60 beats a minute, which I then lowered under pressure to average under 57.

“Are you sure you’re not a racing driver?”

“No,” I replied. “I trained for this in Burger King yesterday, I had a few beers on the plane and I’ve already had a few cigarettes today.”

Unfortunately I failed almost all the other tests. Shockingly, and as my wife will attest, my memory is appalling.

From there, it was off to lunch, again prepared by Formula Medicine to provide exactly the correct levels of nutrients and vitamins a racing driver requires. A fillet steak, steamed vegetables, cheese and a banana. Healthy, but tasty too.

The afternoon of day one saw us in two different cars. First up for me was an Aston Martin GT4. And to show me how to drive it and where to go on the track? None other than Jean Alesi.

And I will tell you this much. He. Is. Bonkers.

Buxton gets the pedal to the metal... and almost ends up in the hotel.

So bonkers, in fact, that when I went out myself in the car, my instructor was most alarmed that I kept putting all four wheels over the kerbs and jumping them into the heavy braking zones.

“What are you doing? All four wheels on the track always.”

“I’m just doing what Alesi told me to do.”

“Fucking Alesi. Everybody he’s taught this morning says the same thing,” he grinned, through gritted teeth.

I must admit that I did have a massive moment coming up towards the hotel. I’d been carrying about 160kph through the double right hander on each of my previous laps, but on this lap I missed the first apex and was carrying about an extra 5kph. Having missed the first apex, I was miles from the second and was pulled over the kerbs and onto the painted blue lines on the run off. I hit the brakes and… nothing. The car just carried on going. With the shiny surface of the paint being compounded by the dust, there was just no grip. We stopped just in time before hitting the barrier.

“Everything OK?” my instructor asked.

“Fine, I just fancied a drink at the hotel bar,” I smiled.

Phew.

Next up, go karts. We had Jules Bianchi, among others, showing us the ropes and having commentated on his driving all season in GP2 it was great to get out on a track with him. There was a big tyre chicane on the main straight which I tactically shunted with the rear of the kart on the first lap of the qualifying session to open it up a bit and basically allow us to straight line it without lifting. But it was still tight. Side by side wasn’t going to work.

I was dropped a place on the grid for doing that, which meant I started the race third behind Sanjeev from Star Sports and one pole, Nabil Jeffri who a few weeks previously had become the youngest driver to test an F1 car when he drove for Lotus.

At the start, Nabil slowed to the back of the pack to fight with Bianchi and the pros including karting superstar Aaro Vainio (watch out for him), and by the time we reached the chicane they were all over us. On the second lap, it started to get messy. When I told you two karts side by side into the chicane wasn’t going to work… imagine five of us. Tyres went everywhere. The chicane was no more.

Sanjeev and I had a great tussle until he ruthlessly punted me in my right rear and sent me spinning. I lost half a lap, and the red mist descended. Whatever else happened in this race, he was mine.

And I got him. On the penultimate lap. Exactly where he’d nerfed me. I preferred a wider line into the first corner, while he took it very tight. So on the exit of the final corner I pulled up alongside him, taking his preferred line but trying to carry my speed from the wider line. I held it… just, but Sanjeev’s heavy braking into the corner meant he couldn’t get on the power early enough to take the position back when I ran slightly wide on the exit.

Nabil won, of course. I was second. Sanjeev came home third.

And that was it for us from a driving point of view on day one, but it wasn’t the end of the fun.

Hot Rod Fuller tears it up on the drag strip

First up we were driven to the Yas Marina drag strip to meet Hot Rod Fuller. Rod recognised me from SPEED and said he was a fan, which made me blush a bit as he’s a total legend in Top Fuel drag racing. He showed us his car. And it had two passenger seats.

1000 horsepower, tyres almost taller than me. We’d hit a quarter mile in around 5 seconds.

The Yas three seat dragster is a stunning piece of kit. By far the coolest thing for me was that our cockpits were just like Rod’s. Pedals, steering wheel, buttons, dials… the works. It really felt like we were driving. But when those lights went out, I was so glad I wasn’t.

For the first 1-2 second your brain just completely bricks itself. It hasn’t got a clue what to do. The world is coming at you so fast that it cannot take it all in and instead you just see a blur of colour and light… think about it like hitting warp speed in a sci fi movie.

It was an insane rush, and one which even the F1 drivers loved as it was such a new experience.

“You think that’s fast?” Rod smiled. “You should try my Top Fuel car. That baby’s got 8000 horsepower. We’ll hit 400kph in four seconds easy in her.”

As if that wasn’t enough, we’re then transported back to the race track, where the distinctive and familiar sound of an F1 car screaming around the place greets our arrival.

It pulls into the pits, the passenger gets out and the driver beckons me over.

“I’m glad you got here mate. Listen, I’ve only got another two runs left and I want to take you out. Tell them I want you next.”

I did as I was told, pulled on my helmet and got strapped in.

The red glove lifts out of the cockpit and swirls a finger in the air. The engine fires up and the car is lowered onto the ground. My feet and legs are pushed into the driver’s side. He reaches down and pats my leg, and we’re off.

As we exit the garage he leans his head to the side and the yellow, green and blue of Bruno Senna’s helmet become visible for the first and pretty much only time in the next three minutes.

Off we go! F1 2 seater action with Mr Senna

I’d been in a two seater F1 car before, with Alan van der Merwe in Kylami back in 2004, but this ride just felt so ferocious. My residing memory of Kylami was the mineshaft, but here in Abu Dhabi the lap felt much longer and much, much more brutal.

Down the long straight your helmet feels as though it is being lifted off your head, and as Bruno hit the brakes I nearly headbutted the retaining piece of carbon fibre between us. Your body is pushed down into the seat before your head is thrown to the side as he flicks left, then right and then back on the power. The acceleration is intense, but the braking and in particular the high speed cornering just blows you away.

At one point I think I’m going to faint. At quite a few others I feel as if I’m going to be sick.

But we get back to the pits after two laps, and I am buzzing.

“How was that?” Bruno asks.

“I’m lost for words mate. It was amazing and horrible all at once.”

“I really wanted to show you how violent it is inside these cars, to give you a proper understanding of what it takes. And you need to remember that this two seater probably isn’t as fast as a GP2 Asia car, let alone an F1 car.”

“Wow. You have to do that, for 70 laps, and keep one eye in your mirror all the time to let the other guys through? Hats off to you mate. I genuinely don’t know how you do it.”

“It’s fun though isn’t it.”

“It’s something else. It really is.”

One hell of a ride! Bruno is calm. Buxton is completely wired!

Aching, sore but elated, I returned to the hotel and watched as Jean Alesi and a certain Mr Herbert took over chauffeur duties in the two seater. Dinner was being served soon, but nobody lasted very long. We were all too tired.

I went to bed that night with a brand new appreciation for what these guys do. I’d always valued the job that they do and for me the men I get to report on, write about and spend time with have always been my heroes. But after experiencing at first hand the ferocity of what they go through corner after corner, lap after lap, I had an even greater level of respect for them.

With another day of driving and training left to come I honestly didn’t think the experience could get any better.

But I was about to proved wrong.

All Photos c/o Darren Heath, with the exception of the first (Sutton Images) and last (Will Buxton)

A stupidly simple safety car solution

SLS 63 AMG, Safety Car (C197) © Mercedes Benz

Safety cars, delta times, when to pit, who gets a penalty, who doesn’t get a penalty, when should we race, when should we slow… it’s all getting a bit silly, isn’t it?

The thing is, it’s actually a very easy problem to solve. Which probably means that the solution Formula 1 eventually comes up with will be even more convoluted than the original regulation it was intended to clarify. But it needn’t be.

Here’s my idea to solve the problem. And it really is simple…

As soon as the “safety car deployed” message is shown on the race control screen, the pitlane will be closed to all cars, other than those carrying substantial damage which risks either the car in question or poses a potential danger to others on track. With refuelling no longer an issue in Formula 1, there is no longer the prospect of anyone running out of fuel and thus there is no longer a requirement for the pitlane to be kept open under the safety car. This was the only reason that closing the pitlane for safety reasons under the safety car had been rethought in the first place.

Once the safety car has been deployed, the track will go under full course yellow and all cars will be limited to running at a maximum speed of 200kph. This can be easily monitored at race control, could easily be stuck to with a pitlane speed limiter style button on the steering wheel, and will take out the need for the confusing and overly complicated delta time scenario.

When the safety car leaves the pits, it will wait by the side of the track or circulate slowly until it picks up the race leader. All cars will drive straight past, without waiting to be waved through until the leader is picked up. They will know when to pass and when to stay behind the car with a simple system of lights – let’s say for the sake of argument a blue light will flash to indicate to the drivers that they should pass, changing to the orange/yellow light as and when the race leader pulls into view. Failing that, the safety car will simply wait to leave the pits until the lead car is entering the final corner.

And that’s pretty much that.

It’s not rocket science. It’s just common sense. Pure, simple and uncomplicated. Race order is maintained, nobody gets an advantage, so nobody should be able to complain and Charlie can concentrate on race incidents rather than having to waste his time sorting out safety car transgressions which needn’t be and shouldn’t be as big an arse ache as they currently are.

Is Formula 1 bringing itself into disrepute?

The Safety Car - Valencia 2010 © http://www.sutton-images.com

What a difference a day makes. On Sunday morning we were all expecting a fairly dull race on a weekend in which F1 had finally seemed to find some stability. A feeling of calm had washed over the paddock with the teams all fairly happy and united under FOTA, the driver market pretty much sorted and the rules and regulations for the future cemented by the FIA.

But Fernando Alonso’s claims of a fixed race have well and truly rocked the fragile peace in the sport. Indeed there have even been suggestions that the FIA is acting with severe bias towards Lewis Hamilton and McLaren.

Now if you’re finding those comments odd, you’re not the only one. The FIA favouring McLaren against Ferrari? Really? Have we switched into a parallel dimension? Fair is foul and foul is fair and all that? There was a time, not too long ago, when the FIA was nicknamed “Ferrari International Assistance” after so many of the body’s decisions seemed to favour the scarlet cars over any others, particularly those from Woking.

Instead, after the European Grand Prix, there was something of a feeling that Ferrari and Alonso’s petulance and comments in themselves were the most damaging thing for the sport, and they could yet land them in hot water for bringing Formula 1 into disrepute.

But then again, you can kind of see where they’re coming from. Hamilton passed the safety car and finished second. Alonso didn’t and came eighth. So in essence, Hamilton cheated and yet wasn’t really punished harshly enough in Ferrari’s eyes as he pulled a better result out of the bag than the man who didn’t cheat. I like Lewis, I’m a big fan, but by overtaking the safety car he broke the rules. Simple.

Alonso said he’d never seen anything like it before. But I have, and I’m afraid that it won’t help Lewis’ cause, because he was the guilty party once again. It was 2006, in the GP2 race in Imola, and Lewis overtook the safety car after falsely thinking he was being waved through when in fact it was waving through the Campos cars ahead of him. Lewis was leading the race at that time and should have stayed behind the safety car. His penalty? A black flag and disqualification from the race. So I can see why Ferrari would be upset that a similar penalty was not applied to Lewis for this transgression.

Lewis Hamilton shortly before his black flag - GP2 Imola 2006. © www.sutton-images.com

I’m also failing to fully understand the brace of 5 second penalties handed out to the nine drivers who ran too quickly in comparison to the delta times when entering the pits under the safety car. Because if this is the precedent, then why on earth should drivers pay any attention to the delta times in the future? If a 5 second penalty is now considered the norm for such a transgression, sticking to race pace on an inlap under the safety car could very easily buy a driver far more than the 5 second penalty he’d incur for sticking to his delta time.

The result of the stewarding decisions in Valencia, therefore, have completely made a mockery of the safety car regulations. And if anything, is not the role of the FIA to ensure that the rules and their application are consistent, transparent and precise enough to instil confidence in the sport? What about the fans who watch the race, be they those who pay for their tickets or are simply watching it at home? If 9 drivers had been kicked further down the field hours after the race had finished, for their safety car transgressions, what sort of message does that hand out to the fans?

It says, don’t bother to tune in to the race. Just watch the news tomorrow morning when hopefully we will have had a cup of tea and figured out who should have won. It is little wonder Ferrari is kicking off. But their gripe shouldn’t be with McLaren or Hamilton because they simply made the best out of the situation they were placed in. They were handed a penalty and they rose above it beautifully, just as Mark Webber did in taking his first F1 victory at the Nurburgring last season. The issue here lies in the regulations, and more importantly in their application during the race.

There was another example of stewarding inefficiency in Valencia and it was for a moment in the first GP2 race when Alberto Valerio’s Coloni was released from the pits with the rear jack still attached. The team appeared not to tell Valerio to pull over, and for 5 corners the Brazilian ran at race speed with the rear jack lurching from side to side as a clearly edgy Sergio Perez tried to keep his distance. In the end the jack released itself at Turn 5 and crashed heavily into an FOM camera point, scaring the living crap out of Nicolo the cameraman on site. It smashed the crap out of the camera too.

The team was brought before the stewards after the race. And their penalty? A €1500 fine. Seriously. €1500 Euros.

Let’s go back 12 months to the Hungarian Grand Prix when Fernando Alonso was released from a pitstop with a loose wheel, which detached itself and bounced down the track. It didn’t hit anyone or anything, but the Renault F1 team was slapped with a ban for the next race. The ban was subsequently overturned, but the message was clear – you do not knowingly, under any circumstances, endanger your driver, the other drivers, the track workers or fans.

How on earth the stewards deemed that €1500 was a sufficient penalty is beyond me. A ban from the next race, or at least a fine that would have paid the tens of thousands of Euros that a new trackside camera will cost FOM, seemed a fairer decision.

They had a nightmare in Valencia, plain and simple.

Lewis Hamilton passes the safety car - Valencia 2010 © www.sutton-images.com

Their indecision and delay in the F1 race meant that the handing down of Hamilton’s drive through had nowhere near the level of effect which the application of a penalty should have. The precedent was a black flag but they applied a drive through. A simple look on a pocket calculator would have told them a drive-through wouldn’t change much in terms of race order, so if they had really wanted to penalise Hamilton why not give him a stop-go, or the black flag the precedent had already set down?

Given the level of data at their disposal, why did it take the stewards over half the race to figure out that 9 drivers might have gone too fast on their safety car in laps, and with all of that data on hand why therefore could they not have applied drive through penalties during the race rather than creating a potential “false” result, to use Ferrari’s words, after the event had been concluded.

For one of very few occasions in my life, I find myself agreeing with the sentiments of Luca di Montezemolo, who today has claimed that the events of the weekend have set “dangerous precedents, throwing a shadow over the credibility of Formula 1.”

The stewards decisions seemed to be too little too late and set a dangerously ineffectual precedent on the position of the stewards and their power or strength of character to make the correct call at the correct time.

Nobody wants to see a race decided in the stewards office after the chequered flag has fallen. As Lewis proved in Valencia, and as we have seen many times in the past, a driver can often pull out the most incredible races when he has an obstacle, or a penalty, to overcome. What is most galling for the fans of this sport and for the drivers themselves, is when they are penalised off the track for something they have done on it.

We need decisions to be made faster by the stewards during the races to allow the drivers an opportunity to fight back on track. We need the penalties, when applied, to be comparable to the offence, be that in their harshness or in their leniency. And above all we need consistency in the penalties and their application from case to case, weekend to weekend, driver to driver and team to team.

If we don’t get it the only thing that will bring the sport into disrepute, is the sport itself.

Why F1′s exciting new dawn may have to wait

Part of the new track in Bahrain © http://www.sutton-images.com

I’m getting a little bit worried about tomorrow’s F1 race, because from what I have seen so far of the weekend, the incredible battle that everyone is expecting may be under threat of not showing up.

This fear comes not from the competitive differences between the teams you understand, but from something far easier to resolve… and something which wasn’t even a problem two weeks ago.

The new sequence of corners at the Bahrain International circuit between Turn 4 and the old Turn 5, have added almost a kilometre to the circuit length and half a minute to overall laptimes. They’re a challenging combination of tight and technical corners, designed to add some extra spice to the track… only, they’re not quite coming up trumps.

The problem, you see, is that this new part of the track has been ill conceived and ill designed. Quite apart from the fact that there simply isn’t enough track length between corners to allow anyone to have a decent stab at a passing move, the track width is so slim that you can barely fit two cars side by side. To the naked eye, it appears almost half the width of the rest of the circuit.

So if this new part of the track wasn’t designed around the purpose of introducing more overtaking opportunities, then why put it in at all? Sure these seven extra turns now make Bahrain the second longest circuit on the calendar, but nobody’s going to care when all they’ve done is create crap racing.

And if you think I’m being overly pessimistic, may I point your attention to today’s GP2 Asia race.

Two weeks ago, GP2 Asia raced on the old circuit, the original circuit. With overtaking being pulled off at Turns 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 11, 12, 15/16 and, believe it or not, 13 and 14 throughout the weekend, the main feature race two weeks ago had me on my knees in the commentary box and in need of some strepsils. It was, without question, one of the greatest races I have witnessed in my lifetime.

Compare that to today. The extra corners served not to spice up the show, but to create one long procession. You’d never have believed we were at the same track.. because in many ways, we weren’t.

The new section didn’t allow good overtaking. Indeed only two moves were pulled off there all race and both of those were balls to the wall passes that owed more to luck than judgement. It’s also incredibly bumpy… so much so that pole sitter and today’s winner Luca Filippi has taken to wearing a gumshield, a sporting safety device more usually seen on the rugby field than in a racing car. Third placed Charles Pic has reported that he is suffering from huge blisters on both hands following today’s race… soemthing he certainly didn’t have after winning here two weeks ago!

Sure, you can argue it’s only GP2 Asia, and not representative of F1. But GP2 Asia cars were designed around the concept of ground effect and to allow overtaking. F1 2010 has not been. So if the new track turned one of the most exciting races I’ve seen into one of the most dull… what hope of a good F1 race? The 24 drivers who took part in today’s race featured only a few changes from those who competed a few weeks ago, so did they all just forget how to race? I don’t think so.

Factor in also that the new teams in F1 are not on the pace of those at the front of the grid, and there is also a potential problem… namely that between Turn 5 and Turn 12, quicker cars will not be able to pass slower cars. Even if they’re lapping them. All this will do is create anger from the leading drivers to the backmarkers at a time when the 107% rule is already being debated in unduly high decibels.

But if we are to be fair we must point out right now and before the race even begins that it will not be the Virgin, Lotus and HRT drivers’ fault if they cannot get out of the way of the quicker cars in this new section, but that of the circuit designers. Anywhere else, and there might have been space to pass… but not on a track that’s as thin and as comparative a shade of its former self as Lindsey Lohan.

They usually say that a boring Sunday GP2 race doesn’t leave much hope for the main event.

As such, I’m hoping for an epic support event tomorrow morning. If it doesn’t arrive, we may have to wait a few weeks for F1’s exciting new dawn to truly arrive.