F1 to Watch – Alice Powell

Alice Powell - c/o Alice Powell

Time to resurrect a feature I used to write for Formula 1 Magazine back in the day… F1 to Watch. The concept is simple enough: every now and then I’ll bring you a profile or an interview with an up and coming racer who I reckon has something that little bit special. Back in the F1 Mag days our hit rate was pretty good – Alan van de Merwe went on to play a big role at BAR Honda and now drives the FIA Medical car, Ryan Briscoe may never have raced in F1 but has been hugely succesful in the States, Christian Klien got a good run at Jaguar and Red Bull before becoming a tester and then moving to HRT this season, and Tonio Liuzzi went on to smash the F3000 crown and then make his mark in F1.

So to bring this feature back to life, I can’t think of anybody better than the 2010 Formula Renault BARC champion Alice Powell. I first met Alice last year when she was in the middle of her debut single-seater season in Formula Renault UK and I was immediately impressed with her maturity and outstanding racecraft.

She moved from karts into Ginetta Juniors in the winter of 2007, coming fifth in the winter series before taking part in the full Junior championship in 2008 in which she recorded four podium finishes. In 2009 Alice moved into single seaters and the Formula Renault UK championship which launched the careers of the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen, joining the hugely succesful Manor Competition as team-mate to eventual champion Dean Smith.

This season Alice moved across with Manor to Formula Renault BARC and became the first female driver to win not only races but also the championship.

Still aged just 17, Alice Powell has already announced herself to the single seater fraternity and is a talent I can’t wait to see develop and grow over the coming seasons.

Winning at Silverstone c/o Alice Powell

Will Buxton: Congratulations on winning the championship. Talk us through this season.

Alice Powell: At the start of the year I didn’t know if I was racing but we managed to get some money together at the last minute. The season started off well and I was able to keep consistent which I think ended up being the key to the championship. The wins I collected combined with regular podiums is what made the difference.

WB: How much did your experience of the car from the year before help?

AP: It was the same chassis and car just with a restrictor plate, so I think that helped a lot. But I missed out on quite a lot of testing. When I finished the season in 2009 I didn’t step back into the car until March, while all my rivals had been testing every week through the winter. It took me a while at the first round stepping back in. I took two fifths though, and by the next round at Silverstone I made the jump and took pole. The season just rolled from there. It was a great year.

WB: You’ve come to a championship very fast. It was only three years ago that you made your car racing debut in the Ginetta Junior series. Why did you decide to begin your life outside karting in Ginettas rather than Formula Ford or Formula BMW?

AP: It was to learn the circuits mainly. It was on the TOCA package and I went to one of the TOCA rounds in 2007 and I saw what it was about and how much pressure you get, how the TV coverage made up part of the package… and the crowds too, there were loads of people there so that got us excited. So in 2008 I did Ginetta Juniors and I got to learn the tracks, but the step up to Formula Renault in 2008 was huge. I was still 15 so I couldn’t test over the winter and I had a short amount of running before the testing ban came into effect. The biggest lesson was learning about using slicks and wings, jumping from treaded tyres to slicks and trusting how much grip the cars had and how much downforce you have was a big challenge.

But Ginettas are great fun and I managed to do five rounds this year alongside my Formula Renault championship.

WB: 2009 saw you alongside some pretty strong opposition like Dean Stoneman, Lewis Williamson and Dean Smith, guys who have gone on to some good things this year. But they’re all about five years older than you… how did you find it, stepping into Formula Renault, aged 15, getting used to slicks and wings and being that much younger than all your male rivals?

AP: It was tough but I was very lucky to have Dean Smith as my team-mate. It was his third year in Formula Renault and he’d done a year in Formula BMW so I learnt a lot from him. I learnt so much that year from a racing perspective, and I was studying for my GCSEs too, so it was pretty hectic. Racing against those guys though was a great school and we got some great press from getting some good results.

WB: And being with Manor too must have been a big boost – they’re a team that have done it all in Formula Renault and Formula 3 and now of course they have a GP3 and Formula 1 team, too. How much did their experience help you?

AP: They’re a great team and their help was fantastic both in my rookie season in Formula Renault UK and of course this year in Formula Renault BARC. My engineer Sarah and I get on brilliantly and I learn something new from her every single weekend. She’s done Formula Renault since I don’t even know how long and Formula Vauxhall before that so she knows the ins and outs of the car and she’s worked with some great drivers and she was pleased with my performances this year.

WB: So it was only your second season in single seaters, you missed most of pre-season testing and didn’t even know you’d be racing. Could you even have hoped to have been fighting for the title at the start of the year?

AP: In January I wasn’t even thinking about winning a championship. I just wanted to get out and race in whatever I could. When we got the money together and I looked at the competition I thought, ‘Well, these guys have done a hell of a lot of testing so it’s going to be a tough year.’ But once I got the first win under my belt at Silverstone it all turned around. I was second in the championship, 25 points behind, and it sort of stayed like that for most of the season with me chipping away. We got to the final round and I was 16 points behind and I really just got my head down, stayed consistent, kept a cool head and it all paid off.

No, boys don't take getting beaten by a girl at all badly c/o Alice Powell

WB: This is bound to be a question you’re asked a million times, but as a girl in a predominantly male world, how do you find you are treated? When you beat the boys are they a little bit more upset than if a boy had beaten them? When the helmet goes on are you just another racing driver or is there some kind of novelty in the fact you’re a girl?

AP: When I started karting at the age of eight and a half I think I was the only girl in the championship I was in and I remember being very conscious of that. It felt strange. For the first four years of karting I remember still feeling that, much more than I ever have done since switching to cars. Now… now that I’ve won a championship, and even before that, it simply doesn’t play on my mind. I just get on with it… I don’t want to say I’m one of the lads, but you know what I mean. I’m a racing driver. And I’m a champion, so after this year I hope their questions, if they had any, have been answered.

WB: Now, sponsorship and money are crucial in this world. Does the fact you’re a female racer help you at all?

AP: It is definitely a help as some of the companies we speak to will ask how many other girls are in my championship and right now I can tell them I am the only one. It’s a great USP and it can attract them. So from that perspective yes being a girl is something that can help, but it all comes down to results and I’ve got to do the job on track.

WB: Let’s go back to basics then… what got you into motorsport?

AP: Ever since I was young my Grandad used to go to F1 races, and I remember looking out for him in the grandstands. I think that’s when I caught the bug. I used to drive around the garden on my bike pretending I was Michael Schumacher. I’ve always enjoyed it and I guess my family might say the biggest mistake they ever made was taking me to a kart track for the first time. It started as a hobby but now its my life.

WB: So who were your heroes?

AP: When I was younger it was Michael Schumacher. I had a little set of red overalls I’d wear on my bike and a red helmet. I was a huge Schumacher fan.

Alice races for the Virgin F1 affiliated Manor Competition

WB: Now looking to the future, you have a championship under your belt. What is the next step?

AP: Given that there was a new Formula Renault car in 2010 and they’re making some developments on it for 2011, allied to the fact it is on the Touring Car package and has good fan attendance and TV coverage, Formula Renault UK is the aim for the budget I have. After that I would love to move up to GP3, then hopefully GP2.

WB: And that Manor link could be crucial. I mean so many young drivers now depend on teams or backers to pull them through. Sebastian Vettel for example has been nurtured by Red Bull for his entire career. Are you hoping to stick with Manor because there is a link all the way to F1?

AP: I think it is important and I’m sure a lot of people would automatically point at staying with Manor because of the Virgin F1 link, but that’s not the reason. The thing is that Manor are a great team. They are always there for me, be it on track or off track. They give me advice and try to help and they’re always on the end of the phone. Sure the F1 link is great, but the reason that I love racing for Manor is that I feel a part of a family, and it is a family that knows how to win. Again though, you need results above everything else, and with Manor I know I can get results.

WB: So I guess the absolute objective is Formula 1?

AP: Definitely. It sounds, sitting here right now, a long way away but you have got to be positive about it and take it step by step.

WB: And you’re still so young. This year in F1 we saw the youngest ever F1 champion crowned and I was just wondering how much pressure there is on young drivers these days to rise through the ranks so quickly?

AP: I think that young drivers of course aspire to be like Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, but you’ve got to remember how hard they work. It’s not just going to happen for you because you’re young. You have got to work hard in the gym, in debrief working on data… it doesn’t just fall into your lap. But there is a lot of pressure because champions are getting younger. But I do think that is a good thing because it could get more people into the sport. But seeing Jenson Button win the title last year in his late 20s and the fact that after so many years in GP2 Pastor Maldonado has made it to F1 is also really positive. It’s a good time for Formula 1, and hopefully in a few years time I’ll be there too.

F1 bound? Alice Powell is one to watch.

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)

The GP2 Season Preview

Jules Bianchi - championship favourite for 2010?
c/o GP2 Media Service

With the sixth season of GP2 set to kick off this weekend, I’m naturally very bloody excited as I’ll be doing the world feed commentary again. Love it! Anyway, here’s a little something I jotted down for this week’s issue of GPWeek… enjoy!

This year marks the sixth season for the GP2 Series and the final year of the championship’s second generation. It’s a last hurrah for the GP2/08 car and the last year for the championship on Bridgestone tyres before the changes are wrung for the launch of the GP2/11 next season. But the championship remains as relevant to F1 as ever, in 2010 providing all six rookies in the pinnacle of global single-seater competition.

For the final year of its second generation, GP2 is down to the 24 car starting grid which it ran in its inaugural season due to the very public financial issues suffered by the Durango team. Although GP2 Asia team Meritus looked ready and willing to take Durango’s space, GP2 thought it better to ride out one season with a slightly depleted field before opening the whole thing up to tender for the start of generation three in 2011.

But of those that remain there is real strength in depth. Reigning champions ART will be hoping for back-to-back titles as F3 EuroSeries champ Jules Bianchi hopes to follow in the footsteps of Nico Hulkenberg and Lewis Hamilton and follow up his F3 success with immediate GP2 championship glory. But he won’t have it easy. iSport and their line-up of Valsecchi and Turvey look to be the team to beat after GP2 Asia. While Bianchi looked ragged and impetuous at times, Valsecchi seems to have matured well and Turvey appears to have a level head on his shoulders.

Van der Garde and Perez form a potent line-up at Addax, and the Mexican may well enter the title battle if he can get a decent run of results going. For Van der Garde, as for fellow elder statesman Pastor Maldonado at Rapax, it’s a return to the last chance saloon: championship or bust this season. Without the title it’s a season of GTs on the horizon. Even with the crown, F1 now looks a distant dream for them both.

Others to watch out for? Charles Pic was without doubt the unexpected stand out of the GP2 Asia season, and it will be interesting to see how the Renault F1 re-branded Dams team fares without its longtime leader Eric Boullier.

On the whole, it looks like it could be a classic season. Bianchi enters the fray as the drivers’ favourite, but the man under the most pressure to perform. How he handles that pressure, and how his rivals go about mounting a challenge to his assumed championship run, will form the making or breaking of GP2’s sixth season of competition.

ART Grand Prix
1. Jules Bianchi
2. Sam Bird

Five seasons down, and with three drivers champions and three team championships to their name it’s fair to say there hasn’t been another team to hold a candle to the consistency of ART in GP2 history. But this year, above perhaps all others, there is a feeling that the championship really is a must. The arrival of Jules Bianchi has ramped up the pressure on ART as he isn’t just the reigning F3 EuroSeries champ, but the favoured protégé of team boss Nicolas Todt. Bianchi is quick, no doubt, but his Asia performances were often wild and he will need to rise above his eagerness to impress. Sam Bird meanwhile is an odd one: quick in qualifying, but falls apart all too often in race trim. Both need to add consistency to speed.

Barwa Addax Team
3. Giedo van der Garde
4. Sergio Perez

The team formerly known as Campos had a rocking and rocky 2009 as first Romain Grosjean and then Vitaly Petrov took charge of the squad and pulled it into a well-fought championship battle against ART. Repeating that feat in 2010 and going one better to grab the crown is undoubtedly the order of the day, as is evidenced by the squad’s strong line-up of two experienced drivers. The team leader role however may fall to the younger Perez, who has been desperately impressive in his GP2 career to date and who gelled so well with Addax in his Asia campaigns. Van der Garde meanwhile made heavy work of his 2009 season with iSport in a clearly quick car. He took wins, but not as many as he should have done. He’ll need to up his game big time if he wants to fight for the title.

Super Nova Racing
5. Josef Kral
6. Marcus Ericsson

A massively risky move for Super Nova, who in 2010 take on two rookies after the decision to run two experienced drivers in 2009 gave the squad its highest placing since the very first GP2 season in 2005. Kral and Ericsson both had their moments in Asia, but rather than giving them time to gel, the team issued a statement mid-season to state it was replacing Ericsson with Jake Rosenzweig to try and improve its results. Although it later clarified that Ericsson was only ever intended to run in Abu Dhabi, Super Nova would have done better to have kept both rookies in the car for the full Asia season. Both drivers have potential, but top three in the teams championship may be an unrealistic expectation for drivers in their first year.

Fat Burner Racing Engineering
7. Dani Clos
8. Christian Vietoris

Racing Engineering struggled with tyre wear in 2009, which was odd given that the team’s lead driver, Lucas di Grassi, was not only one of the smoothest and most consistent drivers ever to race in GP2, but because he had also carried out a large majority of the GP2/08’s development work. That di Grassi couldn’t fight for the title will leave Racing Engineering wondering what chances it has in 2010, but it has brought Dani Clos back for a second season and that parity (one of only four drivers to stay put from 2009) could pay dividends. Vietoris looked quick in GP2 Asia, winning early on, but he also looked impulsive and took himself out of too many races in his eagerness to lap backmarkers.

iSport International
9. Oliver Turvey
10. Davide Valsecchi

As GP2 reaches the end of its second generation, could we be about to see a repeat of the final season of the first three-year generation when iSport made good on its solid first two seasons to dominate and take the double crown? Its GP2 Asia form marks it out as the definite favourite, but when one considers how competitive Dams looked in the 2009 Asia series only to be left behind in the main series, Asia should not be taken as the firmest indication of form. Valsecchi and Turvey however do form a strong partnership and iSport has reported one of the best working relationships since they ran Glock to the title. Valsecchi is now one of the most experienced drivers in the field, and the championship is his sole aim. Turvey meanwhile is a quick learner and will push his team-mate all season. Confidence is high within the team that this is iSport’s year.

Renault F1 Junior Team
11. Jerome d’Ambrosio
12. Ho Pin Tung

Dams gets a new name and a new lease of life after what turned out to be a hugely disappointing season in 2009. After dominating the preceding Asia series, neither Kobayashi nor d’Ambrosio could mount a championship challenge last year and the team slipped off the radar. The Belgian remains with the team this season, as Dams is renamed the “Renault F1 Junior Team” and runs in the famous yellow and black of the F1 team. D’Ambrosio, like team-mate Tung, is part of the Gravity driver line-up, and are Renault F1 reserve drivers. Ironically though, while all this looks very positive, Renault has taken one of Dams’ strongest assets in Eric Boullier. Dams’ former team manager now fills that role at Renault and as F1 witnesses his handiwork in RF1’s competitive turnaround, one wonders the negative effects his departure might have on the GP2 team.

Rapax Team
14. Luiz Razia
15. Pastor Maldonado

The team formerly known as PiquetGP aims to get its GP2 aspirations back on track by signing up one of the out and out fastest drivers on the GP2 open market. Pastor Maldonado may have his detractors and he may still cut a controversial figure for his, shall we say, questionable racecraft, but on his day there are few out there who can drive as fast, particularly in Monaco. Razia scored a win last year and has been snapped up by Virgin F1 as their third driver. Both drivers are experienced, but there’s a nagging doubt that either has the consistency to mount a title run.

Arden International
16. Charles Pic
17. TBA (Rodolfo Gonzales likely)

After yet another season in which early promise ultimately came to naught, Arden International’s ultimate boss Christian Horner bit the bullet at the end of 2009 and parted company with his long time technical chief Mick Cook. The results were instant. Charles Pic’s pole position in Abu Dhabi was Arden’s first since 2005. With a young team of engineers led by Campbell Hobson, Arden has a new direction and a new feeling of confidence in itself and its new driver. Pic could yet be the dark horse of the season. He impressed hugely in Asia, and it will be fascinating to see how he fares in the big league. With Arden back in its traditional F3000 livery, there’s a real feeling that 2010 could see a return to the old days of regular race wins and fighting for championships.

Ocean Racing Technology
18. Max Chilton
19. Fabio Leimer

Ocean hit the ground running in 2009, as the replacement for the disappointing BCN squad which currently resides in history as the only GP2 team to never have won a race. Chandhok so nearly won for Ocean in Monaco, but it was in Spa last year that things really turned around when Parente took the team’s first pole and followed it up with a dominant race win. For a team in its first season, getting a victory was a huge effort and the Portuguese outfit under the leadership of former F1 driver Tiago Monteiro quickly established itself as a team to watch. For 2010 they’ve opted for the risky two-rookie line-up. Both are young and will be on a steep learning curve but Leimer has form. Don’t underestimate these boys. They won’t win the title but could grab some podiums later in the year.

PPR.com Scuderia Coloni
20. Alberto Valerio
21. Vladimir Arabadziev

Every year you want to say something good about this team, but every year you end up struggling. The component parts have been there for some time, but the constant changes that have affected team management have always seemed to affect ultimate competitiveness. With Zanarini and Fisichella now firmly out of the picture, the return of the Coloni name to the squad for a full season should give the team its core pride back, and Paolo Coloni and Dino Luisso will want to get back to the successful F3000 and GP2 days of old. With Valerio as lead driver that won’t be easy. He’s a lovely bloke but an accident waiting to happen on track. Yes he got a win last year, but his errors are far too frequent. His team-mate however is the promising Bulgarian Vlado Arabadziev. Already a race winner in AutoGP in 2010, keep an eye on this kid.

Trident Racing
22. Johnny Cecotto Jr.
23. TBA (Adrian Zaugg likely)

Second from bottom was not in the game plan for Trident Racing in 2009, especially as the position gave them the unenviable place at the bottom of the pile of pride for Italian teams (with the obvious exception of Durango which failed to make the end of the season and will not race in 2010.) The Asia series this year was notable not for any major success, but more for the team’s choice to run 39-year old Plamen Kralev who was, quite frankly, an embarrassment. One hopes the money he ploughed into the team will allow it to take on more worthy drivers with slightly smaller wallets in 2010, and the team’s choice of Johnny Cecotto Jr is a sound one. He’s young, hungry and has promise but he will need a more experienced team-mate to show him the way and help Trident regain its form.

DPR
24. Michael Herck
25. Giacomo Ricci

Never thought we’d be saying this but DPR was one of the stand out teams of this winter’s GP2 Asia Series. There were those within the paddock who cruelly likened their success to filling a room with monkeys and typewriters. Give them long enough, so their detractors said, and they’d write Shakespeare. Others said there simply wasn’t the quality in the Asia field this winter. But in the cold light of day, it now seems clear that all it boils down to DPR actually doing a pretty good job. That the team is still called DPR grates many, as there is nothing about the team that has anything in common with Dave Price’s outfit, and one hopes that if the team survives the selection process for 2011 it will be renamed. For 2010, Herck is still error prone but improving with every race, while Ricci really came of age over the winter. Championship contenders? No. Race winners? Incredibly, DPR might just be.

A fitting end for the GP2/05?

GP2 parc ferme... why not full of F1 liveries?

Just a quickie to follow on from the post I wrote this morning… because when I was at GP2 myself and Marco Codello came up with a concept which we never thought would really ever see the light of day, but which we thought would be a great tribute to the series… and with the GP2/05 now being decomissioned, I thought I would share it with you.

The concept was simple… bring back all the boys who graduated to F1 through GP2 and put them back in GP2 cars. Now that the GP2/05 is out of regular use, and seeing as all the boys drove them at one time or another, they’d be perfect.

We’d do a one off show day at, let’s say, Jerez. Nice technical track, the boys all know it well from F1 testing, and GP2’s been there for a good few years testing itself so the teams would have good data at their disposal.

Each GP2 car would be painted in the livery of the F1 team for whom the driver now races, or in a livery of the drivers’ choice if they no longer race in F1.

We have a morning of testing, with a half hour proper GP2 quali before lunch.

The afternoon would then consist of two short races (15 or so laps) with TOTAL reverse grid from quali for the second race.

Can you imagine it? 17 GP2 graduates, 11 of them current F1 drivers, in identical cars, all gunning it to prove once and for all who was the best GP2 driver of all time? If you wanted to make it up to a full grid of 26, you could always bring back Franck Montagny and Allan McNish who developed the original car and a hand picked selection of GP2 race winners to add to the mix. And of course, you’d have to bring back the most succesful driver in GP2 history who was cruelly overlooked by F1: the legend that is Giorgio Pantano.

Fans could come and watch, and ticket sales could go to charity.

As we agreed at the time, it was a lovely idea, but not one we’d ever realistically ever see. Would the F1 teams allow their boys back into GP2 cars for a one off weekend? Would the F1 boys stake their reputations on it? Who would win the argument over which engineers they had… I can’t see Rosberg, Hamilton, Grosjean and Hulkenberg agreeing over which two would get to be back with ART. Although I think the ART boys could probably manage four cars pretty effectively.

Funnily enough, I think the majority of GP2 graduates would actually really enjoy it. We’d get to see the battles we never experienced because of the generational divide and give the GP2/05 a bloody good send off at the same time.

I know it won’t ever happen… but I just thought you might like to know that the idea had, at the very least, been discussed.

Saying farewell to an old friend

The first GP2 car is taken for its shake down run by Franck Montagny. 20 July 2004

This weekend saw the motorsport world bid a fond farewell to a car which has formed the bedrock of the careers of half the current F1 grid, as the original GP2 Series car completed its final race.

The GP2/05, designed by Dallara, powered by a 4l V8 Renault engine assembled and maintained by Mecachrome and run on Bridgestone Potenza tyres (grooved for its first season in 2005) made its track debut in July 2004 at Circuit Paul Ricard when Frank Montagny gave it its initial shakedown. Over the next few months, he and Allan McNish conducted the development work on the car which would race in the very first season of the GP2 Series when it was launched in 2005.

Despite some very public problems in its debut weekend at the San Marino Grand Prix (namely the electronics going haywire in practice and the brakes wearing out in the first race), the racing was exciting and the competition fierce. Brembo had heard rumours of the inadequacies of the initial brake supplier and had brought enough brake pads and discs for the entire field to Imola, storing them in a truck in a nearby carpark. When the problems arose in the first race, a Brembo representative asked the series organisers if they fancied switching supplier. They did. With reliability issues pretty much resolved with Mecachrome a few races into the season, GP2 established itself as unmissable racing.

Nico Rosberg was crowned the first champion in 2005, beating Heikki Kovalainen and Scott Speed to the crown and all three were promoted to Formula 1, starting a trend which has seen 17 drivers promoted to an active F1 seat since the championship began.

For the record, they are: Nico Rosberg, Heikki Kovalainen, Scott Speed, Alexandre Premat (F1 Practice Session), Nelson Piquet, Ernesto Viso (F1 Practice Session), Lewis Hamilton, Timo Glock, Lucas di Grassi, Vitaly Petrov, Kazuki Nakajima, Bruno Senna, Karun Chandhok, Sebastien Buemi, Romain Grosjean, Kamui Kobayashi and Nico Hulkenberg.

Of those 17, 11 remain in Formula 1 in 2010.

It would also be remiss to forget the tens of drivers who have received positions as test drivers at F1 teams, be it on a season-long contract or simply a one-off test, as a result of their results in GP2.

And all of them, without exception, have raced the GP2/05. For while the original car raced in the main series for three years, creating champions out of Rosberg, Hamilton and Glock, the car was then shipped off to Asia to compete in the GP2 Asia Series between 2008 and 2010. There simply isn’t a driver to have been promoted from GP2 to Formula 1 who has not competed in a field of GP2/05s.

The car, which was designed around a concept of ground effect rather than over reliance on body aerodynamics, was created not only with the specific intention of training the future drivers of F1, but to provide overtaking and an exciting show. Even today it remains fast and relevant. Despite racing with a detuned engine in the Asia series, its laptimes on its final weekend weren’t far off those being set by the new teams in F1… not bad for a six year old racer.

With its Main Series replacement, the GP2/08, due to be used in Asia for the 2010/2011 championship when its own replacement (GP2/11) is unveiled for the 2011 Main Series, Sunday was thus the last time we’ll see the 05 race. It has given us six seasons of racing which I and many colleagues will never forget. It has also stood the test of time, providing a safe racing environment throughout its life.

But, alas, after 94 races, six champions and some of the best racing I’ve ever seen, the GP2/05 will race no more. Whether they are to become museum pieces or sit in the teams’ factories is, as yet, unclear. But if anyone’s thinking of holding a track day with one, please let me know… I’d move heaven and earth to get into one, even if it was for just the one lap.

I hope that wherever they end up, they take pride of place. Because without them, today’s F1 grid wouldn’t contain half the talent it does.

The GP2/05 Champions

Nico Rosberg - 2005 Champion

Lewis Hamilton - 2006 Champion

Timo Glock - 2007 Champion

Romain Grosjean - 2008 Asia Champion

Kamui Kobayashi - 2008/2009 Asia Champion

Davide Valsecchi - 2009/2010 Asia Champion

USF1 signs J-Lo… apparently.

There is a lot of talk doing the rounds today that Jose Maria “Pechito” Lopez has signed a contract to race with USF1 in 2010. If true, it will mark an incredible turnaround in the Argentine’s career and will bring to the sport a hugely likable character.

J-Lo’s single-seater career began in 2001 with an assault on Formula Renault 2.0, winning the Italian championship in 2002. In 2003 he moved up to Formula Renault V6 with DAMS and again stormed to the title. In 2004 the Argentine continued his association with DAMS, driving again in FRV6, making a one-off run in the FIA GT championship and moving up to Formula 3000 with CMS.

His DAMS association saw him move up to the new GP2 Series with the team in 2005, finishing on the podium in the first ever race at Imola and taking a win in only the second weekend of the inaugural season in Barcelona. He struggled with consistency after that point however, and scored only one further podium for the season eventually finishing ninth in the championship chase.

For 2006 Lopez moved to Super Nova and again struggled for consistency. As with 2005 he took three podiums but this time finished the season 10th. Perhaps the most telling moment of his season came at the Nurburgring. He was leading the Sunday race by a country mile and was completely unchallenged, until Timo Glock, who had recently switched teams from BCN to iSport began cutting down the gap to the race leader. With two laps to go the gap was still relatively healthy… a good few seconds. Lopez had it in the bag.

But then, on the last lap, Timo Glock flew past a half asleep Lopez, took the win, relegated Lopez to second and pretty much anihilated the Argentine’s reputation at the same time. Super Nova was unimpressed and dropped him for 2007. Nobody else wanted him either. Not in GP2. And certainly not in F1.

The 2006 season also saw the end of his deal with Renault. He’d been brought in as one of the earliest RDD boys, alongside the likes of Kovalainen and Kubica and despite his huge experience testing F1 cars for Renault and three seasons in an F1 feeder category, his inconsistency had dropped him out of favour and his F1 dream appeared at an end.

While fellow RDD boys Montagny, Kubica and Kovalainen all made it to F1, Lopez was thrust into ALMS and eventually the Argentine Touring Car championship, of which he was crowned champion last season.

But now, it seems, he will finally get his dream and his shot at F1. J-Lo is understood to have signed for USF1 with a downpayment of around 80% of the budget the team need from him to secure his seat. It is understood there is no time limit on him finding the remainder of the cash, as his credentials are bona fide thanks in no small part to his backing from former F1 star turned Argentine politican Carlos Reutemann, and his money is well-backed from high profile Argentine companies.

The question still rests over his consistency at the highest levels of competition however. Personally I like the guy. Always have. And I think he’s quick, too.

His performances in GP2 might not have been outstanding, but he was saddled with the comparative competitive deadweight of Fairuz Fauzy as his team-mate for both 2005 and 2006. That said, when he was in a good position, all too often he didn’t make the most of it – that ultimate example of losing the win in Germany the one that still stands out as completely unforgivable.

On his day he was bloody fast though, and held the GP2 lap record at Circuit Paul Ricard for a good few years. Considering that the championship conducts about 75% of its testing at the track, the fact that his time stood for so long evidenced just how speedy he could be… when it all came together.

It’s just that it didn’t come together all that often.

Renault however really have marked themselves out for not maximising the talent they had at their disposal through the RDD. They threw away Montagny and haven’t won a championship since dumping him as their development driver. They binned Kovalainen after a season in which Flavio had crushed him. They let Kubica go and have only just got him back. And then there’s Lucas di Grassi, for so long on the RDD books only to be continually overlooked.

So is Lopez another one of the great talents that Renault churlishly let go? Time will tell.

Pechito is a cracking guy, and if he does end up in Formula 1 next season it will be fantastic for him and for the sport. He’ll give it his all, and given the diligence and speed he showed in his F1 testing duties with Renault he could be a great addition.

He’s been out of competitive single-seater action for three seasons though, and one has to question the ultimate sense of USF1 taking such a gamble in its debut season.

But, as i said… time will tell.