Twelve months ago, the Marussia F1 team arrived in Monaco as one of just two of the four squads to have been given a license to start racing in Formula 1 back in 2010, still to be doing so. Until then, none had scored a world championship point. What unravelled that weekend, however, was more than a breakthrough to the top 10. The points Jules Bianchi brought home for his team at what was, being just down the coast from his birthplace of Nice, his home race did far more than simply put Marussia on the scoreboard. By putting the team ninth in the Constructors’ Championship, a position the team would hold to season’s end, it also ensured the squad’s future.
Marussia, now renamed Manor, will return to Monaco this weekend, one year on from a famous race which created such jubilation. The man who brought them the result, sadly, will not.
In Barcelona two weeks ago, Manor F1 Team CEO Graeme Lowdon sat down with me for a piece the US audience will be able to see on NBC this weekend, as we look back on that incredible Monaco Grand Prix 12 months ago and what the performance meant for the future of the team.
So important was that race and the circumstances around it, however, and so interesting that very story, that I felt the whole interview should be shared. With the kind permission of NBC, NBCSN, and the Manor F1 Team, this is the transcript…
WB: If we go back 12 months it all started in Barcelona at testing, Max topping the first day. How much positivity did that bring to Monaco?
GL: It was a huge amount, actually. We tried a few things in that test and we had some things on the car and everything really started to come together. People sometimes look at tests like that and think we were on a glory run but we really weren’t focussed on anything at all other than putting set-ups on the car, trying things out, putting some tyres on and go… and we popped into P1. It was just a nice feeling for everybody at the team who had been working for years under difficult circumstances and it was just good to see some progress. I think it’s fair to say that after that test we couldn’t wait to get to Monaco because the only acid test is a Grand Prix weekend. Spirits were pretty high by the time we got to Monaco.
It ended up being a weekend we all remember for what Jules did on Sunday, but looking back over the weekend it was a pretty amazing progression for Jules. FP1 saw him P19 0.4 seconds off the Toro Rossos, FP2 P18 0.2 off Lotus, FP3 P17 right in between the Lotuses.
Thinking back, I seem to remember that in FP1 Jules had some really good feedback on what was happening with the car. It was at a time when we had really caught up with some of the teams, being only a few tenths off. Jules drove very well but there was that constant progression. FP2, I think, was wet and there was a drying track so car control really comes into it, and although you can look back on the timesheets and see progression I remember at the time we were very frustrated after the first free practices on Thursday because we hadn’t got all the running we wanted, which was a good sign because it showed the team was pushing and moving forward and we felt that there was some more to come. Looking back, the overriding emotion after those opening sessions was we just didn’t have enough data and we wanted more because as soon as we had more we could go quicker.
So after all of that work and progression, qualifying comes around and while the two Caterhams were on the last row, next were your two cars and all of that progression seemed not to have come good.
Yeah, I think the confidence was building and we felt that this was going to be a breakthrough qualifying and that we could get into Q2. Monaco is Monaco and qualifying is one of the most nerve-wracking things for anyone in a team, and it was that usual mix. Jules set a pretty good lap on his first set of tyres and I’m pretty sure there was a yellow flag on his second set, and we could see how much time he lost because he had to respect the yellow. It was substantial and without that I think we would have troubled the Saubers ahead. Whether it would have been enough to get into Q2 I don’t know, but again I remember the feeling of frustration that if it hadn’t been for the yellow we could have pushed a little bit further ahead. It was still a good result and it was still progress… but then we got the penalty for the gearbox.
Well, this is it. All of that hard work and at the end of it all Jules is going to line up P21 on the grid with a gearbox penalty. When you went to bed on Saturday night, could you have envisaged in any way what was going to happen in the next 24 hours?
I think as a race team you always have to be realistic, but you always have to take the optimistic view, you have to push and go for every opportunity. For me, there was this overriding feeling of slight frustration, particularly because in Monaco qualifying is so important and we had done all of this hard work, we’d had a successful test, we didn’t have all the data we wanted but we’d solved some problems, we’d improved the set-up, Jules had done a great job, we’d got closer… but it felt as though it had all been taken away with Jules starting last.
Ericsson had to start from the pitlane because he had some sort of infringement, so at least we had already got past one car before the start, but I remember thinking anything can happen on race day and I just hope that we are ready to take advantage of any opportunity: not just the drivers but everyone in the team. This is the greatest team game in the world and I remember thinking that I hoped we weren’t looking back at what could have been in qualifying because that was gone. That was the over-riding feeling for me.
So you arrive at the track on Sunday, what was the vibe like in the team and how was Jules when he arrived?
For Jules, Monaco is kind of a home race and so the build up to the race had seen a big focus on him. Of course, he had a huge amount of support, and any team feeds off that when you have a home Grand Prix feeling. I love Monaco. It’s a historic circuit. All the greats have driven there. And if you ask the drivers, it’s the slowest Grand Prix of them all but it’s the one they all want to win. I love the fact that the crowd are so close. We take the train to get to work everyday and you’re going in with all the fans so you can talk to them.
I love that interaction, and so do all the guys. They’re working away in difficult conditions. Formula 1 is glamorous, but it is long hard hours for the boys and they love it when they can talk to fans. There’s that whole build up of getting off the train, walking down through the streets and the atmosphere builds the nearer you get to the circuit. Seeing it fill up with fans… Monaco has a constant build up of emotion on race day and if you can’t get the motivation to race there, then you’re in the wrong business.
And then you go onto the grid and in Monaco it feels like there are 10,000 people. It is packed. It is difficult enough to move TV cameras, let alone everything you need for the car. A Formula 1 grid is an incredibly tense, nervy, excited place. But in Monaco it is turned up even more. It’s that mixture of history and the challenge for everyone involved.
Then the formation lap happens, there’s no Pastor Maldonado, and Jules takes the wrong place on the grid. Were you aware of what had happened?
No. We have a lot of telemetry and feedback from the car itself but one of the most useful things we have is the GPS signal, but in Monaco the position of the cars meant we were in a blind spot. We weren’t aware there was a problem initially. And of course it wasn’t just Jules who was out of sequence, his team-mate Max Chilton and Gutierrez was too. So Jules was the last car, and as you can imagine these guys are sat down pretty low, so with hindsight you can see what happened as he was looking at his position relative to the other cars and from that perspective he was in the right place. But they were out of position and so he ended up out of position. There are numbers by the side of the track to avoid this, so it was a mistake and these things happen, but we weren’t initially aware.
Because you can look out over the track, one of our guys could see that Gutierrez was out of position and so we could hear some chatter and I remember thinking that I wasn’t sure how much more we could experience before this race actually got underway. What with qualifying and then penalties, this, that and the other… but it very quickly became clear that yes, indeed, all those cars had started out of position.
So just about everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong, but then the race starts. At what point did you become aware of the kind of run that Jules was on?
It was a real rollercoaster, because the first lap in Monaco is very, very important. It’s incredibly difficult to overtake there. I’m pretty sure that Jules finished that first lap in 16th place having started 21st and last. As soon as you’re running 16th at Monaco you are properly in the race and so I remember the excitement level was immediately quite high. Then a few cars dropped out quite quickly, Vettel was one as I recall, and so all of a sudden we’d just got used to him being P16 and then he was P15 and then P14. Then Raikkonen had a problem and dropped behind him so we were P13.
So that initial period of the race showed real progress and yes, other drivers might have been dropping out but sometimes they’re dropping out because they’re hitting things. Running these cars in that environment is incredibly difficult, and in the back of your mind you’re always thinking that any moment we’re going to get a penalty for starting in the wrong place. And sure enough, just to temper our excitement, we saw penalties for Jules, Max and Gutierrez, and so you think OK this is going to be even more challenging.
Jules is a racer, a fabulous driver to work with, and he knew exactly what was going on and what was required in that race… instinctively.
He was given a five second penalty, and the rules were very clear as it was a brand new rule for last season, that you have to take that five second penalty at your next pitstop. Our pitstops were very clearly predetermined and cruelly for us, just as Jules was coming in, the Safety Car went out. And you can’t take a penalty under the Safety Car. All of a sudden we were in a grey area, and so we took the decision as a team to take the penalty under the Safety Car anyway as the downside was worse than not doing it.
So Jules took the penalty in the pits with the guys unable to work on the car for five seconds, then the guys changed the tyres and then Jules went back out. We were then informed that he had been given a further five second penalty for taking his original penalty under the Safety Car. We had to explain that to him because he was under the impression he’d already take his penalty so why did he have to do it again, but very quickly he understood what was required and from that point onwards we knew that, as we didn’t have to stop again, any car within five seconds of us would leapfrog a position.
Jules managed that whole situation very, very well. His next target was to actually try and go faster, overtake cars and he pulled off that fantastic move on Kobayashi which is one of the things we all remember. If that had been a move for the lead of the race, it would to this day have been one of the classic moments of Monaco. From our perspective it still is. It lifted Jules to 13th place, and as the race continued to unfold that was one of the pivotal moments.
At what point did it dawn on you that you were going to score points?
I mentioned before the rollercoaster of the race, but all of a sudden a few cars were out and we were in P10 with Grosjean catching up with a few laps left to go. I remember this awful feeling that we were so close but we could see from Grosjean’s laptimes that he was going to get into the five second window. So all of a sudden you have this massive sinking feeling.
For some reason I had to go down into the garage, and you have to remember that in Monaco it is very strange as we don’t have a pitwall where we sit to operate during the race. The garages are two stories high and all the equipment we usually have on the pitwall is upstairs, and for some reason I had to go downstairs to the garage. As I was climbing back up again, I heard this enormous cheer… Everywhere! And so I ran to my chair and I could see Kimi had come together with Magnussen at the hairpin and of course that elevated Jules to P8. All of a sudden, we knew Grosjean was catching us, but the worst case scenario was still a top 10 finish. It was still points.
I think that was only about six laps from the end, but they were the longest six laps that I have ever watched a racing car go round a track. It was so important for Jules, because he was going to get the recognition he deserved, and for the team who had worked so hard. It was a fantastic feeling.
And when the car crossed the line… that was just great. You allow yourself two or three seconds of emotion, but then your mind switches to questioning what could still go wrong. You have to make sure that every base is covered when it is something that is so important. But it felt great. And not just within the team. An awful lot of people from other teams, and team bosses and drivers, came down to congratulate our mechanics and our engineers and that was a really good feeling because you love to get the respect and support of fans, but respect from your peers in other teams, genuine heartfelt respect, was a brilliant feeling.
Given where that result put the team at the end of the season, the finances that then flowed from that championship position, would it be an over-exaggeration to say that the result in Monaco is why we are sitting here now?
I think there are a lot of reasons, and that is one of the most important reasons. There are other reasons. We had to race hard. We had to maintain the position that we had got. But I think it really defined what this team is all about. Not just the result, but the nature of the result. It wasn’t a simple lights to flag race. It was hard, proper racing, taking opportunities when they arose and working really well as a team. And a race that was run not just from inside the cockpit where Jules had to make some critical decisions, but as a team because we were presented with so many key choices.
I mean, the whole gearbox issue, we changed out of precaution because we weren’t sure it would last the race. We agonised over it, and if we hadn’t have made that choice the chances are we might have had a DNF and no result at all. I think it is certainly a major reason of why we are still here, but the way in which the team went about that whole weekend characterized what life is like in Formula 1. When you get any kind of result as a team, you enjoy it because you know how hard this game is. And it makes it all the sweeter.
What will your emotions be on returning to Monaco?
Very mixed. I think its actually going to be quite difficult. Jules had his accident in Suzuka, but an awful lot of our memories of last season are based around Monaco. It’s a special place but it was made even more special by what he achieved there, and what the team achieved. We have faced some enormous problems since then, and it has been a huge setback for us as a team. We look at last year in Monaco and we talked about that constant progress, and that characterised where we were as a team. We’ve had to take such a step back. But hopefully we’ll turn the feelings into positive thoughts for the team.
I’m absolutely sure that for myself, and for all the team, we’ll have some very emotional moments in Monaco.