David Croft, well-known Formula 1 expert and commentator for Sky Sports F1 UK, reports live from the first training at the Austrian Grand Prix 2017 at the Red Bull Ring.
What a day! Formula 1 returned to the Red Bull Ring and, from where Anthony Davidson and I were standing in the Sky F1 Commentary Box, it was something of a struggle for the cars to stay on the track. Time after time we saw drivers run wide through the fast turns at the end of the lap or into the gravel at Turn 6. Valtteri Bottas and Fernando Alonso managed to keep their cars away from the barriers somehow; Max Verstappen in his own words “scraped the wall” and the damage was clear to see on his tires.
Lewis Hamilton ended the day as the fastest man, breaking his own lap record in the process. The Mercedes looked fast, but Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari wasn’t too far away. Just how we’d like to see it on Sunday—a close fight between the top two in the Championship.
But what, precisely, are the teams trying to achieve on a Friday? With three hours of practice ahead of them, what’s the plan? What do they need to learn? And how much work is involved in setting the car up the way they would like it?
To find out I caught up with the Technical Director at Force India, Andrew Green, who was grabbing a few minutes of precious time at the end of the second session.
“Primarily we’re trying to understand the tire compounds”, which for the Austrian race are Soft, Super Soft, and Ultra Soft. “Where do they sit relative to each other, how do they perform from a temperature perspective, and what do we need to do with the set-up of the car to keep each of those compounds in their optimum window? Not easy on a track like this, when tire warm-up is so tricky.”
Bringing the tires into that magic temperature window where the driver can enjoy the maximum grip at the same time is difficult. So the teams help the driver as much as they can, with feedback over the radio during his warm-up lap.
“After that, with the lap times we record, we work out what our best strategy will be. Do we set the car up for qualifying and the Ultra Soft tire, because we need out-and-out pace over one lap, knowing that you compromise the performance on the Super Soft tire? Or do you say you’re only running 15 laps on the Ultra Soft, so you’re happy to compromise the qualifying pace in order to have a better race for the rest of the 56 laps, once you switch to the Super Soft tire.” A clue there: the teams may think Ultra and Super Soft are the way to go on Sunday.
“We’re trying to gather as much data to feed into our simulations. We also work out what the overtaking chances are, because if you can’t overtake, you have to put more focus into qualifying. Here it is possible to overtake, so that information gets fed in. But we lost a lot of time in FP1 due to an ERS problem, so we didn’t gather as much data as we wanted, and after missing the first session when fellow Mexican Alfonso Cellis took over the car, Sergio Perez spent a fair bit of time in the afternoon getting up to speed.”
So there are plenty of things that Force India and every other team have to contend with. Here in Austria, many have turned up with new upgrades on the car, to help contend with the change from a track in Baku which has the second-lowest average cornering speed of the season, to one that has the highest average of the year. It’s a massive change. But as the track rubbers in, some of the problems with set-up on a Friday disappear when it comes to Saturday and qualifying, which means some things are simply ignored.
So how did the day go for Force India? Green explained that it wasn’t all plain-sailing. “Today we struggled more than we anticipated, which gives the engineers a lot to do as they work late into the night. They can expect to clock off at 1am before returning at 8am on Saturday morning. The curfew that prevents teams working all night at least affords the crews a few hours’ sleep.”
Green expects the problems that Force India had today to be solved. “They’re not problems we haven’t solved before, and we have an incredible team working back at the factory to help with the solutions. It’s up to the engineers here at the track to cherry-pick those solutions and use them as we head out for final practice on Saturday morning.”
It’s been a good season for Force India so far. They sit fourth in the Constructors’ table, the position they finished last year, and are 42 points clear of Williams, their nearest rivals. Not that they’re resting on their laurels. This is a team that Andrew says puts pressure on itself to make sure they get the car in what they believe to be its optimum place, after which there’s no more they can do.
“We won’t stop until we get into that position, and that’s what we do every weekend. Sometimes it’s nicer to have a car that’s close to where it should be at the start of the weekend, but that can also lull you into a false sense of security. Sometimes a good Friday can make you take your eye off the ball. When you get back on the track the next day, you realize the others have been working harder overnight and suddenly they’re going faster. Because the car is never at its optimum, we ensure that that never happens, and we’re lucky that we have two drivers that always point us in the right direction when it comes to their feedback.”
Those drivers are Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, who grabbed their fair share of headlines in the last couple of races and even managed to crash in Baku. Whatever the fall-out from that, the team still trust them implicitly, and the engineers’ reliance on the man at the wheel is clear. “We have complete confidence in where they feel that we need to go,” Green says, “And that’s so important, because it means you’re never wasting your time.”
Even with three hours of practice, there’s certainly no time to waste. Not for any Formula 1 team, as they head into the important parts of the weekend, qualifying and the race to come, where Force India will once again do battle with the bigger budgets ahead of them and hope that practice makes perfect.