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A tough learning curve

Brad Spurgeon , Oct 14, 2012 International Herald Tribune
rookie error: Romain Grosjean, driving a Lotus, caused a costly mistake  at the Belgian Grand Prix last month, ending the race of two title contenders. AFP

It’s important for the drivers to polish their skills at smaller teams before moving up the ladder.

Formula One drivers have mostly been preparing to race at the highest level since they were children. For many of the greatest drivers, the rise to the top involved first joining a smaller team where they completed something of an apprenticeship in a racing job that compares to none other in its demands and intensity.

But as the series moves towards the climax, more and more drivers have started out at top teams. This has lately proven costly both to those drivers and to their rivals on the grid, raising the question of the importance of that time-honored apprenticeship.

Now two-thirds of the way through his first full season, Romain Grosjean, a French driver at the Lotus team, has had more costly errors and accidents than he has had great results. The biggest of these was his crash at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix on September 2, when he bowled out two of the title contenders at the first corner. For that, Grosjean was banned from a race and fined $64,560.


Before this year, Grosjean, 26, had raced only half a season, in 2009, so he came into the 2012 season as nearly a rookie at a top team: Lotus is currently fourth in the series, and Grosjean’s teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, is third in the series. Because he is at a top team, Grosjean’s errors have been more visible than those of the series’ only other rookies this year, his fellow Frenchmen Jean-Eric Vergne of Toro Rosso and Charles Pic of Marussia.

Vergne and Pic, who are both 22, have also made rookie errors, but each has paid far less than Grosjean. For knocking off another driver, Vergne was fined €25,000.

At the Singapore Grand Prix three weeks ago, Pic was penalised for passing another car under a red flag when a practice session had been stopped because of an accident. He had 20 seconds added to his race time in Singapore and was required to perform a day of community service for the International Automobile Federation’s road safety programme.

“Most of the time people forget that it is my first year in Formula One and I am always fighting in the top 10,” Grosjean said recently. “It is perhaps not as easy as learning from the back. And you see the mistakes more as well.”

But Lewis Hamilton, a driver at the McLaren Mercedes team, whom Grosjean knocked out of the race in Belgium, pointed out that the Lotus driver was not a complete rookie.  “He’s had a bit of an apprenticeship,” Hamilton said. “He came to the team a couple of years ago. We had a similar incident together in 2009.”

Hamilton himself joined Formula One with the top McLaren Mercedes team in 2007 and nearly won the title that year, before taking the crown in 2008 at 23. But he had been signed up by McLaren in his days as a go-kart driver, and the Formula One team supported his career through the lower categories.

“I had the longest apprenticeship of any other driver here; I started when I was 13,” Hamilton said. “I did a lot of work on the simulator. And they put me through a lot of drills and that’s why I arrived at the first race and I was able to do good things.”

The double world champions Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, currently first and second in the championship, entered the series more slowly. Both started at the same team, one that is known for its apprenticeships of young drivers.

In 2001 at the age of 20, Alonso joined what was then the Minardi team, where he raced for a year before continuing his apprenticeship for a year as a test driver at Renault. He raced at Renault in 2003 and won his first race, before winning the titles in 2005 and 2006.

Vettel, after serving as a reserve driver at the BMW team, where he replaced an injured driver in a race in 2007, joined the former Minardi team, which had been renamed Toro Rosso, in 2008. At age 21, he scored his first victory at the team that year. The next year he joined Red Bull, and went on to win the drivers’ titles in 2010 and 2011.

“When you start in Formula One, you really need to go through a phase of apprenticeship, that’s for sure,” Pic said. “It is different in so many areas. For instance, in the GP2 series, you have just one engineer to speak to in order to improve all parts of the car — the tyres, the mechanical aspects, the aerodynamics, etc — whereas in Formula One you have a specialist for each part of the car and have to work with them all. That changes the whole way of working — and you must learn it.”

“You also learn the car setup, and even the racing itself, where there is a whole new level of strategy,” he added. “In GP2, you just have one pit stop to make and there’s not too many different choices for that. In Formula One, you can make several, you have to choose when and what tyres.”

“Even on the level of the media it is a huge change as well, with media speaking to you all the time,” Pic said. “And there are more races and you have less time for yourself, so you must adapt to that.”

Norbert Haug, the director of the Mercedes motor sports programme, which owns the Mercedes Formula One team, said that it all really depended on the driver, but that the younger ones need to learn.

“If you have a young guy, he needs to learn,” he said, adding that with fewer chances to test the cars than in the past, the preparation is not as good as it used to be in a Formula One car.

Heikki Kovalainen, 30, a driver at the weak Caterham team, started out at two top teams, Renault and then McLaren. He believes that because he did not have as much time to learn within those crucial early years, he paid for it. He said he is now much stronger than he was then, having since learned many lessons.

“In my case, the year that I did testing I thought was plenty and I thought I was ready straight away to deliver strong performances, but I wasn’t,” he said, referring to a year spent testing for Renault in 2006 before he started racing.

“I think perhaps I needed more coaching on the race tracks at race weekends,” Kovalainen said. “It was clear that when I arrived in the Formula One race seat, I seemed to lose out to drivers like Lewis Hamilton, whereas before that I was on a par with them.

“It wasn’t just a case of speed, it was about learning to set up the car, work with engineers and how to develop the car through the year,” he added. “I think I learned that slowly. The second half of the second year, at McLaren I was not able to really work well and give good feedback to the team, and in consequence I lost the position there.”
Still, he did win the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2008 driving a McLaren.

“I feel I am much stronger physically and mentally now and there is nothing that phases me in Formula One now,” Kovalainen said. “But I don’t think I would have changed anything. I am much stronger now than if I had just gone into a good car and been performing strongly. I was a bit naive, perhaps, at the beginning.”

At the race in Singapore, however, it was the rookie Vergne, the youngest and most inexperienced driver in Formula One, who was knocked out of the race by the seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, at 43 the grid’s oldest, most experienced driver.
Schumacher made an error of judgment and plowed into the back of the Frenchman’s car, knocking both of them out of the race and receiving a 10-spot penalty on the grid for the race at Suzuka this weekend.

“Even the most experienced driver on the grid can make mistakes,” Vergne said.

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