The pinnacle of international motorsport, Formula One (F1) represents the ultimate in speed, skill and bravery. On track, 24 of the world’s finest racing drivers dice wheel-to-wheel at more than 300 kilometres per hour (kmph), with their 750 brake horsepower (bhp) hand-built prototype cars dripping with cutting-edge technology.
It’s fast, glamorous and a global sport.
In 2012, though, F1 is beyond competitive—it’s white-hot. The return of 2007 world champion Kimi Räikkönen after a two-year sabbatical has made for an unprecedented six world champions on the grid. Additionally, the first seven races had seven winners across five teams and that exemplifies the intensity.
India, therefore, is in pole position for a truly spectacular race on 28 October. Reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel’s recent wins in Singapore, Japan and South Korea have catapulted the Red Bull driver into the No. 1 slot, ahead of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso—Vettel is now ahead by six points with four races to go.
The inaugural race last year was hailed as an instant classic, with the 16-turn, 5.125km Buddh International Circuit (BIC) in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh, impressing those on the ground as well as anyone watching on TV.
“The track is fantastic—the organizers have done a great job,” said 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton after two Friday practice sessions last year. “It’s fast and flowing, the grip-level is fantastic, the run-off areas seem to be good, and the kerbs are probably the best of any circuit we visit.”
The circuit layout is rated highly by the drivers, with BIC featuring elevation changes, a high-speed section, a long back straight where the cars can reach 320 kmph, along with a banked double-apex “mini-arena” that looks incredible on TV.
“It’s a good track with good Formula One corners, there are quick left-rights and you can take a lot of the corners in fifth gear,” said Red Bull Racing-Renault driver Mark Webber upon his first taste of the circuit.
“Turn 3 is a unique corner. It’s slow, but it’s uphill and quite extreme on the elevation. Turn 4 is also not straightforward, so they’re both challenging, and I like the two quick chicanes—they’re enjoyable.”
Alonso was equally impressed with the circuit located just 40km from New Delhi. “It’s nice that the track is wide in some corners,” said Alonso at the inaugural event. “It will add to the spectacle, because it means you can take different lines.”
The qualifying conundrum
While the war at the front of the grid—and the top of the championship table—boils on ferociously, Indian F1 team Sahara Force India are locked in their own battle in the constructors’ (team) championship—Force India are currently in seventh place with 89 points, behind Swiss team Sauber at 116 points.
The Britain-based squad, which is co-owned and run by UB Group chairman Vijay Mallya, began life as Jordan Grand Prix in 1991. As Jordan, the outfit took four wins, two pole positions and two fastest laps before it was sold by eponymous owner Eddie Jordan in 2005.
The team then went through various owners—and became Midland MF1 Racing for 2006 and Spyker F1 in 2007—before being sold to Orange India, a consortium led by Mallya and Dutch entrepreneur Michiel Mol.
Now known as Sahara Force India (Sahara India Pariwar bought a stake last year—it owns 42.5% in the team, Mallya owns another 42.5%, and the Mol family’s holding is 15%), the team has put in some impressive performances, including pole position and second place at the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix. Last year, the squad finished sixth in the constructors’ championship, its best result yet—and the aim this season is to repeat that.
In developing the team, there have been some shrewd moves. A technical partnership with McLaren Applied Technologies has enabled the team to run race-winning gearboxes and hydraulics; while Mercedes-Benz high-performance engines provide the “class of the field” 2.4-litre V8 powerplants.
In 2012, the team has shown strength—most recently at the Singapore Grand Prix, where both drivers, Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg, looked quick and challenged the top teams on pace all weekend. The podium hasn’t been reached yet, but two fourth places have cemented progress.
While immediate results are important, the team is focused on its return to the sharp end of the grid. For Sahara Force India chief engineer Jakob Andreasen, it’s as much about developing the drivers as the cars.
“This year is a development year for the drivers and a part of our plan is to bring both the drivers up to a Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso or Sebastian Vettel (world champion) standard,” he says.
Qualifying plays a major part in F1—and, since 2006, it has comprised three knockout sessions. At the end of the first 20-minute session (Q1), the slowest eight drivers (in positions 18-26) are knocked out, their positions set for Sunday’s grid. At the end of the next 15-minute session (Q2), the slowest eight (in positions 11-18) are again knocked out—leaving the fastest 10 from Q2 to enter a 10-minute Q3 session to try for pole position. It’s an almost non-stop fight against the clock.
“You have to have the right mental approach for the whole race weekend,” says Andreasen. “Particularly the top drivers treat qualifying as a single entity, and not necessarily segregated into the Q1, Q2 and Q3 sessions. They’re basically building up.
“One of the things we’ve wanted to develop with our drivers is to bring them to that level, so it’s not a surprise getting into Q3 and actually, it’s been the plan that if they don’t get into Q3, it’s a disappointment.
“Paul recently has shown that. He’s incrementally improved throughout qualifying and in Q3 (in Singapore), he’s banged in the lap time and for us, that’s the norm. That’s what we expect. That is the Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel level.”
Andreasen, however, knows the pressure on the team’s two drivers, both of whom are highly respected in the F1 paddock. “The guys are still young and it takes time,” he says. “It’s not an instant thing. It’s not something they just wake up and get into F1 and it’s natural. It’s tough. Qualifying is tough. We never stop and we push them hard.”
Inside the garage
Slip behind the scenes into the garage—the realm of the super VIP—and you understand first-hand how the teams operate, with a cool-headed methodical approach. Though the challenge out on the circuit requires Olympian-level fitness—with F1 drivers regularly having to withstand up to 5G (G-force is the pressure gravity exerts on an object when it is accelerating relative to free fall)—the garage is normally a haven of calm, well-suited to dealing with split-second decisions.
The cars are flanked—at opposite sides of the garage—by long benches, from where race engineers analyse performance, build strategies and request changes from the mechanics. You’d expect it to be something approaching frantic, given the intensity of competition, but the quiet concentration with which the work is done is astonishing. Once the car leaves the garage, up to 30 people stand (crews, who work directly on the cars, are limited to 47) glued to the monitors, just quietly watching the action.
“This is only a small part of the whole team,” says Andreasen. “Back at the factory, we have a team supporting us through what we call the ‘mission control’.”
Many of the teams utilize a mission control set-up, where members of the outfit based at the factory interact with and advise those in the garage via a direct link. Away from the huge pressure of the race track, mission control can calmly look at car set-up options, race strategies, reliability issues and more—all in real time. Many of the teams even run a driver in the factory simulator during the practice sessions.
“In some ways, that’s a nice place to be because that’s a quiet and air-conditioned environment where they can make decisions,” Andreasen says. “For example, at the track, we may be more emotionally involved, whereas they make more cold decisions based on facts.
“They’re looking at the data and all the TV screens and they have a lot of resources to pull on, such as designers who are at hand.”
While team engineers at the circuit are focused on improving performance ahead of qualifying and the race, the first task is to adjust to the climate, time zone and then establish a baseline set-up to initially adjust the car for that particular track. Once the driver is on the racing line, though, the engineers focus on making the car quicker—making changes to reduce lap time.
“Whether that’s in car set-up or driver coaching or driving lines or anything like that, it’s all part of lap time,” says Andreasen. “Lap time is our job and wherever we can find it we’ll go and get it. So we’ll pay particular attention to that. It’s one of the more enjoyable aspects of the job because it’s quite rewarding.”
For Hulkenberg, who hasn’t raced at BIC before, getting to grips with the circuit begins long before his arrival at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. “The first thing (you do) is that you run a new circuit in the simulator, which is a good preparation,” Hulkenberg explains.
“But when you finally get to the event, you don’t start at zero. You know the circuit, as they are all laser-scanned (every turn and bump of a track is scanned and used in simulators for the drivers to practise before they actually get on the track) now so they’re accurate normally. You would restart at almost 50% or something so you have a good idea of the circuit but obviously once you get there, with the real thing, you just have to find your bearings and your marks again.”
For chief engineer Andreasen, one of the most effective preparation methods is also the most basic—a simple walk around the circuit. “It serves quite a few purposes,” he says. “It’s to look at the track. But it’s important for the drivers because there’s a lot of pressure on them and to do a track walk for an hour and a half, it’s actually a little bit of personal time that they can spend with their engineers and engineering crew.”
The closing gap
Last year’s inaugural race was dominated by one man: Red Bull Racing’s Vettel, who became the youngest ever double world champion with 11 wins and a record-breaking 15 pole positions. India was his final win for the season and he did it in style with pole position, the race win and fastest lap—akin to F1’s royal flush.
The reigning world champion is again in the championship fight after taking his fourth win for the season in South Korea. The German racer is just ahead of Alonso, who has scored points at every race except Belgium and Japan.
“There are a lot of races left and it’s a bit difficult to predict what’s going to happen,” said Vettel in Singapore. “We have to make sure that we finish the races first. The pace is there, even if we are not quick enough to win, then it is good enough to collect a lot of points. We have to make sure we do that.
“It’s a tough championship so far, but we’re still in it. We’re still looking forward to the next couple of races, and obviously, the target at the moment is to beat Fernando.”
Räikkönen, who now lies third in the championship 48 points adrift of Vettel, also has an outside chance. The Lotus driver is still chasing his first victory for the season after a number of podiums and unsuccessful battles for the lead. Also in the mix will be McLaren’s Hamilton, who retired from Singapore with a gearbox failure, and then finished fifth and 10th in Japan and Korea, respectively, gathering 11 points for his efforts.
The 2008 world champion has tasted victory three times this season and recently shocked fans worldwide with his decision to switch to Mercedes AMG from 2013.
Regardless of the outcome, a home grand prix is special—Narain Karthikeyan remembers what it was like to exit the pit-lane last season for the inaugural race at BIC. “It was an incredible feeling. Growing up in India, you would never have thought it possible to have an Indian driver in Formula One or a Grand Prix,” he says. “Those first laps were emotional and it was a fantastic feeling. There was a big crowd even on Friday and you could feel their support through the weekend.”
Stewart Bell is an F1 writer based in Australia and has represented a variety of clients at Grands Prix, including Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper.