Saturday, 17 May 2014

Lewis Goes Spare

I'm ready to call it: Lewis Hamilton will be this year's World Champion. Pretty safe bet, I hear you snort, and you'd be right. But four wins out of five (and four in a row) isn't why I'm making it. I'm making it because we've now raced (and tested) at Catalunya, and it turns out there is no obvious weakness in the Mercedes W05. I thought the Red Bulls would maybe close the gap on such an aero-centric track; I didn't expect them to qualify more than a second behind. Predicting who will win the championship before a race at Catalunya is a vastly different game from predicting it after. But that's not the only reason either.

Y'see, I've also been reading Working The Wheel, a neat little paperback by Martin Brundle (reviewed it on Goodreads, if you're interested (and have Goodreads)). Martin's become the Voice of F1 since Murray Walker hung up his microphone, but his worthiness as a broadcaster is based on his earlier worthiness as a racing driver. Brundle raced through roughly a decade of Formula 1, with a little Le Mans action on the side, and in that time he counted both Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen his team-mates. The man knows what he talks about, in other words.

Working The Wheel is a solid little read because it plays to his strengths i.e. being able to come across as One Of Us even as he's talking us through something an elite few ever get to experience. Happily he writes like he talks, to the point I'm pretty sure he just spoke into a dictaphone and let Maurice Hamilton insert the paragraph breaks and whatnot to turn it into written text. But I was watching the Spanish GP just after reading the chapter on the Hungaroring, which was handy because there Brundle talks about something I noticed in the winner of this year's Spanish Grand Prix as well.

It's 1994. Michael Schumacher is on his way to his first world title, and Brundle is running 3rd in the Hungarian Grand Prix, about to be lapped by Michael. But he's about to cop some pain via Schumacher's greatest asset - spare capacity.

I was on my way to a really solid third place when the team came on the radio and said the battery on my car was starting to go. I backed off and did a number of things to save power. With eleven laps to go, Schumacher, who was leading, came to lap me. That was going to suit me fine because, if he overtook, it would mean, when he completed the race, that I would have one less lap to do. The team reckoned I just might make it, even though the alternator was not working and I was running purely on whatever power was left in the battery. An F1 car is a massive drain on the battery because systems such as the engine and gearbox control units depend on it. These black boxes are power-hungry. But, when they stop, you lose the throttle, the ignition, the ability to shift gears, everything.

I was trying to coax the car home when Michael came up behind me. I moved over and let him through – and that was a crucial mistake. It triggered the thought in Michael's mind that I was too helpful. He immediately got on the radio to enquire about the whereabouts of Jos Verstappen, his Benetton team-mate, who was behind me in fourth place. When he heard that Jos was catching me, Michael slowed right down and I had no option but to unlap myself. If I had stayed behind Michael, Verstappen would have caught me and I would have lost my third place. So I had to go back on the same lap as the leader and prepare to do another 2.5 miles.

Michael also let Verstappen unlap himself; another clever move because, as soon as the leader crossed the line, anyone who had been lapped could not complete the last lap. Now Verstappen and I had to finish the seventy-seventh and final lap.

Sure enough, at the top of the hill between Turns 5 and 6, my car ground to a halt. Verstappen passed me. The fact that everyone else had been lapped and therefore could not take fourth from me was absolutely no consolation. When I finally got a lift back to the pits, I looked up at the podium to see Michael, Damon Hill and Verstappen spraying the champagne. The timing could not have been worse. I was two miles short of standing there myself.

By working that out, Schumacher had shown his mental capacity is one of the things that sets him apart. All the great champions that I've raced against have needed only 70 per cent of their capacity to drive the car while the other 30 per cent is used for reading the track, the race and the politics in and out of the car. If you look at a typical grid, the majority are high-level drivers and there really isn't much more than half a second a lap between them. The difference is their mental capacity. Those who have not had much success in F1 have needed 95 per cent or even 100 per cent of their ability to drive the car, leaving nothing in reserve to sort out everything else that is going on during the course of a race. The incident in Hungary is just one of a number of examples which demonstrate Michael's brilliance in that area. Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda and virtually any past champion you care to mention were all the same. That is why they were so good.

Damn right. "He was a genius," wrote Robertson Davies. "That is to say, a man who does superlatively and without obvious effort something that most people cannot do by the uttermost exertion of their abilities." Schumacher would even ask completely irrelevant stuff like how his brother was doing, so they tell us. And Alonso... well, if Schumacher was the king of spare capacity, then Alonso is Jesus. Pat Symonds has said Alonso has more spare mental capacity than anyone else he's ever worked with, and this is a man who's worked with Schumacher and Senna. Alonso's win in Japan in 2008 was simply incredible, working it all out in his head and asking to come in for fresh tyres so he could drive a handful of qualifying laps and make up the time to leapfrog the pack on strategy. It was intriguingly similar to Schumacher's famous win in Hungary in 1998, except that that was worked out by Ross Brawn, the owlish bespectacled man sitting quietly on the pit wall, talking to his driver. Alonso, by the by, did it all on his own.

And didn't look nearly as smug about it as you'd think. (via

And did you notice something about the way the two Mercedes drivers ran their respective races at Catalunya? Nico was very quiet on the radio, just terse messages in between braking zones. Lewis, however, did nothing but whine all race long - how are Nico's tyres? Where are we on fuel? Why were they showing yellow flags when there was no-one parked on the side of the track? At one point he even asked how much time he lost to Nico in his second pit stop, to which he was told: "Not as much as he lost in traffic, Lewis. Carry on as planned." In other words, "Dude, would you shut up and focus on what you're doing?!"

Whining like a bitch is a bit of a faux pas for elite athletes, but  think about what this means: in the middle of a race, with G-forces trying to pull his heart out through his ribcage, with his rear tyres dying and in need of babysitting, Lewis still has enough brainpower left over to be worried about how much time he lost in that pit stop compared to his teammate. Because that might be the difference between first and second.

That, my friends, has got to be the Formula 1 version of First World Problems. And it's why he'll be champion this year... maybe...

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