Friday, August 5, 2011

Living The Life: Canada #1

[Part of a series of posts in which I detail the events that occur during my first championship season in Codemasters' F1 2010. These will be written in a diary-esque form describing my thoughts and reactions as I participate in each event. Today, part one of my Canadian Grand Prix.]

Now that I have had more time to think about it, our previous round in Turkey was a lot better than it initially seemed. While the final result might not reflect it, Turkey felt like a turn around for us, particularly when it comes to our fortunes. On the back of two woeful rounds that really left us feeling depressed and unmotivated, it was great to turn that around with some positive progress in all of the weekend's sessions, be that Practice, Qualifying or, indeed, the race. Again, our 16th placing might suggest an average round, not a decent one, but Virgin and I came away very pleased with how the Turkish Grand Prix went as a whole, and personally I'm satisfied with my driving again after feeling pretty terrible in Spain and Monaco. I hope to continue this new, inspired attitude this weekend, particularly as it's in Canada -- a country I have always wanted to visit.

I can't really explain why but this country has always been appealing to me. Its beauty is perhaps the obvious answer, those gorgeous mountains and serene lakes and waterfalls making for some awe-inspiring scenery, but I don't know, I feel like it is more than that too. Every Canadian I have ever met, back in Australia before I was racing on the world stage, was a joy to talk to, their attitudes seemingly similar to that of our own. Culturally we also appear to be quite on par, though I will admit that something like that is hard to gauge when you've only met a handful of people. Whatever draws me to Canada and makes it appealing to me, it is great to finally be able to make one of my dreams a reality by visiting it, and especially doing something I love, too: racing cars. Speaking of which, that is my job and while I'm elated to be here, I'm not silly enough to neglect that fact, either, so I'm definitely focused on what needs to be done this weekend. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday Morning, Practice One, Sunny

A typical first Practice session, somewhat marred by some confusing warnings and yet another five-spot grid penalty, my third in as many rounds -- not a trend I want to continue. I had the usual, expected run-offs and moments of running wide as I familiarised myself with the circuit -- something that occurred a lot quicker than I expected it to -- and, as is seemingly becoming the norm, I also took the opportunity to run laps early in the session while my opponents played around with their set-ups and ran installation laps. I quickly learned the track, continuing my ability to get acquainted with new venues easily and with little hassle, and also learned that it was a very enjoyable track to drive -- both because it's quite picturesque, and because it's a challenging circuit with tight corners, a generally twisty feel and, of course, extremely close barriers. In fact, Canada reminded me instantly of a street circuit. It also reminded me of Australia and while that venue is more sweeping than Canada, it's an apt comparison because it actually is considered a street circuit (despite not always seeming like one). Leaves are a significant issue, however, with the low-hanging trees dropping their leaves all over the circuit and then wind (not to mention our cars speeding past) blowing them around everywhere. I think the walls that closely adorn the track are why so many of them are contained within; Australia had a fair amount of leaves as well but they always seemed to float up and over its walls, usually landing in the nearby (and gorgeous) Albert Park lake. It won't affect the progress of the weekend at all, but I did find it interesting and thought it was worth noting. Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is also a deceptive little thing, its corners enticing you to brake late and accelerate early even though that might not actually be possible. It was this, mainly, which caused my little moments during the session but once I recognised that things weren't as they seemed, I was able to adapt and felt a lot more comfortable after that. I even felt like I could push, which was great because usually that doesn't happen until sessions later in the weekend and also because it suggested we were in for a good round, something that was later confirmed. But more on that in a moment; how did the session itself fare?

It went well, I have to say. The aforementioned warnings and penalty didn't help, of course, but overall I was happy with our progress, our pace and how quickly I eased into everything. Turns 2 and 10 were probably the trickiest to get used to, the two hairpins requiring maximum acceleration as early as possible but both also teasing you into pushing too early and causing wheel-spin. Turns 4, 7, and 9, not to mention the final chicane leading onto the main straight, were also tricky, mostly because you get back onto the throttle so quickly but do so as you ride the various curbs, too, which can also induce wheel-spin if you're not careful. Otherwise, the track was great and very enjoyable to drive. Not even my penalty or warnings could hinder my enjoyment, despite the latter confusing me somewhat and the former a silly and unnecessary mistake on my behalf. I got the five-spot grid penalty on my third run, coming back into the pits. I misjudged my entry and was unable to get the speed limiter on in time, so that was classed as speeding in pit-lane and I was subsequently awarded the penalty for my efforts. I could have taken it as a bad omen and gotten frustrated over it, but for whatever reason I took it in my stride and continued on as if it didn't happen -- an approach that, in hindsight now that the session is over, I'm very glad I did. But what about those warnings? Well, I got a few for cutting corners as I ran wide or off on some laps -- something very easy to do here as Canada's corners usually flow in the opposite direction to the one you just went through, a nice example being the final chicane -- but the confusing one was a warning for illegal blocking, as I cruised down the back straight preparing for a new lap. I was well off the racing line and was being followed by a Red Bull but, apparently, I was in the way and I got warned for it. It was confusing because I didn't impede on anyone's hot lap and the Red Bull was also cruising -- and that confusion went on to affect my concentration on the following lap -- but I got over it pretty quickly despite feeling it was a bit unfair. Traffic, too, played its part as it always does, some laps hampered by slower cars and/or bad timing, the most significant examples for this session being Felipe Massa starting a hot lap as I was approaching to pass him, as he was going slow down the back straight, and traffic in the turn 10 hairpin affecting my racing line at times.

Otherwise, the session was great, our choice to change set-up for my third run paying off nicely as it seemed to suit the track (and car) to a tee and allowed me to really get on with my job. Arguably, I did that too well as, at the end of my fifth run, I was surprised to see myself on top of the time sheets as I looked on the monitor back in the garage. At the time I put it down to the frontrunners having not found ideal set-ups or having not used the Option tyres yet, but I was corrected when, at the end of the session, I found myself on top after 30 laps completed. Yes, you read that right, I was on top of the time sheets. First. Number one. Ahead of the Red Bulls, McLarens and the Ferraris! I couldn't believe it -- I still don't -- and was definitely shocked to see that things went that well. I feel like maybe they weren't showing their cards yet or had struggled to find ideal set-ups, but either way I'm totally ecstatic that my name has topped the time sheets of a Formula 1 session, and seemingly so easily, too, as my time set on Primes would have been good enough, let alone the one I managed on Options late in the session. Speaking of which, that time was a 1:17.565, over a second ahead of Mark Webber in second on a 1:18.896 and his team-mate Vettel who managed a 1:18.904. Surely such a result doesn't reflect the weekend? I mean, how can it? How can my Virgin, a car that is supposed to be at the back of the pack, be more than a second ahead of a Red Bull? It can't be, so while I'm very happy with this result I don't expect it to be replicated in the next session. Guess I will find out later this afternoon.

Friday Afternoon, Practice Two, Cloudy

A mixed session, my good laps interspersed with the drama of little mistakes, traffic and a challenging pit-lane. All of my good laps continued to improve my times and lowered them enough to suggest that a 1'16 was possible (on Options), but ultimately I didn't manage it and settled for a low 1'17, instead. Which leaves the more negative stuff.

First of all, I made a lot more mistakes than I wanted to, locking brakes at inopportune times, running wide and either hurting my laps or having to abort them because I was off in the grass (even if only momentarily), and catching wheel-spin sporadically as I pushed the circuit more and more. For the most part these tiny errors are to be expected and are a by-product of trying to push the limits of a track, but I definitely felt like I was making more than I should have been and certainly more than P1, which is where these mishaps should be taking place. It didn't affect our progress too much (if at all), but it was noticeable enough to be concerning to me personally, and I didn't like it at all.

More concerning, however, was the traffic problems. Multiple laps of mine had to be aborted due to cars cruising, being in a different stage of their weekend to mine (for example, being on Primes while I was on Options -- the faster tyres) or because they simply didn't see me in time to move out of the way. One example of this was a moment with Kovalainen, who saw me at the last minute during my first lap of my second run and didn't move aside enough (in time), causing me to take a weird line to pass which sent me wide at turn 6, ruining the lap. I wasn't angry with the traffic problems -- Canada essentially being a street circuit means that I understand how narrow and tight it can be when cars are trying to find track space -- but it definitely played with the general progress of the session, particularly when opponents appeared to gloss over my (and I assume others') presence when they were driving slow. But, if my strange warning from P1 is anything to go by, I'm just as guilty of it as everyone else so it's not something I am complaining about, or want to dwell on for too long -- it was just simply an issue, and because it was a bit more prevalent here than other rounds, it bears mentioning.

Another issue, undoubtedly, is pit-lane. Both its entry and exit is awkward, and both cause troublesome moments depending on who is where on the circuit, and who is either entering or leaving the lane. Anyone who wants to enter, for example, has to do so by crossing onto the racing line for the final chicane. The approach to that chicane is from the left side, to allow for a straighter line through the brief double-corner, and quicker acceleration onto the main straight. Cars entering pit-lane, usually on the right side of the track if on an in-lap, have to suddenly cross over to find the lane, and it can be a problem if someone is on a hot lap and speeding towards the final chicane, only to have someone cross over at the last minute and get in the way. It's particularly bothersome because it's the last two corners of the lap; having a great lap ruined by such a moment is frustrating, and makes all of the work on the corners prior a waste of time. Despite this, I'd say that the exit of pit-lane is worse, simply because of how distracting it can be. There were quite a few times where my laps were ruined because someone was exiting as I was starting my lap and traversing turns 1 and 2. Whether it was getting distracted after turn 1 because cars were straight in front of me, exiting, or awkward moments as people tried to move out of the way as I was taking turn 2, the exit of pit-lane here is tricky and definitely an issue. I get that we all have to exit pit-lane and that it is up to us drivers to manage both ourselves and our competitors in a generous way, and that the way the Canadian venue flows makes it exceptionally difficult for it to be designed differently, but like the traffic woes it bears mentioning because it can (and does) affect people's sessions temporarily. A characteristic of the Canadian Grand Prix, to be sure, but an issue all the same.

Anyway, aside from those problems the session was great and mimicked much of P1. As I said above my laps improved, my confidence around the track developed with each decent lap and ultimately, once again, I ended up on top of the time sheets. Yes, despite thinking it was impossible I somehow managed to repeat my performance of P1 and put my name on the top again, even though it still doesn't feel right and I believe the frontrunners can do better. For whatever reason I seem to be really hooked up with this circuit here in Canada, even with those mistakes, and it's certainly being reflected with the final results. I'm still not going to treat it as a sign to come but it's definitely great to be able to put my name on that top spot, legitimately, and prove to everyone that I can drive and do deserve to be in Formula 1. Will this positive progress continue into tomorrow? Maybe, maybe not (probably not), but regardless of that it shows that I do have the talent required to drive one of these cars, and to compete at the level that I do. My time was a 1:17.552, only slightly better than the time I managed in P1, but still an improvement nonetheless. As I suggested before I felt like a 1'16 was possible but a combination of the aforementioned issues and worn tyres (I used the Options I used in P1 again) meant that it didn't happen. Once again I was a full second ahead of fellow Australian Mark Webber, who set a 1:18.598, and Vettel who achieved a time of 1:18.633 for third. How I can be quicker than the Red Bulls is beyond me -- am I dreaming? -- but I'll take it and, no matter how the rest of the weekend fares, I think I can be proud of my performance so far here in Canada. Bring on tomorrow!

Saturday Morning, Practice Three, Sunny

A bittersweet session, the final result reflecting the positivity of yesterday but marred by mistakes (again) and discomfort in the car.

I don't know, the session as a whole is really hard to describe as I just don't know how I feel. I'm very happy to be on top of the time sheets again (something I will address in a moment), but at the same time I am unhappy with either my performance, the car, or just the events that transpired. Maybe all of the above? Whatever it was, it was a disheartening session, sort of, but the result doesn't reflect that so maybe I'm seeing something that isn't there?

Anyway as I said there were mistakes in this session, a lot more than I would have liked, and perhaps even more than yesterday's P2 session. The session itself started off nicely enough, my form appearing to continue early as I reached second place quickly and decisively, but what followed was a lot of locked brakes, moments of wheel-spin that had to be caught, and confusion as to whether it was me struggling to find a rhythm or the car behaving differently to yesterday. I felt like I was running wide more than usual (suggesting understeer), I was having to back out of laps after catching the car from wheel-spin, and even missing apexes (even if only slightly) was putting a damper on the spirit I had for the session. Combined with the expected traffic woes I described in P2's write up, I just felt like the session was going nowhere even though, upon its conclusion, I was still on top. I only managed to do 17 laps, too, due to constant aborting and coming in early because of affected laps -- be it through my own mistakes or opponents getting in the way. Still, I suppose I shouldn't dwell on it too much because, as I said, I did top the time sheets yet again, continuing my remarkably positive weekend and hammering home the point that I belong here in Formula 1. I just feel as if the session could (and should) have been better than it was, so the impact of my name on top for the third session in a row (even if it is only Practice) is less than it was at the end of the two sessions yesterday.

Anyway I was ahead by a margin again today but it wasn't as big as it was in P1 or P2, Sebastian Vettel closing the gap as you would expect. I set a 1:17.884 (on Primes, which is why it's slower than my previous times) while he managed a 1:18.378, which makes Quali later today interesting if my form continues. Webber followed him for third, setting a 1:18.430, suggesting that it is yet another Red Bull weekend if I stop putting a spanner in the works and start falling to where I arguably should be, at the back of the pack. My team-mate Lucas is certainly there, finishing in 24th in all three sessions so far. I wonder how he is feeling seeing me up the front while he finishes in last -- it can't be good.

A post-P3 interview with David Croft asked how Virgin felt about my qualifying performances, if we're getting the best out of the Practice sessions (by testing new parts and etc.), and if I feel like Virgin is giving me 100 per cent. I responded by saying that Virgin and I are working well for Quali (an answer I thought was mature despite the great outcomes in Practice so far this weekend), that we appear to be on target in terms of new parts and general progress across a weekend, and that Virgin are doing the best they can (for me and themselves) for their first season in Formula 1. Virgin seemed to be happy with my answers, my engineer confirming that my level-headed approach to the weekend despite some great driving is probably the best approach, lest we become complacent, cocky or oblivious to the realities of the sport and our position within it. I agreed with his assessment, and not long after that we started to discuss and prepare for qualifying later today.

So, overall, I'm happy with how I have performed in the three Practice sessions so far but at the same time I do feel disappointed in how P3 fared. It wasn't inherently bad and the 'negative' niggles were minor at best, but something felt off in that session and contemplating what that might be definitely affected how I felt about the session as a whole. We're in a good position and topping the time sheets three times in a row certainly bodes well for qualifying, but I'm not stupid enough to ignore the fact that things change quickly in this sport and that what happens in Practice might not happen for the remainder of the weekend. The transition from our horrible Spain and Monaco rounds into the generally great Turkey one is the only example I need to prove this, so it's with a cautious sense of optimism that I now get ready to qualify. Wish me luck.

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