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Exclusive: How to run a Grand Prix

  1. Twenty minutes to go. Interlagos, like Silverstone and Spa, has the ability to conjure weather systems out of nowhere, although these suddenly leaden skies were always a possibility. All along the pit lane, team principals stare at their radar screens and silently seethe. Nature has departed from the script once again.

    We’re in the parc fermé. This is the severely restricted holding area where the cars go post-qualifying for technical inspection, and remain until Sunday morning. Only FIA personnel are usually permitted in here, unless a senior race team member has been invited to observe, but this weekend - the climax of perhaps the most unpredictable Formula One season in over a generation - Top Gear has secured a Willy Wonka golden ticket-style access-all-areas pass. This weekend, the slightly scary men from the FIA are going to show us how they run a Grand Prix.

    Words: Jason Barlow

    Photos: Darren Heath

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. It’s a mammoth operation, but done with impressively little fuss. Right now, we can see technical delegate Jo Bauer standing behind a small suite of screens at the far end of the garage, flicking between a seemingly endless choice of camera and data feeds. The most striking one collates the images from the ceiling-mounted fish-eye lenses in every team garage, creating an oddly psychedelic effect. FIA media delegate Matteo Bonciani, the guy who has to keep F1’s slavering global media pack happy, laughs as we fixate on it.

    Fifteen minutes. The sea of red in the grandstand opposite swells and heaves. An unrepentantly partisan bunch, it’s all about Felipe Massa and Ferrari. Interlagos is an old-school circuit snuggled into a hill in a run-down but hugely atmospheric part of the São Paulo megalopolis, and, even as the rain closes in, the place still has the sun-bleached feel of F1’s long-gone ‘swirly-sideburns-and-sunglasses’ Seventies heyday. The pressure-cooker resolution of a 20-race championship dynamic between Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Red Bull’s Sebastien Vettel naturally dominates, and Brazil’s lust for life gives this GP an extra fiery kick. To quote one of Murray Walker’s priceless aphorisms, you could cut the atmosphere with a cricket bat.

  3. The FIA garage is at the bottom end of the pit lane. Inside is the weigh-in equipment for measuring cars and drivers, various monitors, an interlocking network of screens and three substantial aluminium sheds, including a dedicated laboratory for fuel analysis. Eleven full-time FIA officials, most of them race-hardened former team mechanics, move about the place with quasi-military precision, but thankfully they’re not quite as intimidating as they look, and there’s a brilliantly bone-dry - and mainly British - sense of humour at large.

    In total, these guys shift more than 14 tonnes of freight from race to race, the ever-evolving mechanisms with which to police a sport that’s hell-bent on staying one step ahead of the rule-makers. What the FIA garage doesn’t provide, however, is a toilet, something I find myself unexpectedly explaining to 2013 McLaren signing Sergio Pérez who has just legged it up from the grid in a clear state of pre-race urinary distress. Then we do the same for Vergne, Hülkenberg, Maldonado and Rosberg. So that’s what they do…

  4. Maybe Alonso, Vettel and the rest have superior bladder control. Or perhaps there’s a software package that optimises pre-race toilet habits. Algorithms certainly seem to govern most other aspects of F1 these days, though even the most ardent Luddite would have to admit that technology now plays an invaluable role in maintaining a level playing field.

    Zero hour. Race director Charlie Whiting triggers the start sequence from his eyrie above the main straight. The 2012 Brazilian GP erupts into life and spears into Interlagos’s tricky Turn One with a 400,000rpm war cry. This climactic race will unfold into an all-time classic - the best they’ve ever seen, Nelson Piquet and Niki Lauda will later note - but it’s all there in those first 30 seconds. Especially when you’ve glimpsed the behind-the-scenes apparatus that keeps it ticking over.

  5. You’ll probably be familiar with Charlie Whiting. A former Brabham mechanic - Gordon Murray’s ingenious 1978 ‘fan car’ was the first F1 car he worked on - Whiting has been the sport’s indefatigable Race Director since 1997. Part of the FIA’s technical working group, he’s one of the key architects of F1’s technical and sporting regulations and oversees their implementation at every Grand Prix. This is plainly no easy task.

    “It is quite formidable,” he admits. “There is a perception that I just sit up here and play God, but it’s not like that at all. We have specialists in every area - engine, gearbox, software - who come to virtually every race. We have a lot of tools at our disposal, but some things you thought were perfectly clear in the beginning often turn out not to be. That’s why it’s important to analyse things properly.”

  6. Fortunately, the proper analysis of things, though controversial in a way that only F1 can be, is also much easier than ever before. We follow Whiting down a flight of stairs from his office and into Race Control, which has a definite bunker feel despite being located on the fourth floor. With its blacked-out windows, the principal focus of attention is the wall of 30-odd full-size monitors at the front of the room. Charlie takes his seat beside the FIA’s official observer Herbie Blash, a similarly silver-haired ex-Brabham figure, and the image is a borderline surreal blend of Big Brother and The Truman Show with racing cars. I wonder how Orwellian F1 can become: “Is there anywhere left to hide? “Certainly far fewer places than before,” Whiting drily observes.

  7. The aim is to deliver the most fastidiously observed, least tortuous Grand Prix possible. The safest, too, given that F1 is the perfect platform for the FIA’s worldwide push for safer roads (the FIA’s Action For Road Safety campaign is a major preoccupation of the President, Jean Todt). The FIA’s F1 medical delegate is Jean-Charles Piette, who is also stationed in Race Control when there is on-track action. The medical infrastructure at a GP is astonishing, including up to six ‘medical intervention vehicles’ and eight ambulances depending on circuit length, a fully equipped medical centre with resuscitation units, and up to 100 support staff trained to deal with all sorts of trauma.

    Piette also visits new circuits seven months in advance, and ensures that the facilities and staff are up to the FIA’s strict requirements, as laid out in a 16-page document. Nothing is left to chance. Piette shows me a rota, outlining ‘extrication practice’. “Every Thursday before a race, we do a full extrication simulation, according to a schedule I have sent the teams in advance. There are six people on each extrication squad, including a driver.”

  8. That’s the worst-case scenario. The FIA’s latest innovation in the search for clarity when it comes to more common race incidents is a system that uses GPS to detect when a driver goes off the track, alerts Race Control, then immediately gathers the image feed from all the CCTV around the circuit, the on-board one on the car, and every FOM (Formula One Management) camera installation. In little more than 20 seconds, this material is collated into a mini-highlights package of the incident in question, thus providing Whiting and his team with a virtually real-time multi-angle repeat of a possible infraction.

    They’ll alert the race stewards if they think it’s something worthy of further investigation, and retribution is swift and unarguable. The consequences of an incident, and a driver’s track record, are also taken into account. (“The best race for us is where we do nothing. None of us takes any pleasure out of penalising a driver. To me, it’s sad to have to impose even a drive-through penalty,” Garry Connelly, chairman of the stewards, later tells me.)

  9. An IT company called Riedel supplies 13 engineers at every race, who install a digital radio network with approximately 1,000 channels, tying together the FIA, FOM and all the teams in one enormous torrent of information. One of the main flashpoints in F1 customarily arises if and when a driver overtakes under a waved yellow. Race Control can now also monitor live telemetry on every car, and overlay a potentially contentious trace with a regular one to determine whether there was a sufficient throttle lift or braking. Penalties can be applied during the race rather than retrospectively, which is better for all concerned.

    When I ask Whiting if he gives the drivers a pre-race pep-talk, beyond the regular Friday evening ‘meeting’, he looks aghast. Not even in a high-stakes championship decider, like today?

  10. “You have to think of it as a normal race, because that’s what it is. Of course, there’s lots at stake, but I won’t talk to them,” he says firmly. “In all my years in this job, I’ve only talked to them on a Sunday morning once, at Monza in 2001, immediately after 9/11 when there were plainly exceptional circumstances. Many of the drivers were jittery that weekend, and nobody really wanted to be there, but we got on with it… Look, I have the utmost respect for these guys. I’ve always said: ‘You are the best drivers in the world. Prove to us that you are.’”

    As he prepares himself for the start - a process that can be done from Race Control as well as on the gantry - I wonder if it’s something he ever truly gets used to. “I would be lying if I said I was unmoved by it. Yes, you get nervous, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t. I was extremely nervous the first time I did it. But I don’t have any superstitions or rituals. That’s just asking for trouble.”

  11. Whiting obviously works very closely with the FIA technical delegate, Jo Bauer. An intense figure during a race weekend, Bauer is an unflappable and affable German, and someone whose bullshit detector is presumably extremely finely calibrated. Remember, any F1 technical infringement since 1997 will have been rumbled by this man and his team of experts, which effectively boils down to 11 hard-pressed individuals versus the highly paid engineering wizards all along the pit lane, some of whom are there specifically to find and exploit loopholes in the regulations. “It’s a complex role. I couldn’t possibly do it on my own,” Bauer admits. “Basically, we make sure that what is in the rules is obeyed by the teams during an event.”

    If F1 conjures an unholy Venn diagram that mixes sport, money and politics, Bauer is the man who often finds himself stuck in the intersection. “There’s a big pressure, and it doesn’t get any less,” he says. “When you write a report to the stewards, you have to be 100 per cent. You have to look down every avenue, every sideways area. If it goes to the Court of Appeal, these guys have enormous resources, and they employ lawyers who will try everything.

  12. “For example, I remember the controversy over the legality of Ferrari’s barge board [in 1999]; the lawyers analysed every single word. They debated the meaning of the word ‘across’, and whether it also meant up and down. [pause] What I learned from that business was that, to me, 10 is five plus five…”

    Rule-bending, Bauer agrees, is more difficult these days, and he also acknowledges that F1 is to some degree self-policing (i.e. the pit lane isn’t slow to grumble about a rival’s suspicious new technical ‘innovation’). In 2012, the devil is in the detail to such an infinitesimal degree that a couple of the teams were reprimanded for playing with their engines’ torque map in such a way as to introduce an element of traction control. The advantage was only measurable in the hundredths of a second, but it was still an advantage, such is the competitiveness of contemporary F1.

  13. Back in 2005, one of Bauer’s guys, Kris De Groot, rumbled BAR-Honda’s extra fuel tank, which allowed the car to run further in the race and also underweight. “If we find something, it gives you a little bit of satisfaction because it means you are doing your job properly,” Bauer concedes, “but you have to remember the pressure behind it, and all the consequences. It can take a long time because you need to be 100 per cent certain of what you are saying. Luckily, I only have to find these things and make a report to the stewards. If a team gets disqualified, OK, someone with a big brain might have tried something clever, but a penalty affects the whole team, all the mechanics, and staff. And I don’t like that.”

  14. The 2012 Brazilian GP keeps everyone busy. Bernd Maylander gets two outings in his AMG SLS safety car, the four stewards - including eight-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen - have incidents to chew over, and the whole championship is hurled into chaos two days later when some footage turns up online that appears to show Vettel ignoring a waved yellow. Surely not?

  15. Not, as it turns out. Never mind all the hi-tech, a marshal waved a green flag, unsighted by the TV feed but spotted by the new world champion. “The toughest race of my entire career,” Vettel tells Top Gear afterwards. “The best Grand Prix I’ve seen since I started this job,” Jo Bauer says with a satisfied smile.

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