If you’re given the opportunity to sit down with a racer like Luca Ghiotto, there’s really only one place to start: are you still looking to win the championship this year? “Yeah, of course,” he states matter-of-factly as we sit down on Thursday ahead of the 4th round of the FIA Formula 2 championship in Baku, Azerbaijan in the hospitality area, before going on to show why his season is already a step ahead of expectations.
“First, all the races so far were the ones where I was struggling the most last year: I was looking forward to July, when it’s all the tracks that I like and was good at last year. And I’m only 21 points behind Charles, which is not a lot. A win is 25 points, so everything is possible: there’s still 8 weekends to go, so there’s a long way to go!”
Hindsight might make it easy to scoff at the likeable Italian’s suggestions, but one bad weekend doesn’t change the point he was making ahead of a mistake in qualifying wiping out much of the round. Going into Baku Ghiotto was one of only 3 drivers to score points in every race up until that point (along with Alexander Albon, who was out with an injury, and Jordan King): not even Charles Leclerc had managed that.
And that was exactly the way he planned it. “For sure to be consistent was one of the targets,” Ghiotto continued, “because last year I was quite up and down, I had some good races and then the next one I was out of the points, so for sure that was one of the main goals. Of course we had the potential to do more than we did until now, and I think the only race where we showed our potential was Barcelona, where we were 2nd: it was probably the only weekend where everything went almost 100% perfect.
“Bahrain and Monaco were not so good, especially in qualifying, but I still could manage to bring some points home, which is always good for the championship. I hope that from now on I will do better: last year the first 2 races were the ones where I didn’t do good races, and even here in Baku I retired. I think I arrived here with zero points last year, so this is already much better than last year! From now on I can do better, because they are all tracks that I know and I like very much, like Silverstone…”
Winning races comes down to getting every detail right, but when you’re pushing to get into a position to fight there are two big ones: qualifying and tyre management. What is Ghiotto doing to get on top of these points, particularly after the tyre problem RUSSIAN TIME suffered in the Barcelona sprint race? “We know that Formula 2 races are about managing tyres: what happened in Barcelona was just too much, it was not normal, but the team found out what it was it will not repeat again.
“But I think it’s about everything: if you start at the front and can be in free air then you can manage the tyres, so one thing is a consequence of the other. First of all I need qualifying to go the same as Barcelona, or on pole if it’s possible, and then of course to manage the tyres because we’ve seen last year that sometimes it’s easy to maybe lose 5 or 6 places when the tyres are gone. Qualifying is important but the races are important too, and we’ve got to improve in every single aspect to be at the top.”
He’s right, of course, but with four poles out of four Leclerc has had the whip hand in every feature race, and there’s no question that a successful weekend flows from qualifying (or a disappointing one, as Baku showed). In qualifying Ghiotto has been close - P4, P2 and P8, with the latter being an outlier because of the way the grid in Monaco is formed - so what makes the difference in qualy to push to the next step, being on pole?
Ghiotto has clearly analysed the season so far, and can see hope in the element so far owned by the Monegasque. “Bahrain was a bit of a strange qualifying because of the crash between Malja and Jeffri: we don’t really know who used the second set of tyres properly and who didn’t, so it was a messy qualifying. Barcelona I was really happy with: in the end I lost pole by one tenth, which is nothing, and I did a different strategy to the others so I could fight for pole, even though when we did testing Barcelona was worse than in Bahrain.
“Monaco was not as much about the car, but was more about some little mistakes I did: Artem was in P4 so the car was pretty good, and what proved that was I overtook 2 cars in the race. We never thought we could overtake in that race, so it shows that we had confidence in the car, but qualifying is only 15 minutes so it’s easier than normal to lose a good lap with traffic or whatever. I think that here should be more like Barcelona, because it’s wide and it’s more like a new style circuit, but we’ll see.”
Again, hindsight makes these comments seem silly, but there is no doubt that Ghiotto was pushing hard for pole in Baku, even though it tipped over into the crash in qualifying which pushed him to the back of the grid for the feature race and broke down his weekend.
But even there, it’s worth taking a minute to look at what the Italian did to rescue the round: he was one of only 3 drivers to risk the alternate tyre strategy, and it saw him leading well until the safety car spoiled his chances, pushing him back to P16 and last at the flag, before a great recovery drive in the sprint race saw him finish P8 on the road and 7th in the classifications, continuing his tremendous run of points finishes.
But back to Thursday, with RUSSIAN TIME leading the teams’ championship, largely because he and teammate Artem Markelov were both scoring good points, with the Russian having only missed out on the points once before Baku. How important is it to have a teammate who can also push hard?
“For sure it’s good, because in the end we always say that the first enemy is the teammate, because he has the same car and everything, so it’s the best comparison you can do. It’s good first of all for the team, because we’re the only team that has drivers on more or less the same points, and for me it’s good too because Artem is a good driver, and really experienced: I learned more in these first 3 races then I learned in all of last year!
“Having 2 rookies in the team means it is always difficult to learn: Trident is an experienced team, but it’s more difficult to learn from someone who talks to you than to have the data in front of you. Now that I have an experienced driver there it’s much easier to look and see where I have to improve. It’s really good for us, and hopefully we can continue to do the same, but it’s one of the things we have to count on: we have been the only team where we’ve always been there [in the points], and if we want to catch up with Rowland and Leclerc it’s one of the things we have to do, to always be there in the front.”
But what is the next step? What gets Ghiotto and the team competing with the leading pair, and hopefully taking points away from them? “Well, first of all I need to have a clean qualifying. One thing I’ve learned is that when you try to do more you end up just doing mistakes, so I have to just be calm and relaxed and do what I can do, because I know that I can.
“For sure the one that has proven to be really fast at the moment is Leclerc but I think, I hope, that he will not always be as fast as he was in the first 3 races. If you look at the gap he had between Bahrain and Barcelona it reduced: in Bahrain he was on pole by quite a lot, which was impressive even if qualy was a bit messed up, but in Barcelona and Monaco it was just one tenth and then one hundredth or something to Albon.
“Maybe he was the only one to have real confidence in his car at the beginning of the season, but now everyone else is getting closer and closer, and this happens many times. Even last year if you look at it, Giovinazzi was further away and then in one moment, bam, he was on top. We don’t have to take the standings after the first race and say this will be the same to the end: there can always be changes during the year, and I think that’s going to happen.”
Ghiotto has been in championship fights before, most notably in 2015 when the GP3 Series title was fought out between the Italian and Esteban Ocon, with Ghiotto winning 5 races to 1 but losing the war by just 8 points to the ART (and now Force India) driver. What did he take away from that season?
“For sure the main thing is to be consistent,” he sighs: it might be a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. “I had some little mistakes during the year, and when I say little mistakes I mean touching someone and losing a little piece of the front wing, which didn’t help during the race. I never had big crashes or lost a tyre - okay, in Monza I stalled, but I had 4 or 5 mistakes which at the end cost me a lot.
“After that year I started to look at everything, even the start of the race, and it’s more important than we think, maybe 50% of the race sometimes. For sure I need to be more calm when I’m fighting, to not be too aggressive or to fight with the emotions, but instead to fight with the brain: maybe also I’m getting a bit older and this is just an automatic thing!
“Of course Esteban is such a good driver, and fighting with him was tough because he’s really fast! I think what I’m missing at the moment is just a little bit of confidence [in the car], because that year the car was really made on me, I could just do whatever I wanted. If I could get to the same point here it would be a good season."
Which is easier said than done. Intrinsically Ghiotto is a brave racer – it was what brought him so much support in his title fight – and perhaps he has relied in the past on his innate feel for a race rather than analysing it in depth. It’s clear that he is changing his approach, but how hard is it to switch just off the immediate reactions and look at the whole race remotely while in the middle of a battle?
“So far this year every time something like that was happening I’ve been calm and relaxed, so hopefully it will continue like that,” he suggests, “but definitely that was something that happened last year when I was still doing some small mistakes. To be honest I’m not thinking so much about that, it’s just something that comes automatically: probably it is due to the fact that I learned that I have to be consistent, from 2015 and also from last year, so maybe it’s something where my brain is thinking more about the races and the final result, not that I have to overtake that guy now.
“The only time when I was a bit back to last year’s mind was when I overtook Cecotto in Monaco, when I said I have to do that, but it worked, so that was okay! I think you just have to be calm, especially here because it’s such a fast car and it’s so easy to do mistakes compared to GP3 or other categories. So I think to be calm is one of the key things: for me the past year and this year are the seasons where being consistent is paying more than in the past.
“I don’t know why, but many people said that I look German sometimes, because I’m not laughing like most Italian people! It’s probably a good thing in this world to be always calm, like Kimi: okay, he’s more than anyone, but it’s still a good thing. For me I’m not doing that to show others that I have no fear or anything, it’s just my way of doing it.”
The old Ghiotto might have reacted poorly to a disappointment like his crash in qualifying, but the new one managed to turn the weekend around and still brought some points home in the sprint race, with the feature the only race of the season in which he hasn’t scored points. As disappointed as he was with the weekend, it’s still a run of consistency that is deeply impressive and, as he pointed out, it’s been in the races at which his previous form was not great. So what does he have for the races he likes?
Bring on July.
Tatiana Calderon, who has recently increased her involvement in the FIA’s Women in Motorsport programme in line with the announcement of her GP3 Series drive with DAMS and her appointment as development driver for Sauber F1 Team, has no illusions about her ambitions within the sport which she calls home: “For me I want to beat everybody: not as a woman, but as a racing driver.
“We all have different strengths and weaknesses, we all have different driving styles, and I think it’s just a matter of pushing the team in the right direction so that you can feel comfortable driving the car. So I don’t think it [being a woman] makes a huge difference, and at this stage it’s my second year in GP3 and I think now that people know I can race and they respect me, and take my opinion as a racing driver rather than as a woman, which I think is great.”
Which is not to suggest that she thinks the FIA’s programme isn’t important. “It’s a huge privilege to represent Women in Motorsport,” she confirms in the GP3 paddock ahead of the first race of the season, “and also to encourage more women to follow their passion, because that’s important. When I grew up there was no one I could actually look up to, anyone in racing, and I think this is a sport where we can compete against men, and to win races.
“I just hope that with my passion I can inspire more people, and we can have more women in the sport in all areas, because they can do really well.”
But what got Calderon involved in a sport in which so few of her countrymen, let alone women, have to date succeeded? First and foremost, it was her older sister. “Yeah, I started with my sister: we both started at the same time but she’s 7 years older than me, so she couldn’t really take it as a profession, for her it was just more of a hobby.
“I tried go karts when I was 9 years old, and I just fell in love with the speed and the adrenaline! For me it was always that: I loved the feeling of driving a kart, and it really got me into this sport. I’ve always been a sport lover, but I found my real passion when I found karting.
“There are 3 of us: I also have a younger brother, but he always said ‘no, this sport is for girls’ – he likes to play tennis and soccer instead! Ironically he thinks we do a really good job but he was not really quick when he started, so he didn’t like it. We used to joke about it because he didn’t like motor racing, although just now he is starting to like it a bit more, but he thought it was just for the girls in the house!”
Living in a country without a huge motorsport tradition, albeit with a couple of big name drivers, meant that Calderon was largely left to her own devices, learning at her own pace about what worked for her: “yeah, I think it was a case of finding my own way, but I always followed [Juan Pablo] Montoya’s career because he was getting into Formula 1 when I was starting, and it made a huge impact on Colombia and motorsport. So I come from that Montoya boom, and hopefully I can make sure that people follow the sport in Colombia again.”
And coming from outside of the traditional motorsport markets only adds an extra level of complication, particularly when you move to Europe and compete with drivers who have raced here their whole lives. “Definitely it was a real challenge: this is not your market, so it’s hard to find sponsors when people don’t look at the races because it’s a small series, and also the culture and the way people work is a lot different.
“Unfortunately in South America we don’t have a really competitive single seater series where we can learn and then come to Europe, so there are many challenges that you face, and of course as a woman it hasn’t been easy to deal with that aspect as well! But I think that you earn your respect on track with a stopwatch, that’s where it really counts, and I can’t believe that I am in this position coming from Colombia where we only had 2 drivers in F1 history, so it takes a lot of effort!”
But that effort is starting to pay dividends, particularly in the form of her deal with Sauber, and Calderon has no regrets about following her dreams: “For me one of the best moves I did was to race in GP3, because you’re here in front of and exposed to the big teams, and that’s where I wanted to be. It’s because I did some good races last year that I got called up to meet Sauber: we kept in close contact during the year, and at the end of the year we sat together and discussed how can we work together.
“For me it’s like a dream come true: I came into GP3 with that objective in mind, I wanted to be picked by an F1 team, and I got that. Now I think the best and the most difficult part starts, because I need to deliver. Of course I have a lot of things to learn, but my goal is to race in Formula 1 and I am taking one step at a time, and they have really opened a door at Sauber. I’ve done already 2 days with them in the simulator, it was positive and they are keeping an close eye on everything I do, so it’s a proper development programme that I am getting from them.”
Sauber are keeping the pressure off Calderon, expecting her to concentrate on her main job, in line with those of her rivals such as George Russell (Mercedes), Jack Aitken (Renault) and Nirei Fukuzumi (Honda) who are in a similar position with the other F1 teams: “definitely my main goal is to do really well in GP3, because that’s what they will measure: the progress I do with their guidance, and the help that I get to develop as a driver. My main thing is GP3, and that’s the best way to show them what I’m capable of.
“I think that this series is one of the toughest, and it’s why you see people going from GP3 to Formula 2 and doing really well, like Leclerc, De Vries and Albon: that means the series really prepares you well for the next steps. Even the people who have done a few free practices or tests in the [F1] car, they’re ready: this is why I think the level is so high here in GP3, and why if you want to move up to there you have to prepare here first.”
And if some of her competitors can sometimes be a bit macho, Calderon is more than ready to show them that she’s racing here on merit: “the other day I saw a Mexican guy I raced against, we race in different series now, but he said I remember one time you passed me on the outside, it was this year at this track at this corner, and that I have never felt so shit in my life!” she laughs.
“I thanked him for saying how it made him feel when I overtook him like that, and for sure it doesn’t make things easier, but at this level you also need to think that yes, it’s a woman, but I also need to be on top, and then slowly but surely they start to respect you.”
And they don’t give out a trophy for P1 of the women, it’s just for P1: “Exactly, thankfully!”
Almost every racing driver would love to be in George Russell’s position. A drive with the most successful team in the GP3 Series? Check. Young driver programme with the reigning Formula 1 champions? Check. But how does it feel to be in the young Briton’s shoes? “It definitely gives me a lot of self-confidence, and makes me feel appreciated for my career and the job I’ve done up to that point.”
But getting the deal is only part of the job: now the hard work begins. “Yeah, exactly,” Russell confirms as we sit down in the back of the ART truck in the Barcelona paddock, with the young Mercedes driver about to make his GP3 Series debut. “They’re obviously invested in me, and they need me to be successful to take me to the next stage of my career, so from their side they want me to just focus on GP3, and to do my job here.”
So for all of those drivers out there hoping to replicate his success, how do you go about building a relationship with a company like Mercedes? “It all kind of started from racing in Formula 3 really,” Russell begins, “and my first relationship with Mercedes was at the end of 2014, where I did a test for them in F3. I consequentially raced with Volkswagen in my first year until at the end of 2015, when they approached me to be a Mercedes Formula 3 driver, which is a pretty common thing: they usually have 1 or 2 a year.
“I then moved to Hitech in 2016 with a Mercedes engine, and they sent me an email asking me if I would like to do a simulator test on their sim. I had a good couple of days of assessment, they thought I was pretty good, and then I had more of a sim role throughout the 2016 season with them before they then decided at the end of the year to make me a Mercedes F1 junior driver.
“So a lot of it was basically off the back of my being with a Mercedes engine in F3, to my role with the simulator and doing a good job there and with my results, and then getting the phone call really.”
What did it mean to get that call? “I wouldn’t say it was a massive relief, but I had been working so hard on my career to let’s say reach Formula 1, and as you go up the ladder you kind of realise it’s not as easy as you think it is: you think if I win I’ll get there, but it’s sometimes not as easy as that at all.
“Throughout the 2015 season I kind of set my sights on DTM: I had a small link with BMW at that time with the DTM scene, and that became my focus. I just thought Formula 1 is out of reach now, and that’s where I’m focusing towards. And suddenly the opportunity came, they offered me the deal to be a Mercedes young driver in Formula 3, and then they said there’s an opportunity of the F1 simulator stuff depending on how you get on.
“I was quite confident at this point, and I thought I need to take a risk here: if I turned it down and committed to the DTM route then the Mercedes thing was off, and I thought I have to take a risk, do a good job, and hopefully they’ll decide that I’m capable enough to be a part of their F1 driver programme.”
Racing careers turn on decisions like that, and so far it seems to be working out well. What has been the most eye opening part of working so closely with an F1 team? “I do a lot of sim work for them, and I’m learning an awful lot just doing that work: how to develop a car, the amount of work they do, and just how a Formula 1 team works.
“Obviously the guys at ART do a wonderful job, but in Formula 1 they just have so much extra data and resources they can use, and just to see how they use that is mind blowing really. To get an insight into this has made me take a bit of information from there, which has helped a lot on the GP3 side of things.
“It’s definitely been a benefit: their sim is so good, so realistic, that it’s almost like doing laps and laps around a real circuit! If I feel like I need to go to Silverstone, for example, and do a couple of laps at the end of the day because I’m not too comfortable with Silverstone, then I ask if they mind doing a couple of laps, they click a button on the computer, and there we are: we’ve gone from Barcelona to Silverstone in five minutes! From that side of things it’s great.”
And away from the circuit do they give you any help? “Yes, what they’ve done is give me a Hintsa Performance coach: a lot of the F1 guys, I think 12 of them, use Hintsa Performance, so I’ve been really lucky because I’ve been given a guy who has moved over to the UK to be my full time trainer, and that’s been a massive help.
“Obviously I was already doing full time training before, and eating well, but since having him here alongside me everything has just gone to another level really. At the stage I’m at in my career now that’s been really important: there’s such a fine line with everything. And I know that at any time I could potentially get a call saying ‘we need you to test here’, and I’ve got to be ready for that, and for the next stage of my career.”
But the focus has to be on the here and now, and Russell knows that, no matter how tempting it would be to hang around the F1 scene, his real priority has to be on his current job. “They’ve given me a pass for the [F1] paddock, which is great and I can go over there anytime I want, but I’ve decided to myself that I’m here to do one job: my main job is GP3, my Mercedes role is secondary, and they’re completely on board with that.
“From their side they need me to go out and be successful this year, and then the next stage of my career will follow from that. But for now my number 1 priority is GP3, and my Mercedes role is secondary.”
He got a double points haul on his debut, and the recent test at the Hungaroring demonstrated that the hard work is starting to pay off when he topped the first day: next stop Austria, to turn the testing results into racing success.
Watch this space.
Julien Falchero has a new way to work, with a little help from a friend
Most people think that the only thing you need to be a successful racer is speed. If a kid has speed, the saying goes, then the rest can be learnt: you can’t learn speed. We’ve all heard this saying, maybe you’ve even said it. But what if it’s wrong? What is speed isn’t all you need?
Julien Falchero came to racing relatively late, compared to his rivals: “it’s the beginning of just my third season in single seaters,” the Frenchman confirms, “and before this I only did 2 years of karting, so I started motorsport quite late at 16 years old.” And he’s fast – even a cursory look at his testing results would confirm that – but he knew there was more to being a successful driver than just speed.
A lot of drivers hire driver coaches, older drivers who have been through the wringer and come out the other side, and they are a great source of information and advice on how to push their career forward. There are plenty of current drivers in other championships who make a decent living on the side helping their charges to improve: it’s a well-established part of the industry.
But what Falchero did was different. Instead of hiring a twenty something hot shoe, he decided to work with a 70 year old Frenchman who has raced for 8 Formula 1 teams. He decided to work with Jean-Pierre Jarier.
How on earth did that come about? “Well, he’s a friend of mine!” Falchero laughs. “I’ve known him for a while, and last year I drove at Monaco and I told him that I needed somewhere for my sponsors to go to see the race: he helped with that, and we met again there and talked.” Something about the chat inspired the French legend. “He decided to look more at the end of my season last year, and then this season he said he wanted to be with me, and to help me for the season in GP3.”
So not a case of choosing a driver coach: Jarier chose him. But what does the elder man bring to the table? “Oh, a lot of things. He gives me a lot of tools: how I have to be as a driver, changing my view from inside the car and outside of the car, some special tools that only an F1 driver knows.
“I have some other people [who help] for the mental side, and for the physical coaching. But he helps me a lot with communications, for example, and I need him for on the track because I don’t have a lot of experience. So he helps me a lot to be more aggressive, some tools that are very important and that I need on the track, so it’s really important.”
It’s likely that some of Jarier’s team members from his F1 days would raise a wry smile at that, considering how famously sharp-tongued the Frenchman could be when he felt that the car wasn’t right (this is the man who was fired after an argument with his ATS team manager in Monaco, and was re-hired in Germany before walking out once again, after all). But perhaps he’s mellowed over the years: certainly Falchero thinks he has been instrumental in improving communication within the Campos truck.
“I think my view outside of the car, when I discuss with the engineers, is much better,” he confirms. “Before when I was talking with my engineer I was starting to say some bad things or I wasn’t using the right words, and he helped me with that: he explained to me that it was really important to have a good relationship with my engineer, and that I needed to be really clear with him, because sometimes you don’t have a lot of time and you need to take a very fast decision.
“He helps me a lot, and I think it’s very important because if you look, for example, at GP3 in free practice we have one run, we go to the box, we have another run, and when we go to the box I need to explain very fast, but very clearly, to my engineer what’s happened on the car. Before I was thinking it’s not very important, but he has helped me to see better, to give me the words to use, very clear words, and not to talk about stupid things that my engineer is not interested in!”
But how does it work, in practice? Some teams take a dim view on having another driver sitting in, listening to all of their hard-earned information, but Jarier is not the usual ex-driver. And team boss Adrian Campos having a similar career probably doesn’t hurt: “yeah, when I said to Adrian that I would work with Jean-Pierre Jarier he was very happy, because it’s not all the time that you have an ex-Formula 1 driver with you!
“We work very close together, and with the team also: the team is very happy that he’s here because he knows a lot of things from Formula 1, and all the time it’s a good advantage for the team. But sometimes he knows that he needs to step back, and at other points he knows that he can help. We work together, and it’s a good team.”
And it doesn’t hurt on the sponsorship side either: “Yeah, this is why he helps me so much on communication. I was not very famous before coming to GP3, but now with him my communications are much better in France, it’s better for the sponsors and everything. We are very close, and am really happy about this.”
So Jarier helps with communications within the team, when time is tight, and also out of the car when he needs to sell his results to the public, and to the sponsors who allow him to be here racing. But that’s not the best part of working so closely with a legend (and driving for another one). No, the best part is when you leave the track with his mentor and his boss: “Yeah! It’s very interesting when you’re at dinner, and they tell you all the old stories from Formula 1: it’s really amazing!”
If life is a lesson, then Julien Falchero is clearly enjoying every part of his education.
There’s no question that drivers have a pretty good life: with families and sponsors who support them emotionally and financially, and a race team to take care of their organisational issues, leaving them to concentrate on training between races, with their time at the track mostly spoken for between debriefs, media commitments, training and time in the car.
But what if you know that you’re in a very privileged position and want to give something back, to help others to get to where you are? Sean Gelael is in the extremely lucky position of being able to race in Formula 2 representing his home country of Indonesia, where he has thousands of fans looking for anything to do with their idol, and he could easily spend what little spare time he has on relaxing or doing something to get away from the stress of a busy race calendar.
Instead, the likeable Indonesian went home between the first two rounds, detouring from Bahrain to Barcelona via Jakarta to present what he hopes will be the first of many lectures for his fellow countrymen who might be interested in getting into the technical side of the sport he loves, but may not know how.
“We always wanted to let the people understand about motorsport,” he started when I asked him what he’d been up to between races, “because we saw how much Formula 1 impacts Indonesia, and it was just the right time after the F1 test. It was actually with the biggest university there (University of Indonesia), and they were keen to do it. First of all it was going to be just a small lecture in a classroom, but the Dean quite liked it and wanted to make it something really big, so we ended up holding it in their auditorium with 800-1000 people.
“It’s not just the Faculty of Engineering that was interested, and that was really good: it shows how much they already know, but also it was a good start to educate the others. They’re the future: we want to make motorsport one of the biggest sports in Indo, and it doesn’t only start with drivers but also engineers, mechanics and other roles. Hopefully, because we have such a big market there, the next generation will go into motorsport even more, because they understand it. “
Gelael and race engineer Gaëtan Jego flew over to make the presentation jointly, but the driver wanted it to have more impact than just a dry speech: “Basically it was a lecture, but we don’t want to bore them with the scientific stuff so much: sports and music always blended together, and KFC has a label and so we had artists coming from there.
“And basically we did the lecture: Gaëtan did most of the engineering stuff, I did what that relates to as a driver, and because there were also human performance people there we tried to understand what it’s like to go through, and basically what motorsport is really about, because they don’t really know. And after that we had like a mini concert, which was fun!”
Speaking with Jego afterwards, the Frenchman was amazed at the enthusiasm from everyone attending, something he had never seen in his student days: “It was incredible how many people wanted to attend, and came to speak with us afterwards. Engineering is a pretty dry subject in Europe, and there’s a well-established path to get to here, but they’ve never had anything like that.
“They were so happy that we came all that way to speak to them about it, so keen to learn: I really hope it’s something we can do again, because I really enjoyed it. And the concert was pretty good too!”
Gelael is keen to continue, perhaps with a more formalised agenda, although the life of a racing driver doesn’t exactly afford him a lot of time for extracurricular activities like this: “Hopefully the people there were really happy that it happened: we’d love to do more of that in the future, but unfortunately we’re rarely there. Hopefully we can do something in the off season, or in the mid-season break.
“It’s not only about the racing drivers and having the infrastructure to go racing, that’s just one bit, but there are people who are really smart, really into motorsport but don’t know where to go, and I think it just paves a good way to understand more and to see what can really happen. And that’s one of the things that we want to do more: they support us a lot, and I think to give something back is just really good.”
Of course, as he progresses in his sport he’s only likely to have less spare time, and something else that took up a few precious days off was his first Formula 1 test, with Toro Rosso in Bahrain following the race weekend. A few car issues minimised his early running, but once they were resolved Gelael put in 78 laps, living a dream he’d had since he was a young boy watching his heroes on television.
How did it feel to finally get out on track in a Formula 1 car? “It was great! It was a great opportunity to drive an F1 car, so a big thanks to everyone who made it happen: it’s very humbling to have such support from a lot of the Indonesian people, who not only supported me all the way here [in Formula 2] but also at the test. That was very encouraging, and it shows how much support there is for motorsport in Indonesia.
“We had some problems in the morning which shifted the schedule a bit, but that’s racing. Everything else went quite smoothly, I was quite happy with that, and I hope the team and I were satisfied with everything: hopefully in Hungary and Abu Dhabi we can do more.”
What was the moment like when he put your foot down and felt that power? “I think you kind of expect it, because the preparation beforehand was so good. In F1 there are a lot of steps, or modes, and they took it quite step by step so you don’t feel the impact straight away: it’s more gradual, and it just helps you adapt quicker.
“Red Bull has a great sim that helped a lot, and to just be with the team and to understand the procedures and how they like to do it, you pick up small things every day, and in the end you just try to be as ready as you are. Luckily Pertamina Arden are really close to Red Bull, and they helped with just smoothing things along. I think communication is the biggest thing, and because of them everything went smoothly.
“It’s booked now for Hungary and Abu Dhabi for the young driver tests [with Toro Rosso]: it’s still a long way away, and the primary target is still to do well in F2: I just have to work hard here, and hopefully this weekend we can show our true pace.”
Racing drivers are always looking for a competitive edge in their fight to achieve their dream, for help to achieve the points and wins that add up to a tilt at the title. Nyck De Vries has enjoyed close ties to the McLaren-Honda team for seven years of his racing career, and when the fabled F1 team offered him a bigger role within the team by working in their simulator he didn’t have to think about it for long.
“My close involvement with work on the simulator started this year,” the Dutchman noted between sessions at the Bahrain International Circuit during the first Formula 2 race weekend of the season. “In the past I wasn’t really involved with the simulator, not even for my own needs, but from this year I will be highly involved with the team where I can to develop the car and assist them if I can, when our weekends don’t clash.
“For example, last week I was in Woking all week to do China race reports, so on Friday morning I came in at 2.30am to match the China timings, but unfortunately we didn’t see much running [because of the weather]! But we were there to assist where we could, and McLaren operate the simulator to test just as it would be on track.
“It was the first time I’ve done the China race report, and it was quite fascinating to see that everyone arrives so early, everyone arrives in team kit, and the restaurant is open especially for us, and to make lunch and dinner at strange times! It feels like a group of people completely there to support the race team on the other side of the world, and it’s quite nice to be part of that: obviously you have to wake up at crazy times, but you like to be there together and to support the race team wherever we can.
“It was a cool experience, and hopefully later in the seasons we’ll run a decent times, and actually get some running in FP1 and FP2!”
McLaren aren’t a charity, and naturally the simulator work is set up to improve the F1 car rather to train a driver, no matter how closely he has been linked to the team. But is there an advantage to be found for a young driver? “I think it’s a win win situation,” De Vries asserts, “it’s good for me to be always working in my sport, developing my feedback and my skills, working with engineers and learning about the techniques and the physics behind everything, and to see how much work those teams are putting into the final result, so that is only an advantage.
“I think nowadays our generation of drivers have to learn to take something from the simulator, because unfortunately we don’t get as much track time as they used to, so you have to continue to develop and practice your skills, which is done with the simulator. And it’s the first thing I’ll take away from it, because going through driver techniques and compare overlays with other drivers is helping me as much as I can help with the car. It’s a net positive, definitely.”
And what about Rapax? What does the team he races with in his day job make of all the work he’s doing with the senior team? “There’s not so much [to tell them] as mainly we’re working on simulator work for McLaren on Formula 1. But, for example, I’ve never been to Baku before, and Monaco will be a very good track to practice, so for sure we sometimes get some time to run those tracks and combine it with their testing and my preparation, which is good.
“Rapax have been really supportive, and obviously they think it’s a good thing. Running in the McLaren simulator on various tracks means I don’t need so much time in Italy in a simulator, too. And just to be part of how they run it, how they operate, they really use it as a tool to develop the car, to test and assess parts, they will use it to see if it helps them or not.
“After Bahrain I’ll have a couple of days back home and then back to Woking to some data work, so around my F2 season I’ll be mostly occupied with work for them. Every day is different, every day has new things to test, develop and check, and the main objective is to help them to develop the car where we can, and to assist the racing team.”
The other advantage of the relationship is that it certainly does no harm to have a Formula 1 team monitoring your progress. But how closely do McLaren follow the young Dutchman? “Clearly by being more closely involved with the team, even though I’ve been there for seven years, you feel that your relationship with everybody, not just an engineer but everyone who is involved, the relationship has grown.
“For example, this morning I walked through the paddock and I saw a few people outside, so I went over to say hello and we had, well, not a coffee but a water [laughs] and you feel that, because you are more involved you are more part of them, and they will definitely look at what I’m doing and support me where they can.”
And after a double points score in his maiden F2 race weekend De Vries is giving them plenty to support, with more to come.