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.
The first round of the 2017 FIA Formula 2 Championship opened in Sakhir, Bahrain under unsurprisingly hot and sunny conditions, with Oliver Rowland the first man to put himself on the top of the timesheets for a session: the Briton stopped the clocks at 1:42.221 just nine minutes into a session which saw track temperatures soar to 45 ̊C. But it was a close run thing: Artem Markelov was less than a tenth off his time, with Charles Leclerc just over it.
If the practice session would be indicative of the race pace for many on the grid, it would have little bearing on qualifying: the session took place in the markedly cooler conditions of the evening, with Leclerc claiming the bragging rights (and pole) with a stunning single lap time of 1:38.907, betting the house on running on an empty track in the middle of the session with his rivals unable to capitalise following a VSC period at the end for a crash between Gustav Malja and Nabil Jeffri, growing the margin back to PREMA teammate Antonio Fuoco and Nyck De Vries from less than a tenth to almost eight tenths.
“That was stressful!” he laughed afterwards. “It was the first session of the year, and we never really know what to expect from the others. To be honest, my team and my engineer have done an amazing job with the set-up of the car. It was amazing. I was not really happy with my first lap, but we were still P1 which was a bit surprising to me. And on the second lap, I managed to put everything together although I lost a little bit in the last corner, but apart from that it was a really good lap.
“We are quite happy as well with the strategy: we did one push on the first set to keep the tyres for the race so we know we have better tyres for the race. It looks good!”
Back to the desert heat for the feature race, and Markelov was about to claim first blood in the championship: the Russian made a tremendous start from P7 (having been impeded the previous evening in qualifying) to P3 behind Leclerc and Norman Nato, with the Frenchman moving forward early in the race. But Markelov was biding his time and preserving his tyres, so when Nato (lap 15) and Leclerc (lap 16) stopping well before the Russian (lap 17), giving him the opportunity to lean on his tyres harder, with Markelov claiming the top spot with 2 laps to go before winning by almost 8 seconds.
“My engineer was always saying to me that I had to be patient and it will come to me at the end, and it was a really nice strategy to win the race! I have to say thanks to my engineer and my team for this great result. I learned a lot from last year about managing the tyres, and that was what really helped me here in this first race: hopefully we can win the next race as well!”
Just to increase the drama, Leclerc made a pitstop in the sprint race and still ran home the comfortable winner: PREMA had two options, one with a pitstop and one without, with the Monegasque driver opting for Plan B after picking up early tyre degradation and pushing hard for the lead of the race before stopping for a set of options and pushing hard all the way to the line to reclaim the lead and win what looked like one of the toughest races of his career.
“It was an unbelievable race!” he laughed afterwards. “At the start we were still hesitating between Plan A and Plan B, and after some laps I found myself in P2 and decided to call for Plan B and push, because the degradation was already hard at the beginning. So I began to push and I could stay at a good pace for a long time on the prime, we stopped at the right time on the lap we wanted to stop and went on the option, and to be honest until the last 4 laps I didn’t believe we could catch up until Luca and Oliver started to fight for quite a long time, and we managed to win. I have to thank my engineer for a great car and a great strategy: it has been good!”