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.”
Charles Leclerc was the target for the rest of the grid as they arrived to glorious sunshine at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona, coming into Round 2 as the championship leader after a strong performance in Bahrain.
If the pressure got to him he didn’t show it, beginning as he meant to continue by topping Friday morning’s free practice, a relatively quiet session given the number of miles everyone has put in there, with Alexander Albon and Sergio Sette Camara following close behind the Ferrari Academy driver.
Very little changed in the few hours before qualifying, which had the same result: Leclerc had to work for the result, with Luca Ghiotto looking like he’d done enough to secure the top spot just before a red flag with 5 minutes remaining, but the Monegasque pushed hard and secured pole against the odds in the last minute of the session, just ahead of the disappointed Italian and Nyck De Vries.
“I didn’t quite get it right in sector one,” Leclerc admitted about his best lap, “but we caught up in sector two and three. I’m really happy to be on pole for the second time because there was a red flag, and then a yellow flag in the last sector, but we arrived just as it turned green so we had a little bit of luck, did the lap when we had to, and I’m really happy to take the points and to start from the front row tomorrow.”
And then came the feature race. If those of us watching were unsure which strategy would work best, then the teams were equally confused: a quick walk along the grid showed that the cars were split about 50/50 between prime and option, with the front row among those opting to dispose of their options as quickly as possible. Ghiotto was swallowed up by a fast charging Albon on primes, with Leclerc pitting just before the Thai driver and his colleagues could pass him on track.
If it now seemed clear that those starting on the harder compound had an advantage, as long as there were no delays: cue a safety car period to remove Sergio Canamasas’ car on lap 10 and those who had already pitted now had a small advantage, but they would have to work to take advantage of it. After the race Ghiotto admitted that he couldn’t stay with Leclerc’s pace after the restart, worried as he was about tyre life, and the Monegasque driver was slicing through the field as he waited for the reverse stops to come.
With Oliver Rowland disposing of Albon he was now the new target for Leclerc, and when the Briton pitted he emerged well behind the PREMA man (and Ghiotto), forcing him to fight his way back up for a well-earned podium behind the pair. “To be honest without the radio it was really hard to know what the others were doing!” Leclerc laughed after the race, “Where we were, if we were losing time to the people in front: I first thought Oliver was going to win easily, and when he made the pitstop he was in the back! It was a really hard race with the safety car, trying to overtake and make my way up without losing time, and most of all without losing the tyres. Towards the end of the race we were obviously slower than Oli, but I have to thank the team for the great car they gave me.”
If Leclerc was fortunate that the safety car turned a wrong call into one he could (just) recover, Nobuharu Matsushita’s sprint win owes even more to good fortune, albeit once again by using the work he had already done to take advantage. When the lights went out Nicholas Latifi got off the line like a scalded cat, easily leading his rivals into turn one and escaping into the distance. Behind the likeable Canadian the rest of the field were doing what they could to salvage a result, with the Japanese man leading them from P2 after a rocket start from 5th on the grid.
Matsushita also took off, building a solid cushion behind him while concentrating hard on saving his tyres for the end of the race, while behind him Rowland was once again fighting his way through the field in search of another podium. But with 5 laps to go Latifi’s mirror detached, bouncing off his helmet and slightly distracting him into the tricky turn 5, causing him to run deep into the gravel and handing a path through for his two pursuers.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” a surprised Matsushita noted later, “my last win was last year in Monaco, so it was quite nice to come back to the podium, and to win! My pace and Nicholas’ was quite similar, so it would not be so easy to overtake I think, but that was quite lucky and I was very happy to be there, and to take this win.
Perhaps we should give the last word to Latifi, whose misfortune turned the whole race; sanguine (and very disappointed), he nevertheless knew that he had to keep an eye on the bigger picture: “I’m just very disappointed, I know it was my race to win. There’s a lot of frustration but I can’t do anything about it, it’s done and I can’t take it back, but there are also positives I can take away from it: it was the first reverse grid I got into since the start of last year, it was the first race I could get out in front and lead, and I was managing it fine. It was my race but I got distracted, that’s all: when you’re cruising out the front there’s a lot to think about and I just made a mistake, as simple as that.”