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!”
With Oliver Rowland closing down Charles Leclerc’s lead in the drivers’ championship to just 3 points in Monaco everyone was watching to see if the Briton could keep pushing and steal a march on his Monegasque rival: after the weekend Rowland announced that the team’s focus would be on improving their qualifying performance to stop Leclerc’s string of pole positions (and the points that come with it), and Round 4 in Baku, Azerbaijan was the perfect place to find out if their ambitions were going to become reality.
But in free practice it was Nyck De Vries, another driver who was looking to turn around his season by moving his strong sprint race performances up to the feature race where the bigger points can be found, who led the way in a busy session. Three VSCs and a red flag hampered everyone’s ability to make full use of the track time, with everyone losing the 15 minutes it took to remove super sub Sergey Sirotkin’s stopped car from the start of the long front straight, and Rowland’s session was shortened when he lost the rear at turn one and found the barriers. Jordan King and Luca Ghiotto rounded out the top 3, with Leclerc a second off the pace in P7 and Rowland himself further back in 14th position.
But when qualifying came it was a return to normal service, with Leclerc continuing his perfect form for his fourth pole of the year, ahead of Nobuharu Matsushita and Nicholas Latifi in a scorching session. The Japanese driver was on the top spot when Ghiotto found the wall at turn 15, bringing the session to a temporary halt, with Latifi halting it again after the restart by losing some of his front wing on the incredibly tight turn 8, but when they re-emerged Leclerc put in the 2 fastest laps of the session to lock down the top spot, despite the improvements made by his rivals.
“It was very, very emotional,” the Monegasque driver noted afterwards. “We have done four poles out of four and it’s amazing! I have never done that in my career, and I just have to thank PREMA for the amazing car. The 2 laps on the second set were quite good, and I’m really happy to be on pole. After what happened two days ago I didn’t feel as confident as in the previous races, and it was quite hard after the free practice we had this morning, but we managed the qualy well and I’m really happy about it.”
From there it looked like Leclerc had the whip hand, and so it proved: the Ferrari Academy ace controlled the race from lights to flag for his third win of the season, ahead of De Vries and Latifi. The Monegasque driver easily led his rivals into turn 1 ahead of Latifi and Matsushita, and a safety car restart following the removal of Johnny Cecotto’s car was simply dealt with as Leclerc tore away once again, with De Vries slicing past Latifi for P2 as the field shook out and waited for the pits to open so they could swap their supersofts for medium tyres.
All the main contenders bar De Vries pitted on lap 7, with the Dutchman using the clear air for a lap at the front to ensure his hold on net 2nd was maintained: Ghiotto, Ralph Boschung and Nabil Jeffri were the only drivers on the alternate strategy, and when the Malaysian found the wall just after the stops there were only 2 cars ahead of Leclerc on track, which became 1 after the VSC restart and before the safety car to remove Louis Deletraz’s car from the barriers on lap 12. Ghiotto, whose gamble had now fallen over with the appearance of the safety car, easily controlled the restart from Leclerc, whose attention was behind rather than ahead as the net leader of the race.
After the restart Rowland was on a charge to get forward and minimise the damage to his championship challenge, blasting past Artem Markelov and picking up positions when Ghiotto pitted and Matsushita ran deep at turn 1 in front of him. He finished in P4 when the red flags emerged following Sean Gelael’s accident at turn 8, ahead of the Russian, Norman Nato, King and Boschung, but a subsequent 10 second penalty undid his good work and pushed him down to 7th in the classifications.
But most of the attention was on the man on the top step of the podium, on a very emotional day for him. “I’m very, very, very happy,” Leclerc allowed in the press conference. “It’s good points for the championship, and I’ve said it many times before but I’ll never stop saying it, thanks to my father for everything he did for me: I dedicate this win to him.”
If Rowland was upset about the penalty, he was soon looking to turn it into a disadvantage: the Briton would start the sprint race from the front row, and if he could dispose poleman Boschung he would be most of the way towards a win which would allow him to claw back some precious points in the title fight. And when the lights went out that’s exactly what he did, leading the Swiss driver into turn 2 before streaking away, with Nato following him through a lap later but not before losing some his right front wing on Boschung’s tyre, which allowed Latifi to sneak through too.
Leclerc had a poor start by his standards to drop back to P10 before fighting back up the order, and was up to P6 when Rowland and De Vries, who was in the podium places after dispatching Latifi, both stopped separately, causing heartbreak for the pair and delight for the Monegasque man, who could now entertain the idea of being the first driver to bring home a perfect weekend (pole, 2 wins, 2 fastest laps) in the championship. He was a second faster than anyone else on track, and put it to good use in dispatching King and Latifi to grab P2 some 7 seconds behind new leader Nato.
The seconds ticked down with the laps, and the timing screens suggested that another Leclerc victory was an inevitability until a message flashed up on lap 17: 10 second time penalty for Leclerc, for failing to slow sufficiently for the earlier yellow flags. Nevertheless he dispatched Nato, who put up no resistance but followed his friend and rival to the chequered flag for the victory, ahead of Leclerc and Latifi.
Every driver wants to win the race on track, but having done all the hard work earlier Nato was sanguine about the result: “My engineer told me maybe ten laps before the end that Charles was catching up and that I needed to increase my pace: I was managing my tyres in case of a safety car or another incident. When I found out that Charles was second I tried to improve my pace, which I did, but Charles was very quick! I just tried to keep the car on track and to push at the limit: I thought maybe Charles would make a mistake, and my main job was to take the car home.
“Then my engineer told me that Charles had a penalty, so I decided to slow down a bit and stay on track, and to be honest it was okay. I was a bit worried earlier for the first two laps, because the front wing was moving a bit, but it was good today, and we were the second fastest on track. I’m happy for the team: it’s been quite difficult these past two rounds, so it’s good to be on top today. We will enjoy it, and then keep on working to come back stronger in Austria.”
And the last word should go to the star of the weekend, Charles Leclerc. After a terrible week at home, the Monegasque driver came to Baku and had a simply stunning weekend, a testament to his abilities behind the wheel and a great tribute to take home. “It was amazing! Our pace was very fast, I felt good in the car, and I was doing the quickest laptimes. I’m still very happy about the second place, and we had the fastest lap which gives us two extra points. I also had a lucky star for the second race with the technical issue of Oliver (Rowland), which happened to me in Monaco.
"We caught back what we lost in Monaco: that is important.”
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.
All eyes were on Charles Leclerc as the grid arrived to start their weekend in the glorious sunshine bearing down on the Principality of Monaco: coming into Round 3 as the championship leader he had the additional benefit of racing around the streets he has lived on all his life, and if he hadn’t ever raced there previously, no one believed it wouldn’t be another advantage for him to use. He led the championship at the end of the weekend too, but not in the manner he was hoping for when he arrived in the paddock on Wednesday.
And sure enough, the Monegasque driver, resplendent in a new helmet and overalls for the event, led the way in free practice: with qualifying just a few hours away everyone drove within themselves to save their teams the heartache of rebuilding a car in an impossibly short period, but Leclerc belied the fact that he’d never driven on the circuit in a race car before by grabbing the top spot by a tenth over Sergio Canamasas and Oliver Rowland.
The qualifying session was very different to usual, but the end result was the same as every other one this year: Leclerc continued to dominate, grabbing his third pole position in a row. Given the tight, twisty nature of the circuit traffic can have a big impact on a lap around Monaco, and as such the grid was split into 2 groups (odd and even numbered cars), with Leclerc’s Group A out first. The local driver topped his group ahead of Rowland, with a bit of help when Nobuharu Matsushita found the wall late in the session: Alexander Albon topped Group B but was 0.01s short, handing the honours to Leclerc.
“It feels really, really amazing!” Leclerc laughed afterwards. “It was quite scary to be in the first group and then watch Alex and the others in the second group as the times were going down, but by a hundredth I think we made it. I’m very, very happy, and I definitely need to thank the team for a great car. It’s good to start from pole in my home town!”
It looked like a familiar pattern was being formed, but Monaco is nothing if not surprising. Leclerc held off Albon and Rowland at the start, with Matsushita blasting past Artem Markelov into Ste Devote to slide in behind them, and with all of them on the soft compound it looked like the shape of the race was set at a circuit on which it is notoriously difficult to overtake. But an early safety car saw the super soft starters, led by Luca Ghiotto get a free stop, with Albon taking the risk to jump in too and hope that his options would last the race and give him a track position advantage, emerging as he did just ahead of the Italian.
The race went live on lap 12, and Leclerc easily held off Rowland into Ste Devote before building as big a gap as possible back to Albon and Ghiotto, setting a string of fast laps in the process. But the race advantage turned once again when Louis Delétraz and Robert Visiou came together at Mirabeau, prompting another safety car period and turning the fight for the lead around again: Leclerc was called in just before the safety car emerged; Rowland, Matsushita and Markelov just after it (with the latter jumped up a spot in the stop) and coming out ahead of the local driver, who had his race go from bad to worse when a loose nut meant he had to pit again next time through, this time to retire.
Leclerc was gutted to lose what had looked like his race, Rowland was overjoyed to overturn his Monaco hoodoo for his first F2 win, while Markelov and Matsushita were delighted to return to the podium after their wins in the principality last year. “It’s been a while coming!” Rowland laughed in the press conference after soaking up the applause from the crowd on the walk back to the paddock. “Obviously it feels great, and to be honest I didn’t expect it so much after the start because it was quite processional, but the safety cars can cause anything around here!
“To win here is mega special: every year I’ve been here I’ve been slightly unlucky, whether it was last year in GP2 or previously, and even in karting I seized here with 2 laps to go when I was leading! It’s never been that kind but I think today repaid me, but right now I can’t explain how good it feels to win this…”
If the feature race was complicated and dramatic, then the sprint race was blissfully simple, at least for race winner Nyck De Vries. The Dutchman started on the front row, just behind teammate Johnny Cecotto, and if the drivers were looking forward to the race their team were extremely anxious that they don’t do anything to jeopardise what could be the team’s best result in its history, and at the most famous circuit of them all.
They needn’t have worried: when the lights went out Cecotto made a good start but De Vries made a better one, running around the outside if the Venezuelan but leaving him plenty of room to follow through at Ste Devote before sprinting away for what appeared to be a processional victory, while behind him Cecotto had his mirrors full of the fast charging pair Gustav Malja and Luca Ghiotto: the latter two were clearly faster, but Cecotto used all of his experience to deny the pair as he rounded out a Rapax 1-2 on the podium, with Malja alongside them.
But if it looked simple, De Vries was keen to dissuade everyone of that view: “Well, no! Firstly I had to stay out of the walls, which is a challenge here! It’s been an unbelievable weekend: we started quite well but we had some difficulties after qualifying, with two grid penalties. I was back to P14 which was tough to take, but you never know in Monaco, and we kept fighting. Surely everything went our way yesterday to get back in the top eight, which was crucial to have a shot today.
“From the front row, we took the opportunity: I had a very good start! It was a very long race to the end. I lost concentration a little bit at some point and hit the apex at Turn 12: at that stage I told myself to keep it together! I’m extremely happy and thankful to the team and everyone involved.”
The podium afterwards was the embodiment of the old line about the Olympics that the gold medallist is more relieved than happy, the silver medallist is the most disappointed and the bronze medallist is the happiest of everyone because he is just pleased to be up there. De Vries was happy to win, obviously, but looked more relieved that he had brought home the result and had something to start building on, while Cecotto showed just how unhappy a driver can be when beaten by his teammate. But Malja was delighted to be on the podium, and happy to watch all the attention going elsewhere: “It is getting better and better, especially in the last races. Obviously we had a poor start of the season in Bahrain, but we found some good pace since then, and for sure we will get even better.”