Anthony Davidson must be the smallest man in the paddock. Affectionately named 'The Ant', BAR's third driver has been a permanent fixture at the team's motorhome for the past couple of years, but this year he seems to stand out far more than ever before. That's what topping the times on a Grand Prix practice session - or coming second only to Michael Schumacher - can do to your stature. Since Formula One changed the rules at the end of last year to allow any team finishing outside of the top four in the Constructors' Championship to run a third driver in the practice sessions on Friday of a Grand Prix weekend, Formula One fans have been able to appraise a new generation of drivers, and none have shone brighter in that time than Davidson.
"We didn't really know what to expect from the way it was going to run on Friday at the beginning of the year," – 'we' being Davidson and his manager – "but we knew it would be good to get out there, learn all the circuits, and that it was all going to be such valuable experience," Davidson says, adding with a laughter: "It seems to be one of the things that teams are concerned about - whether a driver knows the tracks or not, which is really bizarre to me because you learn a track in ten laps, that's all it takes. So I don't know why they are so het up about a driver knowing a circuit or not.
"But of course I should be saying it's massively valuable! And now I've got that under my belt for next year, and it's been really good; learning the whole environment, how it all works, the build up to a race weekend; that's the kind of thing you can't learn just testing, you do pick things up here as the year goes on."
Davidson isn't thinking of next year for nothing: with Formula One up for one of its biggest line-up reshuffles next year, the Briton from Hemel Hempstead is a natural candidate for any open seat, be it Jaguar or Williams. What his chances are of landing a seat at any of the teams remains to be seen, but for now he is utilising his opportunity in the Formula One limelight better than any of his testing peers.
"I hate that, I hate the thought of me just being a test driver," he says, "because I really miss the racing. I miss it so much, and it's the one thing that I know I'm good at and you never get a chance to prove it, to show that. Going into the season, I was hoping that this testing job would lead to people saying, 'hey, who's this Davidson guy, he's up there'; that's what we were hoping for, and it's happening so far, which is great.
"So this year has been really amazing, but I really feel that the next natural progression is going to be getting into a whole full season in a good car and doing a good job."
DC: So what are your plans for next year, then?
Davidson: "I wish I knew! I think I plan to be driving racing cars - yeah, that's probably it. That's a safe bet!"
DC: Are there any negotiations going on with other teams at the moment?
Davidson: "No, not really. If negotiations mean talking to people in the paddock then yeah, I suppose there are. But it's not really negotiations; I see that as talking money, talking drive, talking seriously; so no, there's not."
DC: There has been talk linking you specifically to Jaguar, since your agent used to work for HSBC. Are you going to see you racing there next year?
Davidson: "We know Tony Purnell really well, but knowing someone really well and getting a race drive when it's down to business… You can know someone as well as you want to, but when it comes down to that then getting a race drive it doesn't matter who you are; they're going to give you the same story as they give everyone else."
DC: Would you pay for a drive next year?
Davidson: "If I had a sponsor I'd pay without a shadow of a doubt, straight away; give me the money and I'll pay! I'm not using my own money to pay, because I haven't got any! But it goes without saying that I wouldn't pay if I was going to drive a Jordan and I had to pay them three or four million quid; I'd go and buy a house! I'd have a nice life thank you very much, and buy a go kart and drive around and have fun!"
DC: What would you consider the ideal team to join, then? What would be the pros and cons of joining any of the existing teams?
Davidson: "Well the biggest con you have is going with a team at the back of the grid, because no one looks at you. It's very, very hard, and particularly with the gap you have now between the guys right at the back and the guys at the front; it's never been bigger than this, I don't think. So to do something special in a car where you just do not stand a chance of showing what you can do is impossible, and at the end of the day you're going to have to pay for that anyway so forget that; we're not in that position anyway.
"But that makes it even worse for the guys who are paying for it; they're paying to be at the back and not get noticed, and it's really hard; it's so unfair. I wouldn't say there's any con with going with a good team, because you're always going to be doing a good job, and no matter who you're up against in Formula One you've always got a good teammate; that's not an issue there."
DC: So if you had all the teams to choose from you'd go to Ferrari, because they're doing the best?
Davidson: "Of course; you go for the best car."
DC: It's not uncommon, however, to hear drivers say they don't want to go to Ferrari while Michael Schumacher is there...
Davidson laughs. "Yeah, but he's not going to be there forever, and at my stage it would be quite a good bet, wouldn't it, to go there and wait for him to bugger off!"
Davidson was of course already given an opportunity to race in Formula One, when in 2002 he replaced the underperforming Alex Yoong at Minardi for two races. It was a mixed result; his times were more competitive than the man he replaced – and he was certainly closer to teammate Mark Webber - but he still qualified at the back of the grid for both races, and he failed to see the chequered flag on either occasion.
"I think it's funny that you call it races, because I don't think driving around at the back all by yourself is a race!" Davidson laughs, when asked to reflect on his F1 debut. "For me it wasn't a race; in fact it was like testing, because I drove around with a clear track in front of me, and you just do what you need to do! In Hungary, it was awful having to get out of everyone's way, and it's not why you do it - it's not why you want to be a racing driver, to be looking in your mirrors all the time.
"But that's just so in the past. I mean, I wasn't really ready for it back then - physically I wasn't really ready at all, and the worst thing is I had to bloody pay for it! So I look back on it now and think, that was alright, really, considering how inexperienced I was and how hard the car was to drive. And also who my teammate was - because at the time we didn't really give him respect. We all just thought, 'Webber, hmm, how good is he really?' and it was only when he got in the Jaguar and started putting in those performances that we thought, 'hmm, actually this guy's pretty special'."
DC: So what do you think is the biggest difference in yourself now from back then?
Davidson: "I'd say definitely experience, and experience gives you confidence, and confidence gives you speed; knowing why the car's quick or slow. It's just the same as Jenson: he came into Williams and you could see he had a bit of potential, did some amazing results at the end of the year, and you could see that there was a natural talent there.
"It just takes time, when you're testing especially and not racing; in those two Minardi races I learnt far more than I did in the whole year in testing; in two races you just learn and pick things up, and when you go to the next test you're more confident and you go 'well I've been racing now, so this is just a test', whereas when you are a tester you go 'wow, the next test is coming up, ooh ooh'; now after doing these on Fridays going to a test is just like going to the office for work; you're not in awe of anything and it just flows, and speed comes from that."
DC: Still, I get the impression that Friday is a bit of a pressure cooker with only two hours, with a crowd watching you and TV cameras and the media – all evaluating you
Davidson: "Yeah, but when you get out there, you just forget all of that. Australia was a bit 'ooh - this a serious test day now', but you just get on with your testing. It's just, for me, like a normal test day, and the guys are always saying 'hey, you're so relaxed, you take everything in your stride' but I think I'm not doing anything different to what I do at a test, because at the end of the day you're testing, and the only thing that's different is you only get one or two shots on new tyres in the afternoon when the track's faster.
"But when you know your test programme, and you know that the car is going to be faster - not for you but in that session - it can sometimes give you pressure or take away pressure; when you have to do a good job and you want to see a fast lap time then yeah, that's a bit of pressure. But when you know the car is just set up for a fast run then it takes pressure away from you, and it's just like a normal test day."
DC: It strikes me that going out and getting a really good lap on the new tyres, pushing the car right up the grid, is very important to you
Davidson: "The new tyre run is always very important, because you know that if you screw up on that one lap you're not going to look very good. So there's always pressure, and this is part of where some drivers get it wrong I think, that if you treat it any differently and you push extra hard, or if you put pressure on yourself, you're never going to be any good at it. If that is the fastest the car can go, and that is the fastest you can go in it, it should just come really easily."
DC: Is it a situation where the team will let you go out on really low fuel loads and new tyres so that you can set that lap?
Davidson: "In Bahrain they let me have a go on low fuel; I went out there and got traffic! So it just happens; you've got to go out there with a level head and not get excited about it. That's the difference now; you know where the car is going to be fast. If you take the fuel out you know the car is going to be much better under braking, much better traction, and you know that you're not really going to find that much extra speed in the high speed corners, so if you know where it can give you the extra speed, and you use it to your advantage, whereas before at Minardi if we took the fuel out it was 'ooh, why is it doing this?' - it was all new to me, because I'd never, ever done a low fuel run before, so that's part of the learning curve as well."
DC: With the possible exception of Toyota's Ricardo Zonta, you are the only one of the third drivers who is getting to the top of the timesheets and sometimes beating your own race drivers. To get these sorts of times you've got to run fairly light, on new tyres, and on the right new tyres. And since a large part of your programme is to find the right tyres for the race, it doesn't really seem to add anything to your programme by setting these really quick laps
Davidson: "I'm mega happy with my times at the end of the day, and I'm really happy with my performance, and I know why; no one else knows. So if people want to make something of it, read into it whatever they like or think I was light, then I don't care what they think – I know what I did, and I know that I'm happy with what I did.
"We never take the fuel out - apart from Bahrain where we did - and BAR's pretty sensible like that. The thing is, when you're involved in it, inside the team, you know whether you've done a good or bad job. The only two tests where I've really struggled so far have been Melbourne and Imola, and apart from that I've been really, really pleased with my performance. Barcelona was amazing - to be two tenths away from Jenson, or not even that, and I know what set up we were on; I know they were pretty similar, and I know here [at the Nurburgring] they were pretty similar.
"It wasn't to my advantage to do a long run, do a long tyre evaluation; it's just my job, you know? The other difference is we've got other third drivers out there who are paying to be there, so of course if they want to drop the fuel out or go for a time then fair enough, go and do it, but I'm out there doing the job, and to me it's not a big part of it, doing the times."
So how good Davidson? Can his times really be compared to those of his racing teammates? Honda Racing's vice president Otmar Szafnauer is convinced the Briton is as good as he looks.
"He is that good; he's a very good driver," Szafnauer says. "But sometimes he may go out on fresh tyres in one session where the other drivers don't, and sometimes that's difficult to assess without being in the garage and looking and knowing. You have to look at every session and say why was he quicker here; was it talent, was it because he went out on fresh tyres or on a low fuel run, that kind of thing.
"Sometimes his programme is marginally different, just because he has different objectives. His main objective is to do tyre testing, learn the differences between tyres for long runs, short runs and qualifying type runs to help the other two drivers make good decisions. Predominantly the cars are the same; Anthony wouldn't get a different engine or wing package or aero package. The only difference is sometimes his programme may be a little bit different from the other two drivers.
"But predominantly his talent is such that he is at the level; if you have a test driver who isn't quite at the level, the data you acquire isn't worth as much, so you need somebody who is at the level of the other drivers so that they can make good choices with the feedback they get. And Anthony is at that level."
DC: What about the relationship between him and the other drivers?
Szafnauer: "Yeah, that's the other thing; we have a very good driver combination, the three of them. Anthony and Jenson have known each other since they were kids because they were competing against each other in those smaller formulas, and in British F3 he was Taku's teammate, so they know him very well. So for that reason the drivers respect Anthony for his talents, and also trust him with his feedback, and they have very good communication because of it. You probably couldn't have put a better package together from that regard; the drivers knowing each other, respecting each other, and having a good relationship and communication."
One of the problems with a season where one team dominates all others is to work out how they've done it; the fans want to know, the other teams want to know, and it begins a process of examination that continues until the others catch up to the front runners.
One of the possible aspects is tyres. Last year, Michelin seemed to have gained the upper hand in the tyre war, prompting BAR to jump ship after the final race in Suzuka in an attempt to profit from the advantage, but with Ferrari on Bridgestone winning all but one race so far this season, it is unclear which rubber now has the upper hand. Still, BAR clearly made the biggest leap in performance since last year, and it's not illogical to attribute it to their change of tyres.
"It's always a bit of everything; you don't find that much speed with it being just one thing, or even a majority of one thing," Davidson responds. "Obviously I know all the steps, what they were; basically we improved the chassis a lot, Honda improved the engine, we're learning the tyres and we're now getting near to the best of out them; it's just everything that comes along, every little bit of the package really makes a difference. And there's all the testing we've done, all the aero, all the brake work, all the engine work, tyre work; everything we do has just been step by step, just bringing it all together, and that's what we've done this year.
DC: Let me put it another way, then. Had BAR stayed with Bridgestone, do you think you would have made such a big advance?
Davidson: "I think so, yeah; don't forget that in Suzuka last year we were already up there, so it was just a natural progression to step it up, and that's what we did. We knew all the aspects that we had to modify on the car, and we did that. We never got a true back to back comparison; we never ran the new car on Bridgestones, so that's one thing we'll never, ever know."
DC: I have heard from various sources that when you ran the first test on Michelins there was around 1.2 second per lap improvement just from putting on the new tyres
Davidson: "Well it was a different car then too, so no; it's unfair to say that. And also that was last year, and now we're going three seconds faster than we did in Mugello before we went to the race in Suzuka. Three seconds! There's not one thing that you could change on a car that would give you three seconds, so that shows how much the rate of development has moved. Look at Jaguar; they outqualified us in Melbourne, and we're on the same tyres; it's never one thing, it's never, ever just one thing."
Another advantage Davidson has over last year is that he is now out on the track with all of the race drivers every other Friday, and he has the perfect view to see the differences in approach they all make to their job. Rather than pounding around a track in the south of France by himself, he can now learn the styles of the different drivers first hand; it's an education he will need if he races next year, and he is getting it earlier than he otherwise would have, had he joined a team as a race driver first.
DC: I was wondering who really impresses you out there. Braking points, ability and so on, and not necessarily from your team. Who has impressed you, and who has disappointed you?
Davidson: "It's funny; some drivers you see - and I can't really think of any example right now - but it's funny how some drivers take a long time to build up to it, and that's something that's quite interesting to me. You can see the ones where it comes naturally and the ones who have to work at it, sit down and talk to the engineers, look at the data and things like that, and work on it more and more; you can see the guys who do that. And that's always quite interesting; it doesn't necessarily mean it's a good or bad thing, it's just different; they get there in the end, and it's just a weird thing to see.
"You can see that Michael's got amazing natural ability; he just goes out there and bang, first lap, unbelievable. It's just incredible. And you can see other drivers that fight it and work at it more, you can see that on the circuit, and it's quite amazing to watch. Somewhere like Monaco especially, you look at what the car's doing, the attitude of it, and you can really see the guys who are fully lit, fully pushing it, and the guys who are building up to it. It's good to watch."
DC: Do you measure your braking points compared to, say, Michael or someone like that?
Davidson: "Yeah; in Monaco he came out in front of me and I'd already done a few laps and I was braking later than him; it was just incredible to think who you're just following around the streets of Monaco. It was pretty cool, yeah."
DC: So you could kick his arse then, obviously!
Davidson: "Well no; he then got into the swing of things and just pulled away!"