SPY: A LOW KEY 1000th

Morning race fans, spy here, writing on the big metal bird that’s heading back to MK. Well, not directly, one hopes, but near enough. Goodbye fried eel for breakfast, hello Gmail and Twitter. Actually, when you put it like that, can we go back to China please?

For all the build-up, within the paddock F1 treated its 1000th race very much like it’s 999th. One might have expected fireworks and parties but instead there was a logo and a couple of posters. It seemed everyone had left it to everyone else to organise a celebration, and therefore nothing got done. Not that Spy objects to low-key: the more F1 focusses on the racing and not the stuff around the racing, the better. 

That said, our race wasn’t much to write home about – but splitting the Ferraris in a straight up-and-down scrap was nice. Spy would never be accused of optimism, but given that we’re expecting to improve at a faster rate than our rivals as the season progresses, being in the mix like that now bodes well for the future. 

It may have been better – but only slightly better – had the drivers done another run in Q3 on Saturday, rather than missing the bus. Max, in particular, wasn’t terribly pleased about that. There are some people unhappy with his level of venting. Spy’s upset too: Max has been in this team for four years and the best he can do is a couple of F-bombs. Has he learned nothing from his crew? This is what happens when you skip rungs on the junior ladder: I mean sure, he can drive the car pretty well, but a couple of years in the Carlin garage and we’d have had him cursing like a drunken sailor.

The ire is misplaced anyway: Max wasn’t tweeting, and his steering wheel doesn’t have a ‘broadcast to world’ button. He’s having a private conversation with his race engineer, using the sort of language young men playing sports use. There’s a TV director in a bunker in Biggin Hill deciding which driver, if any, to relay to the outside world. FOM obviously think that’s appropriate language for their live broadcast, so take it up with them. 

More enquiring minds are asking why it all went wrong in the first place. Surely with all that technology, it’s possible to get a driver over the line before the chequered flag? The simple answer is, yes, of course it is – but getting the driver over the line isn’t usually enough.

There’s an array of sometimes-contradictory requirements involved in setting a fast time. Max’s banker lap was pretty good, but there was maybe a tenth or two left on the table for his second run. Think about that in context. Max’s lap was 1:32.089s, he reckons he can go perhaps a third of one per cent quicker – if he has the perfect lap. So, what’s the perfect lap? Well, it’ll have to be right at the very, very end of the session, when the grip level is at the absolute maximum, so ideally crossing the line no more than a couple of seconds before the flag. The tyres and brakes will have to be at the absolute optimum temperature, which means driving a very specific sort of out-lap at the perfect pace, and he wants a very specific gap to the car in front in a very narrow window that’s close enough to pick up a little bit of a tow on the straights but not so close as to affect his downforce level in the corners. Let’s say that gap is five seconds – that means it isn’t 4.5s and isn’t 5.5s.

Doing this is nearly impossible – but what complicates it further is that every other car has the same basic set of requirements – but ever so slightly different. Get ten cars all trying to jink their way into the perfect operating conditions and… well… sometimes it goes wrong. Spy’s frankly amazed it ever goes right.

But do they have to get it so incredibly precise? Yes, they absolutely do: just look at the times. A blink of a hummingbird’s eye can seperate two drivers over five kilometres. We’re not talking about the difference of a missed apex, we’re talking the difference of having your tyres half a degree cooler than the other guy. As we flip over into F1’s new epoch, it’s safe to say this is absolutely the most competitive sport on the planet.