Wednesday, October 8, 2008

David Coulthard Column

Singapore brought a welcome upturn in David Coulthard’s fortunes as the Red Bull driver scored his second points finish of the season – although an uncharacteristic pit miscue by the team limited his haul to two points rather than a potential five.

But after getting some stick from his fellow columnist Ted Kravitz, DC felt compelled to respond in his latest column as well as offering his assessment of the inaugural Singapore event.

It was gratifying to come away from Singapore with my first points finish since my podium in Montreal and to get some reward from one of the most demanding races of the season.
At the same time, there was inevitably a feeling of ‘what might have been’ because I was set for fourth place rather than seventh until the mix-up at my final pit stop.
I was happy with my personal performance and felt I drove one of my best races of the year.
However my fellow columnist Ted Kravitz – who I think I may have met in the Formula 1 paddock at some point, although I’d have to check – has thrown down the gauntlet by suggesting that my performance was “mediocre” and that I’m now in retirement mode.

Having now had the opportunity to read Ted’s column, I’m afraid there are several inaccuracies that I need to correct to give a true picture of how my race unfolded.
First off, he criticises my slow in-lap before my second pit stop and asks why I was unable to overtake Fernando Alonso, who had just emerged from the pits.
Well, Lewis Hamilton – in one of the fastest cars out there – couldn’t pass me for more than 20 laps, so why would I be able to pass Alonso, who went on to win the grand prix?
If Lewis is as good as we all think he is, why did he spend more than 20 laps behind me?
Could he not have overtaken a driver in the twilight of his career if it was as easy as Ted imagines? How many people have you, Ted Kravitz, overtaken?
The true explanation is that Fernando came out right in front of me at the apex of turn one and, tanked up and on tyres that were not yet up to optimum temperature and pressure, inevitably held me up through the next two corners of the sequence.
That was what enabled Hamilton to finally get a run on me through turn five and down the back straight.
I lost further time as he passed me because I made him work for the place and was therefore off-line through turn seven.
The net effect of those two facts – being caught behind Fernando in the first three corners and losing time fighting for position with Lewis – was that I had a slow in-lap.
But when you’ve got a car holding you up through three interlinked corners, there’s nothing you can do; Hamilton capitalised on my being delayed to make a pass that he’d been unable to pull off throughout the previous stint.
Whatever anyone thinks of my performance this year, I look back at that period of my race as a very strong, consistent piece of defensive racecraft.

Ted asks how I managed to finish behind Nico Rosberg (who had to serve a penalty) and several other drivers who I had been ahead of after the first safety car period.
Again, this strikes me as a pretty superficial analysis.
The reason I (along with everyone else except the race winner) finished behind Rosberg was that Nico got lucky with the delay in applying his penalty and had the benefit of nine laps in clear air in which to build a huge lead, so he emerged from his stop still in front of me and Lewis.
And the reason I slipped from fourth to seventh place was the glitch at my last stop, when I was released before the refuelling was complete.
I played this down in my post-race interviews because I didn’t feel it was fair to criticise the Red Bull pit crew, who have been among the fastest and slickest out there this year.
But the fact is, they made a mistake. I’ve made my share this year too and mistakes happen.
But what it did mean was that I rejoined the racetrack behind Timo Glock, Sebastian Vettel and Nick Heidfeld rather than in front of them, and the die was cast for the rest of the race.
Ted then points out that I fell away in the final stint and that I only set the 13th fastest lap.
I was on a used set of option tyres (the slower compound in Singapore) and it’s true that I lost ground to the front-runners, which is not surprising given the fundamentally superior pace of their cars.
But Kazuki Nakajima dropped away from me in the last stint even though he had been quicker than me earlier in the race and Williams were considerably faster than us all weekend in Singapore.
Also, my underlying pace was closer to our sister team Toro Rosso than it has been in recent grands prix.
I set a faster race lap than Sebastien Bourdais and I was three-tenths slower than Vettel, when we know that the underlying pace difference between the two cars is closer to half a second at the moment.
So when Ted says I “could only manage” the 13th fastest lap I don’t know what his basis for comparison is.
I have no problem receiving criticism for errors or what might appear like average performances, but to cite Singapore as an example of that simply doesn’t stand up in my opinion.

What I think this highlights is the difficulty that people who are not ex-drivers have in explaining some of the nuances of Formula 1 to the viewing public.
The public relies on so-called expert opinions, but very often the opinion-formers are people who don’t have any direct experience of what they are talking about.
As I explained in my autobiography, a big source of disappointment in my racing career has been the manner in which the media wield a lot of influence without necessarily either speaking from a position of knowledge or being held to account.
I can give an opinion on Peter Mandelson being brought back to the cabinet, but I don’t know enough about politics so someone will tear it apart because it’s not a credible opinion.
Equally, would you want a doctor who has never performed brain surgery giving an opinion on how to go about the procedure and whether the neurosurgeon who carried out the procedure did a good job?
I appreciate it’s not realistic to expect all F1 journalists to be ex-F1 drivers, but I do feel a bit more humility would be in order when offering opinions that are not based on facts.
Ted can surmise that because I’m in my last season and I’m about to be a father then I must have lifted off the throttle.
No one is in a position to know that other than me – and as I’ve said many times, if I ever felt that I no longer had the commitment to drive the car I wouldn’t still be doing it.
I certainly wouldn’t have committed to a contract for next year that will see me carrying out one of the more dangerous aspects of Formula 1, which is testing and development of the car.
The reality is that I still enjoy the technical aspects of F1 and I still love driving the cars, but I recognise that my competitive racing days are coming to an end.
I’m not in denial of that fact, so to suggest that my time is up – when I’ve already acknowledged that’s the case, after a long and in my opinion mildly successful career – is hardly an earth-shattering revelation.
I’m entirely comfortable being in the category of has-been because the other options are to be a wannabe or a never-has-been.

Night Fever

The Singapore event was a great success in several different ways: as Formula 1’s first ever night race; as a new street circuit that, bumps aside, the drivers really enjoyed; and as a well organised and presented event with a big crowd on hand.
Racing under floodlights didn’t pose any great problems; in fact, given Singapore’s draining heat and humidity, and the physical nature of the track, it made perfect sense to run the race at night.
The rough surface, on the other hand, was a significant issue.
Unfortunately the bumpiest part of the track was from turn five to turn seven, which was also the best overtaking opportunity.
The circuit was crested as you went through the kink at turn six and extremely bumpy in seven, and it meant that having a go was very risky.
We saw some severe lock-ups in turn seven on a couple of occasions because the cars were literally jumping off the ground at that point.
I’m sure that’s something that will be rectified for next year and we will see significantly better racing as a result.
You can always judge the physical difficulty of a grand prix by how long the drivers hang around in the weigh-in garage, and a lot of people waited in there for several minutes before walking out to speak to the media.
I was pretty dehydrated after the race because I had driven all 61 laps without a supply of fluid, having discovered just before the start that my new helmet hadn’t had a drinks system fitted!
One aspect of the weekend that was very strange was the fact that the drivers and teams were all staying on European time zones while life in Singapore carried on as normal.
It was bizarre to have us drivers hanging around the hotel lobby at 3am wondering what to do because everyone else – locals, fans, corporate sponsors – was tucked up in bed and the town was in lockdown.
We were holding drivers’ briefings at one o’clock in the morning and going for something to eat at two or three o’clock.
We found one open-all-hours restaurant in the Conrad hotel called Oscar’s, but the rest of the time we survived on room service.
All in all, everyone seemed to enjoy the weekend, there was a big turnout of Paddock Club and corporate guests and it was an exciting spectacle for fans and TV viewers.
I think street circuits and night races have a niche role to play on the Formula 1 calendar, but I wouldn’t want to see too many of them because then some of the novelty and extra anticipation would be lost.

David Coulthard was speaking to Alex Sabine

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