Home alone

Martin Brundle starred at Magny-Cours, but how much advantage is it to race at your own test track?

Sitting in a composite projectile at 180 mph tends to rather focus a driver’s attention, but throughout the last lap of the French Grand Prix David Coulthard had Martin Brundle’s Ligier on his tail, and something else on his mind.

The night before the race the Scot had dreamt that he spun in the final corner and stopped just yards short of the line. Things began to feel horribly familiar when, with third place at stake, he glanced in his mirrors entering the final bend and saw Brundle making a dive. “I guess the word dive has taken on something of a new meaning these days,” smiled Brundle afterwards. “This was merely a, ‘Let’s see if I can frighten him’ job not an attempt to T-bone him off the racetrack!”

As it transpired, neither man’s dream came true: Coulthard hung on to third by a couple of yards: Brundle narrowly missed out on capping a magnificent race with a Spot on the podium. Ligier boss Flavio Briatore was nevertheless delighted with his team’s showing in front of important sponsors on home soil. But how much of that performance was due to the fact that Magny-Cours is Ligier’s nominated test track?

“It’s a reducing advantage in that you start the weekend with the best set-up already on your car and the others have got to catch you up,” explains Brundle. “You’ve got nowhere to go: you’ve got your stake in the ground and they start aiming at you. If the opposition have good reliability and a dry track they are going to get a good deal nearer to you than if the track is wet and they lose set-up time.”

Able to match the Ferraris at Montreal, the Ligiers could compete with all but Schumacher and Hill at Magny-Cours, where Brundle set third fastest lap. Part of that was attributable to home advantage, but Martin maintains that in pre-race testing the team also found an aerodynamic tweak worth three tenths of a second.

The British-based outfits all benefit from Silverstone testing, while Ferrari, Sauber, Minardi and Forti have nominated Monza as the one track appearing on the World Championship calendar where they can test. So how does a team approach a race on unfamiliar territory?

“When other teams arrive their set-up will be based on an adaptation of what they have found to be best so far that year, plus their previous experience at that circuit. So they’re not coming along absolutely green,” he explains. “Then they start homing in on you, just like we did at Silverstone. Come the Sunday and I was racing against the likes of Hakkinen and Barrichello, no problem at all, and those guys have had something like 18 days’ testing at Silverstone this year.”

By Brundle’s admission, though, those 18 days won’t all have been spent preparing for the British GP. The belief that a team tests all year for one race is a fallacy:

“Although it might sound silly, you don’t always test for Magny-Cours when you run at Magny-Cours. It’s only as the race starts approaching that you actually say, ‘Right, what do we need to do to go two seconds faster around here?’

“We had three days there concentrating on the race. Prior to Monaco, we ran round Magny-Cours with Monaco wings and set-up. On other occasions I might be aero mapping, or testing for reliability.”

While many tracks have more bumps than a raucous birthday celebration, Magny-Cours is a high-grip surface without a ripple in sight. That tends not only to exacerbate Ligier’s advantage at the French Grand Prix, but magnify the JS41 ‘s failings elsewhere.

“The trouble is that you leave Magny-Cours thinking the car is a world-beater,” says Brundle with a wry smile. “You don’t even know you’ve got a problem until you arrive at Silverstone, do your first flying lap and you’re horrified. Seriously horrified. Especially this year, because downforce used to smother 70 per cent of those problems anyway and it doesn’t any more.”

On a high after France, Brundle admitted having made the transition from being “suicidal to just depressed,” by the Tuesday following Silverstone. It can be a double-edged sword having two ‘home’ races…