Formula One scene

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Pole Position

At the recent Spanish Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna made the fastest qualifying lap and took number one position on the starting grid. There was nothing unusual or special about that, but the fact that it was the 40th time he had done it in six seasons of Formula One racing is something worth looking into; and it was not his last. It is not luck, and it is not just a matter of having the best car or the best engine, there has to be more in it than that.

Back in the summer I had the opportunity of having a quiet chat with Ayrton Senna, away from the pit-lane “razzmatazz”, the PR world, the media, the engineers, the sponsors and all the people who need to talk with him, or merely be with him. It was a chance meeting and he had time, and was happy to stop by the roadside for an informal motor racing chat. If you are lucky enough to encounter him in completely informal conditions, quite by chance, he loves to talk about the theory of high-speed driving and racing, and he is very clear and very lucid, even though we talk in English, which is far removed from his native Portuguese, which is the language of Brazil. All you need to do is feed him an interesting and intelligent question and then stand back and listen.

My basic interest was the use of qualifying tyres, those extra sticky, short life Goodyears that have come back into use this year, which some drivers can exploit to their advantage, and others cannot. I hear so many excuses like “I could not make the qualifying tyres work” or “the qualifying tyres would not come in” or “I tried qualifying tyres and could not go any quicker.” I posed these to Senna and voiced the opinion that I could not take them very seriously, and he agreed with me, describing such excuses as “boolsheet”.

Alan Jones once told me that he found the greatest advantage that qualifying tyres gave him was that he could brake much later than with race-tyres. “Joneseyboy” was quite honest about the matter and said “When you’ve been braking right on the limit on race-tyres, at, say, 150 metres, you’ve got to be bloody brave to brake at 140 metres, and a real hero to leave your braking to 135 metres, always bearing in mind that you could be going quicker, having used the added cornering power of the qualifying tyres to get round the previous corner faster.”

Senna’s response was that braking was improved, when you were on qualifying tyres, but so was everything else, “yes, everything” he added. He went on to explain that when you make a fast lap you must be in a state of “total committment” and not just physically in the cockpit, but in your own mind. “It must be up here” he said, tapping his forehead. “You must know in your own mind that you can do it, when you set off on a qualifying run. If you don’t succeed then you are to blame, you have failed in total commitment, of everything, but everything.” He went on to explain how during morning “testing” he is always searching for an advantage over any opposition. He experiments to find the absolute over any opposition. He experiments to find the absolute limit of cornering power, braking power, acceleration, engine performance, ultra-fine judgement of speed and distance, accuracy of positioning the car, accuracy of judging time and distance, always searching, searching for the limit. You can only find the limits by going just, but only just, over them, and then bringing the car back. It is the easiest thing in the world to go over the limit; it is the knife-edge judgement of where the limit is, and knowing how far you can go over it and get back again. Anyone can go over a limit by a huge margin and go off the road, spin, or crash; not many can waver controllably right on the limit, and learn at the same time. In “testing” all this is done on race-tyres that are harder, longer wearing, and less adhesive than qualifying tyres. While he is doing this, his engineers and mechanics are fine-tuning the suspension, aerodynamics, engine performance and all the other detail adjustments to suit his requirements.

This is what is loosely termed “setting the car up” and it is relatively easy if the driver and the engineers are in tune and know what they are doing, and much of the knowledge is logged during private test sessions to form a data-bank, from which the engineer must know how to retrieve information. Some teams amass a vast quantity of data during test sessions, but get in a muddle when they try to retrieve some of it. Hence the excuse “we went the wrong way on adjustments”.

Finding the limits of everything on race tyres is relatively easy, and many teams and drivers are capable of it. What Senna tells himself is that having found all those limits in “testing” he then has to exploit them during “qualifying”. When the qualifying tyres, pre-heated to the desired degree, are put on his car, he knows within his own mind that they are the last thing to make the jigsaw absolutely complete. He knows that he can now go right up to his pre-determined limits of everything with the sure knowledge that he has that added edge that allows him to exploit those limits to the full.

If there is a corner that he could take at 13,000 rpm in sixth gear on race-tyres with his fingers metaphorically crossed, and the adrenalin pumping a bit, he now knows that corner will be easy at 13,000 rpm, and he may even to be able to take it at 13,200 rpm. If braking at 200 metres was marginal on race-tyres, he now knows that it will be certain on qualifying tyres and there is another 20, or 25 metres to play with. If he could floor the accelerator pedal out of a given corner at a given point, he now knows he can floor it a bit sooner. And so the process goes on. This is his idea of “total committment” but he kept stressing that it must be in the mind before you go out.

With a shy smile he said “I must admist that when I pull my visor down and drive out of the pit garage on a qualifying run, my heart does beat a little faster. But only for a moment,” he added quickly. It would seem that that was enough to ensure fastest qualifying lap, and number one position on the starting grid, or ‘pole-position’ as it is known. But there is a lot more to it than that, and over a series of four Grand Prix races, which means eight qualifying sessions, I monitored Senna’s runs closely to find out how it was done, how he used all that knowledge stored in his brain.

After a qualifying session you hear drivers saying, when interviewed by the eager beavers of the media, “I would have been faster but I was held up by Arnoux (or Alliot, or Palmer, or Uncle Tom Cobbley)”. Others just generalise and whine and whinge about “the traffic”. How many times have I heared Senna say “No problems” or if asked specifically about “traffic” I have heard him say “Yes, I did pass two cars on my fast lap” as you or I would say we had passed a couple of cars on our way down to the pub. Of no real importance. It soon became obvious that Senna had very little trouble with “traffic” when he was on a super-fast lap, and cynics said “Oh yes”, that’s because he is so ruthless he has intimidated all the other drivers and they keep out of his way”. That may be true, or it may be not, but I wasn’t ready to believe it was the reason he always seemed to be lucky and get “clear runs”. Watching closely it soon became apparent that “clear runs” were not a matter of luck, he somehow “engineered” them.

Before a qualifying “flyer” he sits in the car, very relaxed and studies the portable Longines-Olivetti VDU that his mechanics place on the scuttle just in front of him. I watched those dark brown, penetrating eyes, that say so much if you know how to read them. There are three channels on those VDU screens, one shows you the first 20 cars in order of qualifying times, another shows the remaining 10, but the third one is the important one. This displays a running picture of what is happening at the instant out on the track, and this is the one that Senna is studying. , Every time a car crosses the timing strip, its electronic sender unit, installed by Longines, sends a signal to the timers and the Olivetti part of the equation transmits it into Visual Display via the pre-programmed computer. As a car crosses the timing strip, a reading appears on all the display units all over the circuit, from race control to the portable one the driver is watching.

It will read: 27 N. Mansell 1.26.578 followed by the next car to trigger the strip, which might be 3 J. Palmer 1.28.875 and no on, so that when qualifying is at its height the screen will befall, with 20 lines, and as another car passes, the “read-out” will move up a line with the new driver and time on the bottom line.

If you are watching one of these screens you hear “Wham, wham, wham”, three cars going by the pits nose-to-tail, and on the screen in correct order will be the numbers, names and times of the three cars. What Senna is reading, and memorizing, is the pattern out on the track. You might get Mansell, Prost or Berger doing a lap on their own, or you might get Warwick, Alliot and Martini in a bunch, and staying in a bunch. Distinct patterns keep appearing and Senna is judging the time to go out which will be most to his advantage.

Obviously the fewer cars out on the track the better, and the McLaren time-keepers on the pit wall tell him by radio how many cars are out on the track at any given moment. When he feels the moment is right (and his heart is beating a little faster!) he sets off with a pretty good idea of the “traffic” conditions out on the track. It may be that there is a bunch of “rabbits” running in a group, or there may be some serious opposition out there, but whatever it is he will have got a good idea of what will be happening while he is doing the first warming-up lap before committing himself “totally, but totally” for the “flyer”. If Mansell or Berger are out there on their fast lap, he knows that as he is on his warming-up lap they will be on their coolingoff lap, and by the time he starts on his “flyer” they will be back in the pits. If one of the Ferrari drivers decides to fit his second set of qualifying tyres (rules only allow two sets) and go straight out again, Senna knows that the time taken for the stop, and adding a bit more fuel, will allow him to complete his one fast lap before they re-appear.

Just occasionally this “programming” misfires, but he is always on top of the situation. In one session he came round the last corner leading on to the pit straight with a clear road as far as anyone could see down the track. He crossed the line at peak rpm, giving it all it had got, and almost instantly lifted off. Two cars appeared in the far distance, leaving the pit lane to join the circuit, and he would have caught them at the first corner. He cruised round on another slow lap, allowing the two cars to get ahead, and knowing who they were he had a pretty shrewd idea of what lap times they would do; probably three seconds slower than him, so he let them get five seconds ahead, confident in the knowledge that next time round he could do a “flyer” and not catch them before the end of the lap.

All this is going on in that calculating brain, much of it as conditioned reflex actions, and whereas onlookers might measure a gap in seconds he measures in distance. He “reads” the circuit at all times, using his exceptional eyesight, and rewrites the “programme” in his personal computer (his brain) continously. Add to this his “total committment” to driving at the pre-judged limits of everything, and you might get a small idea of what is needed to do a qualifying lap that is sometimes as much as one-and-a-half seconds faster than the second man, and then appreciate that Prost, Berger or Mansell have all been working to the same pattern.

If you can appreciate what is required from the foregoing, then you can see that Senna on pole in Portugal was nothing special, but as it was the 40th time he had done it in 91 races, was something well worth looking into.

But some people ask “Why is he so obsessed with pole-position?”. He is not obsessed, but he is determined to be the fastest and the best and today pole-position offers a lot of benefits. It has always provided a moral advantage over the opposition, or at least it has since the days in the 1930s when the grid was first set out according to practice times. Before that drivers drew a ballot for starting position. In the days when the grid was formed up in rows of 4-3-4-3 it was not so important which end of the front row you were, only that you were on the front row. It became a little more critical when grids were changed to 3-2-3-2, and more so when they were changed yet again to 2-2-2-2. When the final change came with a staggered grid, with 7 metres between cars, it meant. that pole-position man was out on his own with a ‘head-start’ over the second man.

Since the day when Bernie Ecclestone got Formula One organised on a financial footing, starting money is paid on your grid position, to a sliding scale from 1st to 20th, though it is not called starting money. Below 20th you get nothing, and never have under the “Bernie” rules, which makes sure no-one drags their feet hoping to make a living without trying. Actual figures are hard to come by, just as most people are reluctant to disclose what they earn in the most menial of jobs, but I would estimate that a World Champion driver in a World Championship winning team, would get about £50,000 for pole position. In actual fact the team get the money and it is up to them how they dispense it.

But above all else is the instinct of a “natural winner”. Second place is never good enough. Being first, in front of everyone is what it is all about. At the recent very wet Belgium Grand Prix at Francorchamps, it came home to a lot of people the advantage of being on pole-position and leading round the first corner. To listen to some of Senna’s enemies at that race you would have thought it was illegal and immoral for Senna to haves clear view in the opening laps, while all the other drivers were driving blind into clouds of spray! These enemies were amongst the people not driving, but standing in the dry. My guess is that the other 25 drivers were wishing they were Ayrton Senna. Pole-position may not be winning races, but it does help. DSJ

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