Crying Wolf!

The Formula One pit lane during testing or practice can be a very cynical place, and not without reason. You can see a wrecked car brought in on a break-down truck, a rear wheel and suspension hanging off, and hear a driver explaining how the suspension broke, which pitched him into the barriers. When that happens you will hear an engineer or chief mechanic mutter, “Oh yes, if you ask me the suspension broke when he hit the barriers”. Another driver will come in with a flat tyre, complaining bitterly of a puncture, and the tyre engineers will look at it and say, “Not surprising really, the way he’s been driving over the rough stuff on some of the corners”. You will hear a driver saying “the engine has a misfire at the top end”, to which an engine man will reply, “if you will hold it in the lower gears over 12,000 rpm you are bound to have a misfire; the automatic rev-limiter comes in at 11,800 rpm”, or the driver will complain about turbo-lag, “which isn’t surprising” says the engine man, “he lets the rpm drop to 3,000 and at that the cams are not even working, let alone the turbocharger; there is no turbo-lag at 9,500 rpm, which is where he ought to keep the engine working”.

Meanwhile the media men and the “powder-puff press” are hanging on the driver’s every word, especially if he is of their own nationality. They are not listening to the engineers, the chief mechanics, the technicians, who know their drivers well. The media are busy writing their powerful prose about “Poor Neil, he’s got turbo problems” or “the unfortunate Antonio had another suspension breakage” or “Francois was betrayed by a tyre failure”, all of which they hope their readers will lap up avidly. Other journalists will say to a driver “What happened?” and wait with tape recorder switched on to hear the latest tale of woe, or long-winded explanation. The practical workers in the team, who know their driver well, are saying “Can’t think why they waste their time asking him what happened. If they looked at the car they could see for themselves. You don’t have that sort of accident with too much understeer”. The late Laurence Pomeroy used to say to drivers, “Don’t waste time telling me what happened, just tell me what matters”.

Not all drivers are to be disbelieved, some are so open and simple that you never ever query what they say, though others are so devious that you can become very confused. One team had a really quick driver on their strength, a natural race winner, and they knew he always drove flat out and could never be accused of not trying hard enough. During a test session he was complaining about “too much understeer” so the engineers were adjusting things to improve matters, but the driver kept coming back saying “No good, it still understeers too much”. During the session one of the team members had to go across to the other side of the circuit for something and on his way he paused at a very fast right-hander out of interest, to see this understeer that was being complained about. Into view came the car, going very quickly indeed, it gave a flick and went all the way round the long curve on opposite lock, with the rear wheels way out of line. Classic oversteer. Returning to the pits later he said to the driver “You said you had too much understeer, yet I have just seen you cornering incredibly fast in a monumental oversteering slide, with the back really ‘hanging out’, what’s going on?” “Oh, yes” said the driver “far too much understeer, the only way I can get round that corner fast is to throw it into an oversteering powerslide before I get anywhere near the corner. If I let the car do what it wants to it would and restore itself off into the sand, and wouldn’t be very fast anyway”. You just can’t argue with drivers like that.

During a morning test session at a race meeting recently, Rosberg was programmed to test his race Williams-Honda, and the T-car and as time was limited the spare car was all ready for him to jump into the moment he got out of his number one car. In came the Williams, out jumped Rosberg, three strides across to the spare car and into the cockpit. As he did so he pointed to the car he had just deserted and said “Throttle’s sticking” and roared off in the T-car. The Williams mechanics and the Honda engine men looked at the abandoned car and you could see them thinking “Now what did he mean?”. They took the nose cover off and checked the accelerator pedal and its linkage. Nothing wrong. They took the engine cover off and looked closely at the complicated linkage to the inlet tract throttles of the V6 Honda engine, but all seemed well. They opened and shut the mechanism both from the pedal end and the injector end. Nothing wrong. They started the engine, blipped it cautiously using the pedal, then using the linkage on the engine. Nothing wrong. By this time you could see in the faces of both the English and Japanese men an air of disbelief and probably some of them were thinking “Drivers, huh, always, something to nit-pick about even when there is nothing wrong”. One of the Japanese engine men blipped the throttle, Brrppp, Brrppp, Brrppp. Nothing wrong, No sign of anything sticking. As they all looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders the engine man continued to blip the throttles. Brrppp, Brrppp, Brrppp. Everything was perfect. Brrppp, Brrppp — Wheee-eeewweee. The throttles had stuck open and the engine was soaring up to 12,000 rpm. Everyone froze for a millisecond and then there was a mad rush to the cockpit to switch everything off!

Sometimes the driver is right, you know. D.S.J.