You will struggle to find two places more different than India and the United Arab Emirates. As you wait in line for the Dubai passport control you notice adverts lining the room which state that the city holds ’99 world records’. These range from the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa at 828 metres – to the world’s largest mall – the Dubai Mall, which occupies 1.1 million square metres. The latter is so big that you can spend hours lost in it. Believe me, I know.
Once you make the hour journey to Abu Dhabi there’s more of the same and Yas Marina, where the circuit is based, is a mighty project that was created from a completely blank canvas.
The 5.6-km track is not everyone’s favourite – a few years ago Kimi Räikkönen said that the first few turns were OK, but the rest of it was “sh*t”. This he declared at a Ferrari event hosted for one of its sponsors, which had also invested a lot of money into building the track… Räikkönen already knew he was on the way out of Ferrari and couldn’t resist a small smile afterwards.
It’s no Spa-Francorchamps or Suzuka, but it is better than some and to have a proper look at it I joined Marussia’s Max Chilton on his track walk. I have always wondered what they talk about considering that many of the drivers have already done hundreds of laps at any given circuit and most remain unchanged from the year before. While this is Chilton’s first year in F1 he did the 2011 young driver test for Force India here and also drove the Marussia in FP1 last year.
“It’s just more of a traditional thing, something you have to do,” he says as we leave the pitlane and walk onto the sweltering track. It’s over 30 degrees and my question of why the track walk is done during the hottest part of the day is met with the reply “it’s routine”.
“There are things to find,” Chilton continues. “They may have changed a curb and it now has a really sharp edge to it, or they might have changed the camber on a corner, it makes a difference. When you’re in the car and going at speed you can’t notice the small changes. When you’re going through here [Turn 1] you might think it was off camber, but walking it now you can see it’s got positive camber.”
Chilton and his race engineer Gary Gannon have a data sheet in their hands with the best laps set by last year’s Marussia drivers Timo Glock and Charles Pic. Armed with these talk soon turns to what Chilton’s side of the garage is doing with the mechanical and aero balance of his car. The first sector needs quite a lot of downforce because of its high-speed nature, but the rest of the track doesn’t.
There are still damp patches on the circuit from where a truck has been washing it, trying to get rid of any sand. “That’s the only thing here that can change the grip level,” Chilton comments. “There’s quite a lot of racing here throughout the year. There’s lots of national racing, Saudi championships, track days. Every Thursday they open it up to the public and dedicate one side for cycling and one for running. There’s the two-seater F1 car as well. It’s being used every day, which stops the delta time from FP1 to qualifying being excessive. In Korea, where the track is never used, the delta between FP1 and qualifying is massive because it takes so long to clean. Here it’s pretty good.”
By the time we get to the final sector the void between a Formula 1 driver’s fitness and a normal person’s starts to become apparent. I am pouring sweat and lingering for as long as possible in the small areas of shade while Chilton is walking on as if it’s 15 degrees. As we approach the end of the lap, and have caught up and overtaken Romain Grosjean, talk turns from Formula 1 to Knockhill, getting rid of an aggressive slice in golf – thank you for that Max – and the cost of some of the boats in the marina. It’s about this time that Chilton’s team-mate Jules Bianchi cycles past on a Ferrari bicycle for the second time. Our Ferrari bicycles were noticeable only by their absence…
Back in the paddock and many appear more relaxed than in India. Vettel and Red Bull have sealed both the championships and while every race is important, the big prize is won. “It was a great relief when I crossed the line on Sunday,” the 2013 World Champion admitted after he arrived at the track. “On Sunday night the whole team had to do the usual pack up, but we had some spontaneous fun in the hotel bar. There wasn’t a lot of time between then and now so we couldn’t go mad. I had two days at home, which were quite quiet and I just enjoyed the peace.”
One team that isn’t going to get much peace this weekend is Mercedes due to the BBC news story by Andrew Benson, which stated that Ross Brawn was leaving the team at the end of the season. Eddie Jordan had put his name to the story and in it they claimed that Brawn had been offered a role which sat alongside Paddy Lowe. He didn’t want it and is now set to leave the team. There’s been no comment from Brawn or Mercedes as yet, but the talk in the paddock is that Benson is bang on the money.
The question is whether, at the age of 58, Brawn has another big challenge in him. Will he want to move to another team and be there until he’s 62 or even 64? Whatever he wants to do, he’ll be hot property considering what he knows about Mercedes’ 2014 plans… Watch this space.
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