The Zen of standing trackside in solitude during an F1 practice session opens a window to the reality below the surface froth of a grand prix weekend. It’s out here that the real stuff is happening – right in front of your eyes and in a way that no TV camera can capture. The camera loses the close-up detail as it pans back to give the background perspective. You need both the perspective and the detail to properly see yaw angles and the dynamics of the car, how and when it rotates into the turn, what the fine intricacy of its body language is – and a TV camera cannot give you both, only one or the other.
Stand there tuning into the movement and sound for long enough and differences between the cars and drivers become almost exaggerated, traits very clearly defined. At the most basic level in and out laps are easily distinguishable from attack laps, though on screen even that’s not obvious. Out on track, you can often even begin to identify which Ferrari or Red Bull it is from how it’s being driven, no need even to check the helmet or the colour-coded camera on the roll hoop.
Long run cars heavily-laden with fuel are visibly lazier and less accelerative than the light-footed responsiveness of those on a low fuel run. But that’s just basic stuff; for example, let’s watch how Fernando Alonso is overcoming the Ferrari’s gripless front end at Rivage, Spa’s slowish downhill right-hander near the top of the valley. He’s taking an aggressive amount of speed into the turn and braking hard, still on the brakes as he begins to turn the wheel but then releasing the left pedal quite sharply. As he does this, you see the car’s nose momentarily tuck in to the corner; he’s got the turn-in accomplished without losing too much time, by suddenly loading up the front tyres and inducing a response.
What would normally happen then, however, is that the fronts would become overwhelmed and the car would begin to understeer, but he gets around this by momentarily reducing the amount of lock applied, giving the front tyres a breather before they stall, getting on the throttle to rotate the car further and then re-applying the lock a moment later. Making at least two brief separate corners out of the turn, he goes through like this every lap, tricking the car, keeping it artificially unbalanced, constantly manipulating the weight between the four tyres. It’s not textbook style but is devastatingly effective in getting around this car’s limitations on this corner.
Kimi Rӓikkӧnen at the same place in the same car is driving like a normal human being. His approach speed is only slightly tamer and he keeps the front loaded up under braking to get that initial response from the tyres, but his turn in is more tentative and as he progressively releases the brakes the understeer builds regardless. He nibbles away on the steering wheel, waiting for the message that the speed has dropped enough to give the front tyres some bite and all the while the lap time is bleeding away right there in front of your eyes, his car visibly slower out of the bend. At other slow corners through the season it’s the same story; sometimes Kimi’s speed has fallen so much by the time the front has gripped that he triggers the car’s poor traction as he gets on the power to accelerate out of the corner at places where Alonso’s maintained enough momentum to get around the worst part of the power curve.
It’s part of the driver’s job to adapt to failings in the car if they cannot be improved and in this improvisation Alonso is vastly more effective – and always has been. This is the driver that got to within 0.1sec of a fuel weight-adjusted pole at Monza 2006 in a Renault with severe rear bodywork damage from an earlier-exploding tyre. Left-rear winglet and chimney ripped off and severe floor damage cost what Pat Symonds later calculated was around 0.6sec of lap time. It should barely have been driveable, yet Alonso just incorporated its new traits into his rhythm.
That sort of thing has never been within Kimi’s box of tricks. His ace in the hole has always been his sublime feel for the car through fast corners, especially those where manipulation of the throttle is needed to maximise momentum. In this, his super-sensitivity to the messages coming through the steering is a great asset. In the 2014 Ferrari on the hard tyres into a slow corner, relying on that sensitivity was a liability and it was very noticeable that on the few occasions the tyre compounds were soft for the demands of the track, Rӓikkӧnen was often just as quick as Alonso.
Ferrari’s since departed technical chief Pat Fry has worked extensively with Rӓikkӧnen and Alonso at both McLaren and Ferrari and in Austin last year he talked of their traits and their differing form of 2014. “There are two parts to it,” he said. “One is that Fernando is more adaptive anyway and the other is that the limitation with the car and the tyres specifically hurt Kimi’s way of driving. Often by the time you get the front end he needs into the car, the rear becomes a problem. To some degree on the softer compound tyres it’s not bad – look at Singapore; when he went onto super soft he found a huge amount of time. But generally with this year’s car and tyres this is the sort of problem that compounds. You start saving fuel and you lose tyre temperature and can’t get a balance, then you push and it comes back. Fernando works the car and the tyres and he can drive around problems. The harder you are on the fronts, the better you’re going to be.”
With better front tyre temperatures you can carry more energy recovery from the rear axle because as the brake-by-wire switches the brake bias forwards as the ersK completes its recovery, the fronts are less liable to lock. With under-temperature front tyres you will be forced not to harvest the energy from the rear axle as aggressively by having less rear bias, to ensure a less abrupt brake balance change as the brake-by-wire does its stuff. This in turn will mean you will be using more fuel, having recovered less electrical energy. Which in turn will force you to slow further to keep the fuel consumption on schedule, which in turn can make generating front tyre temperature yet more difficult…. and on it goes, a viscous downwards spiral.
“Kimi was exactly the same at McLaren,” continued Fry. “He was always super-sensitive to the front end. When we had him and Montoya together we had about seven different front suspensions. To get the best from Kimi you need to give him the car.”
Fry’s mention of McLaren’s Rӓikkӧnen/Montoya line-up of 2005/6 triggers another trackside memory – from Monza’s Lesmo 1 in 2005. Rӓikkӧnen would approach the corner and tentatively apply some lock, the car would understeer, but a grippy understeer – where the tyre is still able to accept more lock, which he would then apply later in the turn. Montoya by contrast would arrive and put on a big positive amount of lock immediately – and the fronts would simply stall, forcing him to stay off the throttle much further into the turn than Rӓikkӧnen.
With that car, on those grippy tyre war Michelins, Kimi’s sensitivity to the front end was an asset – thereby illustrating that it’s not as simplistic as ‘this driver likes understeer, this one oversteer’. It’s to do with specific tyre and car traits and how they dovetail with how the driver is physiologically wired up – and lots of other things too.
On the one hand Rӓikkӧnen was less able to deal with a weak front end than Alonso in 2014, yet this was his strength over Montoya a few years earlier – but it was for different reasons. The Michelin was supreme in being able to combine lateral and longitudinal grip, the current Pirelli control tyre hates that combination. So Kimi could still maintain his momentum while feeling for the front grip of the Michelin, using his sensitivity to prevent it from stalling in a way that Montoya could not. But that same sensitivity when applied to a front tyre that will not accept more direction change once it is sliding is a limiting factor.
In 2007-09, on control Bridgestones similar to the current Pirellis but not as extreme, Felipe Massa was often quicker than Rӓikkӧnen in the Ferrari. The trick in slow corners was to simply drive up to the grip of the front tyre and not try to manipulate it – because it had no more to give regardless. Trackside at Istanbul’s Turn 4, a slow right-hander leading to a descent, I watched Massa repeatedly take time from Rӓikkӧnen by braking later, turning in and living with the understeer, just patiently waiting for it to stop before getting on the gas. Kimi would brake more lightly, try to carry more speed into the corner, nibbling away at the steering trying in vain to find a bite point and carrying the understeer for longer. Three different car/tyre combinations, three very different outcomes for Rӓikkӧnen‘s very specific style.
What we saw in 2014 was a pale imitation of Kimi Rӓikkӧnen. A lot of that was due to the specific traits of the car and tyre. But the burning question is how much? How much was that and how much, if any, was a genuine dimming of his skills?
If Ferrari can produce a 2015 car with a good front end, Rӓikkӧnen will find a step change in performance. Quite naturally, folk will then say ‘but imagine how much faster Alonso would have been’ but that may not necessarily be accurate. Standing trackside in 2015 I hope I can shine some light onto this question.