'The (F1) world won’t stop just because it's raining'

Force India continued to grapple with a faulty fuel delivery system and Giancarlo Fisichella was candid enough to admit that a top-10 or top-15 finish would be a realistic aspiration this coming season.-AP

Despite icy torrents from the neighbouring Atlantic Ocean, it was business as usual for the Formula One teams who were at the Circuito de Jerez for their penultimate round of testing before the season opening Melbourne Grand Prix. By Kunal Diwan.

“Can we do something about the rain, please,” Ms. Mehta’s pencilled eyebrows arched towards her high hairline, her mouth puckered into an impish pout and her eyes darted to the entrance whence a tall young man in Force India’s fetching tricolour jacket had just ambled in.

While the well turned out ice maiden — a guest scribe at Force India’s Jerez testing sessions — wanted the rain to stay away for very personal reasons of attire, Adrian Sutil’s desire for dryness was rather more pertinent. “I haven’t driven much in wet conditions. I hope we get a few dry runs in place with the new car (the VJM02) before testing in Barcelona next week,” said the 26-year-old German, a technology enthusiast and former piano player.

Though its very mention evokes mental images of sun-kissed beaches and thoroughbred stallions galloping with gay abandon around a grassy knoll, Jerez de la Frontera, on the Southern-most tip of Spain, was anything but warm and welcoming in the first week of March.

The Formula One teams that hit the Circuito de Jerez for a penultimate swing at testing their mean machines prior to the season opening Melbourne Grand Prix (March 29) were swept away by icy torrents from the neighbouring Atlantic Ocean.

But “the world won’t stop just because it’s raining” and Formula One shed its dry-weather gear and slipped into wetness mode.

“We have tyres for dry weather, wet weather and extremely wet weather,” informed Andy Stobart of Bridgestone — the official supplier to all Formula One cars — speaking from a shed that contained tyres with varying degrees of wear and tear under varying conditions of weather.

Stobart wheeled out some vulcanised products for closer inspection and continued his rubbery discourse while this writer, for want of anything better to do, started to finger out charred slivers of carbon from between the treads.

It took a second for the charming Press officer to see red and he did not miss a beat in barking out an order to our party. His “please keep your hands to yourself” could have had myriad interpretations (especially in Spain), but a hyperactive guilty conscience bade one stand as still as one’s habitual twitches allowed.

Meanwhile, Toyota’s Timo Glock made light of the persistent drizzle and harnessed his ride to the fastest lap times on two straight days of testing. “It tends to be difficult to carry out meaningful testing when there is so much rain. The conditions made things tricky but at least it stayed consistently wet and so we were able to go work on set-up and tyres,” he said later.

The start of testing, thus, was as un-Mediterranean as anybody could not have hoped for. Those unprepared for such untimely chills were in for a torrid time and no amount of coffee or cappuccino helped shrug the chill off.

It did not help one bit that the ‘hospitality lounges’ of various Formula One teams were, at best, makeshift structures attached to mammoth Mercedes trailer trucks; replete with a makeshift kitchen, a makeshift computer console, and a very makeshift Wireless LAN connection that sputtered and died during all critical data-transfers.

Most of the bleakness was spent huddled in a relatively warm corner of the enclosure, sponging heat from the kitchen and wondering what exotic meats lay in store for lunch. Gastronomic reveries were interrupted each time a 300 kph menace of metal thundered past, and one look at the afternoon’s fare — tentacles swimming in a scarily viscous gravy of brownish chunks — made one realise the probable origins of the phrase: “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”.

The third day dawned cold but sunny — still not sunny enough to warrant the use of Ms. Mehta’s “summer” wear, but comfortable enough for us less fashionable types to walk up to the Force India paddock.

The paddock is where the brains of a Formula One team are headquartered, and around 40 people — each entrusted with a highly specific task from screwing bolts to pumping fuel to polishing the top of the driver’s helmet — scampered around trying not to get in each other’s way.

Car Build Supervisor Mark Gray embarked on a description of a strange button-infested, two-pronged contraption that turned out to be a steering wheel.

“There are push paddles for the clutch and gears, buttons for communication, more buttons for fuel control, and yet more buttons for stuff that even I don’t know,” he kidded to a wide-eyed entourage.

Strictly forbidding the use of cameras, Gray revealed that at any point during an actual race, there was just one engineer who acted as a relay between the driver and the team. It also took a tech-savvy, perceptive driver to source authentic real-time inputs for the team to work on and modify the car to suit a particular driver, stage or condition.

Meanwhile, it was time for lunch and a special guest at the hospitality enclosure. Between mouthfuls of sea-water strangeness, one caught a glimpse of a large-sized man swaggering into the hall like it was his personal domain.

It turned out that the hall was indeed Vijay Mallya’s personal domain, a bit steep at Euro 100 million (the dough he coughed up for Force India) but totally vindicating the businessman’s sneering brand of buoyancy.

“Contrary to media reports, my IPL team (Bangalore Royal Challengers) was the only outfit that had a profitable first season last year,” Mallya shared with Indian reporters.

The beer baron also hollered impressive figures into his dark-grey Blackberry in full hearing of the Press contingent: “No, no…not two million, that is too less,” and “don’t disturb me with such trivial stuff” were phrases that caught the gist of his bearing.

By mid-afternoon on the last day, all that remained of the rain was an angry grey cloud suspended in one corner of the horizon. Blue as Sinatra’s eyes though the sky was, chilly winds raged across the track for most of the afternoon.

BMW-Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld led the lap times, a whisker ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren-Mercedes’ reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton was unlucky enough to get caught in a particularly vicious gust and crash-damaged his vehicle’s rear wing.

The nip in the air never really allowed the kind of summery gallivanting that our party from India had hoped to indulge in. Maybe next time round, but only if weather patterns permit.