Just not there
NOVEMBER 16, 2011
I know you shouldn't pay much heed to some of the feckless ramblings you see expressed on forums but I was struck by one comment on the BBC website. Responding to a report on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a correspondent was of the opinion that Lewis Hamilton simply inherited first place (because of Sebastian Vettel's first lap retirement) and that his drive was 'pretty routine and never really threatened.'
Such a statement may be totally inaccurate, but I can understand why the writer reached that conclusion. He was sitting at home, watching the race on a medium that more often than not kills the sport stone dead. And, even allowing for the influence of DRS, Sunday's race was not helped the design of the Yas Marina Circuit; the only aspect worthy of criticism at this otherwise stunning venue. Given that Hermann Tilke had a clean sheet of paper with a fairly healthy figure on the bottom line, it seems a waste of space in every sense to have come up with so many slow and medium speed corners and just the one mildly elevated section.
That said, the television cameras do not capture the challenge of putting together a perfect lap on a track that makes substantial physical demands on the drivers. I have been lucky enough to experience this for myself, not once, but twice when aboard the two-seater F1 car driven by Martin Brundle in 2009 and, last year, in the hands of irrepressible Jean Alesi (an experience worth a column in itself!).
Let me say straight away that a ride on any race track will immediately expose my complete lack of fitness and ability to drive a F1 car in anything but a straight line - and even that would be suspect. But that is to miss the point. I was mentally prepared for the exhilarating acceleration; I was even ready - almost - for the phenomenal chin-in-the-chest braking forces. But the thing that caught me out completely was the violence - and that is not too strong a word - of the cornering and rapid changes of direction.
This realisation not so much dawned but exploded like a thunderbolt as Brundle tacked the chicane at the end of the main straight. Having had the air expelled from my lungs by the seat harness as we braked from 187.653 mph (I checked the telemetry because it honestly did not seem THAT fast), I was beginning to unscramble my senses when: Wallop! He hits the kerb on the left. Thump! Smacks kerb on the right. Wallop! Clips the next kerb on the left. All the while, my head is flopping around like a rag doll and ready to be flung against the headrest as the Cosworth V10's acceleration fires us onto the next straight.
Within seven seconds, the process is repeated at the next chicane, followed by a tight left-hander and more jolting and buffeting. By the time we had completed two very quick laps, I was physically exhausted despite having done nothing more than hang on and brace myself.
I say 'very quick laps': this is relative. When we got out of the car, Martin explained that the dusty track, combined with the heavy and long 2-seater carrying my 80kg of personal ballast, meant we were about 14 seconds off the times expected of the F1 cars when they turned up for the first time a month later. He was absolutely spot on. I could not begin to imagine what it must be like for one lap - never mind 55 - at that speed. But you never get to see or appreciate any of that from the comfort of your armchair at home.
Which brings us back to Sunday's race and Hamilton's alleged 'pretty routine drive'. The point here is that he was dealing with Fernando Alonso. The Ferrari may not have had the out-and-out pace of the McLaren-Mercedes, but Hamilton knew he was being pursued by one of the most relentless and consistently quick drivers in the field. Allow Fernando to get within one second, particularly in the second DRS zone, and Lewis would be toast.
The lap times - again, not available on television in the detail you need - tell the story of just how hard these two were actually working while making it look processional on this track.
Here's Hamilton, from lap 5: 1m 46.549, 46.511, 46.431, 46.421, 45.989. And Alonso, over the same period: 1m 46.625, 46.497, 46.432, 46.059, 46.169. The rest of the field was, at best, half a second away. It was a truly phenomenal pace. Two guys on the absolute edge.
Here's another typical run from Hamilton 20 laps later: 1m 44.652, 44.511, 44.469, 44.960 (don't know what on earth he was playing at on that last lap. C'mon Lewis, pull your finger out!) And so it went on. For an hour and 37 minutes.
But none of the commitment and awesome performance will have been relayed to your living room. That's the problem. It doesn't help F1 and neither does it do much for one of the most exceptional settings on the Grand Prix trail.
A pretty routine drive? Certainly not. An urgent need to rethink the method of providing F1's television image? Absolutely.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.