Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button are focused on the Korean Grand Prix but teams look further ahead
With Sebastian Vettel celebrating winning the world championship this week over some cold drinks and karaoke versions of Hey Jude and, appropriately, My Way, he might be forgiven for looking forward to the winter break.
But in the paddock the drivers remain motivated for these final four races. A win is a win and if it were not for this overriding compulsion that drives racing, they would simply not climb into a cockpit. For the teams, however, the emphasis has already shifted to next year’s car but not in as straightforward a fashion as it may seem. As with so much in Formula One, simple lines conceal complex and differing systems.
Vettel finished third fastest during a wet-free practice for the Korean Grand Prix here in Yeongam on Friday, eclipsed by just under two seconds by McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, who will be tasked with driving the team’s 700th grand prix on Sunday.
Their car has been steadily improving and may finally have parity with Red Bull. But in the strictly finite measurement of resources F1 teams can use, it is now drawing very little from the pool, according to their team principal, Martin Whitmarsh.
“At the moment we’ve probably got 98% of the resource applied to next year’s car, with the other 2% on this year’s cars living parasitically off the efforts of the 98%” he says. “They are looking over the shoulders of their colleagues and if they can see something they can steal from the new programme, then they do just that. But we are still bringing some things through. We have a new front wing for India.”
Whitmarsh’s competitive instinct means he wants to keep challenging for victories even with the championship gone, a passion he shares with the McLaren team still working at each race. “The people in the field here tend to be more of the out-and-out racers. They just want to win and, to an extent, it’s much more enjoyable. It’s a tough old season for everyone in the team to flog themselves around. I didn’t feel so tired leaving Suzuka last weekend as I would have done had we not won. The same goes for this one in Korea.”
While the season continues comparisons can still be made, which, according to Whitmarsh, makes the post-season the more interesting stage of development.
“During the year your competitors are on your radar screen every fortnight. You get a benchmarking exercise which tells you where you are relative to them. Then in a few weeks’ time we’ll go into the darkness of an off-season, when you’re pushing as hard as you can. But whether it’s enough progress? You never know.
“It’s one of the exciting phases. It can lead to pride and pleasure or disappointment when you get to Saturday in Australia.”
Essentially, for the big teams, the entire season involves balancing and managing resources depending on their position in the championship and whether wins are still viable.
For Team Lotus, who finished with both drivers on the lead lap last weekend in Suzuka but in 18th and 19th places, a different approach must be adopted. “We’ve left the other new teams well behind, which is great,” says Mike Gascoyne, Lotus’s chief technical officer. “But we are not quite racing the team in front and we are not scoring our first points.”
Lotus, who are in their second season of racing, know their limitations. “You’re not going to come in, flick a switch and start beating the established teams,” says Gascoyne, arguing that while the big teams will be looking to “evolve” their cars, for him the fundamentals must be right. “We have to get all the people in place. They [the big teams] have all of that. We’re far more about putting those building blocks in place.”
For Lotus this resource management has meant a focus on creating a stable design team, sticking with Renault and Red Bull for engines and gearboxes, a shift to a new factory over the winter and taking full advantage of their allocated wind-tunnel time through a deal with Williams. They are all vital constituents, according to Gascoyne. “We’re not saying: ‘Well, we’re just going to do the same again, try harder everyone.’ There are cast-iron physical things that are going to make a difference.
“If you don’t do all the hard yards you’ll never get there. There’s no short cut, that’s the problem when you come in. We’ve got to build a team as well as the car.”
Gascoyne and Whitmarsh have differing priorities from either end of the grid, but their goals remain the same. As Whitmarsh says of next year’s car: “I just want it to be quick enough to get the job done.”