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The European Grand Prix

June 15, 2012

As we all head to Valencia for round 8 and the European Grand Prix, I thought I’d recall some of my own memories of this particular race.

Firstly, when I think Valencia my first thoughts are not of the current incarnation of this extra event, squeezed into Bernie’s calendar, but of the thousands upon thousands of test miles we all used to do around the city’s permanent circuit in the good old days of free testing.
For F1 test teams, Spain became ‘home’ between January and March of each year as the travelling circus rotated between Valencia, Barcelona and Jerez in preparation for each new season. We’d pack up a very big bag, or two as was allowed back then, kiss goodbye to the families and head off for a gruelling couple of months of very long hours and often soul destroying hard work.
There were no such modern luxuries as night shift crews 10 or 12 years ago, health and safety had still to be invented in F1, so it wasn’t uncommon to arrive at the circuit for a days’ testing at 7am and not leave again until 2 or 3am the next morning. In fact thinking back, that really was quite common with a new car and I remember some years that actually making it back to the hotel at all was definitely considered a bonus.
Incredibly, despite the torturous lack of sleep and gruelling days, and with the last day of a test meaning an earlier finish, everything pointed towards a well earned early night of recovery, however invariably it would end in a massive night out in whichever city we found ourselves in. Valencia’s old town, I remember, managed to cater for us well.

To think of the European Grand Prix, my own personal memories are mainly ones of disappointment from a racing point of view.
At McLaren we failed to secure victory in all my years other than finally in 2007 with Fernando, during which event, on the other side of the garage, I was enduring a painful and eventful weekend running Lewis’ car, dealing with big crashes, trips into the gravel, torrential rain and restarts. In fact for some years with Kimi we failed to even finish the race for one disastrous reason or another.
The one memory, however which will always remain with me, is that of the 2005 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.
In a season where a random rule change had forced teams to complete races on one set of tyres only, Kimi had emerged in a two horse race for the title with Fernando at Renault.
About half way through the race Kimi locked up and heavily flat spotted his right front in a move to lap Villeneuve and with no permitted tyre changes at the pit stops, had to make it last to the end. As the race progressed towards a finish, the vibrations on the car became more and more serious, but Kimi led from Fernando by a reasonable margin and the team were faced with an increasingly difficult decision. We could change the tyre, arguing afterwards that it had to be done on safety grounds, but in doing so give up positions and valuable points, or gamble that we could hold on for the win. With Kimi only having one mode, that being flat out, his position was clear that he wanted to stay out and to be honest if we’d called him in I don’t think anyone was entirely sure he would have turned up.
We pushed on and, although the vibration was now severe, we headed into the last lap of the race leading the with Fernando a couple of seconds back.
There are races, if I’m honest, when inside those shiny pitstop helmets mechanics would nod off having lost interest, not this time though. No one could take their eyes off the screen for a second, hoping we could just hang on for the win and the tyre was like a time bomb, just waiting to go off at any moment.
Seconds later the whole team and it seemed like everyone in the grandstands drew a synchronised sharp breath. We stared, in total disbelief at the tv as the suspension suddenly failed at turn 1 and Kimi spun violently into the barriers. To say I was devastated doesn’t even come close to describing the way my heart sunk at that moment.
The feeling when your car fails is always a huge blow, but on the last lap of a race that you’re leading when your championship rival is there to pick up the vacated position and the 10 points really hurts. When it’s mechanical failure, having worked on the car you feel utterly sick not knowing for sure what’s happened or if it’s something you’ve done or missed until you get it back later. I felt in those seconds like the whole world had just watched my front suspension fall apart and that everyone was looking at me, wondering why. Had I just ruined Kimi’s and the team’s chances of a world championship?
As a smoker back then, I remember chaining three or four fags one after another in desolate and inconsolable silence outside the back of the garage, waiting for news, firstly that Kimi was ok and that the suspension collapse was indeed down to the vibration and not something I’d made a mistake with.
Both were confirmed, which at least subsided those fears, but such a disappointment takes a while to overcome before being able to refocus and move on to the challenge of the next event. With hindsight it’s easy to say we should have changed the tyre, but getting so close to the win, the gamble very nearly paid off. That’s gambling I guess, you win some you lose some.

Europe, Spain and in particular the Valencia region, are in all sorts of financial strife and this years race appears to be struggling to sell tickets. With a week to go, less than 40,000 are gone and organisers have already reduced capacity to just 45,000 in total, whilst Silverstone in contrast, has pretty much sold out already of its 125,000 tickets for race day in July!
Despite the doom and gloom surrounding next weeks race however and in particular the type of race we normally expect to see around this disappointing new venue, I still have high hopes for a thriller. Let’s not forget how tedious and uninspiring an event the Bahrain Grand Prix normally is, yet with this years’ F1 turning out more like 2011’s younger, better looking, considerably more wild and exciting cousin, we had an absolute cracker back in April. 2012’s all about driver and team strategies and it’s the variation in these which play a far greater role in spicing up the races than the character, or lack of it, of each circuit. Let’s hope I’m right anyway.
With the season resembling a great book you just can’t put down, fingers crossed that the next chapter of this years’ fascinating story is as good as we’ve all now come to expect.

Marc Priestley
Twitter: @f1elvis

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From → Formula One

One Comment
  1. McLaren_Soul permalink

    I remember that day like it was yesterday. If it was hard for fans to watch, I can’t imagine what it was like for you. Many emotions in just few seconds: I was sad (until I found out Kimi was ok), then angry, disappointed… but an hour or so later I felt quite proud of both the Team and Kimi. This is racing and, instead of going for the safe option, the Team decided to go for the win. It was dangerous, it didn’t work out, but it was a great way to show that McLaren is a Formula One Team – and Kimi a true F1 driver.

    PS About Valencia… well, I live there and I attended the race in 2008. Not a nice track, no good views, and the fans are only interested when Alonso wins. But we do have a beautiful city and some nice food! :))

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