No experience necessary: Your Working Girl’s Guide to the 2014 F1 Racing Season

I am one of the first people to get it. I understand completely. Being a Formula 1 race fan is a nerdy-slash-incomprehensible pastime with a dash of “trying too hard” if you’re a woman, which, in this case, applies—the woman part, I mean, not the trying too hard part. But like gamer convention and Comic Con devotees, Your Working Girl leads a happy life already predisposed to a diverse group of people simply because they are fans of a sport that no one else within in hearing range seems to care about.

While on a crowded bus heading to a racetrack in Europe, I was one of a group of strangers who had gathered around a demure, professorial-looking Englishman. Traveling with his wife, he had just modestly confessed to having had a letter to the editor printed in Motorsport magazine. The letter was about tire strategy or, as they say in Motorsport magazine, tyre strategy. A few of the lads on the bus clapped him on the back admiringly while the rest of us nodded our heads in appreciation. The professor was among people who understood the entirety of his accomplishment.

For the uninitiated, a Formula 1 race is a three-day event. Because of the time difference and my own schedule, I tape Friday practice, Saturday qualifying (or quali if you’re talking to someone who knows what that means) and then, finally, the race on Sunday. There were 19 race events on this year’s calendar, which started in March in Australia and ended this past Sunday.

The live race comes on television early Sunday morning and I usually try to watch my recording of it sometime on Sunday because I cannot go online, check Twitter, Facebook or watch television until I do. I usually watch the race alone. If that sounds sad, it’s not meant to. I do have people all over the world I can talk to about racing, so it’s not likely I feel any lonelier than they do. In talking to my brothers on the East coast, the phone call just needs to start with “have you have a chance watch the race yet?” The answer to that question determines the parameters of the conversation that follows.

I have held off writing about F1 in this space. My typical blog fare features hypocrisy, rampant capitalism and women’s issues, deadly serious matters, including the recent Ghomeshi scandal, with the occasional baseball column thrown in for relief, which my readers say they like—at least when they’re not arguing with each other in the comments section. And I’m not saying that F1 couldn’t necessarily fall into one of my three traditional niches, but everyone has to have a bit of fun.

And fun—or my idea of it—is what brings me to today’s humble offering, a wrap-up of the 2014 Formula 1 season. Hip, hip hoor-ray, already.

Believe me, for those new to the sport, you don’t need to know anything about F1 to continue reading. And to my F1 compatriots, I offer this wrap-up with a big wallop of humility. You will notice all the things I didn’t include. Feel free to comment.

The biggest shift in 2014 was that all F1 cars had to be powered with hybrid engines, using 30% less fuel. Teams have been working on the hybrid package for years.

Ultimately, they made the fuel conservation possible because a significant amount of the excess energy produced by the movement and heat generated in the operation of the regular internal combustion engine, which is fuelled by the same gas you pump into your car, is collected by a highly finessed energy recovery system. That collected energy is then re-directed to a turbo-charger, which compresses air to make the internal combustion engine more powerful and to a battery that powers an electric motor, which then, in turn, directs the electrical power back to the internal combustion engine. An occasionally fickle set of electronics organizes this beautiful circular waltz of energy spent and reclaimed.

That’s pretty neat to me, but why should it matter to you?

In the movie, The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep, as Miranda Priestly, editor of Runway magazine, describes the trickle-down theory of high fashion to the skeptical, and somewhat smug, Anne Hathaway character. And I think you can pretty well use it to describe why what happens in F1 matters to the car-buying public:

“You think [fashion] has nothing to do with you,” says Miranda Priestly to the Hathaway character during a run through of the new issue of the magazine. “You go to your closet and you select, I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater you’re wearing, for instance … what you don’t get is that sweater is not just blue, it’s not just turquoise, it’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean … In 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a selection of cerulean gowns and then, I think, Yves St. Laurent showed cerulean military jackets. And then cerulean quickly shot into the collections of eight different designers and then filtered down into the department stores, then trickled down into some casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.”

Haute couture is to fashion what F1 racing to the automotive industry. It sets the bar. The energy recovery systems used in Formula 1 this year marks the most advanced work being done on the development of hybrid engines. And while those cars look nothing like a Ford Fusion, the F1 experimentation with hybrids will likely lead to developments in the use of hybrid engines for the cars regular people drive and for energy recovery systems in general. Just like Oscar de la Renta did with his cerulean blue.

One of the unexpected issues arising from the transition to hybrids that continues to be of interest to me, was that the hybrid engines weren’t loud enough for many race fans to experience the visceral impact of the noise rattling around in their chests. In fact, after the first race of the season in Australia, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation was so upset about the lack of ear-splitting roar and vibrating heart, they considered claiming breach of contract with Bernie Ecclestone and F1 management. Bernie promises to make it louder next year.

Regardless of the decibel level, the introduction of the hybrid engine created the main two story arcs for the entire 2014 season.

Not all engine manufacturers got the beautiful circular waltz of energy spent and reclaimed quite right.

It was clear early in the season that Mercedes got it right with their design, which powered their own team as well as the teams of McLaren, Force India and Williams.

Engine maker Renault, which powered former championship team, Red Bull, along with the teams of Toro Rosso, Lotus and Caterham fell far behind the performance of the Mercedes engines and they struggled all year.

Ferrari, using Ferrari engines (are there any other kind?), had their worst season since 1980. They also powered the cars of two smaller teams—Sauber and Maurissa. The young Anglo-Russian team of Maurissa suffered their most tragic season although to turned out to be nothing engine related.

Mercedes dominated all other teams by about one second a lap. Following that, it was the rivalry between the two Mercedes drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg that made most races exciting. It was their duel that brought the 2014 driver’s championship down to the very last race.

Friends and rivals since childhood when they raced go-karts together, the 2014 season emphasized the rivalry, not the friendship. Sometimes it became bitter.

Hamilton is a British former world champion and F1’s first driver of colour. His family was not wealthy. His father worked three jobs to support Lewis and still managed to get to his son’s races. Nico Rosberg is technically German, but was raised in Monaco. His father is former F1 racer, the Finn, Keke Rosberg.

Lewis, known for being a brilliant, but temperamental, racer said, because of Nico’s privilege growing up, he didn’t have the “fire in his belly” to win.

Nico, who some Lewis fans called “Brittney” because of his blonde wavy hair and wide smile, accidentally hit Lewis going through a corner during Lap 2 at the Belgium Grand Prix and put him out of the race. Tempers flared.

Most races during the season finished one-two Lewis-Nico or Nico-Lewis. But one man has to win. And so on Sunday past, I and my worldly F1 friends and relations gathered around our television sets to see who would emerge the 2014 F1 World Champion.

For a sport largely seen as European, that penultimate race was a long way from Europe—far from the Spa Francorchamps Raceway in Belgium, through which I hoofed through miles of the Ardennes forest to claim my seat at the Eau Rouge corner in 2013, the 100th anniversary of the track.

It was miles, metaphorically and otherwise, from the streets of Monaco where, when drivers brush the concrete barriers of the narrow street circuit, it’s called a “Monaco kiss.” And where Prince Albert II, head of the Princely House of Grimaldi (and son of Grace Kelly) along with his wife Princess Charlene (expecting twins before the year is out) presented the drivers with their trophies for first, second and third place finishes in August.

The last race of the season was held at the Abu Dhabi racetrack in the United Arab Emirates, a part of F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone’s expansion of the “world brand” of Formula 1 (or Bernie following the money).

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix takes place at the Yaz Marina Circuit on an island 25 km from Abu Dhabi. It’s a modern high tech track that features a tunnel for a pit lane exit of which David Coulthard, former racer and now BBC host deadpans, “a lot of action happens there, we just don’t see it.” The grandstands are covered by what looks like Bedouin tents and the Yaz Viceroy Hotel, situated in the middle of the track, has a dramatic wire canopy that, to me, looks like a burka caught in the wind.

Yas Hotel at night, Formula 1 Abu Dhabi

In the lead-up to Abu Dhabi, Lewis had won 10 races to Nico’s 5 races and was 17 points ahead in the standings. But because the F1 rule makers ludicrously made Abu Dhabi a “double points” race, Hamilton would have to come second if Nico won, a weird, and hopefully not to be repeated, skewing of the odds.

Nico won the pole position in Saturday qualifying ahead of Lewis by .336 of a second (a lifetime), making him first on the grid, first out of the gate, an important advantage on any circuit where overtaking is difficult. Nailing-biting time for Lewis Hamilton fans, of which there are many all over the world.

Yet the hybrid engine and driver rivalry aren’t the sum total of what happened in 2014. I noticed more women in higher profile positions this year. Claire Williams, daughter of Sir Frank Williams, a former racer who has been confined to a wheelchair as a result of injuries he suffered in a non-racing related car crash in 1986, is deputy team principal for Williams F1.

Susie Wolff, the first women driver in F1 since Giovanna Amati, is a reserve driver for Williams. Giovanna Amati tried unsuccessfully to qualify in three races for Brabham in 1992 and was replaced by Damon Hill. (The main drivers for Williams are the Finn, Valtteri Bottas and Brazilian, Felipe Massa.)

Monisha Kaltenborn, a lawyer born in India and raised in Vienna, is the first woman team principal in F1. She runs and co-owns the Ferrari-powered Swiss team, Sauber with German, Nico Hülkenberg and Mexican, Sergio Perez in the drivers’ seats. They arrived in Abu Dhabi second last, only besting the Renault-powered Caterham team, and not having scored a single point.

I like seeing women succeed in F1 and believe the inclusion of women in the garage and on the track could bring more fans than all of Bernie Ecclestone’s “world brand” expansion plans. It is long overdue in racing and in the engineering field, in general.

On the other hand, 2014 was also the year of Vladimir Putin, the man with the inverted triangle torso, who popped up on the F1 circuit at the sport’s newest race, the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi, a circuit that would look familiar to you if you watched any of the Sochi Olympics

The Sochi race itself was a stunning bore, a “parade” for F1 fans, although it must have been exciting for the Mercedes team who won the constructor’s championship there. (In F1 there is a championship for the team called the constructor’s championship, which emphasizes the design and construction of the cars, as well as one for the drivers.)

But Sochi had the added creepiness of the Putin factor. There he was … in the little room where the podium winners stop by to get a drink of water, put on tire manufacturer’s Pirelli caps and clamp on the handcuff of the rich man, a Rolex watch, in preparation for walking out in front of the crowds and television cameras to receive their trophies. It’s a place for the drivers to catch their breath and have a few words with each other, sometimes friendly, sometimes not.

In that little room, Lewis Hamilton, the race winner, did everything but go near Putin, not easy in such small quarters. He darted around, fiddling with the caps on the table, the wristband of his watch, drinking water and, doing what he does after every race, running his fingers through his sweat-soaked hair trying to get it to stand on end before he goes out to the podium. Was he avoiding Putin? It sure looked like it. Eventually, he had to shake Putin’s hand to get out of the room, but was Lewis making a point here by his stalling? We’ll never know, but he got some points in my book, that’s for sure.

Tragedy also struck Formula 1 in 2014. During the Japanese Grand Prix, under a yellow flag, the young French driver, Jules Bianchi’s car, a Ferrari-powered Maurissa, skidded off the track at a very high speed and ran underneath a recovery vehicle while it was tending to Adrian Sutil’s car, the Renault-powered Sauber, which had skidded off the track on the previous lap at the exact same spot.

The entire race had a sense of foreboding about it. It was raining really hard. If you have seen the movie Rush, during which Niki Lauda refuses to continue the Japanese Grand Prix because of the rain, the race conditions were similar. The race actually started under a yellow flag and then, on Lap 2, was stopped because of the weather. After 20 minutes, the race was started again, but still under a yellow flag. On Lap 9, the race was green-flagged and went forward with a general mayhem until the yellow flag came out again on Lap 42 when Sutil’s car went off. On Lap 43, Jules Bianchi’s car also went off.

Not that anyone knew it at the time. Because it was in the exact same spot as Sutil’s car, the GPS readings were confusing. The Maurissa team knew something was wrong because Jules wasn’t answering on his headset. But no one else really knew exactly what had happened until after the race. His head injuries were “devastating.” A sensor in his helmet measured an impact of 94G. His condition was classified as life-threatening and critical then and continues to be today. The young man was hurt so badly, very badly. The race was called on Lap 45. I cried.

Bianchi’s accident was the most serious crash in F1 since Felipe Massa’s injury in 2009 when he was qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. Massa’s helmet was hit with a suspension spring from another car on a high-speed part of the track and he drove into a tire barrier. After the incident, his condition was described as “life-threatening.”

There have been no on-track deaths in Formula 1 since Aryton Senna died while leading the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. The same cannot be said for Indy racing which continues to be carnage, despite the technological developments in making car racing safer. (The topic of another post.)

But all of the emotions—all the blood, sweat and many tears—of the 2014 season came to bear on the 22 cars lined up on the grid at the start of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The conditions were excellent, the drivers’ eyes are riveted on the starting light stanchion, a row of five lights. The race director starts the sequence and each of the five lights turns red, one-by-one. Then, boom, all five lights go out and the race is on. Lewis Hamilton’s car flies off the grid like it was shot out of a cannon. He said later it was the best start he’d ever had. Nico Rosberg’s car raced in behind him, but Lewis had taken charge of the next 55 laps.

After 10 laps, Lewis and Nico are set firmly in the one-two positions, with the cars of Williams’ drivers Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas running three-four.

On Lap 12, Nico Rosberg pits for new tires.

On Lap 14, Felipe Massa pits for new tires.

On Lap 17, The Renault-powered Toro Rosso of Russian driver, Daniil Kyvat, retires from the race after spinning out, a frustrating finale of his commendable rookie season.

On Lap 25, it’s a pivotal moment of the race. Nico Rosberg reports that his engine is losing power, a failure triggered by the finicky electronics of that energy recovery system. Something similar happened to his car at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal.

On Lap 28, Pastor Maldonado’s (sometimes called “Crashtor” Maldonado) Renault-powered Lotus bursts into flames. He pulls over and gets out, his race day done.

Lap 30, Despite losing the power of his energy recovery system, Nico Rosberg is still running third with the Williams of Felipe Massa giving chase.

Lap 34, Massa easily passes Nico Rosberg.

Lap 35, Rosberg pits and comes back on the track in seventh place.

Lap 37, Rosberg pleads with his race engineers on the radio, “What the hell can I do to get to fifth?” (the position he needs to win the championship should Hamilton, for whatever reason, fail to finish.) “Just go flat out,” was the damp reply.

Lap 40, Nico Rosberg’s car is now the slowest of the field with the exception of rookie British driver, Will Stevens, who received the super license required to drive in F1 half an hour before the race and is filling in for Maurissa’s Jules Bianchi.

Lap 43, Lewis Hamilton, still out front, posts a quick lap and tells his engineers “I’m comfortable” although, according to The Guardian, you can “still hear anxiousness in his voice.”

Lap 46, Williams’ Felipe Massa, now in second place, has just posted the fastest lap and it looks like he is setting up to challenge Hamilton.

Lap 54, Nico Rosberg’s race engineer tells him to “box, box, box!”, a recent and more thrilling way of saying “come into the pits.” Delivered in a clipped British accent, it’s a handy phrase with an array of applications. (Instead of calling out, “dinner’s ready!” to your family, for example, try calling out “box, box, box” and see how they react.) Despite the call to box, Nico says, “No, I’d like to finish.” The team gives him the go-ahead to continue. I am sad for Nico.

Lap 55, Lewis Hamilton crosses the finish line with the checkered flags waving and wins the 2014 F1 World Championship, saying “it means so much more to me than the first time,” and “this is the best day my life,” winning us all over with his excitement and enthusiasm. Well done, Lewis!

Nico Rosberg visits Lewis in that little room where the podium finishers are putting on their Rolexes and Pirelli hats to congratulate him. “You deserve it,” says Nico. They hug.

And who has placed second in this thrilling last race of the season? It’s that guy Felipe Massa, the Brazilian who was airlifted from the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix in critical condition with a head injury, but who recovered and had a titanium plate inserted into his skull to strengthen it for racing. Well done, Felipe! I am so happy for you.

And to you, Jules Bianchi, you handsome, dynamic young race driver who had your whole beautiful life ahead of you—Godspeed.

Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Saturday 2 March 2013

Jules Bianchi


Author Photo 01 Sandy Tam PhotographyGail Picco is a strategist who has worked in the nonprofit sector for 25 years. She is the author of What the Enemy Thinks, a recent novel set in the nonprofit sector, and is Chair of the Board of the Regent Park Film Festival. She also writes about baseball and F1 racing.

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  1. […] been paying too much attention since I wrote my F1 season wrap-up in November, don’t worry! (Click here for a refresher.) I’ve cobbled together some of what I’m going to be looking out for in the first couple of […]

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