I haven’t been captivated by Formula 1 this season. It seems we’ve stumbled into an era dominated by tyre conservation and, for that matter, tyre-based conversations.
It must be great for Pirelli’s brand awareness, even if it doesn’t look particularly great for the image when the world’s fastest drivers are floundering around on worn rubber.
Having said that, an invitation from Renault UK to stand in the back of the Red Bull Racing pit garage as today’s British Grand Prix qualifying session reached a climax wasn’t one I was likely to turn down in a hurry. Especially when there was the opportunity to clamp an industrial-sized pair of headphones over my ears and eavesdrop on the radio traffic between the pit wall and the racing cars of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.
As the ten-minute showdown gets underway, I’m standing on Webber’s side of the garage. The first thing that strikes me is the calm, methodical nature of the conversations over the radio waves. Webber is fed as much information as he needs, but nothing more. During the warm-up and cool-down laps either side of the qualifying effort, he is given the gaps to the cars immediately in front and behind him on the circuit so he can maintain track position.
He also gets warned if any cars are on qualifying laps – baulking a rival earns a grid penalty – and given a reminder of how much power boost from the Kinetic Energy Recovery System he should use at specific points on the track.
Then the talking stops as Webber winds up for his opening gambit. It’s a solid effort that places him third, faster than team-mate Vettel but behind the Mercs of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
On the cool-down lap, the radio crackles back into life as the team and driver discuss the lap and whether any car set-up changes are needed.
On the instruction to ‘box, box’, Webber peels into the pits. As the car comes to halt on the apron, the mechanics hoist it on to rollers and back into the garage. For the next minute or so they fuss around the car, fit new tyres and place cooling fans in front of the sidepods.
All the time, Webber remains helmeted and strapped in, his gloved hands studying a telemetry sheet that’s been given to him by an engineer.
Over the radio the gap to the fastest man, Hamilton, is clarified. The underlying message is clear; does the Aussie think he’s got enough in reserve for an even quicker lap that might move him up the order?
The answer comes back that he thinks he can go slightly quicker, perhaps by enough to usurp Rosberg, but not to steal pole from the flying Hamilton.
Then, with a great deal of speed but a greater sense of purpose, his Red Bull is lowered to the floor of the garage, fired up and sent on its way for another shot.
Webber’s second flying effort starts strongly, but he loses a little time near the end of the lap. It is quick enough to briefly edge him up to second behind Hamilton, but less than half a minute later he’s bumped by Rosberg, and then by his team-mate Vettel, leaving him fourth.
There are some quiet handshakes among Webber's pit crew; more an acknowledgement of a difficult, high-pressure job done well than a celebration of the qualifying result.
On the slow-down lap, there’s a brief flurry of chat and then what sounds like Webber bringing his breathing back under control. I remember that this is a top athlete who has just turned in one and a half minutes of supreme physical and mental effort.
Such is the exertion of a Formula 1 hot lap. The races might have turned into conservation runs, but qualifying remains an extreme, and spectacular, test of skill and concentration.
Yet F1 doesn’t award any points for Saturday…