x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Listen and learn in the pit with the F1 Lotus team

Lotus gives Matt Majendie access, and his own race radio, to witness a Formula 1 team in action behind the scenes.

Jarno Trulli of Italy and Team Lotus drives in for a pitstop during the Turkish Formula One Grand Prix at the Istanbul Park circuit on May 8 in Istanbul. Mark Thompson / Getty Images
Jarno Trulli of Italy and Team Lotus drives in for a pitstop during the Turkish Formula One Grand Prix at the Istanbul Park circuit on May 8 in Istanbul. Mark Thompson / Getty Images

Formula One is a notoriously secretive business with the 12 teams on the grid battling to keep ahead of their rivals with the latest innovations. That level of secrecy remains the same whether the team is fighting for race wins, like Red Bull, or batting to be the best of the midfield runners such as Team Lotus.

But for a day of Formula One practice, Lotus opened its doors to The National and allowed free rein in the team garage, in this instance during the Friday of the Turkish Grand Prix this month.

The events unfold like some carefully orchestrated ballet combining moments of serene calm and sudden, all-hands-on-deck bursts of energy.

Team Lotus is in its second season in Formula One and is comfortably the best of last year's rookies, to the extent that it is beginning to challenge some of the more established teams. In Turkey, it had new innovations on its car, as was discussed over the race radio.

Stepping into the garage, you could be forgiven for thinking you have entered one of Istanbul's night spots as U2's music blares out of the speakers.

Just before the start of the 90-minute practice session, I tuck myself into a viewing booth in the heart of the garage where I am handed my own race radio, allowing me to listen in on the musings of, among others, the chief technical officer, Mike Gascoyne, and Lotus's two drivers, the Finn Heikki Kovalainen and the Italian Jarno Trulli.

The drivers, bedecked in their racing overalls, are a picture of calm as the clock ticks down to the start of the session, each having a final drink handed to them by their respective trainers before putting on their race helmets and sliding into the cockpits of their T128s; Kovalainen in his seat a few moments before his teammate.

With just two minutes before the start of the second practice session of the day the race radio is absolutely silent.

Suddenly a voice comes on in my ears - "time is tight" are the three words of advice to the team, a reference to the fact that a heavy downpour virtually wrote off the entire first session of the day and the team needed to take advantage of as much practice as possible.

With one minute to go, the tyres are put on the two cars and the tyre covers removed. A giant metal rod is inserted into the back of each car to start it up, creating an ear-splitting roar in the process. Even with large headphones on, the volume is deafening.

Then as the clock ticks to 14:02 Turkish time - two minutes into the sesssion - Kovalainen leads out Trulli, and the level of decibels suddenly drops.

The atmosphere in the garage is unbelievably relaxed but every team member is initially busy with various tasks as the cars exit. Two large brooms are brought out to sweep any mess on the work floor. Then four members of staff take to polishing any slight blemish left on the surface.

But before long, arms are crossed and the Lotus workforce is doing little more than watching the TV screens and the timings from the practice session.

After a 15-minute run, in which information about tyre pressures and new brake ducts are exchanged over the airwaves, the command of "box, Jarno, box" is delivered, calling the Italian back into the pits, with a similar order issued to Kovalainen 30 seconds later.

In the wake of that run, the Finn is the 16th-fastest man on track, with Trulli a spot further back. And as their cars are pushed back into the garage, both men are asked for their take on the car's set-up.

"The steering is so pointy and so, so sharp," says Trulli. "I cannot keep it steady enough. The slightest move makes the car really, really bad and I can't keep it even on a straight line."

New brake ducts are put on the car while the tyres are changed with the efficiency of waiters at a smart restaurant serving a table in unison. Kovalainen is the first man out and, after a shout from Gianluca Pisanello, Trulli's race engineer, of "we need some tyres fast", Trulli is out shortly afterwards.

The team is all smiles as a few of them take time out for some water. But it's not long before Lotus encounters its first major problem of the session. Kovalainen comes over the radio, complaining that his drag-reduction system is not working.

It later transpires it is partially working - around 30 per cent of capacity - but Kovalainen bemoans the fact and announces: "I'm not using it; there's no point, it makes no difference."

There is silence from the pitwall where the team's leaders are sitting. Gascoyne remains glued to the telemetry in front of him and, for the next five minutes, there is silence over the airwaves as the drivers quietly go about mastering lap after lap of Istanbul Park.

But that silence is broken again by the words "box, Heikki, box" by his engineer, Juan Ramirez, once more. By now, Trulli has leapfrogged his teammate on the timesheets, although they have differing opinions on the new brake ducts and the cars at their disposal.

"Slightly better," says Kovalainen. "It seems slightly better in medium speed." Trulli disagrees. "If anything, it was worse," says the Italian. "There was no balance change at high speed and maybe a little understeer at low and medium speed."

A change of fuel loads and some fresh rubber are the only obvious changes made to the cars before they head off on their next track outing, not long after which Trulli clocks the 14th-fastest time with 38 minutes left of the session leading to the odd pumped fist from within the garage.

Break three in the garage leads to relative contentment for both drivers. Kovalainen, who has a host of debris on his tyres from the dirty circuit, says: "I feel the balance is pretty good. There's quite a lot more grip than previously. DRS wasn't working still so I didn't even bother with it. The balance was pretty good, the degradation, too."

While Trulli is also content, he thinks more pace can be extracted. "I feel there's more potential in the car," he says. "But I never know the limit of the car. Sometimes I feel like I'm not on the limit and suddenly the car just snaps. The car definitely has good potential to go faster, but I just can't push it."

Not long afterwards, the giant rod is produced once more and the cars are fired up for a fourth and final track outing for both men. There appear to be more pensive faces this time, although it's difficult to know for sure whether anything is wrong or not. If there is a problem, certainly no one is talking about it on the radio.

The issue becomes clear a moment later when Trulli is told to "stop" just before the run because of a telemetry problem. A minute later the Italian, a veteran of 242 Grand Prix weekends, is told "Renault are happy", a reference to the team's engine supplier and his final run begins.

There is clearly some urgency as someone says: "Come up, we need to fire up the engine" with a further shout of "come on" for emphasis.

Practice is not complete for Lotus just yet, as the team performs pitstop practices as both Kovalainen and Trulli fly into the pits.

Kovalainen has a face that would make any poker player happy as he steps out of the car and removes his helmet. He has a brief sip of water before disappearing into a motorhome. Trulli has the last word on the radio: "The car isn't too bad. But the main problem I feel after a few laps is the tyres give up and start collapsing. That's the main issue."

He adds: "Generally, the car is understeering a little bit everywhere and, when you get to a corner with bumps, it's very, very bad."

With that, he gets into his car and is deep in conversation before both men exit the garage. The session is over and my time with Team Lotus is done.

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