x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Pedro de la Rosa's problems of life as a tail-ender in F1

Pedro de la Rosa's move from reserve role at McLaren to Hispania Racing Team was seen as a patriotic decision on his part.

Many think Pedro de La Rosa's career has hit a full stop, much like his Hispania car is doing at the Shanghai circuit during practice. But the Spaniard says he is content.
Many think Pedro de La Rosa's career has hit a full stop, much like his Hispania car is doing at the Shanghai circuit during practice. But the Spaniard says he is content.

When Pedro de la Rosa opted to swap the comfort of a reserve role at McLaren-Mercedes for the thankless task of racing at Formula One's serial backmarkers, Hispania Racing Team [HRT], it was seen as a patriotic decision: a veteran Spanish driver lending his experience to the sport's only Spanish team.

However, as Barcelona-born de la Rosa has quickly discovered, his new project is less Homage to Catalonia and more Catch-22.

Racing at the back of a 24-car grid must rank in the sporting stratosphere as about as rewarding as being part of an already-relegated football team.

You are a side-note, a source of mockery or - if Sebastian Vettel is to be believed - a cucumber, (which is what the world champion likened De la Rosa's teammate, Narain Karthikeyan, to after a recent collision).

De la Rosa has taken to his unenviable task with remarkable enthusiasm, but any assistance in escaping the back of the grid is not forthcoming.

The pace of the HRT is slow - during Saturday's qualifying session for Sunday afternoon's Chinese Grand Prix, neither car finished within four seconds of pole position - and the drivers' plight is not helped by the fact that, after less than half a race, they must almost constantly give way to lapping cars.

"I'm not experienced about being a backmarker and the problem is that it's not easy to see so many blue flags during a race and act in a perfect manner for each one," he said from his hospitality lounge at the Shanghai International Circuit.

"I'm not very good at optimising them - I am giving away too much time - but I would rather be too correct than not because I know the other guys are racing for more important things than me at this moment."

At the Malaysian Grand Prix - the team's first race of the season after failing to qualify for the season-opening contest in Australia - both de la Rosa and Karthikeyan were each shown at least 36 blue flags, the indicator used by race marshals to signal an overtaking car.

A blue flag means the lapped car must move off of the racing line, which de la Rosa says, effectively marks the end of your race.

"It is Catch-22 because from about the 20th lap, you are almost constantly looking in your mirrors," he said. "You start seeing the blue flags and each flag costs you between one and 1.5 seconds. That is why it is so difficult because while you are still racing, if you didn't obey the blue flags you could actually gain probably around one more lap for yourself."

De la Rosa insists that, at this stage of what he calls "the project", he and his Hispania engineers do not pay attention to the rest of the field, focusing instead only on improving their own lap times; so long as the gap between themselves and pole is decreasing, he will be happy.

But surely a driver in a field of two dozen drivers must get frustrated at not being able to actually compete?

"Well, we are still racing," he said. "We are racing against the guys just in front and our teammate. But, yes, it is true that once you see the blue flags you have to realise that possibly your race is over; from the moment you see the first blue flag, you know that it is just a matter of survival."

The 41 year old made his Formula One debut in 1999, but acknowledges experience counts for little when it comes to fighting at the wrong end of the grid.

De la Rosa has spent the majority of his years in F1 with front-running or middle-order marques, such as McLaren and Sauber.

The immediate lessons he has learnt at Hispania, he says, involve marbles and rain showers.

Pirelli's tyres are designed to degrade quickly, leaving little balls of rubber - known as marbles - discarded on the track, but, crucially, off the racing line.

When a backmarker is lapped, it is among these hazards he finds himself driving.

"When you normally lap cars, you don't realise just how dirty it is when you go offline," he said.

Likewise, in wet races, as the heat of the tyres dries the racing line, backmarkers find themselves being forced to drive on wet parts of the track as they are passed. This results in them losing much of the heat - and thus grip - in their tyres.

"It is not like at the top teams where within two corners you have the heat back," he said. "With our car's little downforce it can take up to two laps to get the temperature back into them."

De la Rosa's situation is dire, but his honesty is refreshing in a paddock filled with machismo and bravado. He knows he is driving the slowest car, but is genuinely proud of what is being achieved by a Spanish team and has signed a two-year contract.

"At the moment we are last, but we shouldn't be embarrassed about that," he said.

"We are not embarrassed about saying it because we believe we will not be last in the near future."

In Shanghai for Sunday, the two Hispanias start at the very back, where, save for retirements, they are almost destined to finish.

De la Rosa, however, is content.

"I feel we are already improving," he said."The first race we didn't qualify, then in Malaysia we qualified and finished and now we have some upgrades.

"So long as I can see the improvements I won't be frustrated. The day when I don't see any improvements or someone tells me we will never catch the guys in front, then I will be frustrated, but for now that is not the case."

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

 

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