x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The tricks of learning a track

Simulators help the drivers in the modern age, but the good old-fashioned walk around the track is still the best.

Sebastian Vettel and members of the Red Bull-Renault team walk around the Korean track in Yeongnam yesterday as the German driver tries to familiarise himself with the new circuit ahead of today’s opening practice sessions.
Sebastian Vettel and members of the Red Bull-Renault team walk around the Korean track in Yeongnam yesterday as the German driver tries to familiarise himself with the new circuit ahead of today’s opening practice sessions.

You can't beat a good walk when it comes to getting to know a new Formula One circuit.

That was the way I did it and today's drivers have been pacing around the new Korea International Circuit to find out about the lay of the land.

The drivers will not have seen the track before they got to Yeongnam on Wednesday. New technology is all very well but nothing beats getting to know a place personally.

Learning a new track, especially this late in the season, was a tough task when I was driving in the 1990s.

Now, thanks to all the new technology that is available, the majority of today's teams are able to use simulators to get their drivers and engineers up to speed before they arrive at a new track.

This kind of technology was just coming into the sport when I was coming to the end of my career.

The nearest I got to this sort of thing was before the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2000. It was one of my last races and I was able to look at the track on a Playstation simulator.

It was fun and I found that when I actually went on to the track in the Jaguar I was racing that season I did not have to familiarise myself with the circuit too much.

Another new track that I saw late in my career was in Malaysia, which debuted in F1 in 1999.

I did well there that season, finishing fourth in a Stewart-Ford after I had almost beaten Mika Hakkinen, who would go on to be world champion for a second time that season.

It was an easy track to learn. I walked around it to get a feeling for the place and did my research on the layout.

In the case of Malaysia, I think that circuit just suited my style, and I was able to go quickly there straight away.

Back then there was more focus on trying to give the drivers as much time as possible on the track.

I remember in Malaysia that year that they arranged for the drivers to all go out in a Proton safety car and do a few laps.

That, and being able to walk the circuit, helped give everyone a decent chance of being up to speed quickly.

Arguably the hardest track I had to learn was Monaco, which I first raced in Formula 3 before later taking part in F1 there.

As it was a street track it was difficult to actually do a walk around as you had cars on the road, and not all of it was open in in the days before the race with Casino Square blocked off.

It was difficult back in those days to really get your head around a track if you were not able to walk around it fully, so I did find that a hard track to learn quickly.

In 1995, when we went back to Argentina and Buenos Aires, we were allowed an extra session on the Thursday, just to give the drivers and teams some extra track time.

Obviously those days are gone with the tight schedules there are now in the sport.

I think experience also helped as I had been around in the series for more than 10 years and by then you have worked out what works for you and what does not for planning for a race.

Experience will not matter so much now as the simulator gives the drivers a racing insight before they have set foot in the country they are racing in.

So any edge that Mark Webber, Jenson Button and Fernand Alonso may have had on the younger Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton will have gone.

But is is still about getting an edge and that is where simulators come in.

The majority of teams will have been using them for the past two weeks since the Japan Grand Prix to try to evaluate the new Korea circuit and find out what the best set-up is likely to be.

I do not know a lot about the latest simulators, but it appears they give the drivers a realistic experience of the track and allow the teams to experiment with set-up ideas, which will save them time when they actually get out on the track.

The simulators have made life easier for drivers and teams, so do not be surprised in practice today when you see the drivers all pretty much on the pace within a couple of laps - it is not that new to them.


Johnny Herbert is a former F1driver who won three races. His column is written with the assistance of staff writer Graham Caygill