Michael Schumacher returned to Formula One in 2010, to great fanfare and expectation. Thus far, he has disappointed himself and his legions of fans. But his fortunes could be changing.
The primary reason for Schumacher’s lack of success since returning to the sport is the car. The 2010 Mercedes was off the pace. The 2011 car was quick in testing, but turned out to be slow during the season. In a sport as competitive as Formula One, a slow car makes victory all but impossible.
The 2012 Mercedes is something of a revelation. In pre-season testing, the car looked quick. Qualifying for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix showed good one-lap pace, as Schumacher qualified fourth. In Malaysia, he was third on the grid, and China saw Nico Rosberg leading the first all-Mercedes front row since the return of the Silver Arrows to Formula One.
Despite the car’s proven qualifying pace, there was a lingering concern that the W03 might not be able to look after its tyres in race conditions. Rosberg showed in resounding fashion that the car can be quick over a race distance and can manage tyre wear well, by comfortably winning the Chinese Grand Prix.
So the car is quick. In qualifying and race conditions. The team has proven it can put together a victorious race weekend. Schumacher has shown his pace in qualifying, and there is little doubt that he has the race pace to succeed. Unless Mercedes’ performance in China turns out to be a one-off, the product of perfect track conditions and set-up, Schumacher’s return to the top cannot be far away.
Nico Rosberg has won the Chinese Grand Prix in dominant fashion, leading almost the entire race from pole position. Any doubts about the race pace of the Mercedes have now been decisively put to rest. Team-mate Michael Schumacher retired from the race with a loose wheel, preventing what could easily have been a one-two for Mercedes.
After taking his career first pole position yesterday, Rosberg kept his head at the start of the race to lead Schumacher off the line. From there on, he was untouchable, easily pulling away from the rest of the field. Only Jenson Button looked like he could challenge the Mercedes for pace. Button was on a three-stop strategy to Rosberg’s two-stop, which meant Button was much quicker leading up to Rosberg’s second stop. An error by the McLaren pit-crew ended Button’s challenge, which meant Rosberg could just bring the car home for a comfortable 20-second victory.
Behind Rosberg, the racing was surprisingly close. It is unusual to see 12 cars separated by only 22 seconds at the end of a Grand Prix, but that was the gap between Button in second and Massa in 13th place. A train of 5 or more cars fighting for second place is more commonly seen in Formula Ford than in Formula One, but that is how close the racing was today. Seven different teams featured in the top 10, underlining just how competitive the season has been so far.
McLaren, despite the disappointment of Button’s slow pitstop, performed well to finish second (Button) and third (Hamilton), after starting fifth and seventh respectively. The pace of the McLaren remains evident, but they are certainly not as dominant as suggested by their pace in Australia. The Red Bull pair of Vettel and Webber were able to fight with the McLarens, as were Lotus drivers Raikkonen and Grosjean. Raikkonen was running second towards the end of the race before his tyres ran out of grip. He ended up 14th, but Grosjean finished a strong sixth. Williams continued their impressive season with Senna seventh and Maldonado eighth. Ferrari struggled as expected, Alonso only managing ninth and Massa thirteenth. Massa had his strongest weekend of the season so far, finishing only five seconds behind team-leader Alonso.
Formula One in 2012 continues to produce close, exciting racing. Three races have been won by three different drivers. Six drivers have appeared on the podium. Only Lewis Hamilton has featured on the podium in all three races, showing just how competitive the field is. The big story of the weekend, however, is Mercedes’ return to the front of the grid. The car is quick and the drivers are performing. Rosberg has shown he can win. It surely can’t be long before Schumacher joins him on the podium.
The G-forces involved in driving an F1 car are far beyond anything an average person will ever experience. Under braking, drivers can be subjected to as much as 5G. Lateral forces in high-speed corners commonly exceed 3G. As a way of translating these numbers, the maximum braking force of a road car is around 1G. So if you’ve been braking as hard as possible on a good surface on a warm day with tyres in good shape and ABS fitted to your car, you might have felt about a fifth (at most) of the braking force of a Formula One car. If you brake as hard as possible in an F1 car, your lungs will be pressed up against your ribs by the G-forces, and the tears will be pulled out of your eyes.
If an average person were to drive a Formula One car – assuming the necessary skill, which is unlikely – the G-forces involved would probably overcome the body’s ability to cope within no more than a few laps. The toll on neck, shoulders, arms, etc. would make turning the steering wheel impossible. The forces involved in accelerating and braking would literally hinder breathing. It doesn’t look physically taxing on TV, but it’s just about the most demanding exercise possible, short of flying a fighter jet or a space-craft.
So Formula One drivers keep fit. And not just reasonably fit. They all spend a good part of each day in the gym, doing exercises that make it possible to withstand enormous G-forces for extended periods of time. Grand prix regulations specify a maximum race time of 2 hours. A practice session is no more than 90 minutes. So you might expect drivers to train to be able to drive for up to 2 hours, which really does sound long enough.
Today, Kamui Kobayashi drove his Sauber C31 for 145 laps of the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain during testing for the 2012 season. Each lap of the track is 4.655km. That’s a total of approximately 675km. If he had driven that far from Barcelona on the road, instead of the race track, he could have ended up in Lausanne, Switzerland. Starting in Cape Town, South Africa, he could have made it to within 100km of the Namibian border. In a Formula One car. A grand prix distance is approximately 305km. Kobayashi did that twice, and another 65km, in one day. The fitness required to do such a thing is almost beyond imagination.
Kobayashi is not the only driver able to cover such distances. Nico Rosberg of Mercedes covered 139 laps today. Pastor Maldonado of Williams drove for 134 laps. Three other drivers were on track for more than 100 laps. At the age of 43, Michael Schumacher drove his Mercedes yesterday for 127 laps. Any one of the 24 drivers contracted to race in 2012 would do the same mileage again tomorrow if required.
It often looks on television like driving an F1 car is easy, boring even. The casual viewer sees speed, glamour, wealth and fame, but often misses the gruelling and constant physical assault a Formula One car unleashes on a racing driver. They may seem like rich playboys who like to mess around on a race track on Sunday afternoons, but F1 drivers are probably the fittest sportsmen on Earth.