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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ J.R. Hildebrand's successful Force India F1 test

by Gordon Kirby
Before getting into this week's column about J.R. Hildebrand's F1 Force India test last week at Jerez in Spain a small digression is in order. I received quite a few enthusiastic responses about last week's Gilles Villeneuve column and following is the prize winner I call, 'Because he's the best', from George Daszkowski in Port Credit, Ontario.
Dear Gordon,
My memories of that weekend are very fresh too.

© Marc Sproule
Five of us drove from Waterloo, Ontario to Quebec, about 900km, to see Gilles in the last race of the season.

We got there about noon Saturday, walked around the track and decided on the place we wanted to watch. No reserved seating but there was lots of room.

We were watching and commenting that Gilles was kind of distracted for him. We learned that he had wrecked one car on Friday and wasn't at the front as we expected. As the afternoon wore on the lead for the pole went back and forth and it was quite obvious that we were cheering for Gilles. Late in the qualifying session we got a tap on the shoulder. In very fractured English we were asked, "Why are you cheering for Gilles and not the Anglo (Brack)" I just looked over my shoulder and said "Par ce que le meillieur!"

For our non-Canadian readers 1977 was just about the height of separatist feelings in Quebec and the guys behind us were down from La Baie James, the big hydro project in Northern Quebec which was also seen as the epitome of nationalist accomplishment. They saw everything in a French/English split. They could not imagine us cheering for Villeneuve any more than they could imagine cheering for Brack. We exchanged some stories as best we could and when qualifying was over we headed for dinner and our tents.

It was a cold night and we were in no hurry to leave the warmth of our sleeping bags. Breakfast was slow as much because we wanted to get going and stay warm because we were hungry.

Consequently we were late arriving back at the track. The stands that were pretty sparsely populated on Saturday were crammed. Damn! We were going to have to stand and watch all day!

Just before we gave up and walked away we heard a shout. When we looked up into the stands we saw our Baie James friends standing and waving.

They had saved us seats! They also had fresh croissants, hot coffee and cognac! They treated us like long lost brothers, language be damned! Gilles won, we cheered our guts out not knowing that a year later we would be doing it all over again in Montreal at the Canadian Grand Prix.

In 1977, in Quebec, the only person who could create that feeling was Gilles.

Salut Gillles! Je me souviens la fievre Villeneuve!
George Daszkowski

As we all know, since those days very few drivers from North America have made themselves, like Villeneuve, into international stars. Gilles and his son Jacques, and Mario Andretti of course, stand out from the crowd. The sad truth is that since's Michael Andretti's abortive F1 season with McLaren back in 1993 the only American to race an F1 car has been Scott Speed. Surely we deserve better.

So it was great to hear that this year's Indy Lights champion J.R. Hildebrand was invited to test a Force India F1 car at last week's rookie drivers F1 test at Jerez. Other than driving the team's simulator on the virtual track, Hildebrand, 21, had not been to Jerez and had zero experience with an F1 car. He also ran into some electronic problems when he was making his only run on soft tires but J.R. acquitted himself well, finishing the three day test tenth quickest of the sixteen drivers. Hildebrand was 1.1 seconds away from the more experienced Paul di Resta, the other Force India tester at Jerez.

"All things considered I was really happy with how the test went," Hildebrand says. "We got a little bit caught out by some unfortunate circumstances with the engine settings being off. That happened to coincide with our soft tire run which is where the lap time was going to come from. But even so we were quite competitive and for me, that's what I went over there to achieve.

"Obviously, as a racing driver you want to be further up the time sheets, but I was trying to concern myself more with trying to get comfortable in the car and to see if I was capable of reaching the limits of the car and I felt from that perspective I absolutely accomplished my goals in going over there.

"I really had a great experience over there. I really enjoyed working with the team and I can't thank them enough for giving me the chance to do it. It's probably one of the steepest learning curves I've ever been on but I really enjoyed the challenge of doing something totally new and different. From that perspective alone, regardless of the fact that the test went really well, it was a really exciting and interesting experience. It's basically one of the fastest cars on the planet. So it was a great experience."

Hildebrand got his F1 opportunity because of his impressive performance in the team's simulator. Half a dozen young drivers were selected to take part in a simulator test on Force India's simulator to determine two drivers to test for the role of the team's third or test driver in 2010. A friend of Hildebrand from his hometown, Sausalito, knows Vijay Mallya well and does business with Mallya and originally put Hildebrand's name forward.

© Force India F1 Team
"Because of the success we had this year the team had the confidence that it was worth giving me a shot in the simulator, at least," J.R. says "So I went over to the UK right after the end of the Indy Lights season and took part in a discreet simulator session. I guess myself and Paul di Resta had the most consistently quick performance on the simulator."

Di Resta, 23, won the 2006 Euro F3 championship, beating Sebastien Vettel to the title, and has starred for Mercedes in the DTM series over the last two years. Di Resta tested a McLaren F1 car in October and was considered the favorite for Force India's third driver job. For his part, the less experienced Hildebrand was happy to have enjoyed some time driving the track and car on Force India's simulator.

"That gave me a little bit of a heads-up on the track and what to expect from the car," J.R. relates. "One of the biggest things to get used to besides the track and just the outright speed that the car is capable of attaining, is that the attitude of the car is a lot different than anything I've driven here in the US. So that compounded everything I had to come to grips with.

"From a general perspective, here in the States in Indy cars, Indy Lights and Atlantics we run lower profile, stiff sidewall tires. So the car setups end up being softer in comparison to what they run in Europe because the sidewall of the tire is so stiff. Formula One cars have got a really tall, softer sidewall tire and on top of that they're massively reliant on the aerodynamics of the car. So the car setup is kind of the opposite of what we're used to. It's super stiff.

"So from a driving perspective the car behaves in a much different way and that took some time to get used to. The attitude of the car and the way it responds and the driver inputs are quite different. So I had to get used to the track, work with a new team and drive a car that was obviously quite faster and quite different than what I've been driving."

Hildebrand was pleased with how quickly he came to terms with the F1 car, especially in the faster corners.

"The car is mind-bendingly fast, particularly in terms of its cornering speeds," J.R. observes. "Having driven an Indy car and driven Indy Lights on ovals, the top speed the car can achieve was not shocking by any means. But the braking and cornering qualities of the car were pretty impressive. Obviously, that was something I expected going in but you don't really get a sense of what that's going to be like until you actually get in the car and turn-in in fifth gear to a 130 mph corner and it instantly hits 4.5 g.

"Going into the test I put that at the top of my list of priorities to really work hard at getting comfortable with. I figured that to be quite a limiting factor in terms of my confidence level in driving the car. If I wasn't going to be able to get used to it and get comfortable with how fast it could go through the corners, then I just wasn't going to be able to go fast.

"There are a lot of technical parts to the track, a lot of slow corners, and I looked at those parts as something I knew I would be capable of adjusting to or adapting to how the car needed to be driven to get through those corners. But the higher speed stuff was going to be a little bit more dependent on my comfort and confidence levels and how close to the limit I was going to be willing to put the car.

"So I was pleased that by the end of the test, even by the second day, the faster parts of the track were my strongest parts of the lap. That was a big part of the reason why I was really satisfied with how things went in general. I felt a strong sense of accomplishment from being able to maximize the car in that area."

© Force India F1 Team
Hildebrand was intrigued with the Force India's hi-tech electronic capabilities.

"The thing that's interesting I found is that it wasn't overcomplicated, but there was a lot of stuff to learn. For example, they've got tons of different engine settings for various different things. Besides your fuel maps and general engine maps they can map the throttle pedal, too. Here in Indy cars or Indy Lights, you've got a linear response to the throttle. I've gotten used to having to modulate the throttle in a specific way based on the power curve of the engine. You get used to that whereas over there they can change the rate of the acceleration so it's easier or harder to get maximum power.

"Initially, I found that confusing because I'm so used to a very linear application of the throttle. To start with, I found myself more often than not thinking this thing has got 750 horsepower and it's really going to kick-in quickly. But they map it out so that it doesn't and I was chasing the pedal because I realized I could be accelerating a lot harder.

"So there were a number of things for me to work with the team on and figure out. It's clear that with stuff like that the team is able to really maximize the use of engine power and how it's delivered."

Di Resta is an established F1 up-and-comer and is a little further along with his career than Hildebrand. The Scot is Dario Franchitti's cousin and has established a strong bond with Mercedes-Benz through his success in the DTM series. Following the Jerez test, di Resta is expected to be confirmed as Force India's third driver. But that doesn't mean Hildebrand won't get more testing chances with the team.

"It was suggested to us that the team's third driver is open right now and we were both being potentially considered for that role," Hildebrand remarks. "But I was there to do the test and learn about a Formula One car. I think the team will scour over the data and figure out what they would like to do. Certainly, if I was able to maintain a connection with them it would be great to learn more about a different form of racing and a very impressive, advanced form of racing.

"What effect will this have on things down the road? I guess that's hard to say. I've obviously aspired to driving in Europe and Formula One but also through racing in the Indy Lights series I've really enjoyed the different challenges that racing in the Indy car series poses. I think as things shake out over the next few weeks I'll start to think about what my options are going to be and what the best-case scenario is going to be looking a little bit further down the road."

Hildebrand has been working hard trying to find the sponsorship required to race an Indy car next year.

"The economy definitely plays a big role in what I'm looking at," he says. "I would say the general state of affairs is it doesn't really matter who you are you're probably going to need some sponsorship dollars to make something happen at this stage of the game. Before this test happened that's what I was putting a lot of my effort toward and now that I'm back in the States I'm beginning to focus on that again.

"There are still some good, competitive rides available here in the States and I'm confident in my ability to take advantage of one of those seats if I can land one. But as you know, there's more that goes into it than that."

In addition to being an intelligent, well-presented young man, J.R. Hildebrand clearly is a very talented driver. He deserves a first-class Indy car opportunity, if such exists, and if that doesn't happen let's hope he's opened the eyes of some people in F1. It's more complicated and more expensive than it was in Gilles Villeneuve's days but J.R. has earned his opportunity as surely as the great Gilles did thirty years ago.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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