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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/ Lewis Hamilton may become the first F1 rookie to win the World Championship

by Gordon Kirby
It's always a pleasure to drive up to the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. I enjoy the city and its restaurants and feel a great bond with le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Ile Notre Dame because I was there for the very first race (an Atlantic race) back in the fall of 1978. I also covered the first Grand Prix at the track two weeks later when Gilles Villeneuve scored a memorable first Formula 1 victory, beating Jody Scheckter's Wolf and Carlos Reutemann's Ferrari. Since then, schedule permitting, I've coverd many Canadian Grands Prix and all four of the late, lamented CART or Champ Car races at the track.

Back in Villeneuve's Formula Atlantic days I was focused on covering CanAm, Formula 5000 and USAC races, so I managed to get to only the occasional Atlantic race. Two Atlantic races I remember vividly from those days were the Mosport season-opener in 1977 and the same year's season-closer in Quebec City. At Mosport, Villeneuve and Keke Rosberg ran side-by-side through the first turn and around most of the opening lap, and that's the way the entire season went. Gilles and Keke were bitter rivals in those days, not speaking to each other as they fought to claw their way into Formula 1 by duelling for the title of King of Atlantic.

In Quebec City at the end of the season Gilles was a little distracted because he had flown to Italy and back earlier in the week to negotiate his F1 contract with Ferrari. Between all the flying and the pressure to perform at that critical stage of his career Villeneuve crashed two cars during practice and qualifying as he tried to wrap-up his second successive Atlantic championship. Gilles was able to win the race, taking the lead on a late restart and beating Bobby Rahal--who was as quick as Villeneuve and Rosberg that year--into second place. Rosberg led the opening laps in Quebec City but hit the wall twice and finished four laps down in twelfth place while Gilles won the championship from Rahal and Bill Brack with Rosberg tied with Price Cobb for fourth in points.

All these memories and many others, too, at places like the fantastic Mt Tremblant road circuit in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, contribute to the warm feeling I have for racing in Quebec, and at the storied Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in particular. Montreal is a delightful four-hour drive from home in New Hampshire for me, headed northwest across the Green Mountains of Vermont. There's little traffic, the roads are good, and the scenery is soothingly bucolic.

Just ten miles across the border into Quebec there's a great little restaraunt called La Suisse where I love to stop for lunch. It sets me in the right mood for a weekend in Montreal. From La Suisse, it's less than an hour's drive across the flatlands of the Eastern Townships, turning left just before St. Pie--home of the little Sanair tri-oval where CART once raced--and heading west toward the Champlain Bridge across the St Lawrence River into the city.

© Gary Gold
This year, of course, Formula 1 is all abuzz with the extremely impressive arrival of Lewis Hamilton who is enjoying one of the finest rookie seasons in history. Hamilton added to his growing legend by taking his first pole in Montreal in only his sixth F1 race, then scoring a superb first win. Hamilton is a very aggressive driver but he's equally tidy and precise, and showed it last Sunday as he ran away from the field in command all the way.

"It has been a fantastic day," Hamilton said. "It's history and to come here for my first time in Canada. It's been a fantastic season already and I've been ready for quite some time to win. It was just a matter of when and where. The team gave me the best car and I had no problems in the race at all.

"I have to dedicate this win to my dad because without him this would have been impossible. You wouldn't believe the amount of work he's put into my career. He had nothing when he was younger. He lost his mother when he was really young and to be successful like we've been so far this year is just the fulfillment of a dream."

Hamilton was so much quicker than anyone else that he was able to cruise through the final laps with only Nick Heidfeld offering any competition. "The team did a great job in getting me in before the first pace car," Hamilton commented. "That got me out in clean air and I was really fortunate and kept a good gap. For the last two laps I was just counting them down. I'm the type of guy who usually pushes right to the end, but this is a tricky circuit. If you make one mistake you're in the marbles and into the wall. So I quietened down near the end and just enjoyed it. It really was about enjoying the whole moment."

Hamilton has received massive amounts of press coverage in the past few months and is the English sporting press's new darling. After Monaco two weeks ago, Hamilton and the McLaren team found themselves embroiled in a media-driven controversy about illegal team orders. In many ways the arguments in the press were downright silly but the affair must have been a big learning experience for Hamilton about the media and big-time sport.

Steve Hallam is McLaren's head of race engineering, overseeing the technical work by both its drivers. Hallam has been with the team for many years and is one of the best-placed people at McLaren to assess the working relationship between its drivers.

"Lewis has a very good reference in Fernando who is a consummate professional and the current World Champion," Hallam observed. "We've prepared Lewis as well as we can and he's lined up against Fernando and done well. Fernando still has the depth of experience and understanding that goes with what he's achieved. We see on a weekly basis just how good he is and Lewis is benefitting from that. He looks across the table and there is the World Champion and that is his reference.

"This was Lewis's sixth race and he was on pole position and won the race," Hallam added. "He has done an outstanding job and there is a long way to go in both of their careers. So we are just so excited about the possibilities for the future."

Hallam compares the Alonso-Hamilton pairing to that of Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert at the Tyrrell team some thirty-five years ago. "Look back to the early seventies when Stewart and Cevert were paired together at Tyrrell," Hallam remarked. "You had the master and the youngster. Okay, there was far more of an age differrence between Jackie and Francois than there is between Fernando and Lewis. But you've got the depth of experience and the quality and the achievements of Fernando against the pupil, if you like, the guy who is learning and exploiting from the master. It's a great team to be in right now."

© Gary Gold
Hallam explained his theories about why the McLaren-Mercedes combination has come into its own this year. "I think there are a number of reasons and some of them you may be surprised at," Hallam commented. "Reliability is one of them. When you're testing and you've got a reliable car, you're going to run more and you can learn more. When you're in a limited testing environment, which we are this year with 30,000 kilometers testing per car during the year, you've got to be very efficient and in order to learn you've got to maximize that efficiency.

"The reliability of the car helped because we could sort out all our systems and also ensure that the engine was operating where it needed to be, not that there were any issues. As soon as we started racing and you get genuine references against your opposition it becomes very clear and quantifiable what steps you have to make either to close or open the gap."

It's been surprising to some people that the McLarens have been so strong this year, their first on Bridgestones after five years with Michelin now that Bridgestone has become F1's spec tire supplier. "One of the key changes that we had to deal with coming into this year was the change of tires," Hallam commented. "We had a very productive and successful, five-year partnership with Michelin. We knew Bridgestone had evolved a very different tire and we needed to exploit the reliability we have enjoyed to learn about the tire.

"It was a big change for us for 2007 and the thing was the construction of the tires was never going to change throughout the year. There was inevitably going to be a period of transition where the car had been conceptualized over the previous five years to exploit the performance of the Michelin tire. We had data from Bridgestone to help us give consideration for what we were going to do with the 2007 car, but it's not until you get the tires that you actually feel how it's going to be."

Hallam pointed out that the cool weather usually encountered in winter testing often flatters only to deceive. "Winter testing can sometimes be deceptive because you're testing the car in a set of ambient conditions which you're not going to race in, apart from when we went to Bahrain for the hot weather test," he remarked. "Testing in Barcelona, Valencia and Jerez, while you're covering a lot of ground it's cool in the morning and the temperature may get up to fifteen or twenty degrees (C) in the middle of the day. So you've got a very small window and the track temperatures never get up to what we see in the summer during the racing season or even the average temperature of the tracks we're racing on throughout the year. I think that clouded things a little initially."

But the McLaren team has been pleased with the steady improvements in performance found this year. "I think if you look at our performance gradient, or the improvement in our performance from when we started racing to where we are now," Hallam observed, "you would agree that it was positive over the first few races and has now taken a turn for the better over the last couple of races. The drivers are very positive about the car and are very constructive about what we're doing. So our performance this year has resulted from the coalesence of many factors."

Based on what I saw in Montreal, the McLaren-Mercedes traction control system seems to work particularly well. It comes on hard but then goes away quickly and progressively, appearing to operate much less than most of the competition, Ferrari included. As much as anything, this is an indication of a well-balanced car as well as a strong engine with plenty of torque. Still, Hallam says McLaren is most likely to find more speed this year from aerodynamic improvements rather than any other area.

"The things that make a Formula 1 car go quickly are fundamentally very simple," Hallam commented. "There is the aerodynamic package, the engine, the tires and the driver. Two of those--the aerodynamics and the engine--are actually fixed and the tires are fully fixed. They're the same for everybody so that reduces you down to three factors. The engines have been homologated this year so in terms of engine development there's very little of that. To a degree, the engine homologation has been a great leveller among the engine manufacturers. They're all around the same power. There's a degree of speculation in what I've said but there aren't any huge differences. So right there, there is a degree of quantifiability, or levelling.

"We've got two fantastic drivers. We really have, and it's obvious for the world to see. They work well together, they're very competitive and they are very, very good. So that really brings you down to what can the team change that fundamentally affects the performance of the car, and the answer is the aerodynamic package.

"The factor that we can influence most in 2007 are the aerodynamics and I think we have a good aero package," Hallam added. "It's got better over the last two months and we've got developments coming. I think every other team in the pitlane will be focusing on what they can influence most, which is the aero package. A better aero package is more flexible and provides greater efficiency, and those things are huge benefits."

After performing so well in Monaco and Montreal, the McLaren-Mercedes team is confident that they will be very competitive at most other tracks this year. "We're fortunate that we've come off the Monaco race, which is about downforce at any cost, where we were very competitive. Then we sat on the front row of the grid with both cars in Canada, which is a big efficiency circuit. We're fortunate, touch wood, that we're in good shape on two, quite different circuits. That gives us quite a lot of confidence for the rest of the seaon."

And after young Hamilton's superb drive last Sunday the prospects of the 22-year old rookie and McLaren romping to both drivers and constructors championships is looking like a serious possibility. For F1, it's a tremendously positive turn of events.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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