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There Are Worse Gears To Be Stuck In

Seventh gear? There are worse gears to be stuck in. When Nico Rosberg radioed back to his engineer Tony Ross that he was stuck in seventh gear in the middle of the British GP there was the usual note of panic in his voice.

The two Mercedes drivers have different styles when it comes to radioing critical situations to their team. Lewis has a begrudging tone, a kind of ‘you’ve dumped me in it, what are you gonna do about it’ kind of resentful teenager panic. Nico, on the other hand, is more like a disaster movie, like a passenger on a jet where both pilots have died eating the in-flight meal and he’s been thrust into their seat with no idea what to do. “Tell me what to do!”

Noticeably in the last race Lewis has changed his tone slightly – to one of more studied calm. David Coulthard picked up the change in his race commentary. For a change Lewis wasn’t going into one, he seemed slightly more detached. This cultivation of a relaxed radio style in the face of serious peril was one that test and fighter pilots have practiced since World War II.

Veteran P51 Mustang ace, test pilot and central character in Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff, Charles Elwood ‘Chuck’ Yeager is the perfect exponent of this laid-back approach to danger, adopted by all pilots. When one of their fellow test pilots on projects like the Bell X-1 crashed in the desert, the emotionless phrase attached to the death would be –  “they bought the farm”.

Maybe Lewis has been listening back to a few of his GP radio messages, determined to extend his aura of cool to the one area where he regularly loses it?

One person for whom study and improvement comes naturally is Sebastian Vettel. The consummate racing scholar studies every aspect of his craft, so it’s surprising that when something happens in the race he reacts like the victim in a slasher movie. Which is good. It’s nice to see that under that calculating guise there’s an emotional heart.

Back to the British GP, when Nico radioed in that he was stuck in seventh gear, it was only natural that in response to his ‘little boy lost’ cry for help, Tony Ross should respond with the information to ease his pain by giving out the re-set information. And then tell him how to avoid further pain in the laps ahead by shifting straight through seventh gear as quickly as possible
The engineering staff on the Mercedes prat stand then did a collective “Doh!” and it looked for all the world to be: ‘why did he say that?’. It was probably the fact that they had encountered another gearbox problem, but the timing of the TV pictures made it look as if suddenly Tony Ross had said something embarrassing or unpalatable in front of the Mercedes top brass, like “I love my Toyota Corolla”.

In the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix Michael Schumacher got his Benetton stuck in 5th gear. Thanks to a background in sports car racing he managed to change his driving style round the Circuit de Catalunya, effected a pit-stop and took off from the pits in 5th gear  and still managed to finish second in the race. It was an achievement that ranks higher than most of his GP wins, but adversity threw something at Schumi, and he proved what a stellar driver he is.

On the high-speed straights of Silverstone seventh gear is not such a bad gear to be stuck in – better that than third – and given that he didn’t have another pit-stop to make, you’d like to think he could have got it to the finish like that. It would be interesting to hear from an engineer about the ease of driving a Benetton-Ford B194 stuck in fifth gear, compared to all the instant electric torque of a modern F1 race car stuck in seventh.

If the ban on radio communication can be waived if the car is about to fail, stuck in seventh gear sounds more like a predicament than an imminent retirement. Cars can always be brought back into the pits and the engineers can reach across and change the dials themselves. American footballers (or if you’re reading this in the U.S. ‘footballers’) have to learn complicated playbooks each season, why shouldn’t drivers learn a whole set of re-sets for their steering wheel.

There has been a lot of criticism of the radio rules this season. Christian Horner thinks they’re “rubbish”, but they help add to the unpredictability of a race. The correct penalty for Rosberg at Silverstone would have been the time it took to drive down the pitlane, stop in his box and get his engineer to lean in and change the dial. That would be the very minimum, because he got away without driving most of a lap in seventh gear.

Ten seconds sounds like he got away lightly. It will also set a precedent for when a similar dilemma affects a team. Now teams know the likely cost of radio advice, then that will make it more likely it will be given in future. Which will mean more long waits after the grand prix to find out the real result, instead of sorting it all out on the track.

Frank Hopkinson

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