All Sebastian Vettel has to do at Sunday’s Indian Grand Prix to seal a remarkable fourth world drivers’ titles in as many years is finish fifth. Regardless of where closest rival Fernando Alonso finishes, fifth will seal the deal for Vettel once again.
Even if Vettel fails to finish and Alonso wins, it’s almost impossible to see the Spaniard mounting the biggest comeback in F1 history to snatch the title over the remaining three races after that.
Not that Vettel won’t be nervous on the grid on Sunday morning wherever he ends up on the grid. And if he’s not on pole position he will be left with an interesting decision to make. If he’s second or third, does he risk going for it to make up places into the first corner or merely hang back, try to keep out of trouble and collect the points he needs?
We know how good a starter Vettel has been this season even on the occasions he has not been on pole, and he held his nerve to win in Japan having been squeezed down to third by the fast-starting Romain Grosjean.
But because overtaking at many of today’s circuits is so difficult and strategy so important, getting a good race start is almost as important as qualifying itself.
Keen observers of Grand Prix free practice on Friday will often notice cars practicing race starts in the pit lane, calibrating the setup of the engine and clutch for specific circuit and tyre conditions.
After qualifying, other considerations need to be factored in by the race engineers, such as grid position and fuel load and whether the car has the advantage of starting on side of the clean side of track that is on the racing line or the dirtier side of the track that is off the racing line and hence has slightly less grip and traction.
I’m sure most F1 fans will recall Ayrton Senna’s frustration that pole position was not moved to the cleaner side of the track for the Suzuka title showdown in 1990 that left him taking the law into his own hands.
The driver will work closely with his race engineer and control engineer to analyse data from practice starts, in particular those taking place at the beginning of the formation lap where conditions are as close to the actual race start as they can be. Based on the data he receives from the tyre and engine temperatures, he will ask the driver to make adjustments to his clutch or revs and also ask the driver how many tyre burnouts to perform to get them up to the optimum working temperatures.
Even if you have only followed Formula One for one race, you will notice cars weaving left and right on the track on the formation lap and accelerating hard before braking. As tyres cool quickly, this is done to get temperature into the tyres as fast as possible. If all has gone according to plan, the driver now has his tyres at optimum temperature, he has adjusted his clutch settings to match the track conditions and will know what to limit his pre-start revs to. It’s now all down to his driving skill.
As the lights come on, the driver will set his pre-start revs to around 13,000 rpm, and he is ready to drop the clutch when the final light goes out. Before 2004, race starts were controlled by automatic launch control, thereby eliminating driver skill.
Now admit it, readers with manual gear shift cars. You’ve stalled your own car at traffic lights before haven’t you? Well imagine you’re holding 13,000 rpm with not one but two clutch paddles? The F1 driver must now play a very tricky balancing act between tyre grip and torque.
To stop excessive wheel spin by dropping the clutch too quickly or conversely prevent the engine bogging down, he holds down one clutch paddle and keeps the other on the biting point, just as you would in holding your car stationary on a hill before pulling away.
As the lights go out, he releases the first paddle and once the car has traction, he releases the second and rockets towards the first corner, reaching 100 mph in around 4.2 seconds. But if he is late in reacting to the lights by as little as a 10th of a second, his rivals will accelerate past him as if he is standing still.
Such a scenario happened to Senna at Suzuka in 1988 when, perhaps as a result of the pressure of the situation, the great Brazilian almost stalled on the grid and found himself plumb last. What followed was one of the greatest drives of all time as he carved his way through the field to win the race and with it claim his first world title.
While Vettel may not be under quite the same level of pressure come Sunday, you can bet that he will follow every pre-race checklist to the last minute detail to ensure that does not happen to him when the lights go out.