The longest hour.
Start the clock.
Time is actually a relatively exact science, and nowhere is that more keenly felt than on a race track. Fractions of seconds, discernible only with the help of high-tech gadgetry, draw the line between victory and defeat, triumph and disaster. But what precisely happens in that hour before the lights above the grid go out? The final 60 minutes leading up to a race are something of a paradox – not enough time and yet too much. The seconds can pass at a tortuous plod but equally run through your hands like water. The meticulously measured world of Formula 1 appears to keep a different time to our internal clocks. The minutes are ticking down to this year’s Australian Grand Prix, but there’s no sign of stage fright on the face of Nico Rosberg. “Not after 128 F1 races,” says the Mercedes man with a shrug of the shoulders.
Right now there are 80 minutes to go before the race, and Rosberg has just made his way back from the drivers’ parade, which sees the Formula 1 stars greet the “ordinary mortals” in the stands.
60 minutes to go: engine test.
He’s deep into the relaxation zone now, chatting to girlfriend Vivian on his cell phone and resting up. Not that there’s time for any restorative shut-eye; Rosberg has yet to crack the crucial “power nap to order” skill mastered by such illustrious F1 predecessors as Nelson Piquet and Gerhard Berger. 60 minutes to go:
The team run an engine test on one Mercedes F1 W04, then the other, using an external starter motor. This allows them to fix the revs and oil pressure they want before the ignition spark is released. The V-8 machines let out a potent baritone bellow, then a few angry barks, before dying away again as if nothing had happened.
57 minutes to go: Warm-up time. For Nico Rosberg this means a kick-about with physiotherapist Daniel Schlösser – juggling the ball, not letting it touch the ground; “keepy-uppies” in football parlance. Sporting Director Ron Meadows is focusing on the team’s race strategy. The fuel tanks of the two Mercedes have been filled to brimming, the fuel coolers removed. The temperature of the gasoline rises to as high as 60°C (140°F) during a race, expanding as it heats up. The cooler it is at the start of the race, the more you can fit in the tank. “The fuel can be chilled to a maximum 10°C [18°F] below air temperature,” explains Meadows. 42 minutes to go: “Around this time I walk or jog to the garage – it all helps the warming-up process,” says Rosberg.
Well prepared into the race.
Rosberg analyses the start of last year’s GP, the way the race panned out, the areas of concern. Even professional racing drivers never stop learning. The German driver pushes in his ear plugs, pulls the fireproof balaclava over his head, presses on his helmet and lowers himself into the cockpit. The eight-cylinder engine lurking behind his neck bursts noisily into life. A chilled drinks bottle holds 3 pints of the top-secret “special mixture” he sips on inside the cockpit. That’s the maximum amount of liquid permitted by the regulations (to prevent it being used as movable ballast). Rosberg will need to have emptied the bottle by the halfway point of the race to avoid it getting too hot in the stuffy carbon confines of the cockpit. 36 minutes to go: The weather is holding, the rain staying away, so the mechanics send the car out onto the grid shod with Pirelli’s slick tires.
Once there, a new set of slicks will be fitted. If there’s a threat of rain, the teams can change their choice of tires up to three minutes before the start.
32 minutes to go.
32 minutes to go: The pit lane is open. Nico takes the car for a couple of warm-up laps, during which radio exchanges with Tony Ross come thick and fast. If something’s not right with the balance of the car, the driver will have to come in briefly for front wing adjustments to dial out some understeer or oversteer. Those are the only interventions allowed by the F1 rules at this stage. Nico Rosberg’s V-8 falls silent 100 meters (approx.330 ft) before he reaches the end of the grid. The Mercedes mechanics wave the W04 towards its slot on the third row and push it into position. The Silver Arrow drills its way through the carnival-like throng.
14 minutes to go: Nico sinks into the cockpit, sealing the bond between man and machine. He checks the radio link with the pit crew and tickles the brakes to allow the wheels to be correctly mounted. Finally, the jacked up single-seater is lowered onto the track; bring on the racing.
12 minutes to go: Only the key personnel are allowed onto the grid now. Six minutes: The cooling fans are taken out of the car. Four minutes: The engines roar thunderously into action. The noise is unbearable.
The race explodes into speed.
Three minutes: Off come the covers keeping the tires warm. Without them, the Pirellis would bring next to no grip to the track in the early stages of the race. The tires have reached 80°C (176°F), but the cool of an Australian autumn afternoon is already drifting over them. Two-and-a-half minutes: Nobody is allowed near the cars now. Two minutes: Green light for the formation lap. Rosberg may be driving a single-seater, but with his engineer’s voice in his ear – urging him to get heat into the brakes and keep the engine cool – he is not alone. 60 minutes are up: The five red lights on the gantry above the grid light up at one-second intervals, then disappear in a single jolt.
The neat rows of cars explode into a sea of chaos, and Nico Rosberg is in the middle of it all. At last, the race for victory in the Australian Grand Prix is underway. But that’s a story for another day.