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Interview: Formula One turns 70

Neil Briscoe

Words: Neil Briscoe - @neilmbriscoe

Published on: August 7, 2020

Words: Neil Briscoe - @neilmbriscoe

Published on: August 7, 2020

With F1 officially a septuagenarian now, we talk to two of its brightest stars ahead of the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.

Daniel Ricciardo - all smiles and easy-going Aussie charm, but with an unmistakable undercurrent of searing competitiveness - and Esteban Ocon - softly spoken and friendly, but again with that sense of steely determination - are two of Formula One's brightest stars. Ricciardo is arguably more in the ascendant, and potentially is one of the very few who in an equal car could seriously challenge the dominance of Lewis Hamilton. Ocon is, also arguably, more of a hope for the future, a potential successor to the great Alain Prost as the racing pride of France. Thanks to the guys at the Renault DP World F1 Team, and Renault Ireland, we had a chance to chat with both drivers ahead of the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone.

CC: You clearly like Silverstone as a track. How does it feel to race here two weekends in a row?

Ocon: Yeah, it's great, I think especially after having a strong first weekend [Ocon finished sixth in last weekend's British Grand Prix, Ricciardo finished fourth], to have the opportunity to race again in the same place and looking at how the car was competitive last week, it's definitely a great thing. So we're aiming to be in the points again, trying to get more on the board for us. We're very happy with last week, but it's all to do again this week, there's a lot more things that will come in play. So let's see what it does to us.

CC: Do you prefer the 'new' layout of Silverstone, or the older one, where Copse was the first corner?

Ocon: To be honest, I never drove the old layout. I only drove it on the simulator. I think it was great, the old one. I don't understand why they got rid of it, to be honest. It's a good question. I don't know if it's to improve overtaking or anything, but I think probably the old layout was more of a challenge than the new one. It's still an awesome track, but yeah, I think a few more corners would be even better.

CC: Silverstone itself has changed in recent years from being a high-downforce track to a low-downforce setup. Does that give the driver more of an opportunity to show how good they are, racing a car with less downforce?

Ocon: Not really, because even if we go to lower downforce most of the corners are flat out now so the cars have developed so much that Silverstone is turning a little bit more into a Monza configuration, which is quite crazy if you think about it. There are so many quick corners and you know a lot of them are flat out or not even corners anymore, like turn one and turn two. It's barely, barely a challenge anymore, which is insane. You'd like to have a big challenge, you know, in Silverstone it is still a challenge, don't misjudge me on that. But yeah, some corners are not a challenge as much as they used to be.

CC: If we stripped away the downforce of the cars, would that make things more of a challenge? Give more back to the driver?

Ocon: I'm not too sure that's the way forward. Looking at how I raced in 2018, the cars have gone a lot quicker since then. But the racing is better this year. That's my opinion. There's so much happening, you're just charging from lap one to the last lap. There are fights going on, on track and that's a lot better than it used to be. And look how the field is getting closer. I think Formula One is going in the right direction. And of course 2022 you know, the regulations will make it so that we can follow closer and everything that's going to come in play. And as usual once there is a new rule in Formula One lap times on are going to be, maybe five to six seconds slower or something like this. So we are going to get back to 2015 level or 2016 level, so it will always be a challenge. But nowadays, it's quite close between the cars and it's going to get even more so in the future.

CC: Is it a shame not to be able to have the fans at the track for the 70th anniversary race?

Ocon: Definitely. To have the fans showing up, and they'd probably have dressed up differently and stuff, would have been quite a cool, a cool thing to have. At Silverstone especially. So, we're going to miss that. But yes, you know, it's very important of course to celebrate 70 years. The sport has changed massively but the love it has received from all the fans around the world, we are still seeing it, even if it's not on site. We see it through social media.

CC: Is it difficult to turn up for a race weekend, knowing that you're going to find it hard to compete with the Mercedes team, and Lewis Hamilton especially?

Ocon: Yeah, at the moment, we can't fight them, they are out of reach for us. You know, it's a long-term plan that we have, to be able to fight for wins and podiums. At the moment what we are trying to do is to close the gap, slowly, slowly close the gap and get closer to them and to be able to fight with the top three. Our car is a lot better, and it's a big step compared to last year. So it's going in a good direction, but you know, everyone's working, so you need to work better than them. And that's a very, very difficult thing to do.

CC: There's a heatwave predicted for the UK this weekend. Does that change how you race?

Ocon: To have the hotter conditions, more wind, especially now we have softer tyres, it's gonna just make everything more complicated. And the cars are gonna be tougher to drive. So we need to really work hard to try and get the best balance out of it. That's going to be mega important. So even if we are racing at the same track, it's going to be very different as a weekend in terms of strategy and in terms of how the car feels, and so on. So it's going to be up to us, you know, to get the best out of the conditions.

CC: Given that the season calendar is extending into late October, we could even be racing in snow at some races...

Ocon: It is pretty late in the year, it is gonna be quite cold, probably raining. But I'm pretty sure we are still going to have decent temperatures. But in the end, it is the same for everyone. And, you know, it's up to us to adapt to conditions as always and be better than the others.

CC: If you could pick a car from F1 history to race what would it be?

Ocon: I think that the most beautiful car, the car I would love to drive nowadays, I cross it you know each time I enter our factory at Enstone you know that R26 [Renault's 2006 title-winning car] is there, and it's saying 'hey, take me for a spin.' I would love to test that car. Of course it's the car that Fernando [Alonso] drove and at that time technology was coming at its best. You know, there was everything still available, traction control, a lot of cool stuff. The aero was crazy, there was refuelling so the cars were light, the engine were running up to 20,000rpm, which was you know, insane. If I could drive that guy would be great. Hopefully I can in the future.

CC: Who were your driving heroes, when you were younger?

Ocon: Well, you know, the guy that won that 2006 title will be my teammate next year! So it's pretty, pretty cool if you think about it. But we also have the chance to have Alain [Prost] as part of our team. He is always available to me. I call him every evening, after running to discuss with him what we've done, what we could do better, what does he think, all those sorts of stuff. And, honestly, it's been a great help. Alain has the key to success. And you know, if I can have even half of his career, I would be more than happy. He will be here this weekend, so I won't need to have him on the phone, which is good.

Now onto Daniel Ricciardo.

Ricciardo: Hello, great people of the north!

CC: So fourth place last weekend for you equals your best result with the team. How pleased were you with that race at Silverstone last weekend?

Ricciardo: Yeah, very pleased. It was a cool race. I think the whole weekend went pretty smoothly. It was my best qualifying of the year and we jumped up to sixth by lap one. We had a strong first lap and I felt like we were just always in the hunt, always in the mix, and then there's a bit of chaos at the end and I'm there to strike. Not as close to Lewis as we would have liked to be when he had his problem, to strike on him, but then it was huge and not only for me but for Esteban as well to get fourth and the sixth for the team. It's when you get two cars in the points like that, the team is a lot happier. Like one car is great, but, you know, half the garage still has a little bit of disappointment. So for both sides, the whole atmosphere was awesome.

CC: How have you found the tripleheader races so far this year?

Ricciardo: I love them. They are pretty taxing, for sure. And I mean, after the first tripleheader, after Budapest, I was pretty flat for a few days. I needed a couple of days off to just do nothing. It's awesome. I love the fact that we can get that rhythm and then get that routine and kind of get some momentum going. So I like it. But I think three in a row is the limit.

CC: You certainly kept yourself busy on lockdown, before the season started...

Ricciardo: The time away from racing in the first part of the year was actually pretty good for me, I won't lie. I was on the farm as I guess you saw, and I was able to keep myself busy in some normal ways - you know with training - and some weird ways with just doing whatever I did. There was always something to do and ways to amuse myself so yeah, I was having fun you know, and I've always been like that. I don't really tend to just sit around and like, drop my head. I'll find something. I think I've always just had a lot of energy, so I always find something to do, to like burn my energy and make sure I sleep well at night.

CC: How is the season panning out so far, do you think?

Ricciardo: I think there's a lot of change, you know, even the tracks we're going to are different. Imola later this year, one of the Italian races, we've got one practice session. Then straight into qualifying on Saturday. So I think by then all us drivers, even though we're fit and strong and ready for whatever's thrown at us, it's gonna be quite taxing in its own right. I think it's going to test a few of us, but I'm looking forward to that. I'm just glad we can race. Not being able to race would make us a little more stir crazy. So without the fans, it's obviously not as great for sure. But I would take this as we have it now, rather than nothing at all.

CC: Do you miss having the fans there?

Ricciardo: The biggest moment you miss them is the lead up to the race, the drivers' parade when we're on the grid, when the anthems are playing and everyone's cheering and clapping and chanting You miss that. That energy, that atmosphere, that puts some butterflies in your tummy. Once we get in the car and put the helmet on, we don't hear anything really, especially nowadays with the speeds and the noise of the cars. But also you kind of have tunnel vision, you're not too aware of the peripherals around you other than the black bit of racetrack in front of you. So it's really the atmosphere in that build up. You miss the fans for that. They create that.

CC: Do you feel that Renault is developing now to the point where it can be at the head of a very close midfield pack?

Ricciardo: Yeah, we've had updates. So some new parts on the car last weekend. We've got some more this weekend. And I think the base is really good. You know, the base of this car is, I feel, better than last year's. So everything we can add on to it, it's going to give us lap time. And yeah, the midfield is close, but I think we're willing to fight. So we've just got to capitalise on results as we did last weekend, and maybe we'll be alright.

CC: You've got a reputation as an incredible overtaker. Do the current regulations take away from that skill, with DRS making some overtakes too easy?

Ricciardo: I think DRS has been for the most part a good thing because the way the cars are now it is so tricky to follow. It doesn't create an easy overtake, which none of us really like, but it puts us in striking distance a lot of the time, so maybe without it, we never would get close enough. But with it, it gives us a chance to strike so I do like it. I think that the tricky thing now is that at the speeds we go, it's fun to drive that fast, but it does make following another car harder. So that limits, probably, the amount of overtaking in a race. Maybe you see 20 as opposed to 60 moves. But yeah, there's always going to be a circumstance where you can pull off a big move and I would say the tricky thing now is the speeds we go also means that we brake a lot later, because we've got so much more grip. So you know, your braking time is less, therefore, that closes the window of how much later you can brake than someone before you're actually in the corner. So yeah, that's the downside of having the cars as fast as they are, but you can't win them all. But I'm certainly curious about the 2022 rules.

CC: Speaking of rules, from a driver's perspective, where do you think F1 should be looking with the regulations? How can we improve things?

Ricciardo: In the ideal world, all teams are within, you know, half a second in car performance, and then the driver can make up the difference. I mean it's hats off to Mercedes but obviously they're in a league of their own right now so that's also a bit frustrating for us, and the sport, but we can't be mad at them. But I think with the cost caps and all this coming in, it should compress the field and the cars, the 2022 cars, will be less aero sensitive. So I think that's the big one as a driver, being able to follow another car closely. That's really what the sport lacks a little bit now. So these are the things which I think they're addressing, more overtaking, more than one or two guys that can win the race. These are all things we want. And I think it's certainly tracking in that direction.

CC: Given that we're going to new tracks this year, like Portimao and Mugello, any hope of a race at Mount Panorama?

Ricciardo: That would be the dream! I fear as low and as stiff as our cars run these days, it would be pretty uncomfortable over Skyline. I think the cars would be crunching on the tarmac all the way through. But if it could happen, then I would be contestant number one!

CC: Being more realistic, which of the new tracks are you really looking forward to?

Ricciardo: The one that got me the most excited was Mugello. I raced there in 2007 and I remember just going there the first time, I was just like, this place is fast. It's fast. It's flowing. It was just fun. So, yeah, I like high speed circuits. I like all of them, but Mugello was... it spoke my language. So many corner combinations and with this year's car, it's going to be seriously quick. And I think this there will be a chance to overtake. I think there's at least one or two spots on track where you can do it. So I think that's the one I'm looking forward to the most. Imola. I'm looking forward to going there. And the Nürburgring I drove in Formula One when we were going there a few years ago. Now that was cool. So I'm actually pretty happy with everything they put forward, but Mugello is the one that I'm most excited for. Yeah, it's going to test our necks. I think by the end of the race, our heads are gonna fall off. It's gonna be good fun.