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Christian Danner on Formula One®, Fastest Lap and 2013 season

The 2013 F1 season is in full swing and fans have been treated to some head-spinning action both on and off the track over the first back-to-back race weekends. We caught up with DHL F1™ Expert, Christian Danner, to get his insights into the new season. He had a lot to say and he reminded us just how fun it is to race a Fastest Lap.

DHL Formula 1® Ambassador and former F1 driver, Christian Danner
1) DHL: We’ve seen a lot over the past two weeks in Australia and Malaysia, but let’s start by taking a look back at the pre-season tests in Barcelona. The weather made them rather inconclusive, but tell us what you saw.

The pre-season tests are always an exciting time. The suspense is building and everyone wants to get a first peek at the cars and any new developments. It’s the same for the fans, the engineers, even the drivers. It’s the same for all of us. In the end there were no real surprises this year when the cars were rolled off the trucks for testing, just a few minor design changes. Some teams went for a slightly smaller side pod, others for slight changes to the exhaust system, but overall the cars have not changed dramatically from last year.

I was highly impressed with one new guy. He is exceptionally good, an absolute top man and one to watch out for, and his name is Valtteri Bottas, a young Finn driving for Williams. He replaced Bruna Senna.

Kimi Räikkönen looked pretty good and of course he surprised us all with a great opening win in Melbourne, not to mention taking the first Fastest Lap of the season. It was a strong performance from the Iceman.

2) DHL: Fans went nuts, he’s a popular driver.
I recently saw some figures on the internet acceptance of Formula 1. Now F1 is pretty big online, in social media, etc. Just look at the now over 430,000 fans at Formula 1 Backstage by DHL [Link to:]. But Kimi is in a totally different league online. Everybody loves him. He’s a bit raw, edgy, he talks hard and then he backs it up on the race track. The online world is going crazy, they love him.

3) DHL: So now that you’ve watched the tests and the first two Grands Prix - with two very different outcomes I might add and off-track controversy to boot - what’s your take so far?

I see an incredibly level field. Now the top guys really only develop into top drivers if there is a good fit with the car, so let’s go right down the list starting with McLaren, led by former World Champion, Jenson Button. He’s clearly a potential race winner and will be fighting for the World Championship. If he gets his car sorted the way he likes it, he’s almost unbeatable. His new teammate, Sergio Perez, still has to prove he’s worthy of driving for a top team like McLaren. I personally have my doubts but he has done well so far, finishing at Sepang in the points - he took 9th place - and even racing the day’s fastest lap.

Ferrari is easy – Fernando Alonso is still incredibly good and will compete at the top. He showed us all that with his second place finish in Melbourne. His retirement in Malaysia was unfortunate, but he still finds himself in 6th place in the drivers’ standings, so no worries there. His teammate Massa has been solid, finishing 4th and 5th in the first two races.

The two Mercedes pilots, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, are very, very good. Now we’ll have to see if the Mercedes car matches their drivers. They put up the best lap time in Barcelona, but the conditions on the track - cold weather, etc. - made the results of the test fairly inconclusive. So far so good, I’d say, with Lewis finishing 5th and 3rd and following his retirement in Melbourne with a great 4th place finish at Sepang.

Finally, Red Bull. I think we all know that the team’s performance over the past few years speaks for itself. World Champ, Sebastian Vettel and his teammate Mark Webber are going to be extremely competitive and the duo are going to win races in 2013. And as we all saw in Malaysia they’ll do anything to win.

Danner gives tours to DHL customers and employees at each race circuit

4) DHL: Vettel’s win at Sepang sure stirred up a controversy. There’s obviously no love lost between Red Bull’s drivers. Do you still think they have the best combination of drivers?

I think it’s still one of the best combinations. Mark will never accept number two status even though he’s ended up there year after year and which is why he’ll stay hungry and keep fighting. But the two are no less competitive amongst themselves than other teams. In the end that competitive nature doesn’t have to hurt their team effort. Let’s not forget the days when Hamilton and Alonso shared the McLaren’s drive, they almost killed each other. They fought so hard that they lost the team championship to Kimi even though Ferrari was clearly the inferior car. I don’t think that’s going to happen this year. Right now I think Red Bull and Mercedes have the best driver combinations.

5) DHL: So the teamwork dynamic is really important next to competing each against other?

Yes that’s exactly right. You need a high level of competition between the two drivers, but on the other hand you need a substantial level of fairness. That’s not so easy to achieve. However I think that Rosberg and Hamilton have the ability to achieve that, they go way back and they have raced each other so many years. They’ve known each other since they were kids.

6) DHL: You mentioned that there were no big surprises in terms of the cars this year. But are there any changes that might make a difference on the racetrack?

Yes, there were no big surprises, but we know it doesn’t really matter what the car looks like, it matters haw fast the car can go. At this point the answer to this question is still a bit tricky. The conditions in Barcelona were very bad, the weather was really cold. But one thing’s for sure: the teams are struggling with degradation on this year’s Pirelli tires. They are a bit softer than last years and tire wear is becoming a major factor. We’re seeing three-to-four pit strategies so far, especially if there is weather like we saw in Malaysia. It will be interesting to watch the teams try to master this and the first to do so will have the advantage.

The former F1 driver is one of the sport’s top experts.

7) DHL: Are there any new rules for the 2013 season, and if so, how do you think these will influence race action?

Well first of all I have to point out that Formula 1 is in the last year of a very long period of stability in terms of technical regulations. This is for the engines and the chassis. This is one of the reasons why the top five to six teams are very close in terms of technical performance. Next year we’re in for some surprises.

It’s the sporting regulations, on the other hand, that have changed significantly, and that is with regard to the use of the drag reduction system or DRS. Starting this year the teams won’t be allowed to use DRS outside the defined DRS zones during qualifying. That is quite different from last year and will change the game.

8) DHL: How exactly? Does this mean we’re going to see less excitement, less passing?

Last year drivers could active DRS anywhere on the track during qualifying, which was very dangerous and led to drivers taking incredible risks. That is why the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers Association) asked race control and FIA to stop this and only allow the DRS system to be used in the DRS zones, which are six to seven hundred meters long on a straight away. Ideally a circuit will have two DRS zones, but at least one.

9) DHL: Can you explain a bit how DRS works and why it was developed?

The DRS system was developed to improve overtaking during the race. The drivers are able to release the rear wing to decrease the down force and therefore the drag on the car, which makes the car go faster. But the rules regulate when and how the DRS can be used during a race. If you are catching up with the car ahead of you and the distance is below one second at the DRS detection point, then you are allowed to use the system on the following straightaway within the DRS zone. That gives you the chance to overtake the car in front of you. The system makes for some exciting speed and passing maneuvers on the track and the rules ensure that certain conditions are in place before the DRS is employed, which makes it safer for everyone.

10) DHL: Back in November there was talk of F1 establishing a penalty point system for drivers’ race licenses that could see them suspended from races for persistent rule breaking. Is this going to be in place for the 2013 season?

That’s a very good question. So far there are no official statements on that but there has been some talk. I think there’s a good chance a system like that will be put in place eventually, but there is a process to changing the rules and that takes time. It will go to the Formula One Commission and the FIA Safety Council. But it’s certainly not part of the 2013 regulations.

11) DHL: In the first seven races of the 2012 season, F1 fans saw seven different race winners – a Formula 1 record. We also watched seven different drivers get the fastest lap in those first seven races. By the end of the season 10 different drivers had driven fastest laps – also a first for Formula 1. Do you think this year will be a tight race or do you think one driver will dominate the DHL Fastest Lap rankings like Mark Webber did in 2011?

It’s going to be very similar to last year, I think. There’s a good chance we’ll see 10 different drivers win fastest laps this year, similar to the 2012 record. But you never know of course. That’s one of the exciting parts of Formula 1.

If you take a close look at Webber’s performance in 2011, he set so many fastest laps and eventually won the Fastest Lap Trophy because he started each race so poorly. He didn’t qualify as well as his teammate and also chronically lost places off the grid at the start of each race. That’s why he had to push hard toward the end of the race, many of which Sebastian was leading by a mile and could sail to the checkered flag. After 2011 Sebastian rebelled a little, saying “hey, if Mark’s going for fastest laps, then I will, too!” And that’s what we saw in 2012.

One thing that is so cool about the fastest lap is that there’s always a story behind the story.

12) DHL: Anyone in particular we should be keeping our eyes on?

I think all the top drivers have a shot, but what we can’t forget what it takes to set a fastest lap. That said, if Sebastian is on top again and wants it, then he might be the man to watch. He took a lot of pride in driving fastest laps last year, something his team management wasn’t always too happy about and even tried to prevent him from doing. When he was out in front, they didn’t want him taking risks. When your driver is ahead of the pack by a mile and a half you don’t want him to do that because it’s an unnecessary risk. Sebastian did it simply because he loves it. Mark did the same to an extent in 2011.

I have to tell you that it’s just plain fun to show the world that you are the fastest man of the weekend. It’s a thrill, it’s pushing yourself and your car to the limit.
But the story behind the fastest lap may be more technical or tactical, which is interesting to look at, too. What does it actually take to set the fastest lap? If the weather conditions are stable, the fastest lap is set toward the end of the race when the cars are lighter and on a set of reasonably fresh tires – these are the best technical conditions. Then it depends on who is driving a competitive car and who is in a position to push for the fastest lap. Is one driver trying to make up for an earlier mistake in the race to get himself back in the points? Is another chasing down the leader in hopes of grabbing the checkered flag in the end? If sitting in a comfortable lead, most drivers will cruise to the finish, especially if they are experiencing any technical issues with the car in the final laps. That driver is just going to finish and we’re going to watch the chasers and others back in the pack maneuvering for position and pushing their cars to the limits.

Now if the weather conditions are unstable and say the drivers only do three dry laps all day, then you may see one of the slower drivers having a moment, putting together a well-navigated lap that wins the day.

Tire management plays a huge role in all of this as well. Once teams get their times and tire management right, they’ll be keeping an eye on tire wear and won’t want to risk lower performance at the end of the race that can cost them much needed points. Pushing for a fastest lap could get you the win, but it can also put you in the bricks.

So you see the fastest lap is really a complex thing. A very complex set of parameters come together and there’s always a story to be told.

13) DHL: You gave your Fastest Lap tips last year on the Formula 1 Backstage by DHL Facebook page. How did you do?

Well given my previous answer you can see how very difficult it is to predict these things. But I had a lot of fun doing it. What I remember about last year is that I got it right for the season opener with Jenson in Melbourne. A lot of times you do see the same driver perform well on the same track. He may just gel with the track or simply like it better than others - the performance follows. I repeated my prediction this year in Melbourne (laughs). But of course the Iceman surprised us all.

14) DHL: Over 46,000 people downloaded the DHL Fastest Lap App and almost 54,000 played the DHL Fastest Lap game in 2012. Do F1 fans really follow who races the fastest lap each week?

People are interested in the fastest lap, and the more you emotionalize it the better. The more personal we make it, the better. Just listen to what the drivers say when journalists ask them about it and you’ll often hear them talking about it being the ‘icing on the cake.’ I think fans feel the same way and like to know about it.

15) DHL: Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel was clearly pleased to win the DHL Fastest Lap Trophy last season. One got the feeling it was indeed the icing on his 2012 Drivers’ Championship cake. You were there to present him with the trophy in Brazil. What was the moment like and what did he have to say about it?

What was cool about the prize giving of the DHL Fastest Lap Trophy in Sao Paulo was the fact that it was done just before the start of the race. That means in the moments before a race when driver tension is normally at its highest. Sebastian was exceptionally relaxed and he was joking and laughing with me and we talked about a lot of things. This is the sign of a true champion, one who copes with the pressure and channels it. These guys are relaxed because they can rely on their experience and they know how good they are.

For Sebastian, the DHL Fastest Lap Trophy actually means something – and that was obvious when we handed it to him. He didn’t get it when he won the World Championship the first time and he wanted it this time around. You saw that all year as he repeatedly defied team management in his effort to race those fastest laps each week. So he risked a lot. It was a sweet moment and I was happy to share it with him.

16) The F1 schedule is nearly the same as last year, is there a particular Grand Prix you are looking forward to the most?

I always look forward to Melbourne. The excitement has built up during the offseason and when you get there you know that the European winter. And the atmosphere in Albert Park is simply fantastic - a very special crowd that is very eager for the race action to start. It’s a perfect place to start the season. This year was no different.

17) What was your favorite track as a driver?

It’s really the track layout that matters to a driver, as opposed maybe to the experience around the track. For me, at least of the current circuits still in use, it was Suzuka in Japan. I just loved the layout and always had a lot of fun there. Rio de Janeiro was a magnificent track, but now the Olympic village has been put where the circuit once stood so that’s history.

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