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Christian Danner Takes Stock at Half

DHL checks in with its Formula One Expert and former F1 driver, Christian Danner, to take a look back at the thrilling first half of the 2013 Formula 1 season and get insights into what lies ahead.

DHL Formula 1® Ambassador and former F1 driver, Christian Danner
1. Mr. Danner, we're now halfway through the 2013 Formula One season so it’s a good time for reflection. What’s your overall take on the season so far?

Well, some things have developed the way I predicted earlier in the season – the drivers involved and the level of competitiveness.

Other things – like the tire issues – came as somewhat of a surprise. And I’m not talking about things like degradation and, you know, the way you have to handle and treat the tires. I’m talking about the significant amount of tire failures we had come race day at Silverstone. Although tire durability and safety had been topics earlier in the season, what happened in England suddenly woke everyone up.

See our interview with Christian Danner earlier in the season here

Interestingly enough, the episode gave us a pretty clear picture of how Formula One operates. You see, everyone acts in their own self-interest. Each team is trying to get the best for their cars and drivers. So those teams were struggling with tire maintenance and degradation were the loudest voices of concern. But the tire specifications may not be changed during the season unless all teams agree. That wasn’t the case. But Silverstone eventually led to rule change and the situation seems to be resolved. It will be very interesting to see how the teams adapt as they run on a different construction from the Hungary Grand Prix onwards.

2. The rule change had to do with the tire specifications, correct?

Yes. Usually all the teams have to agree if something like that changes. So, because some of the teams were happy with the tires – those that were managing wear the best – naturally didn’t want the change. Eventually the FIA had to take over and initiate the change.

When you look back now the fact that the new specification took a little while was not necessarily best from a cockpit perspective, but it was both interesting and entertaining from a trackside perspective.

3. Will the drivers will be able to adjust quickly?

Well, considering what just happened in Budapest, it appears Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton may benefit the most from the new tires. He has, after all, been struggling with tire degradation this season and in Hungary he grabbed his first victory of the season. Not only that, he dominated both qualifying and the race.

To be honest with you, when I was driving, the tires were always an issue – every season, every race. Formula One teams are constantly making adjustments, analyzing data and developing strategies. So the teams will have to adjust, but I also think they’ll be able to. What’s important is that they are now back to a more solid construction, which is what they had last year. So basically I don’t think tires will be as much of an issue as in the first half of the season.

4. Tires have certainly been in the motorsport news a lot, in some cases overshadowing the races.

Yes, but let’s not forget that when you look back at the first half of the year there were actually two discussions going on about two completely different things. One involved the drivers who were experiencing more degradation – and therefore less performance – and were complaining about the tires and doing so every chance a reporter put a microphone in their face. The teams that had no issues, weren’t complaining at all. Each team was basically acting in their own self-interest. In hindsight, it was exceptionally stupid. But it is also very obvious why it took place.

The other issue was a construction problem with the tires that eventually became a safety problem. In this case, we’re talking about delamination. This is when the outer layers separate from the tire under certain circumstances. That is simply something that can’t be allowed to happen.

So that was really two different things: one was – call it reliability – about the thread staying on the tire when a driver comes into contact with debris on the track. And the other was about tire performance – the level of degradation.

You see, the longer you have a tire on your car, the slower your lap times become. And in the first half of the season there was a major difference between, say, a Lotus and a Mercedes or a Red Bull. Mercedes, for example, would qualify on pole but because they were bad at managing the degradation they would eventually finish sixth or seventh the race. And that’s why they were complaining the most. Not because of the safety issue.

I think we’ve reached a stage now that racing is going to be more normal and that we won’t have these discussions any longer. That, at least, was the case in Budapest. We’ll have to see how things progress.

Danner gives tours to DHL customers and employees at each race circuit
5. Three-time World Champion, Sebastian Vettel, and team Red Bull Racing-Renault are once again the dominant force on the race track and Vettel has a commanding lead in the Drivers’ Championship. Now with Hamilton’s come back in Hungary and Kimi Riäkkönen’s consistency this year, it looks like we may actually see a 3-to-4-way race for the title. Based on what you saw in the first half of the season, what are your thoughts on the second half? Are we going to see a classic battle between Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes with the addition of Lotus in the mix?

Everything was a bit more unpredictable at the beginning of the year because the tire degradation issues. But now that everyone is on top of that problem and things like aerodynamics are being mastered after 10 weekends of racing, we now have a crystal-clear picture of the speed of the cars. And when you look at that, you can only conclude that the Red Bull is the fastest. And the team proved that again in Budapest despite not topping the podium: Mark Webber drove the fastest lap at the Hungarian Grand Prix while his teammate Sebastian Vettel ran the second fastest.

Red Bull is simply fastest at every circuit; they can handle cold weather, warm weather, wet weather, stop-and-go circuits, fast sweeping corners –wherever you go the car is always if not the fastest the second fastest.

Now Hamilton showed surprising consistency in his dominating performance in Hungary. And with Mercedes following the two Red Bulls on the fastest lap table, it’s possible that they found the compromise they’ve been searching for as far as car speed is concerned. Because at the end of the day that was the clear result of the first half of the season: that Red Bull has demonstrated its ability to best find that much-needed compromise.

Therefore, “Seb” has not only benefited from the car but he is also driven very well – and he is now in a position to actually control his lead from now until the end of the season.

Now, is he going to walk away with another title? The way it looks at the moment, he’s clearly in a very good position to do exactly that.

Before Hungary I would’ve told you that both of the Mercedes have shown tremendous speed but that they were not very good in tire wear. Now that they’ve shown that they can match Red Bull’s pace and tire management, it will be interesting to see if the two of them can maintain that pace going forward.

Don’t forget that the Mercedes is a copy of the Red Bull aerodynamically. But Vettel’s team actually runs the car “ass up” – meaning the back end of the car very high while the front is very low. You have to have the maximum amount of down force to run that system and you compromise on other things like rear suspension. So it takes a complicated set of parameters to make that package work. And Red Bull is making it work.

We’ll have to wait and see if Mercedes have truly overcome their tire management problems. If that’s the case then we just might see more Mercedes wins in the second half of the season.

The dark horse of them all – who may not be a dark horse anymore now that he’s moved into second place in the driver’s table – is Kimi because he is such a reliable driver. In fact, he set a new world record this year, at the British Grand Prix, finishing in the points for the 25th consecutive raced, breaking Michael Schumacher’s long-held record. He’s now hat 27 after finishing P2 in Germany and Hungary. All points and no retirements – that simply amazing. To me this means he’s quite possibly going to be the main challenger to Sebastian in the second half of the season. But Lotus is going to have to improve and give him a car that will qualify and put him in a position in the front row on the grid. He’ll be able to give Vettel a race if that’s the case.

Now for most of the first half of the season, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso was Sebastian’s main opposition. But he is struggling with the Ferrari. So unless the team can improve the car a lot – and I mean significantly – it will be very difficult for Alonso to catch up. That said, his fifth-place finish in Budapest and third place by only one point behind Räikkönen in the drivers’ table shows that the two-time World Champ is still a force to be reckoned with.

6. It’s certainly interesting to note how teams need to deliver the full package in order to win races.

Precisely. In some cases the driver has the skill but the car is not giving him what he needs. And then you have Red Bull with the top driver and a top car. It’s this combination – this teamwork if you will – between the technical and human ability that wins the race. It’s not just a great car or great driver. You have to have both.

This I know is one of the reasons DHL is the Official Logistics Partner of Formula 1. The skills and values needed to win a Grand Prix reflect what DHL considers important to win the logistics race – what we like to call the race behind the race.

7. On a side note, what do you think about the rumors that Kimi might replace Mark Webber at Red Bull?

The speculation is pretty wild but it really comes down to three guys. One is, in fact, Kimi. And I know that they are offering him a pretty good deal. Whether he’ll accept or not, I don’t know. I personally have my doubts. I think he’ll stay with Lotus. But of course that’s only my opinion. The other two drivers involved are the two Toro Rosso drivers, Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo. Now who is the better one of the two? They seem to be equally quick. Ricciardo has slightly better times. But because Toro Rosso is also a Red Bull team, they have all the data and can identify the better driver very easily. So if it’s not Kimi, then I think it will be one of those two. Most likely Ricciardo is in P1 and Vergne in P2 behind Kimi.

8. Speaking of Mark, what did you think about his retirement announcement? It was big news. Did people see it coming?

Well, the writing was on the wall that he was talking to Porsche. That much I knew very early in the year. But the fact that he actually signed the deal did come as a bit of a surprise. Let’s not forget that the last time Mark raced in Le Mons he went flying in both qualifying and the race and got in a very serious accident. So I was somewhat surprised to see him happily accepting that risk again. Driving a sports car at Le Mons is probably one of the most dangerous things a driver can do. It’s certainly one of the most dangerous tracks in the world. However, I can understand because it’s a great challenge and a great team to race for. For us drivers Le Mons is a classic that really turns you on.

I was kind of hoping and guessing he would stay with Formula One. But he’s decided differently so best of luck to him.

Read more about the 2011 and 2012 DHL Fastest Lap Award winners:
2011 Recap – Webber’s dependable display
2012 – A record breaking year

9. Well he’s a great racer and fun to follow. We certainly enjoyed watching him run away with the 2011 DHL Fastest Lap Award. Let’s talk about fastest lap now. What’s your take on that race so far this season?

It’s no surprise to me that the fastest car in the field is also dominating the DHL Fastest Lap table. Mark Webber’s fastest lap at the Hungaroring solidifies this point and puts both Red Bull drivers neck and neck at three apiece.

That said, to set fastest lap depends on the strategy and sometimes silly things that happen at the end of the race. Pretty much anyone is within reach of a fastest lap when driving a light car on fresh tires toward the end of the race. But that would be a one-off.

Take, for example, Sauber driver Esteban Gutierrez, who set the fastest lap in Barcelona. Here is a mid-field runner whose car has been outperformed all season but manages the fastest lap of the day. It was quite a surprise to everyone. He raced a superb lap, mind you, but he can’t do it consistently. Only the top drivers in the best cars can do that.

So we will keep having surprises like that, but at the end of the year my bet is on Sebastian or Mark.

Of course, Seb, is my favorite. That’s because I know his personal feelings about setting fastest lap. It really gives him personal satisfaction. You know, he just loves it. So once you are in a car like that toward the end of the race – you see, you have to wait to the end of the race when the car is light on fuel otherwise you’re never going to set fastest lap – and you have a driver who takes such pleasure in not only winning races but driving the fastest lap of the day, then I expect we’ll see more fastest laps from him in the season’s final nine races.

10. Yes, he’s been quoted many times as saying that he likes to go for it. His team principal may not like to hear it, but we do. What do you think about the fact that neither Button nor Hamilton has made the Fastest Lap leaderboard?

Button could have easily set the fastest lap under the conditions Gutierrez had in Barcelona. But he is struggling with a pretty uncompetitive car this year. So right now he’s going for the points more than anything else and is not really taking chances.

As far as Hamilton is concerned, I’m pretty sure he’s going to set one to two fast laps this year.

11. You’ve often said that there is always a story behind the story with fastest lap. What’s your favorite story so far this year?

My favorite story was actually the fastest lap that never was. It was the funniest that’s for sure. The one that was never finished, which played out in Canada toward the end of the race.

You know there is a difference between the mid-runners and the front runners. They need a fresh set of tires at the end of the race otherwise they won’t be anywhere near in a position to set fastest lap. Red Bull, however, can set fastest lap on worn tires in their standard stint toward the end of the race. And Seb usually waits until two or three laps from the end, while cruising in the lead, and then nails it in the second-to-last lap. And that’s what drives Christian Horner mad. He really doesn’t like that because when you’re driver goes really hard for fastest lap he is stretching the car and the engine much more to their limits and obviously you take a bigger risk in falling off. But Seb was always prepared to do that.

So my favorite story was this fastest lap that he eventually didn’t complete. I believe both he and Mark were trying to go for fastest lap. His team watched him set a purple first sector and then a purple second sector. Purple is the color that pops up on the screen when the driver sets the fastest time for that particular sector on the track. When the engineers saw this they asked Sebastian to settle down. He immediately slowed and replied “I was only joking.” So Seb was really just playing and I find that remarkable. You’re fighting for the Formula One Championship and after several hours in the car you can still joke around. He’s remarkably relaxed and that’s what made watching that play out so much fun.

12. Did he talk about it after the race?

Yes, he openly admitted he wanted to give his team a headache. (Laughs)

The former F1 driver is one of the sport’s leading experts.
13. Let’s talk about your fastest lap picks. Fans around the world have been enjoying your tips and reviews this season at and DHL’s YouTube channelExternal Link / New Window. Predicting the fastest lap obviously isn’t easy. What sort of things do you look at to make your picks?

At the end the day it really is very unpredictable. Gutierrez is a good example. It really depends on how the race evolves for the mid-field runners more so than the front runners. Because with the front runners, you can always say the Red Bull are in a position to go for it. And Sebastian is a reliable pick because he always wants to go for it. However, even if Seb is pushing like a madman at the end of the race, a driver like Gutierrez might be quicker because he’s on a fresh set of tires.

On the other hand I think that’s quite nice because even the underdogs have the chance to put a lap together and race the fastest lap even though you don’t expect them to.

14. For some of your picks you’ve mentioned the type of track and whether a certain team’s driver is more suited to it. Do you keep that in mind, for example, when making your picks?

Yes and no. It does play a role, but really when you are talking about the top drivers – the Hamiltons, the Vettels, the Alonsos – then really they are all great and there are few weak points regardless of the track or the conditions. There are, of course, weak points in their cars and that is something to consider.

The best examples of this is the difference between the Mercedes and the Lotus this year. You see this particularly in qualifying. The Lotus is a car that needs warm temperatures in qualifying, and to set the fastest lap in qualifying you want to have the tires get up to temperature at the same time. The rear tires warm up very quickly because they have to cope with the 750 brake horsepower. The front tires take a little longer to come up to temperature because there are no traction issues. They simply have to perform in cornering load and deceleration load. That’s why it takes longer for the fronts to “come in” compared to the rears. So it’s up to the driver to find a way to warm these tires up in his out lap before setting fastest lap. And that’s what is so much harder for Kimi compared to, say, Lewis or Nico in the Mercedes because the front and rear tires on their car heat up very quickly and quite evenly.

The reason I’m talking about this is that if Lotus is able to overcome this issue in qualifying then Kimi will find himself next to Sebastian or Lewis in the front row on the starting grid and then give both a run for their money in each race and grab some fastest laps in the process.

15. That’s an interesting point. Can you briefly explain what exactly drivers due to warm up there tires in qualifying?

It’s the way you drive your car in the warm-up lap – the speed and aggression. Your “out lap” out of the pits is your warm-up lap. Obviously you’re not at your limit already in the first corner. But after that you can get two racing speed in the warm-up lap, which means that you put a lot of load into the tires and heat them up quickly. But that also means that when you’re in your hot lap – the time lap – the tire performance is already going down because you cooked the rear tires in the warm-up lap. So that’s why it is so important to have a clear warm-up lap. To go exactly at your own pace. Some have to warm the tires up more quickly and aggressively while others have to do it more slowly. Some drivers even take two consecutive laps to warm up the tires before racing the hot lap. Anything is possible and it depends on the car and on the temperature and obviously on the tire compound.

16. What about on Sunday during the race? We most often see the fastest lap in the lap right after pit stop.

Yes that’s right. In the race you have no choice. You can’t warm up your tires in your out lap the way you’d like to. You can’t afford to hold back in that lap so that the tire performs better in the next lap. You go as fast as you can once you return to the track and just go for it.

17. Back in March you told us that Suzuka was your favorite track. Was it also your fastest?

I have to admit that I was fast there. I qualified on pole. But the thing I really liked most about the track – and still do today – is the layout. It’s simply a very nice circuit. It’s exceptionally challenging and I have always loved that about it. Suzuka and Spa are definitely for me the most beautiful tracks in Formula One.

Check out that interview here

18. In that interview you also mentioned Valtteri Bottas – a young Finn making his debut for Team Williams. How’s he doing?

He’s driving at the same level as his teammate, Pastor Maldonado, who is clearly very fast though a little erratic. It’s interesting to note that team Williams scored their first point in Hungary, though it was because of Rosberg’s late retirement.

Bottas had his moment in the Canadian Grand Prix when he qualified third. He drove extremely well there. I felt that you could see there was more behind him than just another rookie.

It was a wet qualifier and they were running the intermediate compound. These are precisely the moments you wait for as a young driver. The Williams car isn’t fast under normal conditions. So all a rookie can do is drive the best they can and keep up with their teammate. The car keeps you in the back of the field and your kind of stuck there. But once the weather turns foul you can actually create highlights and that’s when it matters to the young guys. Bottas showed us what he’s made of driving superbly on that wet day in Montréal to start a Formula One Grand Prix from the front half of the grid for the first time.

19. Let’s return to tires again for a moment. They were, after all, in the spotlight for much of the first half of the season. Was what happened at Silverstone a first in recent F1 history?

Oh no, not at all. We’ve experienced big tire drama in the past. I think it was Indianapolis in 2006 when all the Michelin teams withdrew from the race because of tire issues. It was a very similar problem to this year. There have always been tire issues. In the good old GoodYear days back in the 80s when I was racing, we were always talking about the tires and it was always an issue. We had explosions, we had problems – it’s nothing new.

20. Do you think the media sensationalizes things? Or is the drama the same as in the past?

No, not at all. But the media can confuse people as with the fact that we actually had two tire issues going on in the first half the season. But just look back for example at when Nigel Mansell lost the Formula One crown at the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide in 1986 due to a blown tire.

I mentioned earlier that tires have always been an issue. My personal feeling is that tires were always the same. No matter what type of car I drove in my career – be it a Formula 2 car, Formula 1, IndyCar, sports car, touring car – tires were always a problem quite simply because they can blow up. Once you reach a critical point, when a parameter has reached its limit, a tiny little problem can cause a very big problem. And I’ve seen it so many times in my career that I regard it as normal.

Silverstone was, of course, very spectacular. But it was not completely new for somebody who spent his life in motor racing. I’m sure it’s been interesting and suspenseful to watch for fans who have not followed the sport for a long time.

21. Do you think this will go away? Will people remember 2013 for the blowouts?

It will go away. It was one specific race with one specific problem. And it is not a problem anymore, in my opinion, now that we are using different tires.

22. Returning to racing, who’s your favorite of the Championship?

My favorite is Vettel – but that depends a lot on whether the other teams are able to improve their cars in qualifying. Because if, for example, Alonso is in a position to race Vettel, then he can beat him. The same applies for Kimi. He certainly gave Seb a run for his money in Germany, believe me. One more lap and he would have done it. These two are, for me, Sebastian’s main rivals. But don’t rule out Lewis in the Mercedes. Although, I do have to say that it may in the end be Seb’s luck that the Mercedes now seem to have gotten their act together but are possibly too far behind to compete for the championship. They could, on the other hand, present problems for Kimi and Alonso as they chase Seb. Toward the end of the year I think the fight will be between Sebastian, Kimi and Alonso.

23. What race are you looking forward to the most in the second half of the season?

Well Spa, of course. I do love that track. I’ll also be spending a lot of time with DHL guests and I really look forward to that. It’s a lot of fun to take them through the Paddock and tell them about what it’s like to drive in Formula 1 and give them insights into the latest in Formula 1 racing. Now that my driving career is over, I feel quite privileged to be able to continue to give back to the sport and to motorsport fans.

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