Even though the outcome of the Australian Grand Prix produced a DNF, the race weekend as a whole seemed to go well, which was best exemplified by your sixth-place qualifying effort. How is the Haas VF-17 to drive and what makes you so optimistic going into the Chinese Grand Prix?
“The car felt good to drive from the first lap. We made some setup changes and things reacted pretty well, so that was very positive from the weekend. I felt comfortable all weekend long in the car. Qualifying was, of course, a good moment with the new tires and the new cars running on full power with an empty tank, everyone just going for it. It was pretty exciting in that aspect. I was very pleased with how the car was. Even on high fuel in the race the car felt good. It’s a shame we did not finish the race, but things are good and we keep our fingers crossed that she’ll be as good in China as she was in Australia.”
You were not alone in suffering a DNF at Australia, as six other drivers failed to finish. Reliability is important and it will come as the year progresses and more is learned about the racecar, but at this stage of the season, will you take speed and potential over reliability?
“It’s always good to have a fast car, one that’s maybe not 100 percent reliable, over a slow car that is reliable. I wouldn’t have much fun finishing the grand prix in 15th, but if I’m always fighting in the top-10 and having some good results, sometimes having an issue at the beginning of the year is not a huge deal. We’ve got the performance, which is what we want. Of course, it’s not ideal not to finish the race – that’s not what we want. But again, if the car is fast, we can aim for some good points and the reliability is something we know we can fix.”
In five career Formula One races at the Shanghai International Circuit, you’ve had three point-paying finishes and all of them came from a top-10 starting spot. It shows how important qualifying is, but it also seems to showcase your talents. Is there something about Shanghai that plays to your strengths?
“No. Shanghai is a tricky track because it’s very different from the early stages in the year. It’s a front-limited circuit, meaning that the car needs to work well with front tires. If it doesn’t, then it gets very tricky. Overtaking in Shanghai is not impossible. There’s the long backstraight with DRS helping overtaking maneuvers. In general, if the car is good in qualifying, the race should be quite good. If not, then in the race you’re going to struggle. If you qualify in the top-10, you should finish in the top-10. If you’re not, then it’s harder.”
There was a lot of talk about the start of this year’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix, specifically, how it would go since drivers need to release the clutch based on feel instead of with a program supplied by the team’s engineers. How did it go? Is getting it right akin to balancing on a razor blade?
“It’s not easy. Starts are complicated. There are a lot of equations taken into account. It’s pretty tricky to know exactly what to do. We’re not yet the best, but we’re going to keep working hard on it. We have some room for improvement. Race starts this year are going to be tricky. I was actually surprised there weren’t any big dramas at the start of the Australian Grand Prix. It may happen in the year.”
Can you explain how you released the clutch last year and what you have to do this year to get a proper start and why it’s so challenging?
“Last year, you could shape the clutch map to the clutch. They were a bit rigid where you could drop the clutch – there was a big range on the drop. This year, we have to be leaner. If your travel is 10 centimeter, generally you release one centimeter – that’s 10 percent of the clutch. There’s not a place where you can play with a flat map. Therefore, you drop it in a good region, and you have to drop it in a perfect percentage for the grip of the track.”
What does it feel like to nail a start?
“You know the engine revs have dropped down to a good place, you feel like you can go on power, and it all just goes to the track and the car is moving forward pretty quickly. It normally happens in the first, I would say, 30 meters. You know then if you’ve nailed it or if it’s just going to be a difficult start. From there you can react. You can overtake the car in front of you or you just protect your position and make a bit of queue.”
What can happen if you botch the start, other than losing positions? Stalling the car? Inducing so much wheelspin you spin out?
“If you get a lot of wheelspin, you just stay on your position, which is not great. If you drop the clutch too quickly, then you’ll get the anti-stall, so the car won’t actually stall, but when that happens you need to pull the clutch back and release it again. Normally, you’re pretty stressed, so you release it too quickly again the second time and you get the second anti-stall. It’s a bad way to start.”
Starts have always been important, but are they even more so this year since the car’s aerodynamic advances have made them so fast and their wake so turbulent that it’s even more difficult to pass?
“Some races this year, qualifying and the start will be the key. Take Monaco, there’s no way you’re going to overtake there. Race starts and qualifying will be very important. Some other races, maybe China, Bahrain and Russia, you may actually see some good fights out on track. It’s always going to be important, but not as much as at some other venues.”
When you’re in the wake of another car, what happens to your car as opposed to when it’s in clean air?
“When you follow another car, you lose downforce. It’s basically like you’ve got smaller wings or just less grip on the car. Therefore, it’s harder to get closer. The closer you are to the car in front, the worse the effect is.”
What is your favorite part of the Shanghai International Circuit and why?
“I love turn one, just because it’s a challenge going flat-out into the corner, then downshifting into second to finish up. It’s a pretty cool corner.”
Is there a specific portion of the Shanghai International Circuit that is more challenging than other aspects of the track?
“Turn one is a pretty challenging part. It’s such a long corner, you can actually make some difference. Then being up on the backstraight, that long right-hand side corner, going onto the throttle, as well, is important because you’ve got one-and-a-half kilometer of straight line. You need to be as early as possible on the power.”