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Roland Ratzenberger: Memories of a Friend


Looking through some old pictures for shots of Roland Ratzenberger today I found the above on an old sheet of uncut and unused transparencies. That’s me at the top left, using my camera remote control to take a shot of Marco Apicella, Roland and Mika Salo. We’re on a bullet train, presumably on the way back from Suzuka to Tokyo from an F3000 race in 1992 or 1993.

What makes it all the more poignant is that in Azerbaijan last weekend I met Marco, who now supplies Stilo helmets to Valtteri Bottas and Lance Stroll, for what was probably the first time in 15 years. I chatted as well to Mika, present in Baku as an FIA F1 steward. With both of them, inevitably, Roland’s name came up, so to stumble across the above picture a couple of days later was a startling co-incidence.

It also prompted me to revisit the story below, which I wrote for the 20th anniversary of Roland’s death in 2014. I hope it gives you some idea of what an intriguing character he was.

Today is the day the motor sporting world remembers Roland Ratzenberger, and I’m happy that his name still means something even to those who never had a chance to meet him.

I was fortunate enough to call him a friend. Indeed he was one of the best friends I ever had in motor racing, and someone who played a game changing role in my life. I think about him often, and not just on April 30.

I was pleased when the makers of the Senna documentary went out of their way to find a clip of him talking to Simtek engineer Humphrey Corbett at Imola – footage of Roland is hard to come by, and it was the first time in years that I’d heard his voice, or seen him talking.

Recently I’ve been digging through boxes of ancient microcassettes, and many feature Roland. Mostly he’s talking about understeer or oversteer at whatever race we happened to be at, and I regret that we never sat down and properly talked through his career. The closest I got was when we talked through the 1986 Formula Ford Festival as a Race of my Life for Autosport. The struggles he faced to even get onto the grid that weekend were a reminder of just how hard he had to work to make it.

I had first met Roland when he was starting to make a name for himself in Formula Ford in the UK. He was basically running his own show, working on his own car, having got his start by preparing machines for drivers of lesser talent and teaching in racing schools. He didn’t have a manager, and everything he did was as a result of his own hard work.

I got to know him more as he worked his way through F3, British F3000, touring cars and into sportscars. He was always keen to forge relationships with journalists, as he was well aware of the value of the media. But it was his charm and sense of humour that caught your eye, rather than any boasting about his achievements.

When I was on the staff of Autosport and he was racing in Japan I’d often ring him for the latest gossip and for the inside story on what had happened that weekend. In the summer of 1991 I decided to go and see the Japanese scene for myself, and my two-week trip started with a local Group C race at Fuji.

I’d been to Fuji and Suzuka several times for World Sportscar Championship races, but I was always passing through on the way to a race, and had never had a chance to spend any time in Tokyo. On Sunday night after the Fuji race some of the drivers took me on my first ever tour of the city’s Roppongi nightspots, which proved to be a real eye opener.

We started in Charleston, an Italian restaurant, and then went on something of a bar crawl. Gradually Johnny Herbert, Thomas Danielsson, Volker Weidler and the rest faded away, until just Roland and myself remained in a grotty dive called Deja Vu. We had a few more beers, and I can remember Roland teasing a lady of the night who seemed convinced that she had bagged him as a customer. She finally got the message and left us.

Roland and I were the last customers, and as we departed, they were putting the chairs on the tables. It was daylight as we stumbled back to the President Hotel, and somewhere along the way we came to the conclusion that I should come to live in Japan to cover the local racing scene, and give the overseas drivers some extra publicity back in Europe. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.

The following March I duly turned up in Japan with a couple of suitcases at the start of what turned out to be a two-year stint in the Far East. It was to be perhaps the defining experience of my life, and I formed bonds with drivers that are still in place today, all these years later. I also met the future Mrs C, who was working in Tokyo. And without that drink-fuelled conversation with Roland, it would never have happened.

My first race weekend in 1992 was a Suzuka F3000 event. A team had booked me a hotel room at the Circuit Hotel, and when I discovered that it cost £120 a night – about £120 more than my budget – I was stuck. Roland took pity on me, as he had a spare bed in his twin room, and he was happy to have some company.

That weekend he happened to be driving a knackered old Lola chassis, and when he failed to make the grid he was as depressed as I’d ever seen him. Fortunately the team would eventually give him a new car, and he was soon at the front.

He was well aware that living and working in Japan as a freelance didn’t make much financial sense for me, and he did me a huge favour by asking me to write his press releases, which I then faxed to personal sponsors and his pals in the Austrian media. The inside cover my old address book still contains the list of numbers I used.

He paid me equivalent of around £70 a race. It wasn’t much, but it helped towards my expenses as I travelled around Japan by train and plane. Roland also persuaded other drivers to use me, and soon my client list included Jacques Villeneuve, Mika Salo and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. They all made it to F1 so my PR service must have done something!

Roland had another reason to be a little melancholy on that first Suzuka weekend. In the winter in Monaco he had married the former partner of another driver after a whirlwind courtship. Suddenly he was not only a husband, but also a stepfather, as the lady in question had a son. However, it was all over within months, and by the start of that 1992 season, he was single again.

Around that time I remember we chatted in a restaurant with a British driver who enjoyed a brief spell in Japanese F3. In stark contrast to Roland he was lacking, shall we say, in both the looks and charm departments. When the conversation turned to women he said, ‘I haven’t been laid since Macau.’ ‘I’ve been married and divorced since then!,’ was Roland’s deadpan reply…

His biggest mistake was the commitment he made to the lady in question by throwing away the little black book of phone numbers that he’d spent years collecting. Starting from scratch was not a problem, since Roland always had an eye for the ladies, and he had an amazing success rate. He wasn’t averse to chasing the girlfriends of other drivers, as his brief marriage attested, and that occasionally made life difficult!

One of his unusual goals was to try to enjoy female company in the team motorhome between stints in 24 hour races. I think the last time we discussed it he’d managed the feat twice at Le Mans, and once at the Nurburgring.

At Le Mans in 1990 I was waiting in the pitlane with Roland and a bunch of other drivers before the start of the parade laps. A girl emerged from the crowd. The daughter of a marshal, she turned out to be his conquest of the previous year. ‘Why didn’t you write?,’ she said somewhat sadly. All Roland could do was smile…

At the start of the Simtek era he hooked up with a young lady who would become a major UK TV personality. He sent the team a handwritten fax detailing, in perfect motor racing engineering language, what happened on their first night together – including problems with bottoming out! A debrief of a very different kind.

There are so many stories, such as the time he used his deep Austrian accent to record a Terminator-style ‘I’ll be back’ answer machine message for F3000 rival Jeff Krosnoff, whose own life would be tragically cut short in a Champcar crash.

There was his disappointment when he found out that Jacques Villeneuve knew so little about father Gilles, and his sadness when I told him that Denny Hulme had died at Bathurst. Motor sport history meant a lot to him.

Then there was the time Anthony Reid had a huge accident in front of him during an F3000 test at Fuji. Reid came to a halt without his helmet and with blood streaming down his face. It was actually a superficial injury, but Roland had to take charge of the scene as the marshals had freaked out. Later he made sure I wrote about the shortcomings of safety in a Japanese magazine. He wanted to make a point.

Once we even discussed Austria’s appalling run of racing tragedies – Jochen Rindt, Helmuth Koinigg, Jo Gartner and the sadly forgotten F2 driver, Markus Hottinger. He was not impressed when I mispronounced the latter as ‘Hot,’ instead of something like ‘Hurt,’ with an umlaut. We didn’t know that a couple of years later he would join that sad list.

All these memories have been bouncing around my head for the past 20 years, and he’s never far away. But what I remember most of all is that huge, beaming smile that was his trademark. I consider myself lucky to have known him.

Roland Fuji

Above: Me with Roland at Fuji. No I’m not engineering the car!

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Halo confirmed for 2018 as Strategy Group debates F1’s future

The FIA has confirmed that the Halo will be introduced to F1 in 2018 following a meeting of the Strategy Group today.

All teams were present, with Renault, STR, Sauber and Haas all represented, although not in a voting capacity.

Several key issues were discussed, and the FIA says that progress was made in various areas, summarised in the statement below:

Frontal cockpit protection

Following the unanimous agreement of the Strategy Group, in July 2016, to introduce additional frontal protection for Formula One and the repeated support from the drivers, the FIA confirms the introduction of the Halo for 2018. With the support of the teams, certain features of its design will be further enhanced.

Having developed and evaluated a large number of devices over the past five years, it had become clear that the Halo presents the best overall safety performance.

2021 Power Unit

An update was given to all attendees regarding the two recent extraordinary meetings held in Paris involving significant representation from the bulk of global motor sport power unit manufacturers.

Further analysis will be completed over the summer which will be reviewed at the next meeting of the Strategy Group in September.

Cost control

A new approach to cost control was presented and received unanimous support. A dedicated Working Group made up of representation from the Commercial Right Holders, the FIA and the teams will be tasked to come up with innovative solutions aimed at ensuring the sport remains sustainable in the coming years. 

Improving the show

A number of sporting measures aimed at improving the show were also debated and specific studies will be carried out to assess these.

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No further sanctions as Vettel apologises to FIA

Sebastian Vettel has escaped any further sanction for the “road rage” incident in Baku after a meeting in Paris today.

In essence the German “accepted full responsibility” and apologised and made a commitment to the governing body’s educational programme, although not in the area of road safety.

President Jean Todt decided that the matter should go no further, while making it clear that a repeat could result in the matter going to the International Tribunal.

The full text of the FIA’s statement is as follows: “Following an incident at the recent Azerbaijan Grand Prix involving a collision between Car 5 (Sebastian Vettel) and Car 44 (Lewis Hamilton), Sebastian Vettel was today invited to attend a meeting at the FIA’s Paris headquarters. He was accompanied by his Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene. He reviewed the incident together with a panel comprised of FIA Deputy President for Sport Graham Stoker, FIA General Secretary for Sport Peter Bayer, FIA Formula One World Championship Race Director Charlie Whiting and FIA Formula One World Championship Deputy Race Director and FIA Safety Director Laurent Mekies.

During the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, stewards officiating at the event issued a 10-second stop-and-go penalty to Sebastian Vettel, the most severe penalty immediately applicable before displaying a black flag notice to the driver. Sebastian Vettel also had three penalty points applied to his FIA Superlicence, taking his current total to nine.

However, while respecting the Stewards’ decision, the FIA remained deeply concerned by the wider implications of the incident, firstly through the impact such behaviour may have on fans and young competitors worldwide and secondly due to the damage such behaviour may cause to the FIA’s image and reputation of the sport.

Following detailed discussion and further examination of video and data evidence related to the incident, Sebastian Vettel admitted full responsibility.

Sebastian Vettel extended his sincere apologies to the FIA and the wider motor sport family. He additionally committed to devote personal time over the next 12 months to educational activities across a variety of FIA championships and events, including in the FIA Formula 2 Championship, the FIA Formula 3 European Championship, at an FIA Formula 4 Championship to be defined and at the FIA Stewards’ seminar. Due to this incident, President Jean Todt instructed that no road safety activities should be endorsed by Sebastian Vettel until the end of this year.

The FIA notes this commitment, the personal apology made by Sebastian Vettel and his pledge to make that apology public. The FIA also notes that Scuderia Ferrari is aligned with the values and objectives of the FIA.

In light of these developments, FIA President Jean Todt decided that on this occasion the matter should be closed.

Nevertheless, in noting the severity of the offence and its potential negative consequences, FIA President Todt made it clear that should there be any repetition of such behaviour, the matter would immediately be referred to the FIA International Tribunal for further investigation.

“Commenting on the outcome of today’s meeting, FIA President Jean Todt said: ‘Top level sport is an intense environment in which tempers can flare. However, it is the role of top sportsmen to deal with that pressure calmly and to conduct themselves in a manner that not only respects the regulations of the sport but which befits the elevated status they enjoy.

Sportsmen must be cognisant of the impact their behaviour can have on those who look up to them. They are heroes and role models and to millions of fans worldwide and must conduct themselves accordingly.'”

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FIA confirms Vettel/Hamilton investigation

The FIA has confirmed that it is continuing to investigate the incident involving Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton at last weekend’s Azerbaijan GP “in order to evaluate whether any further action is necessary.”

It says that a meeting will be held on Monday July 3, with the outcome known before the next race in Austria – which means that any penalty that results can be applied at that time.

One of the problems Vettel faces is that last year he escaped punishment for swearing at Charlie Whiting on the radio in Mexico, and while the two incidents are different, the question of bringing the sport into disrepute through “foul play” could come up.

The governing body noted then: “The FIA will always condemn the use of offensive language in motor sport – especially when directed at officials and/or fellow participants – and expects all participants in its Championships to be respectful and mindful of the example they set for the public and the younger generation in particular.

“The FIA takes this opportunity to advise that, in the event of any future incident similar to the one that occurred in Mexico, disciplinary action will be taken by bringing such incident before the FIA International Tribunal to be judged.”





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Kubica runs first F1 laps since 2011

Kubica 3

Robert Kubica returned to the cockpit of an F1 car today, over six years after the rally accident that appeared to have ended the single-seater career of the 2008 Canadian GP winner.

The Pole drove 115 laps in a 2012 V8-engined Lotus-Renault E20 at Valencia, the same venue where he last tested for the same team in February 2011. Shortly after that test he suffered a serious rally crash in Italy, in which his car was penetrated by a piece of metal barrier.

He later returned to rallying, and has also had GT circuit outings, but it was generally accepted that he would not be able to drive a single-seater properly due to restricted arm movement as a result of the accident. However, he recently tested GP3 and Formula E cars.

The car he drove today is one that Renault uses to give young drivers mileage, and for demos and so on. Test driver Sergey Sirotkin also drove.

Renault has said little about the test, other than on its Twitter account. In a series of Tweets the team said: “It’s true. It really is Robert Kubica. Back in one of our cars after six years. So why did we keep it quiet? It was a private test, for Robert. But we can tell you this… Robert complained about grip, understeer, downforce and had the biggest smile on after his 115 laps!”

Kubica 3It remains to be seen whether Kubica, who is still only 32, will get further outings.

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It was 50 years ago today: Sgt Pepper’s racing connection


The Beatles with a young Adam Cooper – not me but the son of photographer Michael!

It was 50 years ago today that the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album emerged, and The Beatles changed the musical landscape once more.

Apart from the fact that the Cosworth DFV won its debut GP three days later, there’s not much to connect motor sport with the most famous album in rock history. What a pity that racing fan George Harrison, who attended GPs at Aintree in his youth and had been to Monaco just the previous year, didn’t add a Fangio or Moss to the list of Beatle heroes pictured on the cover. However, there is one small anecdote that I can recount here.

In March 1967 Paul McCartney came up with the song She’s Leaving Home, inspired by a newspaper article, and he was eager to get into the studio to record it. Since he wanted a string section, he naturally called George Martin, who had scored the non-Beatle accompaniment to the likes of Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby. Such a job was not the work of a moment, and Martin had to tell McCartney that he was busy with a Cilla Black recording session, and couldn’t drop everything.

I rang him and I said, ‘I need you to arrange it.’,” McCartney recounted in the book Many Years From Now. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, Paul, I’ve got a Cilla session.’ And I thought, Fucking hell! After all this time working together, he ought to put himself out. It was probably unreasonable to expect him to. Anyway, I said, ‘Well, fine, thanks George,’ but I was so hot to trot that I called Mike Leander, another arranger.”

Leander had attracted McCartney’s attention in part because of a version of Yesterday he’d recorded with Marianne Faithfull, which featured strings, a choir, and the full works. He was a good stand-in for George Martin.

This where our racing connection comes in, as Leander was also the business partner of Richard Lloyd, later to become famous as both a BTCC and WEC driver and team boss, and the man who brought Bentley back to Le Mans in 2001. He also did much to popularise the original VW GTI in the UK. Sadly, he was to perish in a plane crash in 2008.

In the 60s Richard combined club racing with a career in music. For a while he was a producer at Decca – working with the ace R&B outfit Graham Bond Organisation, which featured future Cream members Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce – while the list of session musicians he could call upon for other projects included a couple of guys called Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. He also worked with comedy music group The Scaffold, whose members included Mike McGear – better known as Mike McCartney.

Anyway, Richard told me once that when Paul first called Leander and asked him to help out on She’s Leaving Home, he accompanied his colleague to McCartney’s house near Abbey Road to discuss the commission. So Richard got to hear an early version of one of the great Beatles songs, and was a first hand witness to the discussions about what Paul wanted Leander to do with the backing.

As McCartney recounted, “I got him to come over to Cavendish Avenue and I showed him what I wanted, strings, and he said, ‘Leave it with me.’”

This being 1967, McCartney had “recreational substances” to hand. And as Richard recalled it, while they were talking the front door bell rang, and someone looked out of the window and saw a policeman waiting patiently outside.

Did this signal the start of a raid? The previous month Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been arrested for alleged drug offences at the latter’s home in Sussex, where the aforementioned Marianne Faithfull was also famously present. George Harrison and girlfriend Pattie Boyd had been there too, but left before the police moved in – indeed in later years the theory was the Beatles were initially regarded as off-limits by the overzealous cops (although before the end of the decade the notorious Sgt Norman Pilcher would nab both George and John Lennon).

The Stones bust was big news, and in the circumstances, McCartney could be forgiven for being a little nervous. Richard recalled that panic ensued, and the “substances” were quickly flushed down the McCartney WC. Somebody, probably Paul himself, then answered the door, presumably wearing his best cherubic choirboy look.

Does that car over there belong to anyone here?,” enquired the policemen. “No, it’s not ours,” came the reply. “Sorry to bother you.” The PC duly wandered off in search of an alternative owner, his mind presumably focussed more on an out of date tax disc or broken tail light than any off-duty misbehaviour by one of the most famous people in the country at that time. Macca and co could relax – and regret that they had rather hastily disposed of the stash.

Leander went home, wrote the arrangement, and returned it to Paul. On March 17 George Martin, disappointed that he’d been sidelined by the impatient McCartney, dutifully conducted the 10-player string section – and a Beatles classic was born. And Richard Lloyd was left with a story to treasure…

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Kimi Raikkonen: “You can always go a bit faster here…”

It’s been a long wait, but Kimi Raikkonen silenced a few of his critics with a superb pole in Monaco – nine years after the last time he started from the top spot in the 2008 French GP.

To be fair he did spend two of those seasons driving rally cars, but nevertheless it has been a long barren streak for the former World Champion.

A mistake by team mate Sebastian Vettel ensured that the Finn stayed on top when Q3 came to an end, and Raikkonen was guaranteed the most prestigious – and important – pole of the season.

“I would have happily taken any other place also, but it just happens,” he said. “But it’s something we haven’t really got in the last races. But if you take any circuit, here it’s the most important to be in front but it doesn’t automatically give you a win or a good result.

“There are so many things that can happen in a race that are nothing to do with you. You might be doing and the team might be doing a perfect job but actually there are absolutely other things which might destroy the whole race so it’s going to be a long difficult race but we have two cars in the best possible positions, so that’s the main thing.”

Raikkonen said it had been a good weekend so far.

“I think it’s the very fine details that make a difference here. If you have just a little bit of an off feeling with the tyres or something like that in one place, it limits you to go fast and obviously in those low-speed corners you can lose a lot of time for basically nothing. It’s tricky to put the good laps together.

“You try to kind of, in the practice, take it a bit easier, not to destroy the car, because then you are going to lose a lot. Then you push and hopefully you get it right. But I think it’s such small differences. It’s nothing to do with conditions or anything else, it’s just whoever gets the best feeling and being able to push.

“We’ve been struggling a little bit in certain places and we’ve been working and trying to figure it out and in qualifying it was better, by no means perfect, but it’s never going to be perfect. It was good enough and I was very happy with the car in there.

“If you look you can always go a bit faster here and there but that’s normal, it’s a never-ending story like that. We had a good timing when we went out. I felt good, so I was able to push and it was quite a nice straightforward qualifying. So happy for myself, happy for the team. Obviously we have two cars in the front tomorrow so let’s try to make the best out of it.”

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Mercedes looks for answers as Hamilton struggles for grip

Lewis Hamilton admitted that Mercedes has a lot of work to do after the team struggled badly in afternoon practice in Monaco on Thursday.

The former champion was fastest in the morning session, but the team lost its way in the warmer conditions in the afternoon, as both Hamilton and his team mate Valtteri Bottas struggled for grip. Lewis was only eighth fastest, and was 1.1s off Ferrari’s pace.

“I can’t, because I don’t understand it,” said Hamilton when asked to explain it. “P1 was really good, the car was feeling great. Then there was night and day difference, black and white. P2 was a little bit different, we couldn’t work the tyres for some reason, lots of sliding about.

“Lot of studying to do to find out where we went wrong, but I’m confident in my guys. I don’t know if it’s set-up. It’s just with the tyres, I don’t know why the tyres weren’t working.

“That’s something we have to study and figure out for Saturday. It gives the guys here more time to work on the car, spread over two days, rather than everything tonight.”

Asked about the challenge of driving round Monaco at the record speeds seen today he said the higher downforce levels made it easier.

“It’s the same as before. The car is a lot better, it’s got more grip. If anything, it might be easier. It feels great. Monaco is always amazing to drive, and it’s definitely the best car I’ve driven round here.”

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Pascal Wehrlein: “The health and fitness is no issue any more”

Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein was one of the unexpected stars of the Spanish GP as the German used a one-stop strategy to earn eighth place.

He actually finished seventh on the road, but lost a spot to Carlos Sainz after receiving a five-second penalty for going the wrong side of the bollard at the pit entry. He started on the soft tyres and pitted for mediums under the VSC after 33 laps.

“A really exciting race, a really hard race,” he said. “We did only one stop, so from the first lap on the most important thing is to drive as quick as possible, but also manage the tyres. This was quite hard. The first soft stint, it went forever, and then the cars from behind with fresh tyres and a lot more pace were coming, and it was really important to defend the position. In the end I had a good fight with Sainz, and managed to keep him behind me.

“Then with the five seconds penalty its P8 in the end. Definitely a lot more than what we could have expected from this weekend. I’m looking forward to having some updates on the car for the next race, and hopefully we can see these results more often.

“I think it was the perfect strategy for today. Plan A was one stop, Plan B was two stops, and we committed to the one-stop since yesterday, and I said I want to try one-stop, otherwise there are no points we can get from this race. We have to take the risk. At the end it paid off, and I’m really happy about it.”

The result was particularly welcome after Wehrlein’s fitness issues earlier in the season: “I think I showed already in Bahrain I’m back. It’s just nice to see that my back is fine, I am performing at a very high level, and the health and fitness is no issue any more.”

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Lewis Hamilton: “I think it’s going to be tough race…”

Lewis Hamilton will start the Spanish GP from the 64th pole position of his career, despite failing to improve on his second run in Q3.

The Briton’s first run time thus did the job for him, although he only just stayed ahead of Sebastian Vettel, who would have stolen pole had he not had a poor end to his lap.

It started out that we were potentially a tenth ahead of the Ferraris, but in P3 it seemed that we were lot closer, so, quite level. So it was really intense for us, making sure we pulled out every millisecond we can. We made some changes as we got into qualifying, and the car felt great, so I was very happy with it. The Q1 lap was very, very good. The Q2 lap was so-so, but good enough. Then the first lap of Q3 was very good and the second lap was up, I think almost two tenths. I didn’t finish it that way, but still it was good enough to keep me ahead.”

Hamilton is expecting a close race on Sunday, with Vettel, Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen all in the frame.

I think it’s going to be a tough race tomorrow, for sure. You see how close it is between us and it’s all milliseconds between us. I think it’s the third longest run down to Turn One so of course it’s going to be important to get a good start, but we’ve worked hard on them, so I’m going to try to do the best job I can.

Valtteri’s had some great starts so I’m going to try and follow in his footsteps there and then yeah, positioning can help a lot here and being on the clean side of the grid is an advantage generally. Usually it’s a little bit of an advantage and hopefully I’ll be able to utilise that – particularly compared to Sebastian – and then in the race it’s just about looking after those tyres. It’s a very, very long, hard race, both physically and mentally and for the car and the tyres – but we’ve prepared in the best way we can and I think hopefully got the car in a much better position than I did in the last race.”

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