I am absolutely delighted that I will be writing a regular monthly blog on mclaren.com/formula1 throughout 2015.
I still follow modern-day Formula 1 very closely, as you would expect, but I intend the writing I will do for McLaren this year to focus on my own racing days. I drove for the team from 1993 until 2001, winning 20 Grands Prix and two Drivers’ World Championships in that time (1998 and 1999), all of those successes powered by Mercedes-Benz engines; I was equally delighted that, in the first of those years (1998), my team-mate and good friend David Coulthard and I were also able to secure the Constructors’ World Championship for McLaren-Mercedes.
They were fabulous days. I was proud to be a part of such an impressive organisation, and that organisational impressiveness originated from the very top: from Ron Dennis, the chairman and chief executive officer, the main man, one of the few genuine legends of the sport of Formula 1. Ron and I were always very close, and we are still. Supported by a great bunch of designers, aerodynamicists, engineers and mechanics, we worked flat-out together, and I will always hold him in extremely high regard.
Those of you who remember my racing career well will be aware that ‘flat-out’ has always been one of my favourite expressions. But I was flat-out away from the track as well as on it. I well remember that, in my time with McLaren, I would begin to see initial computer-generated renderings of the following season’s car as early as midsummer. I always took a keen interest in those early images because, although at the time most pundits tended to regard me as a no-compromise lead-foot – a flat-out ‘flying Finn’ to re-coin another well-worn phrase – in fact I realised early in my career the enormous value and supreme importance of working closely with my designers, aerodynamicists, engineers and mechanics, in an effort to assist their endeavours to make the car I would soon be racing as fast as it could possibly be. In my opinion all good race drivers are the same in that regard.
At the end of a Formula 1 season, especially a very successful one such as I enjoyed with McLaren in both 1998 and 1999, there is always a lot of marketing/PR work for the drivers to do, and it tends to dominate the month of November. It invariably requires quite a bit to travelling, the better to deliver in accordance with the marketing/PR objectives set out by the team’s various sponsors, whose target markets are rarely the same and may indeed be in far-flung locations. It is important work, of course it is, but, after a long and gruelling season of flat-out racing, it can also be extremely tiring. As a result, once it was finished, I used to spend most Decembers doing very little other than resting and relaxing.
At first I used to ask myself, a tad guiltily, “Should I be doing more to prepare for next season?” But soon I realised that, no, on the contrary, that rest and relaxation was not only pleasant but also essential. For an athlete to be able to perform at the peak of his or her ability, he or she must be in top form not only physically but also mentally. And a crucial stage in attaining that top form is the initial unwinding stage, to clear the athlete’s mind, and thereby remove the accumulated stresses and strains. I used to sleep a hell of a lot in December.
By January 1st, though, or perhaps January 2nd if new year’s eve had involved a late night, I was always raring to go. And it is at this time of year – the month of January – that I began to train really hard. An eight-month Formula 1 season, consisting as it does of almost 20 Grands Prix linked together by dozens of lengthy and exhausting long-haul flights, leaves very little time for serious gym work. That being the case, a conscientious driver always ensures that he makes hay not while the sun shines but while the snow falls. I used to spend January in either Finland or Monaco, or sometimes both, training absolutely flat-out, often with Aki Hintsa, McLaren’s doctor then and now, a fellow Finn and still a dear friend of mine.
It was McLaren-Mercedes that first introduced real science to the training regimen of its Formula 1 drivers, and it was Aki who spearheaded that sea change. He devised bespoke exercise schedules, different for each driver, and he created nutrition programmes with equally infinitesimal care. The result was that, by the time we started testing in Barcelona, Jerez and Valencia in late January or early February, and then flew to Melbourne for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, we were invariably fighting-fit; ‘as strong as a bull’ was the phrase I used to use to describe my pre-season condition.
But the most exciting day in January, inevitably, was always the day I first saw my new car, and that was the first day of the first pre-season test. Okay, yes, I had usually seen it a day or two before, at the press launch, but the cars used for press launches were invariably missing a few last-minute design tweaks. That is the nature of Formula 1; it always has been and always will be. As and when you see this year’s new cars launched over the next few days and weeks, yes, they will all be new, they will all look novel, but Formula 1 designers, aerodynamicists, engineers and mechanics never rest; they continue to add new features to their new cars right up until the morning of the first day of the first test, which is why that morning is always such a special moment in any Formula 1 driver’s year.
Having said that, as a Formula 1 driver, you have to be immensely disciplined, and in a number of disparate ways. In order successfully to manage a year-long World Championship campaign, you have to be able to maintain a razor-sharp focus yet you also have to control your emotions even in the heat of on-track exertion. So, yes, as I used to walk around my new car in the McLaren-Mercedes garage on the morning of the first day of the first test, I was excited, of course I was; but I was always careful also to keep that excitement in check: to be enthusiastic yet realistic, in other words.
I was already well aware of the car’s newest design features, and typically they would be focused on improving any flaws that the previous year’s cars had suffered from. And, as soon I climbed into the cockpit, and as soon as I heard the car’s mega-powerful V10 engine fire-up and begin its distinctive high-pitched ‘idle’ (if you can call it that), I would go through that list of flaws in my mind, the better to appraise how effectively the team’s designers, aerodynamicists, engineers and mechanics had managed to eradicate them.
As I pushed the throttle to the correct rev limit for launch, then let the hand-clutch in, then tugged the steering wheel to the right, then drove down the pit-lane for the first time, I was using every nerve-ending in my body to monitor how the car was feeling. And, then, as I powered out onto the circuit for the first time, I would be hoping above all else that the car would hold together. After all, the first test is just that – a test – and it is not surprising if systems that have never been run before sometimes fail at that early stage. Even so, it is always dispiriting when it happens.
But, once all the systems had been declared okay, I would set out on my first fast lap. And, if the car responded well to my inputs, as the McLaren-Mercedes MP4/13 did in early 1998 and the McLaren-Mercedes MP4/14 did in early 1999, then there is no better feeling in the world for a driver.
Did last year’s car suffer from front-end lock-up under braking, I would ask myself? Yes, it did. Does this year’s car suffer similarly? No, it does not! Did last year’s car tend to understeer on turn-in? Yes, it did. Does this year’s car do the same thing? No, it does not! You get the picture.
As a driver, what you are looking for is a fast car, pretty obviously. But, just as important, you are looking for a neutral and stable and reliable platform on which you can do to the best of your ability what your experience and expertise have equipped you to do: drive fast.
Driving fast is not about doing things quickly; no, it is about eliminating imperfections. And if your car is not neutral, or not stable, or not reliable, or, worst of all, if it is none of the above, then there is a limit to how successfully even a very fast driver is able to eliminate those imperfections. But if your car is neutral and stable and reliable, well, then you are able to analyse each lap as you drive it, and find a tenth under braking here and a tenth under acceleration there, and gradually drive faster and faster: you end up driving flat-out, in fact, but arriving at that flat-out state has been a systematic process, not a banzai rush, and there is no better feeling in the world than being in the cockpit of a Formula 1 car when you are achieving that.
I had that feeling in February 1998, when I tested our brand-new McLaren-Mercedes MP4/13 properly for the first time, at Barcelona. It was a three-day test, and eventually I worked my lap-time down to a best of 1m21.880s. The previous week, Williams’ Heinz-Harald Frentzen had been quickest with a lap of 1m23.400s – a massive 1.5s slower than I would drive on the same circuit a few days later. Believe me, that felt good.
Seasons such as those which McLaren enjoyed in 1998 and 1999 are few and far between, and I am not going to make any predictions as to which team will win which Grands Prix in 2015. Formula 1 form is too fickle, too volatile, for that kind of crystal-ball gazing. So, as regards my former team, I will say only this: my old boss and mentor, the one ’n’ only Ron, will be pushing flat-out, as always.