MONTREAL – Prior to embarking on a four-day jaunt to attend the 2016 Canadian Grand Prix in an unseasonably cold Montreal, I was having a hard time remembering anything about my previous visit to Canada’s Formula One race in 2011.
After spending a few days at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, however, my memory was jogged sufficiently to recall Jenson Button’s rain-soaked victory in which the McLaren driver charged from the back of the field to take the victory.
I consumed that race from the media centre, back when I had to file daily recaps and felt that was best accomplished from a room with good WiFi and plenty of places to plug in my drained devices.
This year, however, I went in better style.
Rather than jamming myself into a tight media centre with a group of grumpy and sleep-deprived motorsports journalists for the weekend, I spent the better part of three days watching the goings-on from a trackside suite as a guest of Shell Canada.
Having covered racing from various track media centres over the better part of a decade, I still enjoy being there on race day, but I must say that spending time in a fully-catered suite with a good view of the front straight at pit exit is a welcome change.
Staying in a downtown hotel that’s a short shuttle ride from the track is also a nice bonus.
I was able to enjoy these amenities because of Shell’s decades-long technical partnership with one of Formula One’s true glamour teams, Scuderia Ferrari.
It’s an arrangement that extends far beyond the usual big-money motorsports sponsorship that is primarily about branding and exposure as a means to sell more product.
While Shell’s deal with Ferrari does deliver those benefits, they’re ancillary next to the technical innovations derived from the long-running partnership which dates back to 1929, more than 20 years before Formula One began in 1950.
In fact, when Shell and Ferrari first began working together, Enzo Ferrari, the founder of both the grand prix racing team and the carmaker that bears his name, was a racer himself, albeit under the Alfa Romeo banner.
After decades of Shell and Ferrari working together (with a lengthy hiatus that lasted throughout the 1970s and 80s, before resuming in the 90s in time for Michael Schumacher’s championship run), the companies have amassed 12 Formula One Drivers’ Championships and 10 Constructors’ championships, making it one of the most successful motorsports partnerships of all time.
Given the length of the arrangement, a number of innovations have grown out of it over the years.
The one that Shell was shining the spotlight on in Montreal was its trackside lab, which as the name would suggest, is a mobile laboratory embedded within the Ferrari team where Shell technicians monitor the fuel and lubricants used in both race cars to ensure they are within the strict guidelines set forth by F1’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA).
After some negotiating between Shell and Ferrari, the latter agreed to allow a small group of journalists tour the trackside lab on Thursday afternoon with the caveat that no photos would be taken.
First off, the lab is quite small. Tiny, in fact, with barely enough room for three people to work, which is usually the number of people working in the lab on a typical race weekend.
We managed to cram six people into it while discussing its role within the Shell / Ferrari partnership, but it was a really tight fit. It reminded me vaguely of a ship’s galley.
Two technicians were poring over data gleaned from samples taken from Ferrari’s fuel supply for the weekend, while Shell’s Formula 1 Trackside Delivery Manager, Ian Albiston walked us through the lab’s inner workings.
In terms of equipment, there was the usual stuff, like computer workstations, but what caught my eye was a spectrometer in the back where fuel samples are measured, with data being fed back to computers for analysis.
Among the more fascinating aspects of the lab is the fact that it is connected to Shell’s main European motorsports base in Hamburg, Germany, which allows technicians working at the track to liase with their colleagues in real time. Being able to do this is useful because it enables Shell scientists to analyze data gathered at the track and compare it to archival data sets to help identify trends which can help Ferrari with weekend race strategy.
If anyone wondered how deep Shell’s partnership with Ferrari runs, the Trackside Lab reveals a very interconnected relationship.
“We really do feel like part of the team when we are at races, as well as when we are on-site at the factory in Maranello (Italy), and there can be few greater thrills professionally for any of us than when we see the prancing horse crossing that finish line first,” Albiston said.
And it produces results, too. In 2015, improvements made to Shell race fuels and lubricants has been credited with being responsible for 25 percent of the gains realized by the Ferrari power unit.
Neither Shell nor Ferrari would provide details on how those gains were achieved – this is the hypercompetitive world of F1, after all – but given how often our group heard these claims being made by various reps on both sides, I took it at face value.
In addition to learning more about the Trackside Lab, Sebastian Vettel, the four-time world champion now in his second season with Ferrari, stopped by for a question and answer session at a Shell forum arranged for the media and other invited guests on Thursday.
As is often his way, Vettel appeared incredibly comfortable not only with the questions being asked, but the format of the session and his role as both star driver and promotional pitchman.
He gets it, in other words, and was only too willing to both answer questions and play along with a silly quiz designed to test his knowledge of Canada and the Canadian Grand Prix. He charmed his way through it, smiling often at the absurdity of it all.
Where other F1 drivers rarely feel the need to come out of their cocoon of handlers and paid yes-people, Vettel swims against the current with a relaxed engaging style. He’s as close to a PR dream as you’ll find in the F1 paddock.
Like a lot of celebrities, he is completely unwilling to talk about his personal life, but everything else is fair game – and he definitely likes to talk.
Perhaps it has something to do with Ferrari closing the gap between it and Mercedes-AMG on track (although the distance is still great), or maybe it’s just a greater level of comfort he’s found within the team, which appears to be a genuinely good fit. Whatever the reason he was definitely in good spirits in Montreal.
As for the race weekend itself, both he and teammate Kimi Raikkonen gave a good account of themselves throughout – fast in practice, near the front in qualifying and neck-and-neck with Mercedes and Red Bull during the race.
Vettel got a great start, jumping from third to first and holding it before the inevitable pit stop shuffle moved him back. He ran a brilliant race, however, and if Lewis Hamilton didn’t manage to make his one-stop strategy stick, he might have notched his second career Canadian Grand Prix win. As it was, a solid second-place finish is a great result, both for himself and Ferrari.
Raikkonen also impressed, notching a 6th place finish, which saw him pass several cars in the late going. All in all, it was a good showing for the team, especially in light of the ongoing dominance of Mercedes.
It was a good weekend for the Scuderia and it was an enjoyable experience for myself to see my national Grand Prix in person for only the second time. It would have been nice if the weather was a little warmer than 12C on race day, but I guess you can’t have everything.
I’ll be going into greater depth on the Shell-Ferrari partnership in the Fall 2016 issue of Ignition, so please look for that when it drops later this summer.