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‘RADIO SILENCE? ‘NO PROBLEM’, SAY DRIVERS

Singapore, 19 September 2014 - Heading into the seventh running of the Singapore Grand Prix there has been much talk about the impending ban on certain kinds of radio communication from teams to their drivers.

The Formula One™ authorities have grown concerned over the blizzard of messages from engineers to drivers, the impression being that the driver is just one of the components the technical people can manipulate during a race.

But if the first official FIA Press Conference at the Marina Bay Street Circuit is anything to go by, the only ones not worked up about it are… the drivers themselves.

The famously taciturn Kimi Raïkkönen headed up the list of six drivers involved and the Ferrari star was his usual laconic self.

“Obviously we don’t speak a lot on the radio in my case,” said the man who famously told his previous team Lotus team to leave him alone on the radio because he knew what he was doing.

Sauber’s Adrian Sutil said simply: “No problem, all manageable” while Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson was downright positive about the change.

“I like the idea, to be honest,” said the young Swede. “It’s good to put the driver back in focus.”

Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne and Lotus driver Pastor Maldonado were untroubled by the change, with Sergio Perez of Force India the only one to express slight concern – not at the fact of the ban but at the timing.

“I don’t see it as a big deal,” said the Mexican, “We’re going to be a bit more busy through the race to keep everything under control, that’s all, but it’s a dramatic change from one race to the next.”

Not involved were the two men at the leading edge of the race for the 2014 Drivers’ World Championship, 2009 Singapore winner Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, second here in 2008, the two of them now teammates at Mercedes.

With a 182-point lead in their pockets it seems odds on that Mercedes will lift the constructors’ title for the first time (it wasn’t in existence when they were last around as an independent team), but which one of their two star names will take the drivers’ crown?

As with all sport, success in F1 is often a matter of momentum. That is certainly what Hamilton thinks after winning in Italy last time out and closing the gap on Rosberg to 22 points with the six ‘fly-away’ races to come.

It was Hamilton’s first victory in four races, but with the upstart Dan Ricciardo winning two of those in between for Red Bull Renault, Hamilton was more than usually buoyed by his Italian job.

“Despite the highs and lows, I’m still well and truly in the hunt for the Championship,” said Lewis, “and that is something that gives me huge motivation for the final six races – starting in Singapore. It’s a great place to begin the final flyaway phase of the season. The city is buzzing and the track is mega.”

Is Rosberg cracking under the renewed attack from his teammate, as his aggressive move at Spa two races ago suggested – and those two uncharacteristic mistakes at the Monza chicane?

Hamilton believes so, but Rosberg is, as always, disguising any concerns under that urbane, cosmopolitan exterior.

“Next up it’s the Singapore Grand Prix, which is definitely one of the highlights of the year,” he said in the team’s official preview. “It’s just unreal – I would really recommend anybody to go there if they can as it’s a fantastic experience. The circuit, the city, the atmosphere… everything!

“The way they basically shut down a whole place just for Formula One is incredible and it’s amazing to think of all the work that must go into making it happen. I got my second ever podium here with P2 in 2008 and I generally enjoy street circuits, so I’m looking to go one better this time around.”

While many Formula One™ folk feel the radio ban still needs a fair bit of clarification, there has been little ambiguity around Red Bull’s Ricciardo all season. He has eclipsed his teammate, four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel, three wins to nil and has been decisive in both his responses to team communications and his moves on other drivers – just ask Fernando Alonso, who watched Ricciardo’s work admiringly from his beaten Ferrari’s cockpit in places like Hungary in particular.

Ricciardo’s Singapore record is unenviable – ninth, 19th, DNF – but the Australian is approaching his first appearance here in a competitive car in his usual matter-of-fact way.

“The important thing in Singapore is not to get caught chasing the set-up on Friday,” insists Ricciardo. “The track is going to evolve, you’ve just got to be patient and let it happen without constantly tweaking your car, trying to hit a moving target. It’s one of those races where you’re never completely satisfied with the amount of preparation that you do.”

At the other end of the spectrum – and, possibly, the 22-car field – are the three Singapore rookies. Kevin Magnussen may have the best car under him in the shape of a McLaren Mercedes, but Marcus Ericsson in his Caterham and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat will have a different edge: both have raced here before.

In Kvyat’s case it was back in 2010, when the teenager won a Formula BMW support race, but four years is a long time in motor racing: “It’s going to be a very different experience this time,” admits Kvyat, “and one I am looking forward to. I do like the track a lot, because although it’s a street circuit it’s much quicker than Monaco, for example.”

Ericsson, for his part, has two Marina Bay podiums from his previous visits as a GP2 driver in 2012 and 2013, finishing second in the second race on each occasion, first with iSport International and then with DAMS.

“Sure, it’s going to be difficult to repeat that kind of result this time,” smiled Ericsson, “but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to race for here.” His Caterham outfit is, with Sauber, one of the only two still pointless in 2014.

Three new drivers, then – but no fewer than 22 new cars as Singapore gets its first sight of the new-look, hybrid F1 with its V6-engined, 1.6-litre hybrid power units. How will the Marina Bay Street Circuit welcome these first-time visitors?

Not with Singapore’s usual courtesy: the track is long, the race is long – always on the edge of the two-hour limit – and getting the power down out of those 23 corners is a challenge to be faced 61 times. So what Jean-Eric Vergne of Toro Rosso calls “possibly the most difficult Grand Prix for the driver” may well be even more challenging for his car…

The 23 corners mean there are lots of short, sharp bursts on the throttle, so fuel consumption goes up – we can expect the street circuit to see the cars right on the limit of the 100kg allowance. On the other hand, with less than half the lap spent at full throttle, plus the Singapore tradition of Safety Car interventions, perhaps sheer power and fuel economy will not be quite so problematical.

Singapore remains one of the most eagerly-anticipated events on the Formula One™ calendar, as McLaren’s Eric Boullier reminds us. “The Singapore Grand Prix has very quickly become one of Formula 1’s most important, vibrant and glamorous events,” the Frenchman says.

“It’s a must-see race, and one that shows just what this sport can achieve with an open-minded approach to creating something new, unusual and innovative.”