As the European season draws to a close, I experienced one of the busiest weekends of my F1 career so far. My first Belgian Grand Prix was a real eye-opener, and parts of it were very different to a typical race weekend.
In general, my preparation and build-up is similar to any other race. I visit the factory, spend time with the engineers and in the simulator, and work with the team. But then from Wednesday onwards, this week started to get VERY busy…
Monday kicked off with some fitness work at the MTC in Woking with Eliot my trainer. Coming back from the summer break, my race engineer Tom Stallard also joined us for a run, so we could discuss a few things before focusing on the weekend ahead.
We got down to some Spa prep work and engineering briefings on Tuesday. I was at the factory all day - mainly in the sim - but I also had some discussions with the factory-based engineers. We retested a lot of things from the Hungary race weekend and in-season test, to check the simulator correlation. From that we can judge whether to continue using the simulator to create a baseline for both the Belgium and Monza car setups.
Then things really ramped up, with a lot of partner and marketing events in Brussels on Wednesday. That’s when I started to notice the difference. I did some work for Honda Belgium in the morning and then had some events later in the day for the GREAT Campaign, Johnnie Walker, Logitech and Hilton.
Wednesday also saw confirmation of my contract for 2018. It’s nice to come out of the summer break with a new deal. It was also good to share the news ahead of my home Grand Prix, which shows the team is still 100% committed to me and I have the backing of both McLaren and Honda.
The announcement gives me confidence for the remainder of the season, so it was nice to go into the weekend off the back of that. Especially at your home Grand Prix, there’s so much support from the fans, as well as more of your family and friends around, so it was a nice touch.
For the race weekend I stayed in a house not far from the circuit. My trainer Eliot is part of the team that joins me there. He helps me focus at the track and also unwind away from it. Sometimes that’s by doing a bit of training but other times it’s just socialising together.
Thursday is the first day at the circuit. Obviously at my home race there is lot more media and fan attention. For me it’s a positive pressure. It’s good to have those moments of extra interest every now and then. Whenever I’ve raced at Spa in the past I’ve always felt that extra boost from the people who are there to support me, and this weekend was no different.
We always knew things would be difficult this weekend with our package. Honda brought an upgraded power unit for both cars, and in my case it resulted in a grid penalty. This meant my weekend was a bit different to usual, as our run plans were more focused on race pace. We had an engineering meeting on Thursday, when my Honda power unit engineer Daisuke Kobayashi - or Koba as we call him - shared some documents to explain the best way to use the PU during the weekend.
Both cars had updates, so Honda gathered valuable data out of the running. Mine and Fernando’s comments were also important. When you use a new engine sometimes drivability is a bit different and the power curve can change as well.
The upgrade was bittersweet, especially at my home race. We need to keep pushing the development and bringing new bits to the circuit to find more performance. That’s the most important thing. It was a shame knowing I’d start from the back of the grid but we need to think about the season as a whole, not just this one race.
Between FP1 and FP2 was engineering time but I also did a little bit of work with sponsors. Then another engineering debrief after FP2, some more media interviews and it was off to the drivers’ briefing.
The briefings vary race-by-race. Some are extremely short and others take much longer, especially if we’re discussing regulations or new things such as the Halo. After this weekend’s briefing there was time for another engineering chat, to see what progress had been made since the end of running, which gave me a few things to look at overnight.
The race pace programme continued on Saturday in FP3. Then in qualifying, Fernando and I worked well together to give each other a tow in Q1 and I ended up in P10, which was a good sign. In Q2 I helped Fernando again, but didn’t complete a timed lap myself as I was destined to start from P20 regardless.
After more media work and engineering debriefs on Saturday night, it was good to turn my full attention to the race on Sunday. We knew it was going to be difficult from the back row but coming to the circuit and seeing the thousands of fans pouring in from an early hour really got me excited for the race. I heard after the race that it was a record crowd at Spa this weekend.
There were a lot of Dutch fans at the track but at McLaren-Honda we also dressed in orange on race day, to commemorate what would have been Bruce McLaren’s 80th birthday on 30th August. After a strategy meeting (in our special t-shirts) to plan our approach, it was time for the driver parade, and I can tell you a packed Spa-Francorchamps is an awesome sight.
The race itself was as tough as expected. I got a good start and moved up to P17, but our straight-line speed made it hard to overtake or to defend. Still, we reached the chequered flag in P14 and the safety car almost opened up an opportunity towards the end.
Even in such a challenging race, there are important things we can learn. After the race I sat down for the debrief with my engineers. When there is a new specification of power unit, Koba looks to me to provide extra feedback on the power and drivability, as well as the throttle pick-up.
Sometimes the optimal settings and my feeling are different, because the simulations don’t factor in driver battles during races, only a clear lap. That means I can tell him where the strengths and weaknesses are in a real race situation.
The Belgian Grand Prix is part of a back-to-back double header with the Italian Grand Prix, another legendary circuit. So, once the race debrief was finished it was time to reset and start the process over again, to prepare for Monza.
We’ll never stop trying to improve.