What is the most important aspect of driving an F1 car?
There are a couple of things here - one is trying to lap a circuit as quickly as possible with no other distractions, and the other is trying to do the same amidst a pack of 23 other drivers doing the same thing. So, it is difficult to pinpoint one aspect - concentration is most critical in qualifying where we put everything into getting that last hundredth out of the car. In the race though, demands are different, as you have to be quick to seize any opportunity, look for gaps and judge overtaking manoeuvres.
Quick reflexes to an F1 driver are like breathing to a normal human - one can't handle an F1 car at the limit otherwise.
For instance, this year I've seen spikes on my steering telemetry (depicting my steering input as I countered the movement of the car) at over 300 kmph in a straight line. The tyres had lost grip and I was getting wheel-spin in the sixth gear! If your reflexes are not sharp, you are in for a difficult time.
What about the experience of driving an F1 car for the very first time stick with you?
The first time that happened was in 2001, and even though I had decent single-seater experience under my belt, including the Japanese F3000 (precursor to the current GP2 series), nothing quite prepares you for a F1 feel. Even though it was a Jaguar that I tested (by no means a front-running car), the experience was transcendental. Obviously, there was the incredible power of the then three-litre V10, but the most significant thing was the downforce. The ability of the car to generate a staggering amount of grip - far beyond what its tyres and suspension would be otherwise capable of - was just unbelievable. Actually, we were heavily dependent on downforce as aero regulations weren't as restraining as they are today and the mechanical grip was at a premium due to grooved rubber. So, yes, overall, it was something I was buzzing with for the next couple of weeks after my first go in a F1 car. And, thankfully, I had done well enough to warrant another chance with Jordan later that year.
How much of what it takes to drive a F1 car can be taught and how much of it is down to talent?
In my opinion, talent does play a part at every level of racing, not just F1. There is no question that there is something called talent, but you need to understand that there is no substitute for hard work - being diligent and perfecting your craft by practicing is important. That is what separates the great drivers from others. If you look at the most dominant drivers in the history of the sport - like Senna and Schumacher - they backed their talent with extreme diligence. They worked on every seemingly insignificant aspect of driving. The talented ones will always have a slight edge provided they have been working hard enough on utilising their talent completely.
Although there are circuits with different characteristics, what does driving at a place like Catalunya, which is familiar to a lot of drivers, entail in terms of brake inputs, steering, throttle input and aerodynamic setup?
Catalunya is a great all-round circuit. One thing that stands out is the ever-changing wind condition, which has a huge bearing on the aerodynamics of the car. Like Spa is famous for its microclimates, Catalunya has similar variations in wind speed and direction, which can dramatically change the way the car behaves over a lap. Grip-wise, with a lot of fast right turns, it loads up the car's left tyres significantly.
Brake pressures hinge somewhere around moderate, varying slightly depending on driving style, since there really is only one big braking zone at the end of the main straight. Also, the track drops away in most other braking zones, especially before the left turns. So, you have to constantly adjust the brake-bias (front or rear) in the cockpit to avoid lockups.
How much does a F1 driver need to know about the technical aspects of his car?
An F1 car is an incredibly complex machine and it is impossible to know your way around it completely. As a driver you don't need to. But knowing how the critical components influence the car's behaviour helps. A good driver can go to the next level if he understands how things work and, more importantly, evolve the package to suit his driving style.
What aspect of fitness is most important to a F1 driver?
Fitness-wise, F1 is a well-rounded game. You need the right mix of cardio, strength and core conditioning to be able to deliver at the limit. Cardio obviously plays a huge role, thanks to the high average heart rate (between 155-160 bpm) during a race.
F1 cars aren't as hard on the arms due to the power steering, but that is no reason to be lax. Leg strength is a huge factor - circuits with high brake pressure can be incredibly hard - and if you can't generate the requisite amount of force when you hammer the brake pedal, you're just losing a huge chunk of time in braking zones due to increased braking distance.
Then, the neck has to be particularly strong to handle the G-forces, and that is something which is difficult to train for in a gym. No workout can really simulate the conditions in the cockpit especially if you've not driven for a while.
What is the ideal diet for an F1 driver?
Like any conditioned athlete, the diet is based around protein most of the time, barring race weekends when carbohydrate intake needs to be stepped up, as energy needs are higher. Coming from India, it is slightly tricky as our diet is more carb-rich due to the high amount of cereal intake, especially rice in South India where I come from.
So, you have to adjust and make sure you're eating right at least most of the time. But, it is one of those sacrifices you're happy to make, especially at F1 level where you know the next guy is working as hard to beat you, not only on-track but off it as well.
Can connections and sponsorships make or break a driver's chances of getting to the grid?
Talent is important, but the world will see it only when you get there. An initial push is needed to slot yourself in the right places and then your talent will take you from there. However, there are exceptions where extremely talented drivers don't get what they deserve, but the lesser ones move forward.
In India sponsorships are easier to come by now compared to when I started, as the awareness about the sport was very low. But that doesn't mean that anyone can get to F1 with just money and connections - very soon you'll be history if you don't have it in you.
F1 formula decoded