When India hosted its first Formula 1 race in 2011, as an Indian familiar with the environment, it took some time to come to terms with the feeling. This year, I thought it wouldn't be any different from other races in some respect, but as I was getting strapped in for first practice at the Buddh Circuit, I saw the massive tricolour grandstand in front of me and it all came rushing back!
In that moment, I realised that I was still not used to being behind an F1 steering wheel without having gone through an immigration check a couple of days before. But, guess, it is something that'll take, maybe, a couple of races to get used to.
Mind you, it isn't simply about the circuit - where I tested the MRF Formula 2000 barely a month ago. The fact that the scrupulously sterile, meticulously systemised F1 circus plonks itself in the middle of the organised chaos that is our great country is just too incredible to come to terms with.
But everyone loves it here, so it is all good and more so since the organisers have made huge improvements to iron out the rough edges that last year's rush had dragged along.
As a racing driver though, you quickly try to get rid of all these random thoughts and filter out the emotions once you're behind the wheel to focus on the job at hand. But the (comparatively) leisurely pace of the outlap allowed me to take in a bit more of the atmosphere while performing the radio check with my engineer in the pits.
Back on track, the opening session went about smoothly. Although I am aware of how missing the first practice - as the case has been many times this year - often leaves me playing catch up for rest of the weekend, I could actually experience the difference.
Especially at a track like BIC, which evolves massively in the first practice. Since it isn't used otherwise, it is absolutely critical to drive on a green track so that you learn which parts of the circuit become faster over the weekend, where do corner speeds go up and how braking points change.
When you come into second practice without doing FP1, you have absolutely no clue about the evolution traits of the circuit and although there is data from the other car, you are unable to take full advantage of the track conditions and make slight tweaks to get that extra edge ahead of qualifying and race.
After the normal radio check and installation laps, we started following our programme to establish a base setup with the hard tyre. Tyre supplier, Pirelli, has nominated its soft and hard compounds, so tyre strategy is going to play an important role in the outcome of the race.
There will be a significant difference in lap time between the two compounds, so choosing the right starting tyre, and knowing the degradation patterns of both compounds, will be critical. In order to determine these, we do carry out runs known as race simulation, which gives us an approximate idea of the tyre and fuel usage so we can decide the fastest race strategy.
New Rear Wing
We also had a new rear wing for India, which worked decently, although we still have to look at the data and see to what extent we have gained. So, all went smoothly and it was refreshing to put in 24 trouble-free laps in the opening session.
The second practice kicked off well and we had a slightly more intensive programme to run through, which included fine-tuning the suspension and adjusting the handling to get the most out of the track that was beginning to grip up beautifully.
We stuck to the hard compound for the first half, and elected to switch to qualifying simulations on the soft with about 45 minutes on the clock. But it wasn't meant to be, as my engineer radioed me to return to the pits almost immediately, after a hydraulic leak was detected. On the in-lap, I was praying for a small issue, but once the car was pushed back in the garage, it was clear that it couldn't be fixed in time for me to go out again and that was it!
It is never pleasant to get out of the car and watch the screen to see others still on track, so I was quite gutted. But at the end of the session, our car looked strong going by my teammate's performance. So, things are still looking good and if we have a normal third practice session, I think we'll be all set for a good qualifying at the Indian Grand Prix.