Success in a Formula 3 Euro Series race demands stamina, strategic thinking and car and tyre management, but the cornerstone of true achievement rests on one considerably less complex – yet just as hard-mastered – skill; raw pace over one flying lap in Friday qualifying.
“Qualifying is one of the most important parts of a race weekend, and possibly also the most fun,” Felix says. “When you arrive there, it’s still only Friday and you are just starting to get into the driving, unlike later on in the weekend when you know exactly where the limit is and it’s easy to get into some sort of routine. Qualifying is when everyone is extra motivated to push, and there is absolutely no one in the paddock who doesn’t give it their all.”
Every race meeting gets underway with one or two hours of free practice. Teams and drivers then head straight into the 30-minute qualifying session, where the target is to post the best lap time possible in the pursuit of Pole Position. The driver who sets the fastest time gets to start Sunday’s third and concluding race from the front of the field. In a new-for-2011 tweak to the qualifying system, each driver’s second-fastest effort sets up the grid for Saturday’s Race 1.
Qualifying also marks the beginning of the "real" action of each championship round. Ahead of the start of the session, every driver is handed a rest-of-the-weekend allocation of three sets of tyres from series sponsor Kumho – and the trick is to use them in the most effective way possible. Felix explains:
“An important feature of qualifying is to decide what road to go down when it comes to tyre strategy for the rest of the weekend. At the beginning of a new season, we are all still sort of left in the dark on this, but at this late stage of the year everyone has more or less arrived at the same conclusions. We usually use two new sets in qualifying and save one for the races. That means that we use eight tyres in qualifying and have four to play with on Saturday and Sunday. Race 1 and Race 3 are twice as long as Race 2 and more valuable from a points’ perspective, so we always give priority to those two "feature" events and use two out of the remaining four new tyres for each of those races. If the lap runs clockwise, we fit the tyres to the left-hand side of the car and vice versa.”
Formula 3 Euro Series teams have also developed a standard procedure for how to optimise lap time in qualifying itself.
“Qualifying is usually divided into two "segments". Since the three sets of tyres become available at the start of qualifying, we obviously have to use one of them straight out of the box – there is nothing else to choose from with all practice tyres out of the game. It’s vital to get into the rhythm, so we often do some six or seven "warm-up" laps on a relatively high fuel load before we return to the pits to change to the next set of new tyres and do the odd set-up change in order to dial out possible over- or understeer.”
“By now, fuel levels – and, as a result of that, car weight – have come down, and that’s why all the best times are normally set in the dying moments of the session. There are examples of teams and drivers who have gambled by just doing one qualifying attempt to save another set of tyres for the races, but the circuit usually gets better and better the more we run on it and you do need the first round of laps to understand how the asphalt has evolved since practice. That’s why the dual-run system has been so popular this year.”
Traditional time qualifying is used in most forms of car racing, and is one of the first things young drivers must learn to master if they want to move on in their careers. The system plays to the advantage of drivers who have an extraordinary ability to focus on the tiniest of details in their driving – and in such a competitive category as Formula 3, one small mistake is often one too many in the battle for top spot on the grid. Braking as little as one tenth of a second too late, for example, can have disastrous effects on lap time.
“When you are driving at 230 km/h, you travel almost 65 meters per second,” Felix points out. “In one tenth, that equals 6,5 meters, and if you brake 6,5 meters earlier or later than you are supposed to it's obviously not good for your chances of being on Pole. It’s not unusual for drivers to perform better lap times when they relax and just let their subconsciousness do the work.”
Felix’s best qualifying result so far during his debut Formula 3 Euro Series season is a second place on the grid at Austria’s Red Bull Ring, where he wound up less than one tenth adrift of Pole-setter Daniel Juncadella. The second part of the season has seen Felix battle for the very top positions more and more frequently, and the last time he missed out on a spot on the front two rows was at the Norisring back in the first week of July.
“I’m pretty happy with qualifying this year. It’s my first season in the championship, and I think I have extracted maximum performance from the car more often than not. I’m also aware, however, that I have done a few mistakes which have cost me Pole Position – as in Valencia two weeks ago, for example – but I’d rather have it that way than doing a perfect lap and still ending up sixth or something. My qualifying performance has definitely developed in a positive way this year. I was driving a bit more conservatively last season in order to keep mistakes to a minimum, but I soon realised that wouldn’t be the way to go in 2011. The level of competition is higher, and that means I have had to raise my game as well.”
In the 2011 intra-team qualifying battle, Felix holds a 5-4 lead over his Mücke Motorsport team-mates in the nine rounds contested so far (including the RTL GP Masters of Formula 3). With one round to go, Felix and his regular colleague Nigel Melker are tied on 4-4, while Felix beat Marco Sörensen in qualifying at Silverstone when the Dane made a one-off appearance with the Berlin squad.
“My theoretical times (the lap time each driver can theoretically achieve if his best sector times were to be put together on one and the same tour of a circuit) have been better than Nigel’s in most of the qualifying sessions this year, but it’s 4-4 in internal stats and there is nothing which develops you more than being team-mates with a fast driver. I have changed my mental approach this year compared to previous seasons, and hopefully it will pay further dividends as I learn how to control this new, slightly more aggressive mind-set even better.”
One Formula 3 Euro Series qualifying session remains this season. Who gets away with the final Pole Position of the year? Make sure to follow all the one-lap drama from Hockenheim on October 21…