When the drivers hit the all-new Las Vegas street circuit in first practice ahead of next weekend’s Grand Prix, it will be the first time any of them will have sampled the track for real – and the teams have no historic data to help guide them either. So how do the drivers go about preparing for a totally new race? We asked former Renault F1 racer Jolyon Palmer to explain all…
It’s always fun when a new track appears on the calendar. There are unknowns from all perspectives. Teams will start working on set up ideas and simulation from a very early stage because it can affect the development pipeline months before the race is scheduled, while drivers will wait a little longer to get a full look at the circuit because of their busy schedules.
This year Las Vegas is the new venue and racing on the iconic Strip under the lights is a mouth watering prospect. This is the sort of race that when it’s announced the drivers immediately look forward to.
In reality though you are so focussed on each weekend as it comes, that with Vegas being the penultimate race on the calendar, there might not have been much more than a passing glance and some early discussion about it until at least the summer break, when it started to loom on the horizon.
When I was racing we had another street circuit emerge onto the calendar – Baku in Azerbaijan. It was earlier in the year but it only became a real focus after the first ‘flyaways’ were done and we were approaching the race week.
Learning these new tracks before you arrive is crucial and the best way to do that is on the simulator. For rookies in Formula 1 of course many tracks are new, like Mexico City for Oscar Piastri for example. In these cases though there’s plenty of historic footage and data available to see what’s what. It doesn’t take long to pick it up.
I’d never driven Albert Park before I turned up for my Formula 1 debut in Australia in 2016, but because I’d grown up watching Formula 1 and even playing it on the PlayStation, I felt like I knew the track pretty well before I left the pits.
Of course drivers will still do simulator runs on these circuits as well, but it’s less about knowing whether you are turning right or left at the next corner and more about fine tuning set-up ideas, experimenting with lines and getting into a rhythm.
For new tracks like Baku was for me, or Vegas this year, it is very much back to basics. There’s no historical footage and you haven’t built up that natural bank of information about the circuit, so when it comes to the simulator session for it, it’s very much starting from scratch and building up.
Whilst ideally you’d do the simulator session in the week before heading to the venue, the reality is that with the busy calendar we have now it’s just not always possible. Baku for me was a back-to-back with Montreal, so the simulator session was a few weeks ahead of the race. For Vegas it will probably be even longer out for the drivers because of the Americas triple header before it.
Get ready for the 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix
I found street circuits to be harder to learn than permanent race tracks. The eye line for the drivers is worse heading into the corners because at ground level all you can see is barriers and fencing either side of you, especially at night.
You get laser focussed on the track and everything around it is darkness – sometimes it’s not obvious at all when you are hurtling down a long straight which way the next corner goes. I found that again in Jeddah a couple of years ago when I had the pleasure of doing some filming before the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
That’s why dialling in on the simulator is critical. To start off I’d do a long run just to get used to where the track goes. Then with every stop and discussion with the engineers, you head back out and it starts to feel more familiar. Once you get comfortable then you can start to lean on the car more, start experimenting with the lines and the kerbs and get back to more performance focussed sessions.
It all helps to get your head into the zone before heading to the circuit, but once there I’d always do a track walk on Thursday, just to try and absorb more information as well from ground level.
Track walks are often just a chance to get out with your team on a Thursday, chew the fat about the upcoming weekend and generally see if there is anything new or interesting on the circuit.
For a new track though like Vegas, it will provide a first chance to see for yourself what the kerbs look like, which is a huge part of a circuit’s make up. Can you take them? Do they have big drops on the back edge which could damage the car?
What’s in the run off area? Is it astro turf – which could be slippery – or is it asphalt which could rubber in slightly through the weekend and open up the track width?
As a driver you try and use all the information you can to get an early feel for a track.
By the time FP1 comes you should know your way around the circuit almost perfectly. Of course the early laps will still feel slightly different as you absorb the actual feeling of driving the circuit for real and feel the grip level out, particularly in the low temperatures expected in Vegas. But by the end of the first run things should be relatively back to normal.
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It’s also good to learn the corner numbers well before heading to the track. It’s easy to learn where you have to turn, but remembering which corner is which is also important in providing concise and accurate feedback to the team immediately.
Sometimes on a new circuit you might even tape a track map in the cockpit for the first sessions, and your engineer will have access to one easily as well so that when you are discussing certain corners you can be sure that you are on the same page.
It’s one of the most basic aspects, but you’d be surprised how much time can be wasted trying to explain where on the circuit a specific bump or oversteer snap comes when you don’t have the track map to hand or to memory easily.
Ultimately getting up to speed on a new circuit is more about working well with your engineer and adapting to unexpected changes, than simply knowing which way to turn the car. With all the tools at the teams’ disposal in 2023, everyone will be able to do the latter, but the ones who are sharp and can move into the detail the quickest will be one step ahead by the end of Friday.