We’re at the Piero Taruffi racing circuit in Vallelunga, Italy, about 30km north of Rome. Formula One is on its off-season break, so for a few months the race-weekend rhythm has been interrupted. For the drivers, this provides a precious opportunity to recharge their batteries and work on important stuff that got overlooked during the season. And to have some fun.
On his desk at home in Rome, Daniil Kvyat still has the invitation from Renault Sport. It was sent during his Toro Rosso days, suggesting he comes in during the final stage of adjustments to their new sports car and puts it through its paces. It’s hard to believe that for whizz-kid Kvyat, covered racing cars are virgin territory. The Russian driver, now 20, went straight from karting to various formula-racing series and made his Formula One debut last year at the age of 19. What’s more, he got on the scoreboard in his first race – ninth in the Australian Grand Prix – the youngest driver in history to do so.
The spectacular and as-yet-not-fully-tested 500hp piece of kit awaiting him in the pit lane at Vallelunga is the Renaultsport RS 01, a car designed solely for the track. The first race of Renault’s World Series takes place in late May, with a starting line-up that promises to be full to capacity. Appropriately enough, the RS 01 was unveiled in Kvyat’s homeland at the Moscow International Automobile Salon, though he assures us that this was just a coincidence.
Getting into the cockpit of any racing car – let alone one with a roof – is a challenge for the new Red Bull driver, who has to bend his body and duck his head. “And yet I was extremely small as a child,” says Kvyat, who now stands at 5ft 11in (1.8m) – taller than your average Formula One star. “I was always one of the smallest when I was karting. It was only later on that I grew.”
The engineers, delighted to have contact with a living, breathing Formula One driver, kneel at the gull-wing door. Kvyat looks around and tries to make himself comfortable. “I guess I can leave the visor open in here, can’t I?” Nods all round. Fresh air is in short supply and drivers have to wear a cooling vest for races that take place in hot weather, so they don’t pass out in the cockpit.
Kvyat is finally settled behind the wheel. “The visibility is actually better than I expected,” he says of the car with two pedals in the footwell, which allows him to brake with his left or right foot. But for an F1 driver like Kvyat, braking with the left foot is a point of honour. When it comes to changing gear during a grand prix, he uses hand paddles behind the steering wheel – the right paddle to shift up, and the left to go down.
The Renaultsport RS 01 has a similar set-up and an automatic clutch, which prevents the engine from stalling in case the car spins. Things like ABS or traction control sensitivity can be adjusted from the steering wheel. The Renaultsport RS 01 has been designed in such a way that ambitious drivers should to be able to cope just as well as the most seasoned professionals. But how will Kvyat acclimatise to driving a different kind of race car? After all, his only ‘normal’ cars to date have been a small VW and a Renault Clio.
You can tell by the fact the car is packed full of sensors recording Kvyat’s every movement that technicians are hoping for more than a few polite words and a crash-free lap. In addition to telling him to have some fun and rev the engine, they’ve asked him to solve a problem in his first run-out: the carbon brakes at the front have become slightly too hot during previous test drives. The temperature they’re aiming for is 900°C, yet the sensors have detected peaks of 1,000°C on the development driver’s runs.
The Hard Facts
Weight: under 1,100kg
Transmission: seven gears
Suspension: Öhlins, adjustable
This may not affect the brakes’ performance, but it does shorten their shelf life, and reduced wear and tear has been a specific development goal to keep costs down.
Therefore, the tech team are experimenting with a variety of air ducts at the front of the car to better aerate the brakes and expel any hot air more quickly. It could work, but it might not. “Five laps, Daniil, and please don’t go too easy,” he’s told. “We want to see if the new air ducts make a difference.” Kvyat nods his head and flicks a switch to turn on the engine. Its exhaust consists of twin pipes as fat as a pair of legs, and sounds as refined as you’d expect. Then he’s off. It’s a good thing he knows the circuit. Kvyat’s in-lap is impressive enough, but then he reels off three laps with times comparable to the experienced test driver, who could drive this track with his eyes shut, before easing off slightly on the last lap to let the car cool down. From novice to old hand in five laps – it gives you a sense of the unearthly talent for motion that Formula One drivers possess.
When the doors open, revealing a glistening pair of eyes peeping out of the young driver’s helmet, his first words are unprintable. Suffice it to say, they include the F-word twice and “brilliant”. “The car is really powerful and has massive contact pressure thanks to the aerodynamic underbody and the rear wing,” reports Kvyat. “On slow corners I felt slight understeer, and on medium corners there was a bit of a tendency for the back of the car to get away from me. There never used to be that bump on the quick right-hand turn, so I had to adjust my trajectory slightly. The brakes are good – you can really plough into them. I lowered the ABS from four to three on the second lap to get more feedback, and I set traction control to the minimum after the in-lap. I had to be wary of snap oversteer on the fourth lap. The rear tyres had probably overheated a little. The roof didn’t bother me for a second. What does the data say?”
That’s pretty good feedback from someone who’s just driven his first-ever laps in a covered sports car. Others might have left it at “Wow” or “Awesome”, but Kvyat, adrenalin rush notwithstanding, provides a painstaking breakdown of what went on in the car, plus analysis and confirmation of the data in equal measure. No period of acclimatisation, no finding his way around the controls, just straightforward professionalism from the first instant. It must be the mould that Formula One drivers are cast from. The technicians are pleased as they
tell him what to do for his next set of laps, which he signs off on with equal mastery.
“Basically, the car isn’t hard to drive,” Kvyat sums up at the end of a long but enjoyable day. “I’d probably need another half day of testing to squeeze out those very last tenths. But even less experienced drivers will have a lot of fun in it.” Isn’t a car with a roof and only 500hp frightfully dull for someone used to Formula One, though?
Kvyat disagrees vehemently. “Everything is, of course, more fine-tuned and precise in Formula One. We have more power, the gear changes are quicker and the centrifugal forces are greater. Having said that, today’s data showed a maximum of 2.3G. That’s a perfectly respectable figure.” And to prove just how seriously he meant what he said, Kvyat returned a few days after our test – incognito, with a couple of friends – to have some more fun with the Renaultsport RS 01, without all that test equipment around. “You’ve still got to practise a bit in the off-season, after all,” he says with a smile.
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