Tuning in to a frantic frequency

Andrew Baker hears the Tyrrell team go through the drama of qualifying
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The Independent Online
A Formula One pit during a grand prix qualifying session is a kind of sterile torture chamber. Harsh, operating theatre lights assault the eyes, noxious exhaust fumes get up the nose. But the greatest threat is to the ears. When an engine bursts into life, waves of agonising noise bounce around the confined space, reverberating around the low roof and hard, polished floor. Onlookers wince and jam fingers in their ears; the team go quietly about their business.

The key to the serenity is the communications system. All the pit crew wear headphones with an attached microphone, and both drivers have microphones in their helmets, which they can switch on with a button on the steering wheel. While to outside observers they seem to be talking to themselves, managers, mechanics and drivers are plotting strategy, discussing car set-up and reporting track conditions. It is the ultimate motor racing chat show, and it plays to a strictly limited audience.

The airwaves were lively in the Tyrrell pit during final qualifying yesterday. Unofficial practice had seen the team's drivers, Mika Salo and Ukyo Katayama in 12th and 16th positions respectively, tantalising close to prestigious top 10 times. Vital tenths of a second needed to be shaved away, and strategy would be all-important.

Standing on the pit wall, Ken Tyrrell, technical director Harvey Postlethwaite, his deputy Mike Gascoyne, and team manager Steve Nielsen assessed the track conditions. The radio crackled. "OK," Nielsen announced, "the plan is for Ukyo to wait 10 minutes, and Mika to go after him." Moments later: "Green light." The session had started.

Nielsen's first concern was to relay a weather report to David Brown and Tim Densham, the race engineers. "David and Timmy, the wind is getting a lot stronger. Will that affect us at all?" Apparently not: a bigger wing might help.

The early runners rumbled past down the pit lane, the floor shook as a Minardi fired up next door. Nielsen watched the lap times of the first few cars out on the track, then alerted his team. "How much notice do you need, Tim?" "Three minutes." "In that case I'd go now, then." Densham primed Katayama. "Two timed laps. Remember you've got new brakes." The Tyrrell's Yamaha engine boomed into life, and Katayama peeled on to the circuit. As he passed the pit on his first "flying" lap, a Yamaha engineer called out the oil and water temperatures beamed from the car. "97. 110." Satisfactory.

Densham debriefed Katayama on his return. "The balance is better than this morning," the Japanese driver reported, "but still slippery, yeah? And I want to change my helmet. This is too light." Salo was told of his team-mate's views about the track before he too blasted out of the pit.

The Finn returned an unhappy man, not so much with his car as with Eddie Irvine, the Ferrari driver having got in his way right at the beginning of his first quick lap. Brown, his engineer, produced a computer comparison of the lap against his fastest lap from the morning session. "See, you have made a gain under braking into Copse, also at the Complex. But you have lost a little time at Beckett's." "That was Irvine," Salo responded. "He came out of the pits right in front of me, screwed up the lap completely right at the start."

Brown and Salo discussed the car's handling, and decided to reduce the downforce from the rear wing in pursuit of a little more straight-line speed. "Wing four plus ten," Brown commanded, and three mechanics instantly set to making the changes.

From the pit wall, Nielsen urged his team on. "I don't think the track is going to change much in the final 10 minutes of the session," he said. "I'd think about going now." "OK, Mika," Brown said. "This is your last two timed laps. You've got less downforce." Out he went, followed two minutes later by Katayama.

Brown's ploy of adjusting the rear wing failed to do the trick, and Salo's best effort was good enough for only 16th place on the grid for today's race. But Katayama and Densham had found a successful balance, and held the 12th-fastest time.

The little Japanese driver was determined to improve still further, and looked about to when on his last flying lap he came across Mika Hakkinen's dawdling McLaren. His lap was compromised; Katayama was irate. The last words broadcast on Radio Tyrrell yesterday were - like their speaker - short, vehement and Japanese.