Lucas di Grassi believes Virgin can find much more performance in the VR-01 and expects to catch the midfield teams by the end of the year.
In an exclusive interview with F1 Fanatic he also explained why he thinks tracks need to have more quick corners and how he’s improved as a driver since making his Formula 1 debut.
When we last spoke you had just driven the car for the first time. How have you got on since then?
I’m satisfied with my performance so far. I think Formula 1 is very difficult on the technical side, especially with a new team, so we are doing lots and lots of work and there are so many areas you can improve the car.
When you go from a big team where everything is pretty much settled, you just sit and drive, it’s completely different to when you start at a new team and you participate in every decision on everything that has been developed so far.
So at the same time it’s more difficult for me to starting like that but it’s also more useful because I’m learning all the steps and how when you make a change in one area, what difference it makes driving the car.
And with the small issues we’ve had I’ve had to adapt my technique to make it smoother or more fuel efficient or something else.
Obviously fuel efficiency has been a bit of a concern with the situation with the fuel tank. You’ve not got the revised version of the car yet with the larger tank, do you know when you’re going to be getting it?
I will be getting it after Monaco. But some of the updates can be put on this car, some aero stuff and some reliability improvements.
So I think our main aim is to finish the race again, as we did in Malaysia. I’m the only guy in the team who has finished a race and that was the toughest one at all because there was no safety car, it was a clean race from start to finish.
The problem was not only the size of the tank but fuel pick-up as well. That meant we had to finish the race with some fuel left over.
How much more?
I don’t know the figures exactly, but a lot.
So you must expect a significant improvement in performance once the fuel problem is fixed?
Yes, we’ve also had to run it heavy in qualifying, especially for me because I’m about seven kilos heavier than Timo. We’re not able to get down to the weight limit so far so that’s costing us performance in qualifying and the race. Our difference in weight is worth about two tenths [of a second] every single time.
This is the biggest thing we’re working on, together with the reliability.
So how much of a disadvantage is having the shorter car this weekend?
If the race is dry and we have no safety cars I will have to save fuel at some point. But it’s still possible to finish.
What’s the priority for developing the car at the moment?
I think the priority is reliability. It’s something that’s completely out of my hands. We’ve finished one race out of eight starts so far. Six out of them was reliability problems, one was Timo crashing. So our biggest problem is reliability and fixing that, or at least making it better, would be an improvement.
And then second part for here is fuel saving. But if we have a safety car or if we have rain it makes it possible to finish the race without fuel saving.
In terms of the car’s performance it looks reasonably encouraging compared to the other new teams, wouldn’t you say?
I think our main competitor is Lotus. Hispania are a bit short on pace, they improved for China mainly because they’re quite low on drag and were quick in a straight line.
Against Lotus it depends on their new updates. I heard they have a second in upgrades, we’ll have a major step as well for this race, I don’t know how much it will be worth.
But we know we have a lot of margin to improve the car, there’s a lot of things we can do to make the car better and each of these steps are not hundredths or even tenths but half-second steps.
So I believe we can close the gap to the middle-range teams by the end of the year and especially for next year. For this year Virgin can be the best of the new teams as soon as we sort out these little issues.
You talk about contributing to the development of the car – is that something you’ve had much experience of while in GP2?
Zero. Because everyone’s in the same car and you just need to do a set-up at each track. While for us here we have a large amount of new parts you can bring to the car.
Not only that, you have much more freedom to work on the parts that you have on the car: electronics, differential, engine management and two different types of tyres for which you have to make a set-up compromise.
So you have a much wider range of things that can make the car better. And you have to perform at the peak every time. If you get one of the things wrong and you’re not fully aware what’s happening it’s easy to lose two or three tenths in qualifying.
Are you taking a bit of a steer from Timo in this area because it’s something he has more experience of?
For sure. Timo has a lot of experience with a big team, with Toyota, and he has a lot of experience and is a very fast driver. So I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him and I feel more confident every time.
In China for the first time I was got quicker in the first two sectors in qualifying, though I made a small mistake in my third sector. But every time I’m in the car I’m getting closer and closer.
I had a bit of a disadvantage in the first four races as I didn’t know the tracks. So you lose a little bit of a session to learn the track. But I think from here on if I continue to develop myself in such a way I will be more comfortable in the car every time and more able to get the best out of the car.
How do you feel about the next tracks that are coming up?
I really like Monaco and I really like Istanbul. But it’s so different in Formula 1 compared to GP2. The last half a second is all about getting everything right on the set-up, getting the differential correct. And in qualifying you have only one lap and that’s it.
It helps to be on a familiar circuit but it’s more important for me to get used to Formula 1.
What do you think of the changes they’ve made to Silverstone?
I thought Silverstone was a great circuit before. You have to drive on the changes before you can make a full judgement of it. But I really liked Silverstone, it was one of my favourite ones.
They think it might be quicker than Monza now.
With the changes? I think it would be difficult to have an average speed higher than Monza but I think they should do the new circuits along these lines – I prefer quicker corners and more challenging corners.
Here, for example, they’ve put in a few slower corners at the end of the lap. Does that take some of the fun away?
Yeah, maybe it increases a little bit overtaking but not enough to make a big difference. They took out the last two, brave corners, which were really fast, I didn’t drive on them in Formula 1 but it would be much more fun.
Where do you think they need to put the balance between having fast tracks and having tracks that are safe?
Safe is a priority, but with these new circuits, for example Abu Dhabi, you have completely free space to do whatever you want, as much run-off area as you like, so maybe like corner eight in Turkey they should do more challenging, fast corners. It would be nicer for the drivers, better for the spectacle.
I think sometimes they should not always go very safe and only do slow corners, they should do more fast corners.
This interview was conducted thanks to Virgin sponsor FXPro.