By now, we’ve all had time to soak in Nyck de Vries’ unforgettable Formula One curtain call that saw the Dutchman go from sipping on a coffee in a motorhome to taking his first-ever Grand Prix start in a little over 24 hours.
However, the stories of those behind the scenes have yet to be told… until now.
It wasn’t only Nyck who had to quickly adjust to his new surroundings, but also the key members of Alex Albon’s team that had to change their plans to ensure the 2021 Formula E World Champion was as comfortable and as prepared as possible.
As the dust settled on the Italian Grand Prix, we caught up with four key players in Nyck’s whirlwind weekend – James Urwin and George Britton, Race and Performance Engineer respectively, our Chief Mechanic, Ben Howard, and Dominique Heyer-Wright, Senior Press Officer.
“I knew he was under the weather in the morning, and once we got final confirmation from the team that Alex was too ill to take part, the next thing we knew, Nyck appeared in the office and that was probably 90 minutes before the session,” James explained.
The team had to quickly adapt to get Alex’s FW44 prepared for a racer some 20cm shorter than its usual occupant.
Ben had also heard in the morning that Alex was poorly so, in secret, started to get parts set aside should Nyck be called upon.
“It was a matter of finding the seat, the seat belts and all the associated parts with Kats Shirahata, our Senior Spares Coordinator,” Ben commented, continuing: “We rounded it all up into a tray of bits and just stood by.
“Around an hour before FP3 we got the full lowdown that Alex had appendicitis, so I passed that information onto Gorka Narbarte, our No1 mechanic on that car and his guys got straight onto it.
“We handed out the parts we had set aside, which saved us a lot of time as from Alex to Nyck, there’s a big difference between their heights and weights.
“Everything you could change, we did change – it also meant we had to take the floor off for the driver ballast because of their weight difference.
“We got him out in the nick of time.”
"The next thing we knew, Nyck appeared in the office and that was probably 90 minutes before the session."
Ben and team, including Gorka (pictured), pulled out all the stops to ensure Nyck was ready for FP3 and Quali
Whilst all this was going on, back in the engineering office, James and George were charged with getting Nyck back up to speed with our FW44, and the latter shared what was being undertaken in the minutes immediately before Free Practice 3.
“It was a case of going into the driver's manual and talking through the most important things that he needs to know to be able to drive the car.
“He already knew them from his FP1 outing in Barcelona, but having driven the Aston Martin the day before and a Mercedes a few weeks prior, he’d be forgiven for forgetting most of them!
“So from him sitting down to him getting in the car, it was about getting as much quality information into him as possible.”
George (pictured right), briefs Nyck ahead of FP3
James added: “The main things you are looking at are trying to get him up to speed with the operational side of the steering wheel, how to drive our particular car in terms of switches, procedures and so on.
“The next thing is the driver fit; there was quite a difference in size between the two drivers so there was a lot of work for the mechanics to take on.
“From our side, there was also a legal standpoint in terms of driver weight and ballast, car mass and weight distribution so this needed additional input that we wouldn’t ordinarily be doing before FP3.”
Nyck and James worked together for the first time in Monza
Whilst all this was going on, in the background our communications team were having to quickly turn around a statement to share with the world’s press, and our fans of course.
However, the media had already gotten a sniff that a change might be in the offing, with many starting to gather outside our motorhome, as Dominique shared.
“There was a bit of tension in the air from the moment I walked into the motorhome as Alex hadn’t arrived yet.
“We got the intel that he was sick, then all of a sudden Nyck walked in the room and headed straight for Jost [Capito]’s office before it all happened pretty quickly.
“Almost instantly we had a couple of people say they’d just seen Nyck walking into our garage holding boots, so we had to push back and asked them to wait for a release coming soon.
“I headed into the marketing room to send off the final release and within a couple of minutes, all the broadcasters were filming outside our motorhome, so a couple of members of our team went out to answer any additional questions, but the release had it all in it.
“I quickly pulled together a schedule so Nyck could glance at it, and briefly explained where he had to go and what to expect, everything down to sorting his dinner with our chefs was covered!”
"Almost instantly we had a couple of people say they’d just seen Nyck walking into our garage holding boots."
Nyck drew in media attention all weekend
And just like that, it was time for Nyck to climb into what was to be his machine for the remainder of the weekend.
Having already completed two practice sessions, the team roughly knew how best to be set up for the race ahead, it was now just a case of getting the 27-year-old ready ahead of Qualifying.
“Run plan wise, it changed a little bit but not a massive amount,” James explained, adding: “We decided that rather than get Nyck accustomed to the high fuel, we’d just focus on the qualifying.
“So we extended that run which adjusted the lead time slightly. We decided to worry about qualifying and sort the high fuel running and the tyre management out on Sunday, almost on the fly.
“Setup wise, we had got up and running reasonably well in FP1, and made some changes to FP2 which were small changes, but ultimately not preferred so we went back to FP1 settings.
“Having already had Alex in the car and running relatively comfortably, we thought we were in decent shape in terms of setup and didn’t need to change anything for Nyck.
“There’s a certain way to drive our car, let’s say, and we just needed to factor that in so Nyck could get up to speed which we did. It was a busy day… a busy two days in the end!”
In the moments before pulling out of the garage, Ben recalls how all the mechanics working on what was Alex’s car rallied around in support of Nyck to ensure he was as relaxed as possible on what was quickly becoming one of the craziest weekends of the Dutchman’s career.
“Because you’ve got a new driver in there, you don’t know how he’s going to react as it was a big moment for him.
“We were all behind him, we all made a conscious effort to make him comfortable, making sure the seat and belts are right, but not rushing him around – you’ve got to put yourself in his shoes, it must have been a bit daunting.”
"We were all behind him, we all made a conscious effort to make him comfortable."
Kats and Ben share a moment in the garage
The time had come for Nyck to enter the fray in FP3, and his Race Engineer James was quickly adjusting to his new man in the cockpit and set for a busy session on the radio.
“I wasn’t in Spain when he did the FP1 session in Alex’s car, so it was my first time working with him.
“It was mainly a session spent giving him feedback, mostly on the switches and the steering wheel functions, and then it was a case of letting him get to grips with the car.
“Given he was jumping in on a Saturday, time restraints were such that he had to acclimatise to the car rather than us drastically changing the setup for him.”
George added that although Nyck had already competed in three FP1 sessions in 2022, he’d have undertaken some tasks that he hadn’t done before, sharing: “Driving in FP1 is very different to a race, so some procedures he covered with us back in Barcelona don’t matter in the Grand Prix.
“An example would be race starts. I’m not sure he did many, if any, with us in Spain so we managed to squeeze four practice starts in before he did it for real in the race.
“The focus between FP3 and Quali shifted from us telling Alex how we expect the race will go as we would usually do, to teaching Nyck how a typical race goes and what he should expect.
“To be fair to Nyck, there was a lot of information being given to him and he absorbed most of it.”
"Time restraints were such that Nyck had to acclimatise to the car rather than us drastically changing the setup for him.”
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After FP3 and Qualifying, it was time for race day and, as Nyck would later admit himself, he was a little nervous ahead of his maiden F1 Grand Prix.
As Dominique explains, steps were taken to limit Nyck’s media engagements on Sunday, but as was the demand to hear from him, some interviews were undertaken on the go.
“On Sundays, we typically try to limit any media activity – after all, we all know what Alex is like – so we try to leave them alone.
“It shifted from a lot of scheduled commitments to spontaneous requests. Unsurprisingly we had a lot of Dutch media wanting to interview him, so he did a walking interview on the way to the Drivers’ Parade.”
Dominique managed Nyck’s media commitments all weekend
Soon it was time for Nyck to cut out the noise and focus on the task at hand, and George offered an insight into how the engineers changed their approach to make it as smooth as possible.
“There’s already a lot of information our regular drivers have to consume going into the race, so we thought about how we’d handle it for Nyck as we wanted to give him the correct information, but also not overload him.
“So our messaging was only critical things, for example, we can’t talk to him on the formation lap, so he needed to know what to do on his own here.
“The rest of the race, if anything was to go wrong, we can chat to him. It was always about giving him small bits of critical information that he can absorb, and luckily Monza is one of the better tracks to do this at because the straights are long and the management was fairly low, and when you’re stuck in a DRS train, it’s fairly good for keeping position.”
And we all know how Nyck’s F1 debut went. An enthralling Grand Prix finished behind the Safety Car with NdV claiming a hugely impressive P9 and two points for the team.
His body, in particular his shoulders, finally had an opportunity to relax, something that would later come to haunt him when it was time to exit the car.
"It was always about giving him small bits of critical information that he can absorb."
Ben, alongside Gorka, were heading down to Parc Fermé as per usual, but it quickly became more than their usual task of cooling the car down.
“The message came from Dave Redding, our Team Manager, that Nyck was so tired that he couldn’t get out.
“We had to put a request into the FIA to go into Parc Fermé early because normally you have to wait until every car is back.
“We were allowed in a bit earlier, we ran up to the car and he literally couldn’t lift his hands above the wheel, bless him.
“We had to take his gloves off and headrest out and gave him a minute. We lifted him up, luckily he is only about 60kg so it wasn’t too bad, and then he just stood there for a couple of minutes soaking it all in.
“He took his helmet off and we gave him the old fireman's lift over the side and away he went. I think he was speechless, but he was buzzing.”
"I think he was speechless, but he was buzzing.”
Nyck manages to lift his shoulders for a hug with the boss, Jost Capito
Nyck may have bagged points on his F1 debut, but the hard work wasn’t done there. He was a man in demand amongst the media and Dominique was all set for a busier than usual post-race.
“It was so much different from a normal weekend. I did say to Nyck ‘how are you feeling, do you want to stop?’ And his response was ‘nope, let’s do it all!’ So he was happy and encouraged to do everything, which made my life easier on what was a big day for him.
“We did everything, everyone wanted to talk to him, so we did another six broadcast interviews in addition to the TV and written pens.”
A jubilant Nyck speaks to Sky Sports’ Ted Kravitz and Damon Hill after his first-ever F1 Grand Prix
“Then there was a radio interview in the US, he did a Dutch written media session right after plus a Dutch broadcast session for those that couldn’t go in the pen, so there was heaps and heaps of media for him.
“On top of that, he had to go to the stewards! Dave Redding came down to the TV pen and collected us, and even after that, there were yet more media requests!
“Finally it was to the front of the garage for a picture which was really nice. I think he appreciated that, and I’m sure the team did as well.”
And that concludes our inside story from Nyck’s whistlestop F1 debut, and just provides yet another example of this sport being all about the team.
There’s no ‘i’ in team (or Nyck). We couldn’t have done it without each and every one of you.
Off Grid | Watch what went down behind the scenes in Monza