A number of people have asked me to explain about old fashioned lap-charting and why I do it, in an age where there is endless digital information. The problem with all of this, I find, is that one needs to spend hours putting it all together to create the story when an old fashioned lap chart tells you everything in one go. It also means that you have a total understanding of the race, the moment it ends, so that you can write instant reports about events – and ask the drivers the right questions.
I note from various reports that some of the newspaper men found the Malaysian race confusing. I found the whole thing to be very simple and clear. In Malaysia, a journalist came up and me and said: “There must have been 100 overtaking moves in that race”, to which I was able to reply within 30 seconds: “No, there were 17, where drivers passed one another during a lap, not including the first lap, and not including repassing moves on the same lap as the original pass”.
Lap-charting is a dying art. It is labour-intensive and requires total concentration but it also means that one is control of all situations, particularly when the screens freeze, or when there are errors made (which do happen). You need to be able to instantly recognise the cars as they pass. There is no time for “Um.. Was that Hamilton or Button?” A split-second distraction can throw a lap-chart into chaos. I tend to use a vertical lap chart, which means that the cars are listed vertically on a page. One can do it horizontally, but I find that the natural way of listing is to go down a page. The grid positions are listed vertically on the left side and the lap numbers run along the top of the chart. By reading across the chart on the top line you can see who led the race on any given lap. A horizontal chart gives the grid order at the top and the number of the lap on the left side, with each lap being recorded across the page. Thus by reading down the page on the scribbled chart, you can see who was leading on a given lap.
At the top left of the chart the first lap is recorded. The next column is the second lap, and so on.
A list of numbers does not tell the whole story; it does not indicate the gaps between the cars or any incidents that might occur. So lap charters develop their own personal systems to record the action on a given lap. On my personal chart there are different marks and squiggles each of which record a particular point. If a car is catching the one in front, for example, I will often put an arrow. When cars are close together this becomes a line. When cars are nose to tail, there may be two lines to indicate a battle. If there are three lines m it usually indicates that an accident is about to happen as the fight is getting out of control. You will also see small horizontal lines in places between numbers, which indicate gaps, although I do not always include these. A circled number indicates a car which has pitted. A puff of smoke beside a number indicates that a car has blown up or is trailing smoke. A circular arrow around a number or initials indicate a spin and beside it are scrawled words “NK stopped” means that Narain Karthikeyan retired from a race. “MS off” means that Michael Schumacher ran wide. When there is a passing manoeuvre I tend to put in a pair of crossed lines so I can see what happened on what lap.
There are times, but not always – when I will write FL above a number, indicating that the driver in question has set the fastest of a race. It isn’t always tidy, but the system gives you a film of the race with the incidents highlighted. It is from this that a race report will be developed. At the bottom of the chart you see a line which indicates the cars that have been lapped, or in some cases, lapped twice. At the top of the chart above the lap number one sees two numbers: the bottom one indicates the gap from the leader to the second place, the top one indicates the gap from second to third. You will see that these tend to stop during pit stop sequences because it is impossible to gauge the actual gaps.
On the first page of the chart on the right side, you will see a box for “START” and below it “LAP ONE”. This tends to get very messy as one is simply writing the order at various places on the lap. Thus one can see “SV, LH, JB” as the order coming off the line. Then below that a note that says “NH.VP outside”. Below that there is “NH 2nd. LH. JB.VP 2 Ferraris FM. FA.” Below that “MW 9th”. And there you have the story of the first lap in just a few scrawled phrases.
Doing lap charts is not easy. It takes a lot of practice. In the old days we did it from grandstands and other such vantage points but today it is done in the press room, with the help of live timing, although when the computers go wrong I will be seen running to a window (if the Press Centre actually has one) to see the order on the track. It is a job that needs a cool head, because it you lose track it is very hard to get it back.
Why bother? Because it means that one is away of every battle being fought all the way down through the field. It tells you who did well and who did not, which does not always show up on the results and it enables one to understand the different strategies and even to predict when pit stops will happen.
As far as I am concerned it is a vital tool for any F1 journalist, but there are probably only a few who still do it…