Home Featured Why the Dan Ticktum conundrum isn’t what you expect

Why the Dan Ticktum conundrum isn’t what you expect

by Elliot Wood

Photos: Getty Images

On race pace alone, Dan Ticktum should be in the thick of the Formula 2 title fight. Instead, he’s a very distant 10th in the points. He’s certainly a better driver than ever, so what’s stopped him from being at the front?

Formula Scout’s latest lengthy chat with DAMS Formula 2 rookie Dan Ticktum starts in much the same way the previous ones have, asking him what’s changed for him as a driver since the last time we spoke.

“Well, I’m more mature and rounder. I think being in a category as high up as F2, everything’s a lot more serious,” he says.

“Stuff off the track as well. You’ve just got to step up basically, it’s as simple as that. And I feel like a lot of people still judge me for the wrong reasons but I wouldn’t say I’m particularly different, I’m just slightly more mature, basically.”

The last time Formula Scout did speak to Ticktum in-depth was on the weekend of his racing return in 2019, as he joined the Formula Regional European Championship field after being dropped from his Super Formula seat and by Red Bull. The spell in between his very public sacking and his low-key return was a difficult one, but provided the time for him to make plans for 2020. One of first of those to come to fruition was a return to the Formula 1 junior fold, this time with Williams.

“When I got dropped [by Red Bull], for about two weeks I did nothing and tried hard to not let it affect me. Then after that, we made a decision: are we going to keep going in motorsport, or not? Are we going to keep going for F1, or, what sort of plan?

“So we thought there’s no harm in contacting basically every F1 team. We approached all of them in a slightly different way. Most of the teams said they wanted to see me perform well in F2 before they did anything. We had interest from more or less everyone, actually, but they just wanted to see a good season in F2 first. There was Williams and one other who was keen to take me on straight away, but Williams just offered a better package basically. A more likely chance of being in one of their F1 cars in the next couple of years. That’s why we decided to go there.”

Like F2 rivals and Williams stablemates Jack Aitken and Roy Nissany, there were plans for Ticktum to contest a F1 free practice session this year. But the coronavirus pandemic’s shake-up of the F1 calendar put that plan on the back shelf.

He holds an official simulator role with the team, similar to the position he was highly regarded for at Red Bull, but his focus so far has been more on “sim data and general correlation” and time even doing that has been slashed by the pandemic.

F1’s paddock ‘bubble’ system for reducing COVID-19’s spread has meant Ticktum has not been able to interact with Williams during F2 race weekends either, which “is a bit annoying” for the 21-year-old. However, this has freed more time all round for him to concentrate on his own race efforts with F2’s reigning champion team.

“It did feel a little bit [like coming home]. I’ve got to say thank you to DAMS and to [team manager] Francois Sicard for giving me the opportunity to be able to race for a top team in F2. Because I think I may have got a seat in F2, but with respect, maybe not in a top team. So I was very, very happy to get that seat. Not surprised, but just happy.

“I think because of what I did for them, like in GP3, they sort of knew the real me, whereas a lot of people still don’t.”

Ticktum took a podium with DAMS in a part-time GP3 campaign in 2017, and subtituted for the ill Nicholas Latifi in F2 pre-season testing in 2018. At the start of this season, Sicard said Ticktum had become a “mature sportsman” since his return. Had Ticktum actually changed his approach for the new year, or was it just people looking past his reputation and picking up on an approach that had been present for a far longer time?

“More of the latter I would say,” admits Ticktum. “It’s just people starting to actually realise I’m not what I was when I was 15.

“What I did when I was 15 was a mistake. I wasn’t a particularly bad person then. But it was just what I did was a mistake.

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

“Unfortunately, my reputation has been that ever since. But I mean, it’s life. The more teams I go to and the more people seem to realise sort of what I’m about, and that I do work hard with the team when I need to, and everything like that. Noel Miller actually made the best saying to sum up what people view of me: A lot of people talk about me, but no one talks to me.”

This was evident when F2 broadcasted one of Ticktum’s radio messages during racing at Silverstone, and led to snowballing controversy before he even knew it had been shared with the world.

“Yeah, as soon as I breath down the mic I’m immediately on air to everyone. That’s fair enough.”

As Ticktum has found out on several occassions, motorsport’s fairly unique ability to constantly have a microphone under athlete’s noses can be beneficial or costly.

“I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but it’s just part of sport. It’s part of wanting to win, you’re not just going to take things lying down, are you?”

It’s not just racing now where what he’s saying on the microphone is under scrutiny, as Ticktum is one of several high-profile drivers continiously streaming their Esports exploits. The problem? “The life of a gamer is very different. And what sponsors look for in a gamer, versus a driver, are two very different things.”

He’s gathered a growing fanbase as a result, but “I’ve got to be careful how I play it” with being himself online.

The past is already a well-trodden topic, but it does bring to mind a piece of advice Ticktum recieved from Fusion Motorsport boss Dan Hazlewood during a particularly spicy rivalry in his karting years, that he still sticks to now:

The more you think about other people, the more of your pie you give to them.

You need to keep the whole pie to perform at your best. The more you’re thinking about other people, or your rivals, the less you’re going to perform.

“I think it’s a great way to think of it. You’ve only got to focus on ticking your own boxes and improving yourself.”

While Ticktum has undoubtedly improved his performances and public image since his frustrating three-race Super Formula spell with Team Mugen in 2019, it’s actually a problem potentially recurring from his time in Japan that is of most interest.

Here are Ticktum’s words from 2019: “[Mugen] were saying I need to maybe change my driving style a little bit. I can see maybe I could have improved a bit [in that direction], obviously a driver can always improve…

“I honestly don’t feel like it’s the style at all [linked to poor results].

“Essentially the first two to three rounds is about which team has the best baseline set-up, and we unfortunately didn’t have a great baseline set-up.”

The series’ Yokohama rubber demands a specific warm-up procedure, and what teams have found since the latest car’s 2019 introduction is it’s easy to fall into a set-up that either never fully brings the tyre to its peak, or induces steep late-race wear over a long stint. That Mugen’s current Red Bull-backed rookie has remarked about set-up quandaries is no surprise.

Here are Ticktum’s words a year later, talking about something very similar in how Pirelli’s new 18-inch rim tyres in F2 respond to his driving style:

Photo: Dutch Photo Agency

“I’m very smooth. One thing that DAMS has been going on a lot about this year is I need to put more ‘spin’ in. It’s not like wheelspin, it’s like in the middle of the corner and stuff, because I’m just too smooth in some cases, which works out very well for the races.

“In terms of the overall tyre, the driving style hasn’t really had to have changed as such from last season to this season. I’ve driven the old car as well with the old rims, and it’s not a different driving style really. The key thing is just whether you switch the tyre on or not. Some teams can, and some can’t. And unfortunately DAMS this year just haven’t got their head around it yet.

“We’re good for the races, but we don’t switch the softer compounds on in qualifying at all. It’s frustrating.”

Where DAMS and Ticktum loses positions in qualifying – his average starting spot is 9.5 and his absolute single-lap pace is 12th best in the field – he has the pace to gain them in the races. At least when cars are still within overtaking distance after the first three or four laps of each race where his qualifying issues are repeated as he tries to feed heat into the tyres.

“The warm-up’s very important. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s just been the same really with tyres for a long time. It’s the difference between the core and the surface and how you warm it up and how quickly. And how much you brake. There’s a few factors.”

To feel the benefit of the trade-off between qualifying and race pace, his strength in the latter ideally needs to be from the off.

“I think we’re one of the fastest cars in the races. But then, for me, you need a different car for qualifying and the race. Or one that definitely stresses the tyre in a different way than the one in the race does. We largely struggle in the first three, four laps of the race as well, which is very similar to obviously why we lack in qualifying.

“Once the core temperature and the pressure’s up, then they’re sort of there. But it seems to take us longer.”

It’s clear that Ticktum has expected himself and DAMS to have got on top of this issue quicker. He was talking about it during the opening two rounds at the Red Bull Ring – a circuit he puts at the bottom of the scale for working the tyres hard – and he summarises its wider impact here: “I need to be able to qualify well otherwise I’m not going to win a championship.”

There was only one pre-season test, held at the tyre-cruel Bahrain, and the running there could have masked the warm-up issues. Had there been a second at a circuit with different demands, Ticktum believes DAMS could have “more accurately plotted which direction the tyre changed” compared to its 13-inch predecessor.

“That’s why we’ve seen some teams dominate some rounds, and then been terrible in others,” he adds. “There’s been 11 race-winners in F2. It’s a bit all over the place for that reason. I wouldn’t say anyone’s nailed it, but there’s obviously been teams that have been more consistent throughout than others.”

And the numbers are atonishing when you look at the difference between Ticktum’s race and qualifying pace. Yes, nobody in F2 or the supporting FIA Formula 3 Championship this year has been able to regularly qualify and race at the front – it’s likely that both series will crown champions without front row starts to their name – but it hasn’t cost them as it has Ticktum.

Taking a 10-lap rolling average to calculate race pace, rather than drivers’ individual fastest lap, then Ticktum started the season as the fourth, second and then third fastest driver across the three dry races at the Red Bull Ring, and also struck up a strong relationship with his highly-rated engineer Damien Augier.

Next up was the Hungaroring, where he did qualify fourth – albeit in a wet session. Again, he was third fastest on race pace.

Starting from 12th for the first of the Silverstone races, combined with an opening few laps of little progress, led to an early pitstop that put him to the back. His comeback drive to eighth earned pole for the sprint race, where he took his first win.

“That [win] was great. It was definitely the highlight of the year. It was just one of those great races. I thought it was going to get taken away from me with the whole safety car, virtual safety car stuff. I was just thinking ‘here we go, here’s my luck again’.

“Someone’s going to pit, and we’re not, and then I nearly did get taken by Christian Lundgaard, and I was just so happy that that didn’t happen. Because I’d pulled away like four seconds or something, and just managed the race very well.”

The qualifying gains made for the second Silverstone round and trip to Barcelona came at the expense of more wear on two typically high-degredation tracks, which compounded Ticktum to the fringes of the points.

In the eight races since, Ticktum has scored just 18 points and had an average starting spot outside of the top 10. Yet he’s been one of the quickest on track over a stint: fifth fastest in the Spa-Francorchamps feature race, fourth and then fastest of anyone in the feature and sprint races at Monza, and a similar sixth and first fastest at Mugello.

In Sochi’s feature race, the only one there to run to full distance, he was 14th fastest. The statistics here are skewed in that some drivers pitted with 10 laps to go, and others – like Ticktum – pitted with only nine left to run.

Taking his nine-lap average, dividing by nine and then multiplying it by 10 to create a hypothetical 10-lap value shows him as being third fastest, just 1.132s (or 0.1%) off pace-setter and championship leader Mick Schumacher.

But take his genuine long-run number from Sochi, and Ticktum is still comfortably the third fastest driver in races this season. Virtuosi Racing’s Callum Ilott leads the way on 100.424%, (a percentage representation of the distance from the average race pace across all rounds), with Prema’s Robert Shwartzman on 100.635% and Ticktum on 100.641%.

If you break it down further circuit-by-circuit, it gets even more interesting. Monza is one of the easiest on the tyres, so it’s no surprise 10th place was the best Ticktum could qualify. He and substituting team-mate Juri Vips were able to take their tyres longer into the feature race than almost anyone else though, and Ticktum then romped to sprint race victory before a faulty fuel tank – a spec component – got him disqualified. The tyre trade-off was evident.

Mugello was at the opposite end of the scale, where the high loads of the circuit’s flowing layout totally minimised DAMS’ warm-up issue and in qualifying Ticktum and Vips were second and seventh fastest. While degradation hit everyone in the races, Ticktum was hurt less. But clashes, as well as a poor strategy call, meant he left Tuscany with two 17th places.

Sochi told the same story, but in a very different way. The dirty, low-grip surface of the street circuit means there’s more lateral sliding and lock-ups, and what tends to be the case is the front tyres can end up too cold, and don’t grip as you enter a corner, while the rears can be overheating by the stop-start final sector and cause further sliding. A smooth style helps the latter, especially over a race. It doesn’t help the former, especially during qualifying.

Ticktum’s qualifying result? 17th. His feature race result? 10th, with the points for fastest lap, and the impressive race pace already mentioned. The man himself explains:

“It’s what you’d expect, really. The way we bring the tyre in is a lot more progressive. So we progressively get to the peak, or we don’t ever quite peak it – which is why we’re not good in qualifying – but we get close to it but then the longevity of the ‘peak’ is longer. It’s like look after the tyre better, overall. It just lasts longer, it’s as simple as that.

“I’m pretty good at looking after the tyre, with the smoothness and everything, and the braking, and what you do with the brake bias and how to control locking. All that stuff.

“I wasn’t great at the start, but I’ve got very good towards the end of the season, which is why I’m always strong in race pace. Even in Sochi where I qualified 17th, I had the fastest lap in the race or something. I mean that says it all really.”

And if DAMS can’t solve the issue, then it links back to the same debate that arose in Japan, because clearly something has to change for a driver who is regularly matching those fighting for the title but scoring only half of the points.

Ticktum’s plan is to stay in F2 in 2021, and have a seat at one of the “four top teams”, so maybe it’s his driving style he needs to adapt – not his approach or personality – if he wants to be ensure he can be champion.

Further reading
The hall of champions without a front row Piastri joins from FIA F3
The timeline of Juri Vips’ F1 superlicence quest
How Nikita Mazepin made a turn in his career development
Crunching the numbers at F2’s mid-season mark
How Ilott became F2’s self-confessed title favourite
Shwartzman and Schumacher on returning Prema to F2 greatness
Dan Ticktum on the story of his Red Bull exit