BY MARTIN WALSH
A WEST Cork engineer was at the very heartbeat of Max Verstappen’s explosive Formula 1 Championship victory in Abu Dhabi recently.
Almost 5,000 miles from his native Kilmore near Innishannon, Michael Manning was trackside in Abu Dhabi monitoring Verstappen’s Red Bull Racing car and ensuring that the Honda engine was, dare we say it, performing to the ‘max.’
In what was one of the most exciting F1 finales in decades and after 21 races, 3,791 racing miles, not to mention several stewards’ investigations, it all came down to the last race where Verstappen and his British rival Lewis Hamilton, racing with Mercedes, were tied on points at the top of the table. However, Verstappen had the edge insofar he had nine race wins to his credit, one more than seven-time F1 champion Hamilton.
Fittingly, it was dubbed the ‘Duel in the Desert’ and with millions of new fans via the Netflix series, Drive to Survive, it was epic.
Verstappen secured pole on the Saturday evening but on the Sunday, Hamilton got the Dutchman off the line. But in a season that’s delivered drama upon drama, we didn’t have to wait too long for more. Verstappen dived down into Turn 6 and Hamilton was forced wide, cutting the chicane and moving back into the lead. The stewards judged he didn’t have to hand the lead back to Verstappen. Many disagreed, but it’s been that type of season.
Things settled and Hamilton appeared to be on his way to title number eight. With ten laps remaining, Red Bull chief Christian Horner remarked ‘We are going to need a miracle.’ And in the craziest of seasons, it came in the shape of Nicholas Latifi crashing his Williams into a wall with just five laps remaining.
The safety car was deployed. Verstappen quickly pitted for a change of tyres, Hamilton stayed out and marshals were still clearing the debris. When Verstappen re-joined the track, there were five cars between himself and Hamilton. More drama followed when race director Michael Masi changed his mind allowing the five lapped cars to overtake the safety car bringing about a direct shoot-out between Hamilton and Verstappen.
Tensions increased and when racing resumed Verstappen, with fresh soft tyres, went ahead. Although the duo almost touched, the Dutchman went on to take the chequered flag and the F1 title. Mercedes protested but both were rejected by the stewards.
During the race, 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen bowed out in what was his 349th and final Formula 1 Grand Prix when he careered into the Turn 6 runoff. Back in 2000, in Formula Renault, he and Ballygurteen’s Michael Keohane were team-mates with the Manor Motorsport outfit.
Meanwhile, Red Bull Racing, Verstappen and Michael (known locally as Micheál) Manning were celebrating. So too were his family in Innishannon. Following National School in Garranes, Michael, who has been with Red Bull Racing for 11 years, attended St Brogan’s College in Bandon and went on to secure an engineering degree at the Cork Institute of Technology. His first job was with Jordan F1 and even though it was sold within a year, he remained with its successors for about five years.
It was another while before he found his niche with Red Bull where, as the team’s Trackside Control Engineer, he is involved with data analysis and writing software programmes related to transmission. In essence, he ensures the car performs to the maximum and, above all, is safe. Of course that’s a simplistic view. Working with his fellow engineers, team boss and F1 stars is all part of the equation. They are in unison on their aims and ambitions – to be the best and they achieved their goal. Time to celebrate for sure, but the countdown to the new F1 season – new rules, new generation of cars aimed at more exciting racing and increased competition – has begun. As if it couldn’t get better, Michael Manning may tell us.