JEREZ, Spain (Reuters) - Every corner is blind for Charaf-Eddine Ait Taleb.
How a corner sounds matters more to the 29-year-old French Formula One fan, who lost his sight 10 years ago due to a genetic condition, than any controversy over the new “ugly” noses on the 2012 cars.
A familiar face at European racetracks last year, the Parisian physio felt his way around the Jerez test paddock as a guest of Lotus Wednesday while listening out for the sounds of a new season with its changed exhaust regulations.
The blown diffusers and forward-facing exhausts that provided an audible point of reference last year have gone, replaced by new systems that he hopes will make individual driver styles more evident.
“This year it will be more fun, I think,” he said, although work commitments may keep him away from races.
“I love to be in the pit lane and the key corners,” he told Reuters in the Williams motorhome over the roar of engines. “I go to the corner where you need to brake because I love to hear the gearbox, pum, pum, pum. When you are near it is fantastic, you feel it in your body,” he said.
“When I was in Monza I loved to be at Parabolica. You can hear the different style of driver. Some drivers arrive so quick and brake, and during the braking they turn in. Some brake more early to take the apex earlier and leave more quickly.
“At Silverstone, they have changed everything so last year I stayed in the paddock. But I would like to have heard Maggots, Becketts and Copse.
“And Stowe, where Michael (Schumacher) crashed 11 years ago. I love this place because I remember when I could see.”
Ait Taleb travels to races on low-cost airlines and public transport, usually taking a tent to camp within easy distance of the paddock.
He has been turning up since 2005, when he approached Schumacher at Spa to hand him a bracelet with the words “Through your eyes I can see” written on it in German. Despite his busy schedule, the then-Ferrari driver took time out to talk.
The Frenchman has since been embraced by the Formula One community, with teams and drivers helping him gain access to the paddock and garages and giving him the inside track.
In November, David Coulthard and champions Red Bull gave him a go in their factory simulator.
“I was sitting in the cockpit with the gearbox and David touched the wheel. I was doing Monza, Monza is easier because it has a lot of straights. The chicanes are harder than I had expected,” he explained.
At the racetrack, he is as plugged in as any fan with Twitter on his mobile through a voice application.
“When you are blind, if you love anything you can do it. When you hear the radio, everyone is blind,” he said. “I have the radio and I have on my phone the voice application so I know all the data, lap by lap, the gap between first and second etc.”
Sometimes, he observes wryly, those blessed with full vision notice less than he does.
Last year, while walking with one hand on a friend’s arm and holding his cane in the other, he was mistaken at the Spanish Grand Prix for McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton.
“They came to me and asked for an autograph,” he laughed.
Editing by Ed Osmond