Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Swept Wing Gets Swept Aside

An interesting development today was Red Bull's innovative approach to the new swept front wing regulations. In a move to apparently make the front wing less sensitive to dirty air and improve overtaking, the FIA require the edges of the front wing offset back from the leading edge, so creating a sweep of 12.5 degrees. Red Bull have gone to the extreme with this new intricate front wing design featuring straight edges adjoined delicately by the central neutral section. We don't know if this design is fully legal, but it looks to have achieve walking around the regulations in the quest for a straighter flow of air. The front of the RB13 is already interesting with its 'mouth', which improves airflow and the efficiency of the floor.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Biggest Winner and Loser - Week 1 Circuit de Catalunya

After the first week of testing it's too early to draw definitive conclusions over the coming season's pecking order. We do however get an insight, notably who has made a big step and who has dropped an absolute clanger..

Winner - Ferrari

Sebastian Vettel completed the opening day just 0.113 seconds slower than Lewis Hamilton's fastest time in the Mercedes. When you consider this was set on the soft tyre compound apposed to Hamilton's super softs, the new SF70-H looks quick. The following day Kimi Raikkonen took the helm of the Ferrari and was 0.023 seconds quicker than the Mercedes with the same tyre compounds. While we don't know for sure if the car was being run light on fuel, the Ferrari still looks like the hot ticket this season. Its times through the week were also consistent and Gary Anderson's track side observations report back on the SF70-H being the most balanced and stable looking through the bends. Even rivals Redbull have looked skittish and the Mercedes more hesitant to turn-in. The extreme sidepod design and barge boards seem to have materialised into great aerodynamic performance. 

Loser - Mclaren Honda

Snowball affect -  a process that starts from an initial state of small significance and builds upon itself, becoming larger (graver, more serious), and also perhaps potentially dangerous or disastrous (a vicious circle, a "spiral of decline")

Back in 2014 Ron Dennis applied pressure to upcoming partners Honda, requesting their engine be ready for the following season. The Japanese manufacturer had wanted another year to develop a successful power unit to suit the new regulations. McLaren were still hurting from their loss of major title sponsor Vodafone and so Dennis was eager his new partnership kick started life back into the brand as soon as possible. This ultimately cost him his job and 2015 became McLaren's worst points finish in 35 years. The Honda engine was the worst on the grid, with a 'size zero' brief leading to an over-ambitious design that didn't deliver. A tight axial compressor turbo embedded in the V of the engine struggled to generate power. To further compound issues the energy recovery simply couldn't deliver full power over a long straight.

Although Honda worked hard to improve things in 2016 McLaren are still no where near the position their heritage and size of operation should reflect. Honda's new chief  Yusuke Hasegawa has overseen a redesign of the entire engine concept for the new season. The engine features a split turbo design more in line with Mercedes, with the turbo compressor at the front of the engine at the turbine at the rear. Abandoning a development route means two years of their work on the axial turbo is out of the window. 

Unfortunately for Honda the unit has been problematic. Day 1 saw Fernando Alonso sidelined in the morning with problems with the oil system. The engine was shipped back to Japan for diagnosis which confirmed the issue to be the actual design of the oil tank. To rub salt into the wounds team mate Stoffel Vandoorne's unit suffered a big failure the following day. While head scratching continues, Hasegawa was clearly concerned when pressed on how these events would affect their first race:

 "Oil tank, definitely not. The mechanical issue, I don't know, I'm yet to be confident about that, but of course I worry about that."

While its up to Honda to raise their game McLaren can't blame all its testing woes on the engine. The new MCL32 has looked to lack grip trackside according to Gary Anderson: 

"Through that complex, the McLaren never looked good. Alonso couldn't get hard on the throttle out of Turn 2 - the car just starts moving - and I never saw him go into Turn 3 flat on the throttle. He's either having to lift big time beforehand, or just as he's coming into the corner. It's not understeer, just a lack of grip. McLaren can't really complain about Honda's engine, because there are still horses left in there that they're not using at the minute. It looks OK on the very softest tyres, but on softs and mediums - the most relevant tyres for this track - it's just not there."

Lets hope the Woking team can have even a little turn of fortune in the coming week...

Vandoorne struggles to slow down the MCL32

Sunday, 26 February 2017

F1 2017 Car Launches

Spice Girls at McLaren's glitzy '97 launch

The high-budget glamour enjoyed at car launches 20 years ago are now a distant memory. Gone are the days of pyrotechnics, glitter, celebs and chart topping music acts. Today you're treated to a boardroom presentation via webcam where team principles spout off sales pitch in an attempt to generate sponsor interest. You might even be treated to an interview with an awkward technical director who's social skills akin to a cold raw potato with Asperger syndrome. Thankfully we do get a sneaky peak of the new technology on offer as the latest cars are unveiled and some even take to the track...

Williams FW40

Williams were first to give us a taste of 2017 machinery on February 17th, albeit with a computer rendered image of their new car. While its good to get a perspective of what we can expect in terms of shape and dimensions, its important to remember that this is still a pre-season computer generated image. The team will unlikely want to reveal any trick aerodynamic pieces and we will have to wait until testing to get a better picture.

The new larger tyres are very striking and the wings and aero details hark back to 2008. The new regulations seem to have been successful in making the cars look aggressive, though there is little on paper at least to suggest the racing is going to improve. 

On feature clear on the rendered images is the S duct on the front nose. This should allow the center of the front wing to work more efficiently as well as reducing any lift that the nose generates.

Sauber C36

Last Monday saw Swiss outfit Sauber release images of its new chariot online, the C36. Sporting an attractive blue and gold livery the car carries the aspirations of a team saved from the brink. At last year's penultimate race in Brazil driver Felipe Nasr finished 9th and scored the teams first points in front of his home crowd. One could argue this was the most important 9th place finish in the history of the sport as it leapfrogged the team in front of rivals in the standings. A final championship position of 10th place ensured the team received desperately needed FIA prize money to help revive the team. Much to its detriment rivals Manor did not and sadly went into administration with no buyer. The gates were closed to their Oxfordshire factory on January 6th.

Making a comeback for 2017 is the 'shark fin' engine cover. The fin conditions the air to allow the rear wing to work more efficiently. When the car is steered into corners it also has an affect similar to a boat rudder, producing 'side force' as the face of the fin is rotated into the direction of the air flow. There are some drawbacks which have to be considered by teams, namely making the car very sensitive to crosswinds leading to unruly handling.

Sauber like many teams took advantage of its 'promotional filming day' joker card allowed twice per season. Under the premise of producing video footage of the cars on track and at times following a camera car, the team is allowed 62 miles of running. During this time without doubt engineers are trying their best to squeeze as much credible data out of this session as possible. Wind tunnels and computer fluid dynamics are no substitute for reality. The main obstacle is the requirement for the teams to run 'demonstration tyres' that restrict the cornering speed of the cars. The C30 enjoyed a trouble free shake down as it completed its laps around Barcelona on Wednesday.

Renault RS17

A lot of hopes are pinned on the RS17. Realising they were flogging a dead horse with last year's RS16, resources were diverted away to the following year's design with the potential to take advantage of the rules shake up. Being fortunate enough to visit the factory in Enstone last year I witnessed a positive buzz of determination and focus . This is to be expected after being bought back from the brink with a long term contract and support by Renault. Unlike last year the RS17 doesn't suffer from the low-budget design hangover of the Lotus days. 

Somehow the team wouldn't commit a long term contract with Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer remains in his seat for this year. Highly rated Nico Hulkenberg joins the team looking to break his winless duck and if the new car goes as good as it looks he will be in with a fighting chance. The striking yellow and black livery really draws your eyes to its intricate aerodynamic details. 

As with the Sauber the car features a large shark fin on its engine cover, and beneath the new power unit boasts a predicted 0.3-0.5 seconds improvement over a lap. Renault have clawed their way back from a dismal 2014 power unit and will hope to take the fight to Mercedes this year.

Probably the most striking feature is the wide air intake. Former Jordan designer Gary Anderson drew some similarities to his old car:

"The airbox intake is a different shape to most. It is more of a horizontal opening and a bit like the 1997 Jordan.

That car is 20 years old, but the reasons for doing this don't change. It moves the intake away from the driver's helmet, which being basically spherical is the worst shape you could have to aerodynamically optimise.

This shape allows for a more pronounced undercut between the top of the driver's headrest and the intake, again improving the airflow consistency to the rear wing."

Force India VJM10

Chico and Ocan struggle to find the boot release 

Force India enjoyed a brilliant 2016 season finishing 4th and ahead of rivals Williams. Under guidance of technical director Andrew Green the Silverstone outfit continue to deliver good results on a comparatively small budget.

The new VJM10 is not so pleasing to the eye. Reminiscent of 2012 the car features a step in it's nose. Andrew Green admits this is more function than form:

"We have tried to exploit an area of the front suspension regulations that improved the characteristics of it from a mechanical perspective. It does mean that because of the way the regulations are worded, we cannot merge it into the nose as we would like. There is an exclusion box that we have to respect, so unfortunately we end up with a little bit of a 'forehead', as it is called."

Furthermore the car features an unslightly phallic tip with slots either side. This aims to maximise airflow to the underside at the cost of ugly aesthetics.

Mercedes W08

With mammoth staff levels around 700 and World Championship dominance over the last 3 years no team is in a better position than Mercedes to come up with the goods. The Brackley outfit debuted the W08 at a windy Silverstone on Thursday, enjoying a shake down under the guise of a media day. 

The car features a beautifully packaged coke bottle rear end. As soon as the radiators and cooling systems are packaged the sidepods sweep inwards to maximise free space and therefore efficient air flow. Striking louvres cut into the edge of the floor attempt to keep air from escaping from the underside and should increase the performance of the diffuser. Continuing last year's theme intricate barge boards allow a better transition of air under the floor as well as dealing with the turbulent wake created by the large Pirelli front tyres.

Interestingly the Mercedes didn't feature a huge shark fin engine cover like others. In its place featured a novel 'T wing' which also helps condition airflow and increase performance of the rear wing. It is important to note however that storm Dorris was in full effect and open flat Silverstone seems to be one of the windiest destinations, even on a good day. Could Mercedes simply be not wanting their car to be battered sideways by the strong wings the shark fin is so susceptible to?

Ferrari SF70H

Pressure is mounting at Maranello for the Scuderia to deliver in 2017. Team principle Maurizio Arrivabene endured the embaressment of being outscored and outclassed by Redbull last year. Its hard to see Ferrari wanting anything less than to topple Mercedes at the top. 

Ferrari seem to have gone aggressive with the rear end of the car. Hugely undercut sidepod openings complement a tightly packaged coke bottle rear end. All this can increase the general aerodynamic performance of the car all the way to the front wing if working in harmony. Its certainly something that the other teams will be watching closely. The rest of the package features the now commonplace shark fin and beaky front nose. However in this instance the shark fin also works in conjunction with a T wing for an almost Star Wars look.

McLaren MCL32

The Woking squad are experiencing some of the biggest changes in its long and illustrious history. Ron Dennis was the genius behind McLaren's success who's vision went beyond the world of Formula 1. Forced to step down as chairman in November after boardroom disputes the brand faces a new era in need of direction. American Zak Brown is now in his place and with it comes a new car naming prefix 'MCL', replacing Ron Dennis' 'MP4'. Boldly McLaren ditch the infamous black and red brand colours, replacing the latter with the orange synonymous with the team's early days.

In terms of the launch event McLaren did push the boat in comparison with to the poor effort of others. Orange lighting and lasers illuminated a dark black room as the MCL32 rotated on a platform. Journalist's seating encircled like some sort of sci-fi court room. Unfortunately for the team the new livery wasn't universally accepted by McLaren fans, pointing out its similarity to the failed Spyker team. 

The new car features a striking nose pillar design with four elements each side. This aims at directing the air flow in a similar role to barge boards. The heavily undercut sidepod leading edges are similar to that of the Ferrari though different in shape. The new Honda power unit is new in concept after the previous years failings and will have to cope with reduced cooling that this aggressive design compromises.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

F1 2017 - Wide Of The Mark?

The new season is upon us and the frisson of excitement is beginning to bubble to the surface. Overworked factory staff on often 24 hour rota shifts have been preparing their teams this winter for the biggest technical changes the sport has seen in nearly a decade.

Rosberg shifts focus
Social media and news outlets have been abuzz since the flag went down in Abu Dhabi last November. Newly crowned World Champion Rosberg dramatically threw in the towel with shock retirement. For him the timing felt right, with the opportunity to spend time with his new daughter and bow out beating nemesis Lewis Hamilton. As the doors open for Valtteri Bottas to take his vacant seat, many will still question whether one championship win over rival Hamilton's two is enough to satisfy. Will Nico feel the itch to prove himself in the near future?

The sport is under new ownership as John C Malone's American corporation 'Liberty Media' have purchased the Formula One Group for £3.3 billion. Old dinosaur Bernie Ecclestone has been ousted from the helm and now serves an advisory role. Credited with the meteoric rise in popularity of the sport with astute television contracts the 86 year old failed to understand or embrace the new world of online media content. Asif Kapadia, director of the cult film 'Senna' once recalled a meeting with Ecclestone. While trying to explain the idea of the film with an onboard Youtube clip of Senna tearing it around Monaco, Ecclestone's first reaction was to organise his legal team to shut down the unlicensed video. While unpaid content won't bring in income itself, relaxation of draconian copyright control and intelligent online revenue ideas are desperately needed. With UK fans facing high subscriptions for pay-per view television the sport faces losing a big chunk of its loyal audience. Although still relying on this revenue perhaps the new owners will be better recognise the new media age? Liberty Media's Greg Maffei understands that only 1% of income comes from digital media, stating the sport "really have no organised digital effort, I think there's a lot of things that can be done around gaming, VR and AR."

Greg Maffei (Left), John C Malone (Centre), Ross Brawn (Right)

Making a welcome return is Ross Brawn, appointed by Liberty Media as 'Director of Motorsports'. Few have made a positive impact in racing circles as this man. Originally joining the March GP team in the 70's as a machinist, he soon developed his engineering expertise at various teams through the ages. Joining Bennetton in the early 90's his skills at calling race strategy became recognised as well as his successful bond with a certain Michael Schumacher. Joining Michael in 1997 with a move to Ferrari that lasted nearly a decade, Brawn became part of the most successful era for the Scuderia. In 2007 he became team principle of Honda and a year later faced the harrowing prospect of Honda withdrawing from the sport with no potential buyer. In a heroic last minute effort before the 2009 season, Brawn bought a majority stake in the team. The rest of the ownership was shared between other senior staff members and thousands of jobs were saved. All involved however were fully aware that their car promised to be a giant killer with its 'double diffuser' design. From ending 2008 in 9th place things took a dramatic turn with driver Jenson Button winning the World Championship and the team also winning the Constructors under the name Brawn GP.  It is unlikely that such an amazing feat will ever be repeated in the sport.

Brawn achieving the impossible in 2009
Few can doubt a man more worthy of his new role, and furthermore Ross Brawn understands what makes great racing and what doesn't. 2017 rule changes see cars wider with a more aggressive look reminiscent of times of old - but aerodynamics are going to take an even bigger influence on outright performance. Inheriting these major changes, Brawn is critical:

"The more aerodynamic performance you create, the more sensitive you are to the wake of the car in front. It's not always the case, because the aerodynamics can be profiled and shaped and managed to reduce that impact, but inherently that is the case. So I hope these regulations aren't going to impact the ability of these cars to race together."

The truth is we won't know the definitive answers until the lights go out in Australia on the 26th of March. But as argued in my previous article, the ground affect principle should be developed to produce downforce with less drag. This has the potential to create great racing a fraction of current costs. This idea isn't new but is victim of the politics of modern F1. Top teams with a bigger controlling stake don't want their tree shaken and order changed and want to avoid an outlay of initial investment. Unfortunately the bigger picture means they will continue hemorrhaging development costs as the spectacle continues to suffer.

Wider cars for 2017

It seems the 2017 rules have concentrated on aesthetics and lap times rather than improving the show. The bodywork and floor is a noticeable 200mm wider as well as the rear wing, which is also 150mm lower. There is some increase in ground effect, with the diffuser 50mm higher and wider. Even more striking are the tyres, with the new Pirelli tyres 60mm wider at the front and 80mm wider at the rear. An increase in mechanical grip from the tyres is welcome, but such a big increase in the over body aerodynamic area of the car means more downforce and drag for the following car to deal with. In an attempt to negate this the front wing is further forward with a diagonal leading edge which hopes to be less sensitive to dirty air from the car in front. The wing itself is 150mm wider than 2016. As teams continue to develop this larger front wing we could find overtaking becoming even more difficult through the corners. Its important to note however that DRS will have a bigger affect on increasing speed, meaning overtaking could increase on the straights. But do we want the band aid of DRS generating the racing or more of an emphasis on driver skill though the bends?

With wider tyres and more downforce the cars will be a lot faster. Engineers are predicting 4-5 seconds a lap over the 2016 cars and around 25mph faster through high speed bends. Faster speeds mean higher Gs through corners and a much bigger physical challenge. Driver fatigue will make a welcome return and we will likely see exhausted drivers losing concentration through a race distance.

Driver fatigue is back! Mansell passes out in Dallas'84.

With wider tyres and more downforce the cars will be a lot faster. Engineers are predicting 4-5 seconds a lap over the 2016 cars and around 25mph faster through high speed bends. Faster speeds mean higher Gs through corners and a much bigger physical challenge. Driver fatigue will make a welcome return and we will likely see exhausted drivers losing concentration through a race distance.

The engines remain the same for 2017 but enjoy much more developmental freedom as the token system is abandoned. Each driver will be limited to four engines per season, but new engines can feature developments the supplier has made. These can't be added to existing engines. There are a few additional rules to govern size and weight of components and boost, but generally speaking engineers will enjoy the opportunity to be creative. It seems this is aimed and allowing others the opportunity to break Mercedes dominance. Many fans still hark back to the era of louder naturally aspirated engines. Few who have attended a race of old can forget that aggressive high pitched sound that still made the ground shake. I am one of those but after attending Silverstone testing last year and witnessing the turbo era machinery for the first time - I was surprised. While I still am nostalgic it was certainly more loud than expected. They also added some of their own individual drama with whooshing turbo and hybrid sounds. I've accepted that this is the future of the sport and its time to move on.

The big changes to the technical rule book could allow other teams to break the dominance of Mercedes. The Brackley team will still enjoy the biggest resources and staff levels but it will only take one clever idea or interpretation of the rules by rivals for the pecking order to drastically change. As mentioned previous, Brawn GP took this opportunity with the 2009 rule changes with its double diffuser design, much to the annoyance and protest of rivals. With such big aerodynamic changes and the general levelling out of engine performance between suppliers last year, its unlikely we won't see at least a few teams taking a leap in 2017. But in terms of racing will the bigger, wider cars really bring us an improved spectacle on the race track?

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Hamilton and Rosberg's Nightmare in Barcelona - Who Was To Blame?

As the dust settles from the scintillating Spanish Grand Prix the internet is alight with praise for Max Verstappen's brilliant win at only 18 years old. Yet one can't but notice the massive stir over the most contentious issue in a long time. Who was at fault - Lewis or Nico?

Carnage at Turn 4 for the Mercedes duo

Unless you've had your head buried under the sand you will be aware that both championship contenders didn't even negotiate a full lap before making contact with each other and plunging into the gravel trap. An attempted overtake from Lewis Hamilton on Nico Rosberg heading into the braking zone of Turn 4 ended in disaster for Mercedes.

What Happened? 

Nico's red rain light signifies he is harvesting mode
From lights out the two silver cars immediately locked horns. Lewis' big move off line to defend ultimately allowed Nico to have better momentum into Turn 1 and take the lead. As both began to exit long sweeping right hander of Turn 3 Nico's rear rain light began to flash - his car had entered harvesting mode. With the recent ban on radio instructions from the pit wall its now up to the driver to make sure the car is configured in the correct settings off the grid. Nico didn't do this, his power unit hadn't harvested enough energy on the way to the grid meaning at some point on the first lap he would get a drop in performance. This energy is worth around 160-180hp, equivalent to a swift family saloon or sporty hatchback. This happened through Turn 3 which gave Lewis a 17kph (11 mph) advantage. Nico's reaction was to make a adjustment on the steering wheel to select the correct engine mode and hit the overtake button for maximum power available.

Lewis smelt blood and decisively went for the gap on the inside of the circuit. As Nico began to close the door Lewis' front wing was alongside. However, Nico continued to close the door forcing Lewis onto the grass leading him to lose control and make race-ending contact for the both of them as he rejoined the circuit.

Lewis squeezed onto the grass

Who Was At Fault?

Team boss Toto Wolff stated the blame was equal and immediate driver/team meetings took place after the incident. It was clear from the post-race interviews of Lewis and Nico that their hand's were tied around their back - the official line was to accept the stewards decision of a "racing incident". However social media was ablaze with debate, often negated by whether you were team Lewis or Nico previously. Through this emotional storm you need to navigate your way to a logical answer. This all depends on your 'racing philosophy' of course...

Mercedes bigwig Niki Lauda was first to throw his hat into the ring, labelling Lewis' actions as "Stupid".

“It’s very simple for me. It was a miscalculation in Lewis’s head. I blame him more than Nico. For the team and for Mercedes it is unacceptable. Lewis was too aggressive to pass him and why should Nico give him room? He was in the lead. It is completely unnecessary and for me the disaster is that all Mercedes are out after two corners.” - Niki Lauda

Its obvious that Niki wouldn't be happy with the result, but after inviting Mercedes chairman Dieter Zetsche to the race only to witness the ultimate sin being committed this would be doubly sour. He clearly thinks Lewis' aggressive move put to much unwanted risk at the table and cost the team a potential 1-2 result. Triple World Champion Jackie Stewart was equally unimpressed by Lewis' decisive overtake attempt.

Scotsman Jackie Stewart was critical of Lewis
"You didn't see Juan Manuel Fangio, Sir Stirling Moss, Jim Clark do that.One of the major assets for all the great drivers is their mind management.I learned to remove emotion from my whole body to head and that's why I always won my races in the first five laps.It was a spontaneous movement by Lewis that if he were to think back on it, he wouldn't have tried it again.He needs to think about what happened in Spain, he has to consider the ramifications to his employers.The damage that it caused to Mercedes is the combined total of those drivers, as they would have been first and second.He has to rethink his complete attitude towards what he is responsible for and that applies to every top-line driver."- Jackie Stewart

These are quite hard words from Jackie, a man who has cut his teeth in the corporate world and understands the value of team work and the ultimate result for Mercedes. His quoted great drivers of Fangio, Moss and Clark certainly are legends of the sport. More recent names amongst such greats would certainly include the late Ayrton Senna, a hero of Lewis Hamilton. Back in 1992 Jackie Stewart was also very critical of Ayrton's driving, famously putting it to the Brazilian that he is often involved in on track incidents more so than any other World Champion. His response is now etched in history and to some ring true now -"if you no longer go for a gap you are no longer a racing driver".

The outspoken son of F1 ace Giles Villeneuve and World Champion in his own right, Jaques Villeneuve sat on the opposite side of the argument. Labelling Nico's defence as "killer" the Canadian felt "..he moved when Lewis had already made his move. You don’t do that, it’s why there is a rule in place. It’s the most dangerous thing you can do in racing - and the unfairest."

Interestingly Jacques also pointed out that  "you never saw it in the ‘80s because they’d kill each other". In this age he feels that drivers don't seem to respecting dangerous moves with much improved safety levels giving a false sense of security.

'97 Champ Jacques Villeneuve weighed into the argument
No one can deny Nico left absolutely no room for Lewis with an aggressive closing of the door. We have seen plenty of close racing from these rivals from the past which has continually strained the relationship. But they always seem to jossle with respect and understanding. Who can forget the nail biting battle between them at Bahrain in 2014, jousting and swapping positions continually, yet leaving just enough space for on another? As bitter as the pairing appears its important to remember both drivers were karting team mates in their teens. The future stars not only raced together, they shared rooms together. As fiery as the relationship becomes this can never be forgotten. Unfortunately now it seems this relationship is now worse that ever. Even with their hand's tied behind their back by the corporate world of modern F1 the body language is clear.

My Verdict

Perhaps you are in the mind frame that a potential 1-2 result should have made Lewis more conservative in his approach, or that his move was too risky on his team mate and race leader? You might have made your own mind up nor care for mine, but my verdict ultimately lays blame at Nico's door. His mistake gave Lewis the opportunity that he was entitled to take. Whether it be calculated or a knee jerk rection, Rosberg closed the door aggressively and late. I don't feel Lewis should be conservative and hold off from making such a decisive move. He is fighting for a chance in the championship. We know to well the performance of both drivers is close and track position is vitally important especially around Catalunya. As Senna said "if you no longer go for a gap...".

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

"If It Ain't Broke Don't Fix It" - Australian Grand Prix Report

After some disappointing races at the end of last year and the long break of winter it was up for Formula 1 to deliver. And thankfully we were in for a classic start to 2016...

New Qualifying Format Flops

Qualifying certainly didn't deliver
As expected the rushed new knockout qualifying format flopped miserably. At first things looked promising. Rosberg made a mistake on his opening lap on cold tyres while Lewis lost track position to Grosjean's Haas while adjusting his seat belts. As the time ticked away teams rushed to get into Q2 and there was an air of excitement and good track action. However major flaws started to show in the next two sessions. The ever ticking clock was not allowing drivers in the pit lane enough time to set another lap. To add insult to injury there was no final shootout after Ferrari opted not to run at the end of Q3. It was judged too much of a sacrifice to compete with the Mercedes for track position than use up another set of tyres. A number of other drivers also followed suit and soon enough a big hole emerged in the logic of this last minute hash-up of the rule book. Thankfully for once there was universal agreement in the paddock - Christian Horner admitting that F1 "didn’t put a great show” and Totto Wolf declaring the new format "pretty rubbish". Talks were carried out on Sunday evening with old qualifying likely to prevail ready for Bahrain in two weeks.

Hamilton Bogged Down As Ferrari Fly

Last summer the FIA rightly decided to increase the skill required at the start of the race. If you've driven a manual car or motorbike you will be familiar with with the point in which you start to pull forward from a stop once throttle is fed and you 'release' the clutch. This 'biting point' as its known can be a bit more challenging to find in an F1 car. Their carbon clutches are strong but sensitive to heat meaning this point is changing all the time. Previously a team would 'learn' the perfect setting with  ''bite point finder' software off the grid and information from practise starts. Feedback  could then be relayed to the driver to preset the biting point for the start of the race. From the Belgium Grand Prix onwards drivers would now have to set the biting point themselves with no feedback and no use of bite point finder sofware on race day. Fluffing your start is now more likely with greater chance of spinning wheels or slipping the clutch. To further spice up the action in 2016 drivers must now also pull away with a single clutch paddle on the steering wheel rather than two. Two paddles allowed drivers to release one to begin the process and release the second once the car gained good traction allowing a smooth get away. Now with one paddle getting good traction off the grid is more of a challenge. Lewis Hamilton came a cropper off the grid as both Ferraris and Nico Rosberg sailed past with ease. Reflecting on this poor getaway Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted the more difficult start procedure "certainly plays a role". He went on to explain that "in the past if you would have a bad start off the line for the formation lap you could see how much the slip was. And if you can't adjust it makes a difference. Yesterday our practice starts weren't very good, and we weren't sure if this would cause a problem in the race. Lewis was a couple of metres worse up to 100m than Nico, but I'm not sure if it was a hardware problem or a software problem, a vibration or a slow reaction. We have to look into it."

Rosberg left little room for his team mate squeezing him wide into the first corner. Now Hamilton was on the back foot losing position to both the Williams of Fellipe Massa and the Toro Rosso of Max Verstappen. Thankfully he kept his fighting spirit and managed to overtake Massa by Lap 3. The Brazilian was caught out by the out of kilter Renault of Kevin Magnussen that had suffered a puncture on the opening lap. Hamilton found a way around the outside and moved back up to fifth. He would have to contend with the Ferrari engined Toro Rosso of Max Vestappen next. Although not as fast around a lap as the Mercedes the significant power of the Ferrari would make overtaking very difficult. In his own words he became "stuck behind this guy" and needed to look at a change of strategy as winning looked more and more unlikely.

Sebastian Vettel had completely aced the new starting procedure with himself and team mate Kimi Raikonnen out in front. However the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg was keeping within a second of the the pair. Rosberg pitted onto the soft tyre on lap 12 and Vettel quickly followed suit, not wanting to lose track position.

Alonso Walks Away From Horror Crash

Fernando Alonso had an extremely lucky escape on the run into Turn 3. Caught out by the closing speed of his McLaren on the Haas of Esteban Guiterrez under braking, the Spaniard clipped his right front wheel at around 190mph. This sent him slamming into the wall and sliding toward the gravel trap. As the car bounced with energy it dug into the gravel trap sideways and flipped. Now reminiscent of Martin Brundle's 1996 accident the car rolled twice in mid air until finally impacting the barrier. In a surreal moment a winded Alonso pulled himself immediately out of the mangled McLaren. "When I stopped, I saw a little space to get out of the car and I went out quickly just to make sure that my mum, who was watching on television at home, could see that I was okay".

Alonso clambers out
The twisted remains were a testament to the safety of a modern F1 car, absorbing maximum energy and protecting the driver. Alonso was clearly affected by the incident, later stating he was "lucky to be here and thankful to be here. I am aware that today I spent some of the luck remaining in life. I want to thank McLaren and the FIA for the safety of this car. I am alive thanks to the job of the last 10-15 years in Formula One."

Unfortunately 15 years ago track marshall Graham Beveridge was not so lucky when Jacques Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher were involved in a near identical incident at the same corner. A rogue wheel fatally wounded Beveridge when it flew through a gap in the catchment fence. A spectator was also injured.

Red Flag Shakes Up Strategy

Pace on the ultra-softs wasn't enough
The resulting red flag had teams having to re asses their strategy with teams allowed to change their tyres before the race restarted. Rosberg could fit the medium tyre which would complete his mandatory tyre usage and get him to the end of the race. Ferrari made a howler of a call which ultimately cost them victory, choosing not to fulfill their mandatory usage and fit the ultra soft. This would mean they would definently have to stop again and lose track position. The superior pace of the ultra soft they banked on didn't last, and as Vettel got further into his stint his lap times were marginally faster than Rosberg on the medium tyre. This wasn't going allow the lead Ferrari to keep out in front after his pit stop and the race win was doomed. To add insult to injury team mate Kimi Raikkonen had worse luck retiring to the pits on lap 22. Flames poured out of the Ferrari air box when it came to a stop as Raikkonen calmly got out. There was an air of frustration and dejection however as he walked to the back of the garage. The excitement of the opening laps had now fizzled out for the Maranello outfit.

Lewis Hamilton and the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo had made up positions on both Ferraris, with Hamilton also managing an overtake and moving up to second on lap 42. Vettel attempted to catch on fresher tyres but ran wide chasing Hamilton 2 laps from the end. The race order would remain with home favourite Ricciardo finising a respectable 4th. A blocked brake duct sent temperatures through the roof on Rosberg's Mercedes towards the end of the race, but he was able to nurse his car home to victory.

Further down Romain Grosjean put in a stellar performance to give the new Haas team a sensational 6th place on its debut. After all the teething troubles in testing this handful of points felt as sweet as victory. There was no love loss between the Toro Rosso team mates with Max Verstappen making contact with Carlos Sainz Jnr a few laps towards the end and spinning. The Dutch teenager had been infuriated with his team's strategy which saw Sainz pit first. Expecting his team mate to move over there was signs of teenage angst when he declared the situation on team radio a "f****** joke'. The pair finished 9th and 10th respectively. Just behind the Brit Jolyon Palmer took a solid 11th place on his debut in the Renault.

Final Result

Pos # Driver
1 6 Nico Rosberg    Mercedes                        
2 44 Lewis Hamilton    Mercedes                 
3 5 Sebastian Vettel    Ferrari                
4 3 Daniel Ricciardo    Red Bull-TAG Heuer
5 19 Felipe Massa    Williams-Mercedes
6 8 Romain Grosjean   Haas-Ferrari
7 27 Nico Hulkenberg    Force India-Mercedes
8 77 Valtteri Bottas    Williams-Mercedes
9 55 Carlos Sainz Jnr    Toro Rosso-Ferrari
10 33 Max Verstappen    Toro Rosso-Ferrari
11 30 Jolyon Palmer    Renault                
12 20 Kevin Magnussen  Renault         
13 11 Sergio Perez         Force India-Mercedes
14 22 Jenson Button    McLaren-Honda
15 12 Felipe Nasr    Sauber-Ferrari 56
16 94 Pascal Wehrlein    Manor-Mercedes

Not classified
9 Marcus Ericsson Sauber-Ferrari
7 Kimi Raikkonen         Ferrari
88 Rio Haryanto         Manor-Mercedes
21 Esteban Gutierrez Haas-Ferrari
14 Fernando Alonso McLaren-Honda
26 Daniil Kvyat         Red Bull-TAG Heuer

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Australian Grand Prix Guide

For UK fans like me it’s time to set your alarm clocks for the Australian Grand Prix. The mix of excitement, tension and sleep depravation finally reaches climax as the lights go out for the new 2016 season!

Carnage in 2002

The Albert Park circuit in Melbourne has hosted the race since 1996, using public roads around a lake in what is essentially a street circuit. Teams enjoy a chilled Australian atmosphere, often hanging out behind the motor homes on deck chairs. As per the nature of a street circuit your car set up and balance is forever changing as the weekend progresses. Dirt, oil and diesel slowly clears as the track ‘’rubbers in’ and the grip level increases. The mix of slow and medium corners interlinked by two straights requires good engine performance. Braking and traction is also of importance. Following the back straight is the high speed challenge of turns 11 and 12, a fast chicane that catches anyone out off line. If you’ve done a few laps here on a computer game you’ve probably enjoyed its flowing nature.  I became very familiar with the layout – mainly because I don’t really progress past the first race on season mode!

Brundle goes flying in 1996
The track is not without its incidents, especially with a tight and challenging run to the first corner. On the first lap of the first race back in 1996 David Coulthard thought he had killed Martin Brundle. Both DC and Johnny Herbert left little room for Brundle’s yellow Jordan on the run to Turn 3. The car made contact and was catapulted into the air. Landing upside down on the tarmac, the car then skidded into the barrier and rolled on impact. Fortunately for Brundle the roll over hoop did its job and he miraculously appeared unscathed. On a more solemn note track marshal Graham Beveridge was not as lucky in 2001 when he was struck by a wheel and killed. An incident between Ralf Schumacher and Jaques Villenueve sent the offending object through a gap in the fence, also injuring a spectator. 

Daniel Ricciardo will be looking for a great result this weekend even if the odds are stacked against him. Although finishing on the podium in 2014 he was disqualified due to fuel irregularities which means no Australian has ever officially finished on the podium at his home race. That said Mark Webber's 5th place in a Minardi back in 2002 surely felt like a win!

Good times for Webber and Minardi in 2002