Thursday, December 31, 2009

Overtaking and Why It’s Rare

Once past the first corner of the race, overtaking in a Formula One car is an incredibly difficult art. Here’s why.
  • Passing on the straight: The power difference between even the fastest car and the slowest is rarely enough make overtaking simply a matter of blasting by on the straight. For that to work, the driver needs to complete the move before the next corner arrives, because unlike racing on an oval track, there is only one real “line” through a corner; anything else is much slower. Therefore the overtaking car would need to get completely in front of the car it’s passing rather than just nosing ahead, in order to then take up track position for the next turn. It’s rare for such a performance differential to exist between cars to make this possible.
  • Passing under braking: This is where the moves – such as they are – are usually made. But this is by no means easy. With over 2000kg of pressure pushing the cars into the road, they can decelerate with enormous force –up to 5g. Even the act of lifting your foot from the accelerator pedal creates around 1g of deceleration – around the same as a full emergency stop in your road car – and that’s before the brakes have been applied! Consequently the braking distances for corners are incredibly short. The shorter the braking distances, the less opportunity there is to pass under braking.
  • Slipstreaming: The driver of the car behind can benefit from the slipstream effect. This is where the car ahead punches a hole through the air, greatly reducing the air resistance for any car immediately behind it. This effect means that the following driver can use less throttle for the same speed and then simultaneously pull out and floor the throttle to gain a brief surge that might get him ahead. To be successful, the driver has to carry out this move just before the cars enter the braking zone – and on the inside line for the corner. Given that the defending driver is allowed one blocking move between corners, he should invariably have that situation covered, forcing his attacker to take the long way round – the outside.

Blocking the other guy

So if the attacking drivers are allowed to change their lines more than once (as the preceding section explains), why don’t these aggressors simply pass him on the other side, knowing that their prey can’t change his line again? Because if the blocker has timed it right, he will have forced the attacker to lift off the throttle just as the front of his car is almost upon the rear of the defending car. This will have lost the attacker the advantage of momentum he had.
It’s therefore essential for the blocking driver not to make his move too early; otherwise the attacker can simply keep his right foot nailed to the floor and steer around the other side, shouting “Eat my dust!” as he flies by!

Launch control – it wasn’t always so easy

Since the 2001 Spanish Grand Prix drivers have no longer needed to judge the optimum revs, wheelspin, and gear change points to affect the best getaway. Now, a whole host of electronic gizmos are allowed on the cars, including launch control, so all the driver has to do is arm the system as he is lined up on the grid and then press a button as the starting lights change. Software systems then work out the ultimate acceleration.
Features such as this and traction control –which cuts power when the system detects excess wheelspin, thereby making the car easier to control – had been outlawed since 1994, but difficulties in policing the software meant they were reintroduced.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Getting the Best F1 Start

Any advantage drivers used to gain by jumping the start lights and hoping noone important noticed have now been lost. Electronic tell-tales on the grid position inform the race directors of any driver that has anticipated the lights. A 10 second stop/go penalty or a drive-through penalty (at the discretion of the race directors) is applied to any competitor who does this. In addition, he will look foolish and might have a lot of explaining to do to his team boss at the end of the race.
Formula One cars employ “launch control”, a package of technical gizmos that allows them to achieve their maximum acceleration as soon as the driver presses the button. How quickly a driver reacts to the lights going out is therefore crucial, but every other aspect of getting the car quickly off the line – such as the engine revs and slipping the clutch – is controlled by the software, not the driver. But launch control cannot endow the car with acceleration it doesn’t have; it can only maximise the potential of the car as defined by its power, weight, gearing, and traction. So the one-stopping fuel-heavy car should still be slower away than its two-stopping fuel-light rival.
Those drivers on a heavy fuel load will be extra-anxious to keep any rivals behind them at the start. By preventing a two-stopping driver from passing them, they ruin the lighter car’s strategy by keeping it down to a one-stopping pace but with the extra fuel stop still to make. As the start represents the best opportunity for a light car to pass a heavy one, the driver of the heavy car often needs to be extra ruthless in the dash down to the first corner to keep any rivals from overtaking him.
The sporting rules specifically limit what a defending driver is able to do. The one move rule allows him one blocking move – defined as a move from one side of the track to the other – whereas the driver attacking from behind has no such limitation on his lines. Michael Schumacher has been the most ruthless exponent of this rule over the years; whenever he makes a poor start, he invariably cuts across the bows of any faster accelerating car behind him. Rivals on the receiving end of this treatment, notably David Coulthard and Jacques Villeneuve, have complained about it, feeling that it’s both dangerous and goes against the sporting ethic, but his reply is always the same: “The rules say I can.”
At the start, the race officials tend to concentrate on watching what is happening at the front. Further back, out of the limelight, all sorts of transgressions of etiquette and rules take place. You can get away with murder back there on the hectic opening lap.
You might think it has taken vital skills away from the driver. Don’t be shy about saying this out loud – you won’t find many people disagreeing with you, and, as of 2004, launch control is again going to be banned from use. Traction control remains, so at least you shouldn’t see your favourite driver wheelspinning out too early in a race.

Starting the F1 race

All the preparation – the development back at the factory, the testing, the practices, the qualifying, the debriefs – lead up to the moment of the start. A famous Australian driver once said, “when the flag drops, the bullshit stops”. There is no longer a starting flag but the basic premise still holds good.
The start procedure is as follows:
  1. Start minus 30 minutes and the cars can be driven from the pit lane to their grid positions.
  2. Start minus 15 minutes, the pit lane exit is closed and any car that has not yet left the pit lane will have to begin its race from there after the field has gone by on the first racing lap. This is not a good start to your race!
  3. Start minus five minutes: the grid is cleared of all personnel (except the drivers of course!).
  4. A green light signals the beginning of the warm up (or formation) lap. Any car slow away can only regain its grid position if it hasn’t been passed by every other car. Otherwise, it must start from the back of the grid. Other than passing slow-moving cars with an obvious problem, or regaining a grid position lost due to a slow start, drivers cannot overtake on the warm up lap.
  5. At the end of the warm-up lap the cars take up their grid positions. When the last car is in place, a race official walks on to the back of the grid, signals the race starter with a flag, and leaves the grid once more. The race starter then initiates the starting light procedure.
  6. A series of five lights on the start line gantry (a bridge-like framework set high over the track) come on in sequence. When the fifth light comes on, the race can start anytime between 0.2 and three seconds afterwards (the gap is pre-programmed by the starter before the race but kept secret).
And they’re off! The race is on the moment the lights go out.

Understanding F1 Start

Overtaking wheel-to-wheel on the track is a relatively rare thing in Formula One. On the tightest circuits, such Monaco and Hungary, the total number of overtaking moves in a race is often less than half-a-dozen. Therefore the standing-start acceleration burst down to the first corner will usually represent the best opportunity offered a driver all day of making up places. Aside from being one of the most exciting parts of the race it also has serious implications on strategy.
A two-stopping car with only half a tank of fuel weighs around 60kg less than a one-stopper filled to the brim, a difference of 10 per cent in its total weight. This weight difference has a huge effect on the car’s acceleration away from the start. Similarly, a car on soft compound tyres usually has the traction to accelerate better than one on a tougher-wearing harder option. At a track where the quickest fuelling strategy is delicately balanced between two stops and three, the decision might be swung by the desire to be quick away from the lights. Even at those races where it’s clear which of the stopping options is quicker, a team may still reduce the duration of the first stint in order to make the car light at the start and accept the penalty of below optimum timing of the pit stops. Ferrari drivers Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine beat the faster McLarens at Monaco in 1999 by doing just this.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pit Stops Considerations

Here are the vital pieces of information the teams will take into consideration:
  • The way you qualify. Because fuel cannot be added or subtracted between Saturday qualifying and the race, the cars have to qualify with enough fuel on board to do the first stint of the race. Obviously a car planning to three-stop can qualify lighter than one on a two-stop strategy. The team needs to trade off the importance of qualifying position with the optimum race strategy.
  • The weight of fuel. This varies according to how dense the fuel is, but the regulations specify the density must be between 0.725 and 0.77kg per litre. The largest tanks hold around 150 litres and brimmed to capacity will therefore weigh around 120kg.
  • The amount of lap time this costs at the track in question. A half-tank car is quicker by around 2.4 seconds per lap around Suzuka than a full tank one, whereas over the similar distance of a Monza lap – with long straights and not many corners – the difference is only around 1.6 seconds. Suzuka therefore errs towards a two-stop strategy, Monza a one-stop.
  • The consumption of fuel. How much fuel (and therefore weight) needs to be put into the tank and how much the car sheds as it races tends to be higher at a track with lots of accelerating, braking, and use of the lower gears. The Hockenheim track, as revised from 2002, induces heavier fuel consumption than any other on the Formula One calendar. Although lap times at the track are only averagely sensitive to weight changes, the big reduction in weight (because of the high fuel consumption) means that the total effect is large. It’s therefore another track favouring a two-stop strategy. At the other end of the pole is Nurburgring where there is relatively gentle fuel consumption but where lap times are highly sensitive to weight. The net result is very similar, and again a two-stop is favoured.
  • Your qualifying position. If your grid position places you in an attacking position – meaning that you need to overtake other cars – you are more likely to opt for an aggressive two-stop strategy, even if the maths tells you that a one-stop is quicker. If it’s a track where pretty much everyone can be guaranteed to be on the same number of stops, you have a choice: depending on whether your strength is early or late in the stint, you can either short-fuel for the first stint, using your lower weight to pass cars and then hope to pull out enough of a time cushion before you stop to keep you ahead after they have stopped. Or you might choose to take on board as much fuel as you dare and hope you can keep up with cars that are lighter early in the race; when you stop later it will take less time as you will not spend as much time refuelling to get you to the end.
  • Other cars and overtaking opportunities. The more pit stops you make, the more you are at the mercy of traffic – of getting caught behind slower cars after your stop but before they make theirs. At a track with plenty of overtaking opportunities this is less of a consideration than at a place like Monaco where passing places are few and far between. The timing of your stop might also be influenced by traffic – for example, you might come in earlier than planned so as to avoid encountering a bunch of lapped cars.
  • How the brakes are wearing. At some circuits – such as Imola, Montreal and Monza – brake wear is extreme. A heavier fuel load places extra strain on the brakes, due to the extra weight and momentum that they are working against.
  • The skill of the driver. The handling balance of the car changes a lot from the beginning of a stint to the end. This change will be larger the longer the stint. Some drivers can cope with handling changes better than others, so it is something that has to be taken into account.

Choosing the number of stops

Pit stops are not actually compulsory in Formula One. In theory, a team could build a car with a big enough fuel tank to do the whole race without stopping, and the tyre manufacturers could easily produce a compound tough enough to make tyre changes a thing of the past. But in reality, such a car would be hopelessly off the pace. Not only would it be slow because of its weight and hard compound tyres, but the bulkiness arising from its big fuel tank would make the car aerodynamically inefficient, slowing it yet further – and all the other teams would laugh at them. All current Formula One cars are therefore designed around tanks that are too small to hold enough fuel to complete a full Grand Prix.
At most tracks, a pit stop – including slowing down, stopping, re-fuelling, and accelerating back up to speed – takes around 30 seconds. The race distance is specified as the least number of laps exceeding 305km (190 miles). (For more on what constitutes a “complete” race, head to “race stoppage” later in this chapter.) Over that distance, and with that time penalty, it did not use to be worthwhile stopping more than twice. But since the 2003 regulations prohibiting fuel loads being changed between qualifying and race (see Chapter 8), stopping three times in a race has become a viable option once grid position is taken into account. Stopping just the once, or even twice, during a race has fallen out of favour after the introduction of these regulations. At some tracks an extra stop is quite feasible, more than making up the extra 30 seconds of pit stop time with a lighter fuel load. Magny Cours, in France, with its very short pit lane and high tyre degradation, is a good example of this. At other tracks the tyres perform close to their peak for longer and the pit lane can be longer. Silverstone in Britain is a good example of this. The most common strategy in Magny Cours is three-stops, whereas for Silverstone two stops is more popular.
Aside from tyre behaviour, it’s all to do with fuel consumption and how much lap time the extra weight costs you. In other words, a team needs to know how sensitive the car’s lap time is to changes in weight and how fast that weight is changing.

Strategy on the hoof

Rarely has the importance of race strategy been so well demonstrated than at Monaco in 2002. Michelin, the tyre suppliers of Williams and McLaren, arrived with a tyre that was of supersoft compound, making it very quick over one lap in qualifying but less so over a race distance. The reasoning was to get at least one Michelin car to outqualify the dominant Bridgestone-shod Ferraris and then let the tight confines of the track aid them in keeping the red cars behind for the race.
It worked brilliantly, demoting Ferrari to the second row. In the race, McLaren’s David Coulthard soaked up pressure from Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher to take victory. Even though the Ferrari was capable of lapping more than 1 second per lap faster than the McLaren, there was simply no way by. In desperation, Ferrari brought Schumacher in a few laps early for his pit stop, in the hope he could use his speed to get and stay ahead when Coulthard stopped. When he rejoined, now on a clear track, he immediately set a stunning fastest lap. This alerted McLaren, who realised that, at this rate, Schumacher would indeed be able to pass when the McLaren stopped. Before any further damage was done, they brought Coulthard in early too, getting him out still ahead of Schumacher. It sealed the result.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Choosing Tyres in F1 Races

Teams can invest small fortunes (actually, make that very large fortunes) in developing race car technology, and drivers can be as brilliant as they like, but when it comes down to it, a car’s tyres are what actually keeps it moving on the track. So, as you might expect, development has crept into tyre design too! The teams are given a choice of two compounds of dry weather tyres from their supplier. The compound refers to the constituent mix of rubber and chemicals of the tyre. The compound choice will usually be between:
  • One that is more consistent and tougher-wearing
  • One that is made from a grippier chemical/rubber mix and therefore usually faster at its peak A team will prefer to be able to use the softer, initially grippier tyre but sometimes they are prevented from doing so if they cannot attune the car sufficiently so that the tyre’s wear rate is kept in check. In this case they will be forced to choose the harder compound.
The compound choice refers only to the dry weather tyres. The tyre company will supply wet weather tyres but there is no choice of compound for the teams to make.
The teams have to choose their dry weather compound before going out to qualify. They are stuck with that choice for the rest of the weekend, so a bit of forward planning is important. What compound they choose depends on the following:
  • The practice laps: The practices give the teams some indication of the wear rates and lap time capability of each tyre, enabling them to trade off one quality against the other in their calculations.
  • Info from the tyre manufacturers: The tyre manufacturers advise the teams after studying the practice data. This will include looking at the tyres’ lap time drop off, the difference in performance at its peak and just before the pit stop. At some circuits, there is virtually no drop-off –meaning that the tyre is still at a peak performance level when the fuel stop is made. At others, notably circuits like Suzuka in Japan that have lots of long duration turns, it is a significant factor.
  • The pit stop strategy: The choice of tyre compound is also linked to the pit stop strategy. If you go for a one-stop strategy, the extra fuel weight may destroy the softer, more delicate compound and force you to opt for the harder, slower, choice.
  • The driver’s skill: Much depends upon the sensitivity and control of the driver. If he can “nurse” the car through the early stages when the car’s weight is high, he may be able to make even the softer tyre “live” and therefore get the benefit of its extra grip as the fuel load comes down. You hardly ever know before the race what tyre and pit stop strategy a driver has chosen, as obviously this is information that could be used to advantage by his rivals and is therefore kept close to the team’s chest. You can always try asking if you get close enough, but they might lie.

Ross Brawn – strategy master

Recognised as the greatest pit lane strategist in Formula One, Ross Brawn helped Michael Schumacher to all five of his World Championships, first at Benetton and subsequently at Ferrari.
A gifted designer in his own right, Brawn’s greatest period of success began when he took up the role of Technical Director and left the design chief role at Benetton to Rory Byrne. Brawn became more of an overseer and organiser, albeit one with the technical insight to work hand-in-hand with Byrne. This came just at the time that Formula One re-introduced refuelling –which had previously been banned – thus opening out new avenues of competitive advantage. Brawn exploited this brilliantly, frequently making rival teams look inept with his dazzlingly quick mind.
He was aided in his operations by the searing speed of Schumacher and when the latter left Benetton for Ferrari, it took only another year before Brawn and Byrne followed him there. The three have been the architects of Ferrari’s renaissance, and in 2000 Schumacher became the first Ferrari driver in 21 years to lift the world crown.

Deciding F1 Strategy

The two principal tools of pre-determined strategy are tyre choice and pit stop timing. Deciding whether to use hard or soft tyres and whether to stop once (meaning your race will comprise two stints) or twice (meaning three stints) and at what intervals are influenced by a two really important considerations:
  • Where you are in the field: Over the past few seasons Grand Prix grids have tended to be split into three sections: the top three teams, the midfield, and the lower orders. Barring freak circumstances there’s no way a midfield or tail-end team is going to threaten for victory, no matter how brilliant their strategy. “The competition” is usually a reference to the cars in your own group. A team that has qualified in the middle of the midfield looks at what strategy could get it to the front of the midfield by the end of the race, rather than trying to take on Ferrari, Williams, or McLaren for victory. Strategies are usually decided from that perspective. Is that negative thinking on their part? No, just realism.
  • How fast your pit stops are: For reasons of pit lane safety, highly pressurised refuelling – whereby fuel flows into the tanks at a very fast rate under pressure – is limited. The refuelling equipment fills the tanks at the rate of 12 litres per second. Barring problems, refuelling – and not tyre changing, which can be accomplished in around three seconds – is what determines the length of a pit stop. The tyre guys could even have a cigarette while waiting for the refuellers. . . no, on second thought. . .

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ready to Race: Final Grid Positions

At the end of Saturday qualifying a sheet showing the provisional grid positions is published. It is provisional while the cars are checked over to ensure they comply with weight and tyre regulations. Once this has been confirmed a final grid will be issued.
By this time the drivers will be well into their debrief with their engineers, logging the behaviour of the car and making final plans for the following day’s race strategy. A few hours later they’ll be sleeping, ready to be in peak shape for the climax of the weekend – the race itself.

Surrendering grid position

A team may accept a lower grid position than possible. Basically teams would do so in one of two situations:
  • _ The race team decides that its best race strategy involves a heavy fuel load and that the disadvantage a heavy load brings in qualifying will be more than made up for during the race. This strategy is feasible only at tracks where overtaking isn’t too difficult.
  • _ A driver has qualified so badly that the team reasons it would be better to start him from the pit lane. Opting for a pit lane start after all
the others have reached the first corner allows the team the option of changing its fuel load – something that it can’t do if it starts from the grid. If everyone else had opted for a two fuel stops so that their cars were lighter during qualifying, going for one fuel stop is theoretically the quickest way to complete the race and could put you on a better strategy than everyone else. Of course, the benefit of starting from pit lane could outweigh that of starting from the grid only if you had qualified a long way down the grid and had little to lose.

No stopping for the weather

A driver may begin his qualifying lap in the dry and then have the heavens open half-way through. If so, it’s his tough luck. Conversely the track may be damp as qualifying begins but then dry out as the session goes on, thereby giving a massive advantage to those late in the running order. Due to bad weather, the warm-up at the British Grand Prix was heavily delayed a few years ago, and in the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix the race started under a Safety Car, but qualifying has never been affected and this random factor is part and parcel of the new qualifying format introduced for the 2003 season.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Supermen with super powers?

A lot of myths have built up about what makes a driver quick. Surprisingly, superhuman eyesight and reflexes don’t seem to be a major factor. When tested, Michael Schumacher’s reflexes were decidedly average, for example. What makes a driver quick seems more to do with how the driver feels the behaviour of the car through the seat of his pants and his hands, and how soon and subtly he is able to perceive directional change through his inner ear.
This is where natural ability takes a driver places that data-logging and telemetry never can. Schumacher’s telemetry reveals entry speeds that team mates of the past have tried to simply copy – only to find themselves flying off the road. Only the natural feel and balance of a truly great driver can keep the car on the absolute knife-edge from the beginning of the corner to the end. This is where this most high

Cutting corners during qualifications

Braking for corners, and taking the corners, are where the skill is involved. Anyone can press their throttle foot to the floor and go quickly down the straights. How corners are taken is what separates the champion from the no-hoper.
Putting together the ultimate qualifying lap is an incredible balancing act for a driver. He must use his judgment and “feel” to find the latest possible braking point for each corner, the highest possible entry speed, and the earliest possible application of full throttle. Setting the car up during the practices is all about helping him achieve this. Different drivers have different styles and techniques and they need to set up the car in a way that best suits their individual requirements. Think of a corner as having three separate phases – entry (the approach to the corner), apex (the corner’s sharpest angle), and exit (the end of the corner). At this level of racing all the drivers will be on the correct line and travelling at about the same speed as they go into and through a corner. Finding an advantage is all about the tiniest of margins, and some drivers find theirs from their entry into a corner, others from their exit.
One tends to compromise the other – that is, going fast into a corner negatively impacts how quickly you can make it out the corner, and vice versa –so finding the ultimate trade-off is the key. A driver who can take more entry speed into a corner – who can get the car on the very limit right from the moment he begins braking – and then not be more than proportionally penalised on the exit, will be quick. But he needs to be able to do this on every corner for a decent qualifying lap.
Some drivers can deal with certain handling characteristics better than others. A car that oversteers (at the limit, the rear end breaks away first) can make some drivers very tentative. But while the opposite characteristic of understeer (where the front end loses grip before the rear) brings more stability and allows such drivers more confidence to push to the limit, it is usually slower. A driver relaxed with a measure of oversteer can usually get the car turned into the corner more efficiently than one who relies on the stability of understeer.

Getting pole is king

Being fastest in Saturday qualifying earns a driver pole position on the starting grid. This means he starts from the very front. Because overtaking is very difficult in a modern Formula One car, pole position carries an enormous advantage.
The tighter the track, the bigger this advantage tends to be. At tracks such as Monte Carlo or the Hungaroring, overtaking is close to impossible if the driver ahead doesn’t make a mistake. A driver getting pole position at either of these tracks may be considered to have the race half-won already.
In 2002, Michelin brought some super-soft compound qualifying tyres to Monte Carlo to enable its drivers to monopolise the front row of the grid. These tyres performed poorly in the race, as the soft compound led to rapid deterioration – but it didn’t matter. With track positioning all-important at Monte Carlo, Michelin-shod David Coulthard was able to keep Bridgestone user Michael Schumacher behind him throughout the race, even though Schumacher demonstrated that he could go at least 1 second per lap faster. Had he been able to lead from the start, Schumacher could conceivably have won by almost a lap. As it was, his qualifying position had consigned him to runner-up.
Not all tracks have such a lack of overtaking opportunities. At places such as Interlagos in Brazil or Hockenheim in Germany, you may see teams less concerned about pole position, especially if it means compromising their race strategies to achieve it.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Saturday qualifying: Improvisation

The rules dictate that no fuel can be added to the cars between the end of Saturday qualifying and the beginning of the race on Sunday. Furthermore, no changes can be made in the set-up of the cars during this period either. The direct result of these regulations is that the drivers must do their one qualifying lap on Saturday with enough fuel on board to get them to their first pit stop in the race on Sunday.
Driving a heavily-laden car on the limit without any build-up laps is an extremely difficult thing to do and perhaps represents the biggest challenge facing a driver all weekend.
When a driver spins or leaves the track during qualifying, that’s it. He gets no second chance. He does have the option, however, of continuing the lap (assuming the car’s still driveable) or aborting it. Aborting the lap can save him around a lap’s worth of fuel – which could be critical on race day. He will start from the back of the field then – but it’s likely that he would have done anyway had he spun.

Friday qualifying: No compromise

The results of Friday qualifying determine the order the cars take to the track on Saturday. The fastest car on Friday is the last car out on Saturday –theoretically the best slot. The results of Saturday qualifying determine the starting order of the race.
For Friday qualifying, the driver and his engineers don’t need to concern themselves with anything other than how to get the car around the track on its one flying lap as fast as possible. The car need have only enough fuel on board to get it through an out-lap, the flying lap, and an in-lap. Typically, cars will carry less than 10kg of fuel – compared to as much as 70kg during Saturday qualifying when there also needs to be enough fuel on board to enable the car to do its first race stint on Sunday. The difference between 10kg and 70kg of fuel can be as much as 1.8s per lap at some tracks. In addition to the lower weight, the cars are set up for ultimate speed over one lap, with no compromise for tyre wear or raceablity. For these reasons, on Friday qualifying, you will probably see the cars go faster than at any other stage of the weekend. A spin or a non-completion of a lap on Friday means that you will be at the back of the timesheets and therefore the first one to take to the track for Saturday qualifying – theoretically the slowest slot because the track will be at its dirtiest. Tyres of other cars will clear the dust and build up a layer of rubber on the track surface, making the track faster as the session goes on.

Debriefs and why the drivers disappear for hours

The engineers and drivers have an awful lot to discuss amongst themselves after the practice sessions have finished. This is why the drivers aren’t generally seen around the paddocks and garages for hours afterwards. Instead, they’re huddled together in the team motorhomes analysing the meaning of all the data thrown up by practice.
During these debriefs, the team can look in more detail at all the electronic data logging information and compare it with lap times and the driver’s subjective feelings. The pros and cons of one set-up over another, one tyre choice over another, one strategy over another can be discussed indefinitely. The more trouble a team is in, the longer the debriefs tend to take. Engineers value the debriefs immensely because it’s their best chance of bringing all the information together, at a time when it is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Not all drivers share the enthusiasm of the engineers, though. Some find debriefing sessions a little dull, especially coming immediately after the adrenaline-filled rush of driving a Formula One car at the limit. The very top drivers, however, look on these sessions as opportunities to extract the maximum out of their own performance and they give the appropriate time and effort.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What you may notice during F1 practice

When you watch Formula One drivers practice, keep a couple of things in mind.
First, being fastest isn’t everything. Although practice times are issued after each session, these times aren’t necessarily a definitive indicator of what shape every car is in. All teams work through their programmes in different ways and with different aims in mind. It’s often not until the qualifying sessions or the race that you see the true picture unfold as everyone tries to put together their best combination of factors. Treat the practice times as only a very loose indicator of competitiveness.
Second, some people get extra sessions. If you get to the track very early on Friday morning – well before the first official practice session – you’ll see some teams lapping the track while others never venture out and you may wonder why everyone isn’t out trying to beat the band. As a way of helping smaller teams cut costs, the FIA, the Formula One governing body, introduced a policy at the beginning of 2003 stating that a team could opt for one of the following:
  • To have unlimited test days.
  • To test up to a maximum of 20 car days (10 days for two cars or 20 days for one car) and be allowed to test for two hours on the Friday morning of each Grand Prix meeting.
The latter option is the cheaper one, but it has other advantages as well. It gives the teams a head-start in choosing the ideal tyre, in establishing fuel consumption figures, and in coming up with a good set-up. In terms of the work dedicated to the race weekend, by the time practice begins, they’re already one step ahead of those teams who can’t do the Friday test because they’ve opted for an unlimited number of test days outside of the Grand Prix weekends. The benefit of unlimited testing is that the total number of hours available for testing new developments and innovations is far greater. This particularly benefits the bigger teams who have more of such things to test than their smaller rivals.

Finding optimum fuelling in Formula One practices

The practice sessions are also used to verify fuel consumption and the precise relationship between fuel loads and lap times. These vary from track to track. A circuit with lots of accelerating in the lower gears and lots of hard braking makes for far less fuel efficiency than a track that flows more. But the engineers need to know precise figures so that no more fuel – and therefore weight – need be put in the cars than is absolutely necessary. The car tends to get quicker as its fuel load drops, but again, the engineers need to know by exactly how much in order to determine whether the extra performance brought by a low fuel load buys enough time to make an extra pit stop.
Often, the performance of the tyres degrades as the performance of the car improves because of its lower fuel load. At some crossover point, however, the car begins to lose more lap time from degrading tyres than it can find from lower weight. Practice gives the engineers and drivers a chance to establish where this point is. Again, this knowledge has a significant impact on the race strategy the team chooses.

Choosing tyres in Formula One Practices

The practice sessions also give the teams valuable information on the respective behaviour of the two different compounds of tyres that they have to choose from before Saturday qualifying. The sessions give them information on the differing wear rates of each tyre and also the difference in their performance pattern.
Practice sessions allow teams to see how the performance of each type of tyre changes over a number of laps. A softer compound is usually quicker initially, and invariably quicker from new on a qualifying lap. But it also tends to wear out more quickly than a harder tyre. Softer compound tyres also have a greater tendency to grain, a phenomenon where small tears appear on the edges of the shoulder, spreading across the whole width of the tyre, giving less grip until they stabilise. With less grip, the cars can’t go as fast as they would otherwise. Graining can last for up to 10 laps and, although the softer tyres may then be quicker than the hard tyres, after that the speed difference may not be enough to overcome the time lost because of the graining. Practice gives the engineers and drivers a feel for how this behaviour is panning out. Even though the data may tell a clear story on tyre choice, a driver may still be influenced by how each compound “feels”. A softer compound gives more grip and, therefore (in theory at least) offers a better lap time, but it also tends to feel less stable because its tread moves around more under cornering load. Occasionally a driver may find he is actually quicker on the harder compound despite its lower grip levels simply because it instils him with the confidence to push harder than when he’s using the soft compound. Practice gives the driver the chance to get used to the more squirmish behaviour of the softer tyre, or it enables him to quickly discard it and concentrate on setting the car up around the harder tyre.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Establishing F1 practice set-up

The main purpose of practice sessions is to enable the teams and drivers to find the optimum set-ups (suspension and aerodynamic settings) for their cars. These set-ups vary according to whether the team is preparing for the optimum one-lap of Friday qualifying or the one-lap-plus-a-race of Saturday and Sunday. They also vary according to the type of tyre the driver and his engineers choose.
Most of the time in Friday practice is spent pin-pointing the ideal balance for one-lap qualifying on Friday afternoon. With very little fuel on board and the need only to do one flying lap, the set up will be very different from that needed for Saturday qualifying and the race – when the cars will run with enough fuel for the race’s first stint. During Friday practice the driver looks for a set-up that gives him instant response into the corners for ultimate onelap speed. During the Saturday practice the goal is more about finding a good level of handling consistency from lap to lap. A car racing on Sunday with a Friday set up would quickly become undriveable.

What the drivers get out of practice

There’s an hour of practice on Friday before the first qualifying session and another one and a half hours on Saturday, before the second qualifying session. The drivers can take to the track whenever they want within these practice sessions and do as many or as few laps as they choose.
You may think – as the word practice implies – that the idea is for the drivers to learn how to drive the track but in truth, all drivers are able to do that pretty much immediately. Or you may think that the idea is just for the cars to go round and round for the benefit of the crowd as a build-up to the big race – and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But it’s way more complex than that. Qualifying and race strategies are very much based on the information established during the practice sessions. Although general testing can give a team some of this information, such testing is permitted only at certain tracks. Furthermore, the weather conditions on the day have a serious impact on tyre performance and the general behaviour of the car. From the practice sessions, drivers and their teams get the information they need to set up the cars, choose the tyres they’ll use, and decide on a fuelling strategy.

What the rookie needs to know

The information required by the rookie as he makes his track walk or ride is rather more basic than the info that experienced drivers seek. Obviously, a rookie needs to know where the track goes, and he also needs to get a feel for which lines to take for a corner or sequence of bends. The fastest line through a corner is essentially the shortest distance between the points of entry and apex. Getting a sight line when stationary at the beginning corner is often a good way of establishing where the cornering line is if the corner is at all complex. Picking out visual markers – a trackside advertising banner, for example –that equate to the turn-in point can be very useful. The perspective a driver gets from inside the cockpit, just a few centimetres above the ground is often inadequate for picking out fine detail. Similarly, details of the track’s surface or its camber – or the parts of the track across which streams run when it’s wet – cannot really be gleaned when travelling at high speed in the car. But a driver who already knows what he’s looking for because he’s walked the track has a big advantage that he couldn’t have obtained otherwise.
Telemetry can be a great aid for a driver learning a circuit – but obviously only after he’s driven the track. He can then look at his own data-logging traces of steering and brake and throttle input and compare them to his team mate’s. He can try a variety of approaches on a corner he’s not sure of and then compare telemetry with lap times to see which approach works best. He can then apply the lessons learned next time he takes to the track. These are Formula One drivers. Learning a track is not, in the general scheme of things, all that difficult for them. Juan Pablo Montoya, who on his Formula One rookie year of 2001 scored three pole positions and one Grand Prix win, reckoned he would know 90 per cent of what he would ever know about a new track after his first three laps of it. Drivers that only get themselves on the pace after much practice and long and detailed study probably haven’t got what it takes to be top Formula One contenders.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sussing out the details

When an experienced and successful driver, such as Michael Schumacher, travels around a track – even one he’s driven many times before – he isn’t looking at how best to drive the track, he’s investigating any small changes that may have been made since last time he was here. He wants to know stuff like
  • Where the protective barriers are placed
  • How many layers of tyres are protecting key spots
  • Whether the track surface has changed anywhere, and if it has, how the grip levels now compare to the grip levels before
  • How deep the gravel traps are (some gravel traps literally beach the car if you go off into them, others can be driven gingerly across)
  • Where the access roads for the rescue vehicles are. (These roads can double up as a useful route back onto the track if you go off.)
  • Where the marshal posts are. (At each marshal post, a circuit worker is available on a motorcycle to give a driver a lift back to the pits should he need it.)
By observing key details of the track, experienced drivers gain important information that they can use to their advantage during the race. Take Michael Schumacher, for example. Few drivers equal his skill and knowledge of the various tracks, yet he doesn’t rest on his laurels. He susses out the details of each track he races on and uses these little details to hone his approach to the track. You’ll often see Schumacher in the practices pushing like crazy through specific corners, establishing where the absolute limit is. He can do this safe in the knowledge that he’s checked out the gravel trap and knows that, if he goes off, he’s not going to lose the rest of the session because his car got stuck there. He only pushes in this way on those corners where he knows he can rejoin the track.

Getting to Know the F1 Circuit

Most drivers are already familiar with all of the Formula One tracks but in each season there is always a handful of rookie drivers. These drivers may be familiar with some of the tracks – having raced on them during their time in the junior formulas on the way up to Formula One – but some of the circuits will be completely new to them. Furthermore, with new tracks being added to the calendar on a regular basis, even the experienced drivers sometimes have to learn their way around.
So how does a driver learn a track? The most obvious answer is by driving it. Far more is learned on a driver’s first lap out of the pits than from any other method. But drivers occasionally check out simulated Formula One computer games, which enable them to at least know which corner follows which as they make their way out on their first lap. But most drivers agree, as good as these games are, they aren’t a substitute for actually driving around the track because they don’t come close to giving the sensations necessary to get a feel for the track.
Another method of learning the track is to arrive early and walk it. Turn up at a Grand Prix venue the Wednesday before the race and you’ve a good chance of seeing drivers either walking, cycling, riding a motor cycle, or driving a hire car around the circuit. Not all drivers do this. The rookies usually do, of course, but even some of the experienced drivers do it too. Multiple world champion Michael Schumacher is renowned for his thorough preparation, and he invariably takes a trip around the place just to remind himself of its details.

The jet set

The really top Formula One drivers spend millions on their own private jets (Citations are a favourite). Drivers close to the top tend to lease the jets. Although a few drivers have pilots’ licences, none fly their own planes to and from races. Their schedules are already busy enough without the hassle of planning flights. Instead, these men use special agencies that supply a complete service, including pilots.
Flying to and from races used to be quite a popular pastime for Formula One drivers back in the 1970s and 1980s, but has since fallen out of favour as the drivers’ professional lives have become much busier.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Travelling to the Track in Style

Each team has up to 100 of its personnel attend the race meeting. Their methods of travel vary according to role and status – hey, Formula One teams don’t operate on socialist principles. Most of the mechanics travel by standard scheduled or specially chartered flights to the airport nearest the track. Typically, a team of scouts arrives a day or so early to organise hire cars and mini-buses that pick up team members from the airport. Senior engineers and commercial high-ups may travel business class – or even first class, along with the team boss. But then again, the team boss could well be travelling on board his own private jet. Most of the top drivers travel by private jet, too, but you do get the odd down-to-earth soul that insists on travelling commercially, Jaguar’s Mark Webber being the most notable. But then, he’s an Aussie and has little time for the trappings. At the venue, the drivers are given a road car to use. These cars come from the manufacturer the driver’s team is in partnership with. The McLaren drivers, therefore, drive around in Mercedes-Benz; the Ferrari drivers in Fiats or Lancias; the Renault drivers in Renaults; the Toyota drivers in Lexus’, and so on.
At some race locations, the journey from hotel to track may be too long or traffic-infested for the convenience of drivers or team bosses. In these cases, chartered helicopters are use instead of road cars. The top hotels these people stay in invariably have helipads, as do all the circuits.

Monaco – the Formula One drivers’ home

No single place is more associated with Formula One drivers than Monaco. Its glitzy reputation, with the famous harbour front and Casino, fits perfectly with the playboy reputation of racing drivers. So you probably won’t be surprised that almost half the grid lives there. Monaco offers more than just glamour, though. It is the home of many drivers for the following two reasons:
Most importantly, of course, Monaco lacks an income tax. Drivers can keep hold of as much of their wages as possible. The career of a Formula One driver is incredibly short and it is important they save as much as possible for their retirement.
The climate is great. The year-round good weather means that drivers can go out running and cycling every day – it’s definitely easier to get fresh air when the sky is blue and the sun is shining than when it’s pouring down and cold in London or Paris.

Home Is Where the Car Park Is

With a very hectic lifestyle and almost no time to themselves, it’s no wonder that racing drivers love their home comforts. Although the bigger name stars could demand that they stayed at the Presidential Suite of the best hotel nearest the track, some of them actually prefer to keep themselves confined to their own motorhomes.
Former world champions Jacques Villeneuve and David Coulthard both have their own motorhomes driven around Europe to all the Grands Prix. These aren’t your simple pop-up camper vans, of course. They’re full of all the luxuries that the drivers would have at their homes: big television screens, computer games consoles, stereos, and big beds. Some drivers’ motorhomes even include their own gym equipment so they can keep in shape if they get bored in the evenings or wake up too early in the mornings. The drivers don’t bring these motorhomes to show off; they simply want to make life as comfortable as possible. They don’t have to worry about checking into hotels; they don’t have to deal with noisy neighbours, and fans can be kept at a distance.

Getting a little relief from the heat

In some particularly hot races, like the Malaysian Grand Prix near the start of the season, drivers wear special water-cooled vests that offer some respite from the heat. In addition, the teams do everything they can to help the drivers. When the driver is in the pits or on the grid, he’s often given a special cooling fan to direct cold air into his face and into the cockpit. And Formula One drivers are often only too happy to have a pretty girl holding an umbrella over their car before the start of the race to keep the sun away. The drivers’ helmets are also designed to get as much cool air as possible to the driver. Each helmet features special cooling vents in the forehead and mouthpiece areas that the drivers can open or close depending on how comfortable they feel. Drivers also love to open their visors during pit stops to allow even more air in and may even not shut it completely when they are out on the track – although that is always a risky business because of the danger of debris flying into his helmet.
To keep the driver as hydrated as possible, in the cockpit is a water bottle that’s linked to a tube that leads to the drivers’ helmet. Formula One drivers have to be careful not to drink too much too early, however, because they could get thirsty in the closing stages of the race. Sometimes these water bottles have been known to break and either rattle around in the cockpit or empty out completely in the drivers’ face – causing him more problems than he already has to cope with.