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.