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.