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.