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.