Friday, April 30, 2010

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.

Things to Consider when Fueling a F1 Car

Both factors vary from track to track. 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.