Thursday, 28 April 2011

Off Track News

With a quiet week in terms of racing and car developments in F1 (three weeks is a very long time!) Its time for a round-up of the off track news.

Bahrain Deadline Moved?

Bernie Ecclestone has said that the deadline for making a decision whether the Bahrain Grand Prix should go ahead could move. The season opening race was postponed after civil unrest flared up a few weeks before the race was due and seems to be continuing even now. The FIA originally said that a decision would be made on May 1st, but Ecclestone seems to think that early June "or something like that" will do. Situations may indeed change quickly, but you can't help thinking that Bernie really doesn't want to miss out on the fees either.

Kubica Recovery Going Well

Photo courtesy of Gregory Moine
Robert Kubica has been released from hospital following his massive pre-season rally crash. A section of crash barrier peirced the cabin of his car and left the Polish driver with multiple arm and leg injuries. Following several operations, surgeons are pleased with his recovery. Now rehabilitation is to continue at the driver's home. Kubica's doctor says it is too early to tell how complete his recovery will be. Good luck Robert, here's hoping we see him back in the cockpit as soon as possible.

Indian Grand Prix on Course

Charlie Whiting has been visiting the construction site which (hopefully!) will soon be the Buddh International Circuit. The trip was part of a corner by corner inspection of the track layout in which the safety aspects of the facility were discussed. As yet there is no tarmac on the ground but apparently everything is so far going to plan. Tilke has not failed to deliver a track yet, so the prospects for having the circuit ready are good. Whether the track provides exciting racing remains to be seen, but with the way this season has started you wouldn't bet against it!

Alonso: We Have to Work Hard

Fernando Alonso has been talking up Ferrari’s chances on their blog. He thinks the Italian team’s fortunes could change at any moment and knows that Formula 1 is notoriously unpredictable. Let's face it, Ferrari need to pull some performance out from somewhere and last year was a great example of how the championship can swing during the course of a season. As the Spaniard says, “never give up in Formula 1”.

Formula 1 For Sale?

There have been reports of News Corporation showing an interest in buying F1. Sounds pretty unlikely on the face of it, but almost nothing is certain! Even more unlikely is a claim that Bernie would not survive a takeover of the sport. Bernie Ecclestone has been the one absolutely solid part of F1 for many, many years. Any story that claims he will not be involved (at least while he still remains alive), is highly likely to be wrong. This is not the sort of man to get fed up and retire or anything boring like that!

Turkish Grand Prix

Its just over a week until the cars hit the track in Istanbul. The infamous turn 8 should provide some interesting racing this year. It remains to be seen where the FIA intend to put the DRS activation zone. If this years previous events are anything to go by, my guess is that the timing line will be around turn 9 or 10, with activation happening just after the bend at turn 11. This track always gives some dramatic racing so hopefully the new regulations will make it even better.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

So How Come There is Overtaking in F1 Now?

2011 has seen an exciting start to the season with plenty of drama, plenty of pitstops and plenty of overtaking. This is something that has been missing from Formula 1 recently, so how come we get so much passing this year?

The FIA have been trying to get more overtaking in Formula 1 for several years now, grooved tyres, movable front wings and forcing the teams to use different tyre compounds have all been used in the past with little success. But this year everything seems to have come together perfectly to create the right conditions for lots of excitement. Strangely the few rule changes this season show that they have less to do with this increase than the FIA and its "overtaking working group" would have hoped. Lets look at the main areas.

Photo courtesy of Team Lotus

Or possibly tires if you're from the USA! The single biggest change this year is the tyre supplier. Pirelli have taken over from Michelin for 2011 to outfit Formula 1 with its endless need for sticky rubber. Pirelli tells us that they were asked to provide a tyre which would provide racing like that seen in Canada 2010 and they have provided even better. There was a fair bit of concern over the life of the tyres in pre-season testing which has (thankfully) not carried over into the season itself. This is mostly down to the temperature ranges during winter testing compared to the summer racing season. But now the warmer months are starting the rubber is working just as designed.

Pirelli have created their tyres with two layers of different rubber compounds. The outer layer is the serious sticky stuff which provides lots of grip but wears out quickly. The inner layer is much more durable but doesn't provide nearly as much cornering force. This is what the teams are talking about when they say the tyres are going into "Phase 2". The stickiness has gone and its time to get into the pits and get a new set. This change in compound leads to large changes in performance happening very quickly at different times for different drivers.

Teams are also required to used two different compounds during the course of one race. Thanks to the knockout qualifying system, this means that a variety of tyres are used at the start. The lap time change between hard and soft can be as much as one second per lap. But when the softer tyre runs out of grip, the harder version still has some left, which again leads to large corner speed differences.

DRS (Drag Reduction System) and Aerodynamics

Over the last few years the bodywork of Formula 1 cars has changed quite a bit. First the winglets all over the sidepods of the cars have been removed. Then the rear wings were narrowed and the front wings widened. This was part of the Overtaking Working Group's suggestions to improve overtaking, but by itself it didn't do the job. The narrow rear wing was introduced (and the winglets removed) to reduce the turbulent wake behind the car. Air that's swirling around is at lower pressure than nice still air and so any following car would not have as much grip as the lead car. The air is still moving quite a lot even with a smaller rear wing though, so larger front wings are required to help create sort the air out for the chasing car.

To improve the situation even more the Drag Reduction System (full description) was introduced. This means that just when a driver needs less drag he can get it. The wing flattens out and the top speed of the car increases. Again a large performance difference is created, this time on the straights.

KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System)

The Kinetic energy recovery system has not really factored into much talk of overtaking. It would seem that because all cars have it, its not really a difference in performance. Besides which Red Bull seem to be doing quite well even though they can only get it to work half the time! KERS works by capturing braking energy that would otherwise be lost as heat, storing it, and using it to boost engine power at other points in the lap. The big trick is that it only stores enough power for around 6.5 seconds per lap. This means that a defending driver can use all his boost well before the end of the lap. A chasing driver can still have some left before the lap is over and that, once more, leads to a big difference in speed. This time on acceleration.

Overtaking and Strategy

Large performance differences mean overtaking and Formula 1 this year has seen plenty. The DRS and tyre situation has created the differences but, most importantly, created a change in the performance of the cars during the race. This means that you can't qualify on pole and have the fastest car for the entire race. Each of the cars will have some period being faster than someone else. Maybe not everyone, but someone! The big trick is to take advantage of that change.

Mark Webber showed how important that can be in China. He spent the first stint of his race stuck at the back of the grid going nowhere before a change to the softer tyre put his car back on the performance level of the front runners. The Australian took advantage of that jump in speed to quickly climb the leaderboard. Some well timed pitstops and good overtaking were all he needed to take a place on the podium.

Overtaking is not taking place in just one spot either. There were fears that DRS would mean passing at the end of the main straight and nowhere else. Some good (or possibly lucky?) positioning of the activation zone has stopped it being too much of a sure thing. With luck (always a vital ingredient), the changes can come together and provide a passing opportunity pretty much anywhere on the track. 

The excitement looks set to continue for the rest of the season. The track in Turkey provides several passing places, as we have seen in previous years, so this year should be a classic race.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Beware of Webber!

In one of the most dramatic races that has been seen for many years, Lewis Hamilton took the win from Sebastien Vettel and Mark Webber stole the last podium place after starting from eighteenth. DRS certainly doesn't seem to be spoiling the show so far.


McLaren bought some updated parts to China but they didn't seem to think it would be enough to challenge the Red Bulls for the lead. Mark Webber's technical problems continued right up to the start of qualifying but he still managed to make it out, for the first session at least! It seems that he and the team overestimated their pace and lost out to a poor lap in the end. The Australian dropped out in Q1 only setting a time good enough for 18th. The Ferraris appeared to be making a meal of it, both drivers had to use soft tyres to get through to Q2.

Petrov had a great lap towards the end of Q2 but quickly followed it with trouble by breaking down in the middle of the track on his in lap. This bought out the red flags with just over 2 minutes left on the clock. A dramatic end to Q2 was guaranteed! A huge queue built up as the session restarted followed by actual racing to get some space on the out lap. Paul Di Resta did a great job by making it through to Q1 and the Mercedes cars continued recent form by not doing the same.

Q3 started to not much action, only 9 cars to take part anyway, due to Petrov's breakdown, and everyone else seemed to be saving their tyres. Vettel and Button were the only ones to try two runs and after it became clear that Hamilton couldn't get close (even to Jenson) their second runs were aborted to save the rubber for Sunday.

Final grid: Vettel on pole, Button second and Hamilton hanging on to third.

Photo courtesy of Team Lotus

It was McLaren's turn to get the last minute drama before the start of race. Bodywork was being pulled off of Hamilton's car to fix a flooded engine with less than 5 minute before the car had to be on the grid. The mechanics got it together with 30 something seconds to spare and Lewis took his place on the start. Meanwhile a great camera shot showed Vettel apparently asleep as the last countdown began, there is a man who can keep cool under pressure!

As race actually started though it seemed that he might still have been a bit sleepy though. The Red Bull was slow off the line allowing Button to get straight past and forcing Vettel to defend very hard against Hamilton. It seemed that his defence cost him the second spot to me, as it has done in previous seasons. Surely its better to let the car run and keep the speed up than try to force you opponents off the track in the first corner?

Algeursuari had a slight problem as his rear wheel dropped off just after his first pitstop. He bravely/stupidly continued for half a lap though before finally giving up and becoming the first and only retirement of the day.

Button cost himself a position to Vettel as drove into the wrong pit, much to the surprise of the Red Bull mechanics. The front jack man gesturing at him to keep going as he jumped out of the way.

Vettel tried to make a two stop strategy work after that while his teammate kept on with a three stop plan which seemed to be getting him nowhere. Webber was still in 17th after the first round of pitstops and seemed to be losing out the people around him in places. The new tyres however started working after that and it quickly became clear that he wouldn't be staying back there.

There followed an intense race in which cars with varying states of tyre wear, different pit strategies and fuel usage, passed and re-passed each other. It was hectic and confusing in the best way I've seen an F1 race for a long time. The drag reduction system, and the last minute change of activation point, seemed to be helping some of the action without putting cars straight past one another. But the massive difference in tyre performance made overtaking possible in a lot of different places around the track.

As the laps ran down it became clearer that Vettel, despite taking the lead in the middle of the race wasn't going fast enough to be home and dry as normal. Ferrari seemed to be making a better showing than they had hoped, but that proved to be temporary as the strategies played out and the front runners came back past them. Mercedes developed an impressive turn of speed during the race with Rosberg and Schumacher putting in good performances (Rosberg better of course!)

Hamilton pulled off some great moves in his drive to the front, jamming one past Button and then later putting a great move on Vettel to take the lead with 5 laps to go. Jensen's tyres died as the final laps ran down allowing a ferociously charging Webber to catch him up. His engineer came on the radio to warn him about the flying Aussie closing in, with the now immortal words (to me at least!), "Beware of Webber". Button didn't have to beware long though, as Webber went straight by on fresher rubber and finished an incredible afternoon by taking the final podium place.

The Aftermath

Red Bull have proved that reliability is still their biggest problem. The Kers system is a bit of a mess and has now cost them at least one win. This is something that needs to be fixed by the next race if they are to take the championship they so obviously want.

McLaren are doing everything right, the pace of development there probably can't be beaten by anyone else. All they have to do is keep up the pressure on Red Bull to be in the lead by the end of the season. But if Red Bull can sort the Kers system, they will still be the team to beat, so there is work to do.

Mercedes suddenly got some speed in this race and its hard to see where from. Good stuff though, glad they are getting in the mix a bit more. Lotus Renault must be miffed after that, something went wrong for them to end up where they did, but its hard to point at what it was.

Paul Di Resta missed out on points after his best start position so far, and thats a shame. He obviously has a lot of talent and in a better car he could be mixing it with the front runners easily. Maybe next year?

Team Lotus are making great progress at the tail end, we might see them picking up some points later in the year. That would be a fantastic result for them, lets just hope they are still called Lotus by the time it happens.

The tyres are making a huge contribution to the excitement so far and we can assume that will continue. DRS has not (so far) ruined the racing, we can only hope that the FIA keep getting that right! Better to have not enough effect than too much I think. Can't think where the lines will be in Monaco though?! The future of F1, for this year at least, looks bright. Now we get a long wait until Turkey and the next instalment.

See full results and championship standings.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Red Bull Gives You (Flexible?) Wings!

So Red Bull are at it again. Friday Free Practice is already starting to get tedious (Luckily the races so far are not!) Vettel fastest, chased hard by the plucky Brits, while Webber fumbles around doing whatever it is he gets up to until he realises there is a race on.

MacLaren don't seem to be any closer to Red Bull than they did last time out despite a few car tweaks. But the pressure of qualifying always seems to close the gap a bit so we should be in for a close one again. Whatever Red Bull are doing with that (allegedly) flexible front wing/nose is working a treat and still no-one else seems to be able to figure it out.

Further back Alonso again showed that he thinks other people are only put into the world to annoy him. Karthikayan was carved up for daring to occupy a space obviously reserved for Fernando. The needlessly aggressive move didn't seem to improve his lap times much. He ended up 14th, just over 2 seconds off the pace. Ferrari are playing down their chances, as if they needed to, and reminding everyone that they haven't really got anything new yet to make them go faster

Other than that the story remains fairly muddy, much like the skies above the circuit. Mercedes are faster than Renault for a change, but I don't expect that will last into Saturday and Sunday. Paul Di Resta didn't manage a lot of running due to fuel pressure problems. Bit of a shame really, I think he needs more time in the car to be able to show any potential.

The DRS (Drag Reduction Sytem) activation line this time is quite a way down the straight, which should make for an interesting race. The straight is an enormous one, and the cars will still have 0.56 miles to use the system. The thinking is that using the rear wing flap for the whole straight will make overtaking far too easy, so hopefully this should be about right for getting the cars alongside each other.

Prediction time! And its easy to take the same route as last time, so I will (sort of):

Vettel to win, Hamilton second, Webber to get it together and make third.

What do you think?

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Mclaren Catching Red Bull?

Image courtesy of Team Lotus
So the Malaysian Grand prix is over and the status quo is maintained, just! An interesting and unusually exciting weekend created some twists, but no major surprises at the pointy end of the field. Vettel wins followed fairly closely by a Mclaren, but not the one everyone was expecting. And Renault continue their new-found form by taking the last podium position.


Qualifying started slowly for Mark Webber, he didn't seem to be anywhere in Q1 at all but he still made it through. All the other usual suspects made their expected performances but it was plain to see that Ferrari were not where they hoped to be. They seem to be putting this down to some kind of aerodynamic mystery. Wind tunnel looks great, real life not so much. With no real clue about the problem, the plan seemed to be a case of cross fingers and trust Alonso to get them some sort of result.

Michael Schumacher put in another of his middle-of-the-pack performances. This, the team claimed later, was due to his DRS flap not working, but lets face it. He just doesn't seem to be as fast as he used to be. Time to hang up the gloves forever? Its getting a little depressing now, and that's just for me, never mind Michael!

At the end of Q3 Both Button and Hamilton put in fantastic laps, leaving Vettel and Webber with a big job to do. Vettel squeaked it at the last but it was clear that Mclaren are a heck of a lot closer than anyone (including me) thought they would be. The relief on the Red Bull pit wall said a lot!


Renault made a blinding start to the main event by simply going around everyone else. They were helped a little by Webber having no Kers, but still a great move. Surprisingly no one managed to get hit on the first few corners, which is always nice, and then the race proper got underway.

The DRS system didn't seem to be making the impact expected in the first half of the race. Instead of lots of overtaking there seemed to be more people slithering into the first corner barely under control. Still good fun to watch though. There was some good dicing by a number of people, Webber trying to recover his position without the aid of Kers and Kobayashi just being Kobayashi for a start.

Fernando made the best of a bad situation and provided everyone some entertainment. The radio message to the pits, "I am pushing, don't worry!" made me (almost literally) laugh. Cool under pressure or what. Towards the end, as he tried to get past a very defensive Hamilton, Alonso made a slip-up and hit the back of the Mclaren. Luckily (for Hamilton at least) he only destroyed his own front wing and had to make a pit stop to replace it. The interview after the race where Alonso suggested that they "hit each other" was a classic moment. The man really does seem to have no idea that anyone else in the world has a right to be on the track. Or perhaps its just Lewis? In an extra twist, the stewards have decided that Fernando should have missed and have given him a penalty of 20 secs. They also decided that Lewis moved twice (must have missed that?) and given him a 20 second penalty as well which drops him to 8th!

Mark Webber, dragging himself back towards the front, made an impressive move on Massa. The DRS seemed to just about make up for the lack Kers and got him alongside the Brazilian. Then it was down to sheer bravery to get him around the outside of turn 1, good job!

Petrov made sure of getting his name remembered. After running wide he found an extra bit of tarmac and nailed it to get back on track, without worrying too much about the small strip of grass in the way. It launched him fully in the air and he landed with a lap full of steering gear. Classic manoeuvre and very lucky to be more or less under control as he rolled to a halt. I've had a similar thing happen with my wheel on the PC and that was a bit of a shock at the time. I can only imagine how much worse it is at 150mph! Turned out to be a bit of a shame in the end as he would have been on for a good result. If Vitaly keeps on like this he may well replace Kobayashi as my number one F1 nutcase.

I think the news worked out well for DRS in the end. There was overtaking but it clearly wasn't as easy as some had feared. In terms of the season the news is, interesting. Red Bull did have mechanical problems, but not enough to cost them the race. Mclaren did have speed, but not quite enough to win it. And Ferrari do have problems, but not quite enough to put them out of the points. Lotus Renault (the other Lotus?) are the biggest surprise so far this year, their pace is very good indeed. They must be missing Kubica like crazy right now. Watching Ferrari fight their way back to their rightful place should be good. Lets just hope they get an idea of what the problem is soon.

Bring on China, this should be good!

Full Result

Friday, 8 April 2011

Red Bull Dominate Again?

Friday Practice is well and truly over and Red Bull seem to have continued to pull out a major lead over everyone except Mclaren, who are doing their very best to keep up. Mark Webber was the fastest man after the dust (and marbles) cleared for a change, although I can't imagine Vettel allowing that to continue through the rest of the weekend.

The Mclaren boys are the only ones that appear to be in with a chance of keeping anywhere near the Red Bulls. And even that looks to be a bit further back than they would like. Best of the rest is a full second back which would seem to suggest that its going to be a four horse race at best. Hopefully Ferrari are not showing their full pace but I reckon even that's a bit of a dream. Everybody must be hoping that Mark and Sebastien start one of their lovers tiffs at the front of the field to give a them bit of a chance at some points.

The massive amount of marbles do seem to be much more of an issue here than at Australia, as was widely predicted. Which may impact the overtaking opportunities provided by DRS. At least the Drag Reduction System activation point seems to be in the right place, chances are good that there will be some braking battles into turn 1. Also, due to the back to back straights we should get a good idea of how much difference it actually makes!

The last big question is the weather. The later (local time) start of the race means that the chances of rain are higher, but with the famous unpredictability of the region, nobody has an idea of whether it will pour or not. Latest info I've seen puts it at a 50% chance which is hedging your bets just about as much as you can!

Looks like we may be in for a treat (if you've got your optimistic head on). So bring on qualifying and the race! I'm going to go ahead and make a bold prediction of the final result:
 Vettel to win followed by Hamilton with Alonso magically surviving the carnage (maybe!) to end up third. 

Let me know your predictions if you think that's too boring! ;-)

Sunday, 3 April 2011

So How the Heck Does DRS Work?

DRS or the Drag Reduction System is a new feature of F1 this year and I think its going to be one of the more important features of the championship. So I thought I would spend a little while explaining how it actually works because as usual, what started out as a simple idea has been made a little more complicated than it should be.

First off the easy bit, what is DRS. From a mechanical point of view all it consists of is a moveable element in the rear wing. The driver pushes a button, one of the rear wing sections moves to be flatter to the air. Drag is reduced and the car goes faster, simple! This is obviously only useful on straights because it also reduces grip. The car apparently loses around 5% drag so we can assume its at least that much  in grip too. On corners this can be regarded as a 'Bad Thing'. Now a higher top speed means that compared to another car without the DRS system activated you stand a far better chance of being able to get in front before the next corner. Now comes the tricky bit!

During the race you don't want everybody to be able to use the Drag Reduction System at the same time. If they did there would be no relative difference in the cars and the standard no-overtaking races would continue. A scheme was hatched! "What," thought some bright spark somewhere in the Formula 1 control centre, "if only a driver who was close enough to have a chance at overtaking anyway could use his DRS?" That is the simplest explanation, so here comes the tricky bit, how to do that fairly.

Two lines are marked on the track before the start/finish straight. The first of these is used to check the gap between any pair of cars. If two cars are within one second of each other (i.e. pretty close!) then the second of them gets a nice light appear on his wheel saying "DRS active". This is good news because it means that after the second line the following driver can hit his DRS button and go faster. The lead driver however, gets nothing and so has to prepare to defend, hard. Once the DRS button is pressed the flap will stay flipped until the driver hits the brake again (i.e. the first time he needs some grip again!).

Slightly confusing the issue again is the fact that the second line (the "press your button" line), seems to be before the last corner. But because they need grip to get round it, the driver doesn't dare push the button until he has made it to the straight. Allegedly if there are more than two cars in a group, all less than a second behind the next car, all the following drivers will be able to push the button. Which should lead to some major entertainment at the end of the following straight!

Now the bad news. This is only a 5% reduction in drag. Its not much and its only drag. In theory that's good for 12 km/h difference in speed by the end of the straight. Which means less than that most of the way down. In Australia that didn't seem to be enough to get properly alongside another driver. With longer straights hopefully it will be.

Of course we don't want any changes and confusion during practice and qualifying, (heaven forbid) so the system is active for everyone all the time. This does allow people (*cough* Sutil) to get it horribly wrong when they move their movable rear wing a little too soon, which is always fun! But it also allows the teams to get the gearing right for the higher speed down the main straight.

There is a chance that it will make overtakes seem a bit cheap, but I'm open to seeing if it makes the race more unpredictable. Fingers crossed it spices the show up rather than dumbing it down. Roll on Malaysia!