Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Green Hell...

How not to do the Nordschleife! Still laughing at this after so many views...

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Programme Times

In The Racing Seat airs on BBC World this weekend at these GMT times:

Sat 18/12/10 – 07:30 & 20:30
Sun 19/12/10 – 13:30 & 17:30

Piece also streamed live on BBC F1 website.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010



Have now finished the edit for this 20 minute programme on my motor racing exploits going out on BBC World this Saturday. Last editing day was a 15-hour epic finishing at 0330!

In The Racing Seat is a full run through of all the stuff I got up to this year with Anthony Davidson, Darren Turner and the team at Williams F1. The piece will also be streamed on BBC Sport's international F1 website. Times and links forthcoming later this week.

As well as my failings -- and successes on the track / simulator -- the piece gives some interesting insight into the workings of an F1 simulator.

Going to be talking about the programme on Paddy O'Connell's TV preview show on Thursday.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

In The Thick of It...

Currently in a three-day edit for a 20 minute piece for BBC World on motor racing -- including on-track comparison and a peek behind the scenes of two professional simulators. So far the film is looking great!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Using Bytes to Make the Bits for F1 Cars

It may be the end of another F1 season, but it's a time of frantic work in team factories right now getting the 2011 cars built.

There are some fairly significant rule changes with the end of the F-duct system (Kubica's pleased with that as removing the hand from the wheel nearly caused a couple of huge "moments" this year), the introduction of the moveable rear wing and the return of KERS for an instant power boost.

As with anything, getting all this new stuff to work properly requires intensive development. But in an era where in-season testing is highly restricted, virtual techniques are employed by teams to get man and machine up to speed.

One area I'll focus on here is the use of simulators for driver and car development. You may have seen a preview of this in a piece I did for BBC Breakfast news a couple of weeks ago (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-11701657).

Taking a turn in the FW32 at the Yas Marina circuit (click to enlarge)

I couldn't go into too much detail in that VT for time reasons. But during the day at Williams F1 I had a fascinating chat with Max Nightingale, Senior Vehicle Dynamics Engineer at Grove. He explained just how important simulators were to a team, starting with the driver.

“It can take him ten laps or more just to learn his way around and find where his braking points are and what gears to use for each corner. We can short circuit all of that lost time. We only have three days of running at a track so any laps are precious.

“But it goes beyond that. It is things as mundane as deciding which brake ducts we need to use at the circuit. Without a simulator like this it is quite difficult to evaluate how severe the braking demands are at a track.

Max Nightingale, Senior Vehicle Dynamics Engineer

“Here we can generate the data and that data can be analysed. It is exactly the same data that would be generated as if we were really running at that circuit. So we know which brake ducts to put in the suitcases.”

Yes, all those switches do work...

And in for a debrief with Nico Hulkenberg's engineer

The big question mark over simulators is whether they can really replicate the experience of driving the real thing. The Williams simulator – which they call The DIL – or Driver in the Loop -- is a stationary platform, so clearly the driver is not going to get the same “seat of the pants” feel compared to the real FW32 car.

“We try to make it as realistic as possible. The telemetry data that comes off the simulator is the same as the telemetry data that comes off the track. We can overlay that data and we really cannot distinguish between the two.”

“So we think we have got the physics pretty much spot on. The only missing thing is on the seat of the pants feel.”

Williams have written their simulator software entirely themselves, rather than use a bespoke commercial product. They say this gives them more flexibility when gathering data.

The DIL uses clusters of computer processors dedicated to running the simulation itself. More processors drive the display (again, the graphics software engine is written in-house). One other crucial area where simulators are becoming more important is in the development of the car.

“We can evaluate components in here even before they exist in the real world. So maybe a new aerodynamic component … we might only have computational fluid dynamics data for that component but we can plug that into the simulator and, as far as the driver is concerned, it is exactly the same as if he had gone to one week’s testing in Barcelona.

“With a new wing, he can drive around in here with the old wing and the proposed new wing and find out exactly what the differences are and tell us. If the new wing has more down force on some circuits and less down force on others then he can get a feel for it even before you have to make a part in the wind tunnel.

“We have been doing this simulator for about ten years and the increase in computing power has allowed us to make the vehicle model, the tyre model and the aero model more high fidelity, and we are always trying to push the boundaries.”

For Williams F1, future development of their simulator will focus on further improving what the driver sees and probably adding motion too.

“A lot of ground vehicle simulators are still feeling their way with motion platforms. I think other teams have got some quite clever solutions. Obviously budget is an issue … but certainly it is an area of research that we are very interested in.”

What's fascinating about this area of development is that it is likely to increase its role in F1. Already the Virgin F1 team uses computers exclusively in the design of their cars' parts, completely doing away with the traditional wind tunnel. Other teams, including Williams, use a combination of both computing power and wind tunnels in design as each has its own strengths -- time being a downside of Computational Fluid Dynamics software when compared to the instant results from wind tunnel tests.

Surely though, this will change in the industry as processors get ever more able to crunch billions of numbers. What effect all this has on performance too will be interesting to see, particularly in a sport so focused on keeping huge costs down.

Many thanks to the AT&T Williams F1 Team for the access to their facilities and staff.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Just a quick heads-up to say that the TV piece on simulators is going out tomorrow morning on BBC Breakfast. The VT cannot go into as much detail as I did in the blog for time reasons but it's still a great watch ... and the Williams F1 footage in the simulator is really interesting.

The piece will also be appearing on BBC News Online sometime during the day. Stay tuned for a more comprehensive write up of the visit to the Williams F1 factory on Sunday.

Interviewees are: Sir Frank Williams (of course), Anthony Davidson, Ex F1 driver & Peugeot LMP1 Sports Car Driver and Darren Turner, of Base Performance Simulators & Aston Martin GT1 driver.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Sir Frank Praises Hulkenberg

I interviewed Sir Frank Williams at the team's Grove HQ this week as part of my piece on technology in Formula One and got some good lines regarding his drivers.

You can read the interview here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/motorsport/formula_one/9141018.stm

Will post some pictures tomorrow of the visit there.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Grunt, Sweat and Virtual Fears

There was a time in F1 when a driver's work load purely focused on operating the wheel, shifting the gears and hitting the correct pedals at the right time. That raw, mechanical input was enough to throw those highly dangerous machines around tracks at the limit of adhesion.

Spin forward just a couple of decades and look how it's all changed. Today's wheels are highly complex pieces of engineering in their own right. Each is festooned with an array of switches to adjust things such as the angle of the front wing and the concentration of fuel going into the engine. So the driver has also become a qualified technician within a mind-boggling electro-mechanical operation.

Testing during the Formula 1 season is banned so teams are faced with difficult choices when it comes to preparing drivers. Rookies need seat time not just to understand how the car behaves but also get to grips with unfamiliar tracks.

It's a problem too for experienced drivers. Every year Formula 1 throws up new ways to try to nail that moving target of Improved Overtaking and 2011 will be no different. The Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) is back to deliver fixed power boosts during the lap. Rear wings will also be adjustable. Sure, the celebrated F-Duct will be no more and front wing adjustment will disappear, but new changes require much preparation because of the nature of the sport.

So how do you do all that within the confines of a testing ban? The answer, of course, is to use simulators. Every team has a means of virtually replicating racing conditions -- either by owning a system or at least having access to something like it. To find out more about the role of simulators in motorsport, I popped down to a company run by Aston Martin GT1 driver and double Le Mans winner, Darren Turner.

I met up with Darren and former F1 driver Anthony Davidson at the Banbury facility to film a piece for BBC News. Walking into the room showed the machine already in operation, with Anthony at the wheel.

In addition to his current role with the Peugeot Le Mans Sports Car team, he's also the simulator driver for Mercedes F1 in nearby Brackley. Today he and Darren would be talking me through the unit as well as attempting to improve my driving technique (see my previous posting) for another piece later in the year.

First of all, we had to decide choice of track. I really wanted Monza as its long fast straights deliver a great experience and the lack of pesky corners mask inadequacies in my driving style. But, no. Instead it would be Barcelona, a track synonymous with testing and where a heap of data is already known.

What I knew about the Circuit de Catalunya before the session was limited. I knew after the fast straight there's a right turn, then a left and then a long right before a load of wriggly bits after that. This should be interesting.

After Anthony set a benchmark lap of 1 minute 44.687s, it was my turn in the cockpit. The experts would be watching from the room next door, looking at everything the car was doing in real time on various computer screens. They'd examine gear selection, throttle, steering, braking, lateral Gs etc...

I quickly felt fully immersed in the simulator with the 180-degree wrap around screen. The wheel was an authentic unit, complete with full force-feedback effects. The pedal system was said to be just like the real thing too.

Leaving the pits, the first thing I felt was that the wheel was going to need a reasonable bit of arm strength. A season of karting this year has built up that part. I ignored any pit lane speed limits and charged out onto the track, flicking up quickly through the paddle shift gears. This virtual car felt very positive with instant response when mounting a curb.

After a few laps things, I felt, were going well. I glanced down at my best laptime and noticed a 1min 46 something. Pretty good! Trouble is, I'd completely ignored two slow turns in the final sector and substituted instead a long, fast sweeping right-hander.

Anthony came through and ran through some corner numbers for the points where the new section should be taken. Trouble is, I couldn't remember what corners were where on the track. They just sank into an area of empty memory.

Next up it was time for some analysis of my driving style with the telemetry data, before we all adjourned for lunch. At this point my best lap was around 1'51 -- way, way off Anthony's benchmark and in dire need of improvement. As I munched through my Pepperoni pizza, I declared that I would shave four seconds off my laptime. I was told two seconds was probably more likely.

Back to work. On a circuit map, Anthony marked out the correct gearing for corners making the valid point that this was free laptime. He warned me to keep well away from the curb on Turn 2 and remain flat out through Turn 11.

Other advice included shifting at the correct revs and keep a flow and rhythm to driving. Braking was critical. Too late for a corner and you're either in the rough stuff or missing the optimum angle for the turn; too early and it's throwing away laptime.

The key with braking in a straight line is that the huge downforce generated by the car at speed is sufficient to keep the vehicle stable under such rapid braking. That means hitting the brake much harder than you'd ever expect to do, knowing the car will stick.

Anthony also described how taking a fast corner more aggressively actually helped grip because it flattened the tyre during the turn. This increased the surface area of rubber in contact with the track, which is exactly what is needed when the car's experiencing lateral forces.

Armed with all this guidance, I was back out on the track. There was a spin and it happened at Turn 8. I'd clipped a curb with too much throttle applied bringing the back end around mercilessly.

But as the laps passed, confidence grew. I fought the wheel less and the 100m boards marking my braking points became easy to pick out. The real test was keeping the throttle planted through turn 11, knowing that the car would stick to the track.

Every time the car exited the last corner and lined up for the straight, my eyes flicked down to the wheel to check my laptime. I'd got below the 1'50s and into the 1'49s -- even the 1'48s. It was a matter of stringing together good times through all the sectors -- ie not screwing it up.

Back in the control room, progress was being monitored and thankfully progress was being made. Below is a bit of raw video of the pros giving their reaction during the last few laps. Apologies for the red tint at the start:

Three quarters of the way through the session, I glanced down just at the wheels kissed the edge of the curb out of Turn 16....and suddenly realised this could be a good time. The car seemed to take ages to get past the timing line even though I was flat out in top gear and pushing towards the rev limiter.

Eventually the timer tripped and up popped my best time: 1minute 47.859 -- great for me. An arm shot out of the car in celebration and a cheer went up in the monitoring room behind. 3.2 seconds off the pace of Anthony, and a bit of pride pulled back! Check out our respective telemetry below ... mine is represented by the black line traces.

I spent nearly an hour reeling off more than 20 laps of the Barcelona Grand Prix circuit. I was conscious of getting hot, with sweat dripping into my eye, but continued until told the session had ended. Only when I got out did I realise that my shirt was completely drenched and hastily was handed a bottle of water and T-shirt.

That experience taught me, at least, the immediate benefits of a simulator to a racing outfit. Familiarisation and honing technique for a particular track saves a considerable amount of money and time wasted by not being pulled out of gravel traps. Ultimately, nothing will replace the real experience of actually being in the real car ... of course it can't. But what also cannot be ignore is that the virtual experience is edging ever closer to that ideal.

Finally, shot a bit of video on my mobile phone, in which you can see Anthony doing a few laps of Monaco. The video is a bit "sticky" because it's on a mobile but it still gives you an idea of the simulator. You'll notice the right hand tyre looks like it is not attached to the car, that's because it is correctly rendered on screen relative to the position of the driver in the cockpit. Watch at 720p if you can.

The news pieces are due on November 6th, the weekend of the Brazilian Grand Prix, on BBC Breakfast in the morning and Inside F1 on the News Channel at 1945 GMT.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Following on from my VT with Anthony Davidson, I've written a piece for the BBC's F1 website detailing the differences a little bit more.


In the body of the text is a link to a video of a speed trace of me (in red) and Anthony (in black), showing how our speeds differed at those particular points on the track. In this video I'm driving. Notice how he brakes much later and takes the last two corners much faster!

Sunday, 29 August 2010

What Makes a Racing Driver

My piece on what makes a racing driver went out yesterday on the BBC. In case you missed it, here it is:


Over the next few days will be writing a blog digging into the telemetry more and relating it to the relevant points on the track. Should be a good read for racing aficionados.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Taking on the Green Hell

A friend from the kart club is selling his Carrera 4S, so what better way to part company than a trip to the Nordschleife in Germany, a 13-mile track used by car manufacturers for testing and ordinary punters for a blast.

As you can see, it's a tricky, twisting circuit. Not sure I'd feel comfortable tackling it, certainly not in my old VW diesel anyway.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Leading Light in F1 Catches the Karting Bug

Tony Fernandes, Team Principal of the Lotus Formula 1 Team, is karting's latest enthusiast. He's bought himself two RK1 machines decked out, of course, in Lotus colours.


From his twitter page: "My new go kart. Never to late to start. Jarno heikki watch out. Dare to dream. Only abt 40 years after lewis started. "


"My pair. Just in case we have hydraulic issues hahahaha."

Along with his huge interests in Formula 1, Tony Fernandes is head of AirAsia, Founder of the Tune Group and a loyal West Ham fan.

It's great news for a sport which not only is the starting point for many of today's F1 stars, but remains a highly-challenging discipline in itself. It is no surprise that Michael Schumacher returned to karting last year to prepare himself for what was expected to be a return to a Ferrari race seat (his neck injury stopped that Ferrari drive from eventually happening).

Schumacher's a huge enthusiast and this video is what got me into karting. The power to weight ratio of some of these machines is huge, allowing them to go from 0-60mph in three seconds and top 120mph at some circuits. The absence of power steering and the large forces on drivers in corners make them physically one of the most aggressive machines to drive. All adds up to tremendous fun.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Formula 1's Slowing Down

Here's an interesting fact about the world's premier racing series: it's been slowing down over the past few years. I had a look at the fastest average speeds per lap going back two decades. The circuit I've chosen is the quickest on the F1 calender, Monza in Italy.

This is a track which pushes engines hard. With its long straights Monza is a good test of outright speed to make comparisons between the years. Excuse my poor graph-producing abilities, but here's the evidence:

Have a look at the period from 2004 onwards. The big "blip" in 2008 was the very wet race (when Sebastian Vettel recorded his maiden F1 win) so should be discarded. However, the trend over the past six years is pretty clear and fits with the desire to cut the top speeds for safety and improved reliability.

These average speeds partly reflect the changes in engine regulations and their reliability. The 1990s saw big 3.5L V10 units in cars, before capacity was reduced to 3.0L in the mid-90s. These evolved until they were rumoured to top close to 1,000bhp by 2004.

By 2006, engines were further reduced to 2.4L V8 units which today pump out about 730-750bhp. Current engines are much more reliable thanks to advanced manufacturing techniques and an 18,000 rpm limit.

The next big change will come in 2013. Engines will be further reduced to four cylinder 1.5L units, but boosted by turbos again, mirroring those monsters of the 1970s and early 80s (where some reached 1,300bhp in qualifying format).

Worth noting too the return of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems next year. By 2013 they'll be highly developed units and extremely efficient at retrieving energy from the braking cycle.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Improve Your Life: Start Motor Racing

The title of this latest blog sounds like a well dodgy bit of advice. But there could well be more than just a ring of truth about it as I discovered this week.

I returned to squash after a break through injury. It's been six weeks since I last played and was itching to get back into the game. Usually after a break like this fitness suffers and so defeat is likely.

My squash partner, Mick, plays a couple of tables above me in the league and usually beats me 3-2 when I'm match fit. He's been playing continuously during my absence.

Yet on Tuesday, to my surprise, I only lost by three games to two. I put that down to luck. We played again on Thursday night and quite remarkably I won the match 3-0. After securing victory, we played on but as my speed and stamina fell through the floor we levelled at three games all.

We continued on and a second wind gave me another two games and we finished that evening at 5-3. It was a great session. I was hitting nice volley drop-shots just above the tin with good accuracy and predicting the ball much more. The odd thing is, this sort of stuff should not be happening after a six week break.

Now I naturally assumed Mick was having an off week, as we all do. But he remarked my play had significantly improved, in particular I was thinking a lot harder about the shots as if I had more time for the shots.

That last bit got me thinking on the way home. The only sport I had continued was karting. Could that have improved my play? Once home, I had found an interesting paper written for the British Journal of Sports Medicine by a team from the University of Potsdam in Germany.* "Reactivity, stability, and strength performance capacity in motor sports" examined the reaction times of racing drivers in the 2005 GT Sports Car Championship. They looked at the entire Porsche GT3 factory team. These guys were compared with non-racing driver athletes of the same age and build to see what could be gleaned for training.

Generally the professional racing drivers had at least an 11% improvement in reaction times over their "control" counterparts. Hardly surprising because drivers with good built-in reactions are those who are most likely to succeed in the sport.

Negotiating a fast right hander as it starts to rain, pulling some nice Gs too. Picture a video grab from GoPro Motor Sports Wide camera mounted to radiator

I wanted to know if motor racing -- in my case karting -- could improve reaction times, so I pinged off an email to Dr Heiner Baur, who co-wrote the report.

He replied: "The reaction time is pretty much predetermined in absolute terms. Your karting (or your squash matches) might improve decision making in game/driving situations.

"The pro drivers we are dealing with - at least some of them - are also quite good squash, tennis or a basketball players. Fast decision making is therefore a crucial factor."

And now the interesting bit. If decision making is improved for sports, what's to say that that improvement cannot be applied across other areas in life? After all, decision-making capabilties are vital in everything we do if we can demonstrate that we correctly react to the information we receive in a fast manner. Certainly food for thought.

A word of warning though to end this piece. The improvements to your life by taking up motor racing are likely to be seriously outweighed by the hit on your wallet to fund the sport!

* "Reactivity, stability, and strength performance capacity in motor sports" by H Baur, S Muller, A Hirschmuller, G Huber, F Mayer. Br J Sports Med 2006;40:906–911.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Silly Season of F1

August must be the most annoying month for Formula 1 teams. They force themselves to go on holiday for two weeks (to "keep spiralling costs down"), stopping all development and literally closing the gates of the factories. Some teams even disable their email servers to prevent people from not enjoying themselves.

Yet this enforced exodus happens at just the wrong time and this year is a classic example. We're two thirds of the way through the season and suddenly it's a three horse race for the championship. Ferrari's decided to get focused at Maranello. McLaren's been left rather embarrassed by their performance at one of their strongest circuits and Red Bull's taken a big step forward, courtesy of another gem from the hat of Adrian Newey.

Red Bull's flexible front wing, which bends downwards at high speed to boost down force, is the talk of the town. Flexible bodywork on a car is not permitted within the regulations laid down by the FIA. Yet the Red Bull wing passes the governing body's flexi test because the test doesn't put enough load on the front wing during the examination, certainly not the kind experienced by F1 cars at 200mph. The wing conforms to the permitted amount of deflection at a certain load, but at much greater loads bends significantly more to give the performance advantage. There have been suggestions that the front part of the car's floor might even be flexing, allowing the wing to dip towards the ground.

The controversy has prompted the FIA into a rethink after complaints from a couple of rival teams (the real complaint of course being they hadn't thought of it first). Come the next race at Spa at the end of the month, the FIA is reported to have a new test for the front wing. The critical question is how they'll test it, as explained in depth over at jamesallenonf1.com. So there's an awful lot for Red Bull to think about, yet that thought can only remain thought for the bulk of the month with this development break. How annoying.

Amid the silly season, there are serious elements. Michael Schumacher's dart to the right at Hungary, leaving Rubens Barrichello literally kissing the concrete wall at 170mph, earned the German a ten-place grid penalty for Belgium. He said "sorry" to Barrichello, via his website, and that word is pretty rare indeed from Schumacher. It came after what was said to be a "disappointing" performance from Schumacher at the stewards' inquiry. He escaped disqualification from the race only because the incident happened just a few laps from the end.

But the absence of work can be just the tonic for the best thoughts for work, so I'm certain F1 teams will return to their factories all guns blazing. And once those minds are properly "interfacing" with their development tools, we will enjoy the fruits of their work with a fascinating end to the season. Well hopefully anyway.

Thanks for reading, time for a snooze...

Friday, 30 July 2010

A Busy Weekend

Looks to be a great weekend of Formula 1 racing in Hungary, where the Hungaroring is similar to a karting track with its twisting, technical elements. Unfortunately for me, I won't be watching the qualifying and racing -- certainly not live anyway -- as I'll be racing in a Rotax karting series in Hampshire.

Looking forward to it too as my CRG is being kitted up with a full telemetry set up for data analysis for speed, throttle position, brake position, GPS position and cornering G-forces. I'm being loaned the equipment by AIM Technologies for a piece I'm writing for Karting Magazine next month. Here's the gear to be fitted first thing in the morning:

And if you want a sample of the sort of racing Rotax karting can deliver, here it is:

Enjoy your weekend!

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Why the Ferrari Furore is Good for Racing

I have discovered a sure-fire way of earning a small fortune to pursue my own very modest racing ambitions. I will relocate to northern Italy and open a bottling plant near Maranello. A swish factory there is oozing so much confidence, it would be criminal not to exploit it.

As the circus makes the 600 mile trip from Germany to Hungary for this weekend's grand prix, the fall-out from the team orders controversy will follow too. Far from feeling contrite, Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro is charging towards the Hungaroring with all guns blazing.

President Luca Di Montezemolo has dismissed last weekend's punch-up as "polemics" and "hypocrisy" (it will be interesting to see if those words are used before the World Motor Sport Council in September). Fernando Alonso yesterday spoke of his "great feeling" at a win which caused consternation around the world.

But the Scuderia is riding high. It now has a car which is doing very well. Its blown diffuser and new front wing -- the latter fitted last weekend -- has helped it slot in between Red Bull and McLaren performance-wise. F1 is all about momentum and if as a team you are unaffected by the sport's prickly politics and can maintain that thrust of success, then more success will follow.

McLaren's Lewis Hamilton spoke with some disappointment about his car's performance last weekend, confirming his belief that it was the number three team on the grid. Their blown diffuser, where exhaust gases are shunted low across the rear bodywork to generate greater down force, hasn't worked quite as expected. Red Bull's innovation at the start of the season is proving tricky even for one of the best-resourced teams on the planet.

There are, however, reasons to be cheerful if you are a McLaren fan. This weekend should see it perform well as the high down force characteristics of the Hungaroring particularly suits its design. It's won four of the last five races here -- the last three were consecutive wins. And McLaren is the constructor with the most number of wins in Hungary. Hamilton loves the track with its twisting, technical aspect ... perhaps reminding him of his karting days.

McLaren is leading both the Constructors Championship (by 28 points) and the Drivers' Championship (21 points ahead of third-placed Sebastian Vettel). This year's points system though means the lead can swap a lot more than previously. With Red Bull snapping at the Woking team's heels, McLaren has to keep a very careful eye on its challengers.

It means one of the unintended consequences of the team orders row is that McLaren gets a benefit in the races ahead. Ferrari is nearly 100 points behind McLaren in the Constructors, so at the moment does not pose too much of a risk. Its performance advantage now -- if continually translated to race successes -- threatens Red Bull more than it does McLaren. And Red Bull remain's McLaren's greatest threat. So Ferrari taking points off Red Bull helps McLaren. Also remember that two drivers in the same team racing hard against each other seriously risks a major loss of points for the team, as Red Bull know all too well from Turkey when their drivers collided.

McLaren believe that once the blown diffuser is working correctly with other new parts on the car, it should deliver another three quarters of a second per lap. That is like adding Wayne Rooney to Bournemouth's starting line-up. Of course all the other teams will be pushing development hard too. But McLaren's rate of development is probably the greatest in the paddock and once focused can turn a dog of a car into a race winning machine, as we all saw last season.

So the team orders controversy is good for racing because it makes at least one championship -- the drivers -- a three horse race towards the end of the season. Fernando Alonso is the annointed star of Maranello. Stefano Domenicali's task will be to ensure he is best placed to achieve maximum points and deliver the Scuderia at least one world title. That task will inevitably take points from Red Bull and McLaren, and the former has more to lose to the benefit of the latter.

But as Murray Walker once commented, anything can happen in motor racing -- and it usually does.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

All for One and One for Ferrari

Eight years ago, on a warm summer's day in Austria, an uncomfortable Michael Schumacher ushered his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, onto the top spot of the podium at the A1 Ring. Minutes earlier, the Brazilian had slowed his Ferrari on the last lap of the race to allow the German to take the win.

The move was ordered by the team to ensure their Number One had the very best opportunity to win the championship. It was a move which effectively told Barrichello he was the support act to a man whose team was built around him. It also landed Ferrari a massive fine and a new rule in the FIA's chunky book of regulations.

Yesterday in Germany, another Brazilian must have reflected on those events of 2002. Exactly a year ago to the day, Felipe Massa was in an induced coma after a near-fatal accident in Hungary. But here at Hockenheim, leading the race, he was being told the words he hoped as a sportsman he would not have to hear. They came from his race engineer and friend, Rob Smedley. They were delivered in a very slow and controlled manner.

"So Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message."

Massa did.

Seconds later, the Spaniard swept past the other scarlet Ferrari. It was a move Fernando Alonso was unable to achieve in the 48 previous laps.

Smedley came back on the radio to Massa: "Ok mate, good lad. Just stick with him now."

Alonso continued on his way, passing the finishing line ahead of Massa and Germany's new wunderkid, Sebastian Vettel.

The Ferrari drivers exited their cars and their body language said everything to hundreds of millions of Formula 1 fans around the world. They moved onto the podium without the kind of celebration one might have expected for the first Ferrari win since the start of the season. The champagne even seemed to have to force itself from the bottles, such was the lack of vigour from the drivers. Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro Principal Stefano Domenicali, always amongst the most affable of team bosses, gave the Brazilian a warm hug for his efforts.

Shortly afterwards, Domenicali was deep in conversation, via mobile, with Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo. Both must have acknowledged the furore which was to follow. Article 39.1 of the Formula One Sporting Regulations clearly states: Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited. It was the rule introduced in 2002.

By this stage the media storm was building to hurricane pitch. Red Bull boss Christian Horner said the incident was the "clearest team order" he had seen. Former F1 team owner Eddie Jordan talked about a "theft" at the denial of the right to watch two drivers race wheel-to-wheel.

Ferrari was called in to see the FIA stewards. Usually when that happens someone -- or some team -- is in for a big bollocking. The fact that only one team was called meant it was little surprise that Ferrari emerged with a $100,000 fine and a referral to the FIA's World Motor Sport Council, a body which can impose unlimited sanctions. That date is set for September 8th.

What this episode demonstrates is the huge pressure on the Scuderia to deliver. No other team is bigger or more closely aligned to Formula 1. No other country more fanatical or vocal about its motor sport than Italy. And no other fans are more demanding of excellence than the Tifosi.

Since Alonso's win in Bahrain, the results have been poor through a mixture of an underperforming car and problems in the race. Back in Maranello, the presence of Luca di Montezemolo at at least one post-race debrief this year signalled the intense desire to turn around Ferrari's fortunes. And only this weekend Stefano Domenicali made it perfectly clear what he expected from all in his team: "Anyone who does not believe that we can win the world championship would do better looking for another job."

Michael Schumacher, with the help of Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, led Ferrari out of the wilderness during the 1990s. By the early noughties it was dominating the sport. But that feeling of success -- despite Kimi Raikkonen delivering Ferrari a WDC by one point in 2007 -- has been absent for too long.

Perhaps the most telling point of yesterday came from Schumacher after the race. Referring to the driver swap on track, he gave a wry smile and expressed his sympathies for his friend and former team-mate Felipe. He told BBC Sport there were "nicer" ways to deliver team orders but added he fully accepted the concept in principle.

"I have been criticised in the past for exactly that and I understand 100%. But at the end of the day you are fighting for the Championship and only one can win the Championship.

"By the end of the year, if you think you would have lost the Championship by exactly that point, you will ask yourself, not only yourself but all the fans and the TV and the journalists and so on, 'why didn't you do so?'

"There's only one target and that's winning the championship."

I have to say, I am in complete agreement.

Friday, 23 July 2010

F1 -- A Technical Season So Far

It’s the weekend of the German Grand Prix and we’re more than halfway through the Formula 1 season. So I thought it might be useful to talk a little about the technical developments on the cars so far this year -- an area which determines who wins and who loses.

An F1 car is never a fully developed vehicle. It’s a permanent prototype, continually evolving in the pursuit of performance within the restrictions laid down in regulations. Every year there are certain areas of car development which dominate the headlines. Last year double diffusers were the hot topic. This year F-ducts and blown diffusers are keeping the teams fully occupied.

To make a car go fast you need two main things. First it’s the engine, which provides the energy, of course. But these days all F1 engines are delivering pretty much the same power -- around 730bhp -- because they’ve been equalised in regulations. They’re also much more reliable than units of years ago because revs are limited to 18,000 rpm.

So if the teams are delivering much the same power, the way they gain performance advantage is through the design of the rest of the car. To deliver speed, you need to design it with high levels of “down force”. Quite simply, this is the ability of the car to be pushed onto the tarmac as it drives along. The car is forced down by the sheer force of fast air running over the bodywork during the lap. The more grip you have, the faster you can go, particularly around corners where most time is made. So at the very basic level, a racing car is an upside-down aeroplane wing.

Delivering down force is an intensive development process involving wind tunnels and specialist computer software to design the car parts. Teams have to factor in how air will flow from the point it first hits the car (at the front wing) -- to the way it exits the car (the rear wing and double diffuser). Air has to be carefully channelled around so that the car gets sucked down. What’s really tricky is that because air is a fluid, its impact on one area directly affects another so design is always a compromise. Also, cars don’t move through the air in one direction, they turn and all this affects aerodynamics.

As I’ve mentioned, two areas are dominating debate this season in F1. The F-duct is a very clever -- and rather simple -- mechanism to give cars greater speed in a straight line. Pioneered by McLaren, it is a device which “stalls” the rear wing down the fast straights. But why would you want to stall the rear wing? Well by reducing the effect of down force in a straight line, you reduce drag. Reducing drag makes the cars go faster.

How this works is this: a pipe is built into the car with a little opening on the front of the car. Air gets forced into this opening, and normally exits via a hole in the cockpit. But, when the driver blocks off this hole by literally sticking his knee over it on the straights, that air passes along the rest of the channel and through to the back of the car, exiting over the rear wing. This additional airflow reduces the rear wing’s aerodynamic properties at the point where you don’t really need it. Reducing the “push down” effect of the rear wing gives the car a little bit more speed, around 5 kilometres per hour. Most of the other teams have now adopted their own variation of this device, with varying levels of success. The beauty of it is that because it is operated by the driver, it does not break strict regulations. 

Another ingenious technique to make the cars go faster has been developed this year by Red Bull -- the “blown diffuser“. Most cars have had the exhausts coming out of the top of the bodywork at the back of the car. When you’ve got your foot hard on the throttle, hot air passes out of the exhaust at a fair lick itself. At the start of the season, Red Bull moved these exhausts much lower so that those fast, hot gases pass between the floor of the car and rear wheels. The reason is that this additional, faster airflow can be used to make the double diffuser device work even more effectively as a down force component. The double diffuser is that bit of bodywork which sits at the very back of the car, close to the ground. It looks like a black coloured upside down tray. It helps the back end of the car to stick to the track, therefore producing more speed through corners.

Red Bull have had the faster car this season and have dominated qualifying. For the first few races, the teams couldn’t figure out how they managed to achieve so much speed amid accusations of running illegal ride-height adjusting mechanisms (which proved not to be the case). It seems a big contributor to their speed has been the lower position of their engine exhausts. In fact Red Bull tried to fool their rivals by placing fake engine exhaust stickers on top of their bodywork, to try to hide their design. They are still very protective of it, as you’ll see on the grid on Sunday when Red Bull mechanics will crowd around the back of the car to try to stop other teams taking a close look. There’s a bit of bravado about that because the teams always have photographers taking detailed pictures of rivals' cars out on the track.

But the blown diffuser design creates additional problems. Those hot exhaust gases are leaving the engine at 900 Celsius -- nine times the boiling point of water. This heat passing so closely over the bodywork can damage it and this is something Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes team has experienced after adopting the blown diffuser on both cars. Red Bull have months of head-start in working on this so have figured out the best way to deal with the heat.

And Red Bull have another ingenious system working in conjunction with the blown diffuser, courtesy of their engine supplier Renault. Another problem with the blown diffuser is that when the driver lifts off the throttle, he also reduces the amount of hot gases coming out of the exhaust. This drop consequently causes a drop in down force at the back of the car because the blown diffuser isn’t being blown. A sudden lack of down force causes instability at the rear of the car. This happens at the worst time for a driver because he lifts off the throttle when entering a corner -- under braking and at exactly the time when you want the car to be most stable.

Red Bull have got round this problem with doing something called “retarding the ignition”. By making changes to the engine mapping, they are able to still have some fast gases coming out of the exhaust after the driver lifts off the throttle, ie when entering the corner. This improves stability at the back of the car for longer, meaning the car can carry greater speed through the corner. But it can only be used once generally because it can put a large strain on the engine, making it more prone to failure. So Red Bull -- and possibly the Renault team -- use ignition retardation on the most crucial lap of the weekend, the last lap of qualifying on the Saturday.

Thanks for reading and I hope this technical insight has provided a little clarity to this aspect of F1.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Michael Schumacher

The man who dominated Formula 1 for such a long time is back in action with Mercedes this season. So far it hasn't quite lived up to expectation with a mixed bag of results. I really wanted him to do well as we're both the same age and it took real guts to get back behind the wheel after three years away. The pressure to deliver for a seven times world champion is immense and it takes a particularly strong character, in my view, to rise to the challenge. So much has changed in the cars since 2006 and the new kids on the block -- such as Hamilton and Vettel --- have shown what talent is coming through.

There was a fascinating interview on talkSPORT this weekend in a show hosted by the respected F1 journalist and broadcaster, James Allen. One of his guests was Eddie Irvine, the former Ferrari driver and Schumacher's team-mate for a couple of years in the 90s. He had huge praise for the German but acknowledged that Schumacher was underperforming. "Maybe it will come out in the winter testing. You can push too hard and pressure gets too much. I just think he hasn’t got the mileage at the moment. You lose a bit of whatever it is that makes you drive a car fast.”

What was particularly interesting was what he said about Schumacher during his heyday. "I used to come in and look at his telemetry and I could not understand how he could go through a corner so fast. It was infuriating. He was amazing when the car was undriveable. Michael could drive a wheelbarrow."

I could just imagine Irvine looking at those graph traces in the Ferrari garage and feeling hugely frustrated. Schumacher's ability to hold the machine at high speed through corners was the key to his success. He always accounted for his ability by saying that he had a natural understanding of where the limits of the car were -- and could keep the car at those limits.

There is a fantastic video on YouTube examining the differences between Schumacher and Johnny Herbert, his team-mate at Benetton. It's from a piece from the BBC's F1 programme and uses telemetry traces to show how Schumacher was faster through corners. His secret -- at least one of them -- was that he is able to maintain a greater amount of throttle through the turn and therefore deliver a greater average speed for the lap.

The technique is far from easy. It pushes the car to the limits of grip, causing microseconds of instability many times through the corner. Schumacher countered this with frequent sharp turns of the wheel to deliver opposite lock to keep the car under control.

Driving genius for sure. I sincerely hope that magic returns this season. His domination with Ferrari was not the most entertaining period for F1 but I do wish just a little bit of it makes a comeback. Talking of telemetry, keep an eye out for an interesting piece I'll be doing in the next few weeks examining what else a racing driver has to deliver raw pace. Thanks for reading my first blog!