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!