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 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...