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:

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!