Images of Lotus Renault GP’s R31 are all over the internet now, and people analysing the images have noticed that the exhaust exits are nowhere to be seen.

I’m hearing that the car is running an incredibly innovative exhaust system. Rather than routing the exhausts to the rear, the exhaust exits the car at the front, blowing over a front-mounted diffuser to generate additional downforce. If this is true, it would certainly explain the disappearance of the exhaust exits from the expected locations, and would be a major innovation in F1.

More to come.

Gone Fishin’

January 23, 2011

Later today I’ll be packing my bags and moving to London to begin a new job. For the first week or so I’ll be learning the ropes and settling in, and chances are it won’t leave much time for updating this blog.

If everything goes to plan, I’ll be blogging again at the end of the week. It’s that time of year where I like to place a bet on the coming Formula 1 season, so expect a post with my tips for 2011 before the first test in Valencia.

From the moment the first engine is fired up at pre-season testing, to the point the last transporter leaves the final circuit of the season, Formula 1 generates an endless stream of stories, whether reporting on races, politics, technical analysis or otherwise.The amount of data the sport generates reflects the complexity that endears it to a global audience of billions.

Then, as abruptly as it started, everything stops; and millions of enthusiasts, used to being bombarded with more information than they can process, find the flow of stories dries up. For followers of F1, every winter is a winter of discontent, as the off-season descends with eerie silence upon the newsrooms of motorsport publications the world over. As with any addicts forced to go cold-turkey, the fans are grasped by something akin to madness.

Take McLaren’s recent announcement that their 2011 competitor, the MP4-26, would launch in Berlin on February 4th, missing the Valencia test. Across the world on motorsports forums, Formula 1 fans dying for news whipped up a storm over the car’s late debut.

With the power of Moses parting the Red Sea, the announcement divided the legions of forumers into two groups: those who felt it was an early death-knell for McLaren’s 2011 campaign, indicating the team had fallen terminally behind schedule; and, in opposition, those who felt it was a clever strategic ploy, hiding an innovation like 2010’s F-duct from the other teams for as long as possible.

Taken at face value, the announcement was nothing remarkable, certainly not worthy of the tin-foil hat response it provoked from many. Historically, several successful cars, including the machines which won the last two constructors’ titles and the best car McLaren ever produced, missed the beginning of pre-season testing, a fact which seems to have been overlooked by the harbingers of doom. Likewise, there’s little in the announcement to suggest McLaren have struck upon the next all-important innovation that must be kept from prying eyes.

It’s a small story reflecting a sensible decision. There is a compromise to be made between the time spent developing a car and the time spent testing it, with more development time available to those who miss the early tests. With much reliability testing now possible in-house thanks to advances in technology, on-track running loses some of its significance;  while the need to homologate tubs, with no development possible mid-season, gives teams extra incentive to develop the chassis as far as possible before setting their designs in stone.

Many were quick to dismiss the development  time McLaren bought with their late debut as negligible, but the nine days between the beginning of the Valencia test and the Jerez test amounts to 2.5% of a car’s yearly development cycle.  To put that into perspective, Sebastian Vettel’s pole position in Abu Dhabi was 0.03% faster than Lewis Hamilton’s. In a sport measured in thousands of a second, nine days is nothing to sniff at.

Everything points towards it being a minor story, one which shows McLaren to be taking a calm and considered approach to their 2011 campaign. In the madness of the off-season, there will always be those who try to blow such stories out of proportion to fill the gap left by the circus. Inevitably, some end up looking like clowns.

It’s a frequent sight in modern Formula 1 – a driver gets close enough to the car infront to slipstream him down the straight, but just before he’s built enough speed to pass, he hears the all-too-familiar sound of a V8 engine bouncing off its rev limiter at 18,000rpm.

It’s one of the reasons overtaking in the pinnacle of motorsport is such a rarity. To squeeze every last tenth out of the car, mechanics pick gear ratios so that cars hit the rev limit in top gear at the fastest point on the track. The result is that, while slipstreaming reduces a car’s drag, theoretically increasing its top speed to allow overtaking, in practice the cars’ speeds are limited by gear ratios chosen for different circumstances. If longer gear ratios were used, giving the cars enough headroom to slipstream, it would impair their performance in clean air.

The FIA’s latest solution to the overtaking issue is to introduce an adjustable rear wing, capable of shedding drag while in the tow of another car to make passing easier. Already, people are voicing concern that, because a car’s top speed is decided when its gear ratios are chosen, the loss of drag from the adjustable rear wing will have a negligible impact on overtaking. A closer look at how the FIA have chosen to impliment the adjustable wing reveals this needn’t be a problem.

In brief, the cars of 2011 will be equipped with adjustable rear wings which, when activated, will shed a considerable amount of drag. In races, these can be deployed when a driver is within a second of the car in front, at a point on the circuit designated by the FIA. Concerns over how the rear wing will impact on gear ratios seem to stem from the assumption that the FIA will choose the straight where the cars reach their highest speeds as the deployment zone.

The FIA has an inglorious history of shooting itself in the foot, but choosing the longest straights for the rear wing would be quixotic even by its standards. Consider this: at a particular circuit, cars reach their top speed of 300kph at the end of straight A. With the rear wing activated, the theoretical drag-limited top speed rises to 315kph, but because of the gear ratios picked before the race, the car starts bouncing off the limiter at 300kph.

At straight B on the same circuit, the cars reach 280kph before they hit the brakes. If the rear wing were activated on straight B, the cars would now reach 295kph at the end of the straight; more than enough to pass cars without the wing activated, without threatening the rev limiter. If the FIA wishes to avoid an almight headache for teams, and a potential embarrassment for itself, it will place the deployment zone away from the fastest point on the track, be that on the second-longest straight or otherwise.

Of course, these concerns could well turn out to be academic, as unrestricted use of the wing in qualifying means teams may well choose gear ratios which allow them to hit top speed with the rear-wing activated on the longest straight (315kph, to use the example above). But if teams compromise their Saturday performance by choosing shorter gear ratios, it could pay dividends on race day, when activation of the rear-wing is restricted.

Formula 1 teams are no strangers to striking a balance between compromises and, come Bahrain, the adjustable rear wings will be one more variable in an ever-growing list. The key question is whether commentators will be able to make sense of it to the fans.

Formula 1’s regulation changes in 2011 could be a blessing for McLaren – and not for the reasons you might think.

When changes in the regulations are announced, it inevitably leads to discussions about which teams will benefit. Logic states that the ban on the double-deck diffuser will favour Red Bull, whose RB5 was easily the fastest of 2009’s single-deck diffuser cars; while the reintroduction of KERS should favour McLaren, whose system was the best of the teams that chose to run it two years ago, and have a year’s head start relative to those who didn’t.

If 2009 showed anything, however, it was that a good KERS unit was no substitute for a competitive aerodynamic passage. Downforce is king in modern Formula 1, and it’s unlikely the marginal differences between KERS units will decide which car takes the title in 2011.

While McLaren’s MP4-25 rarely set the pace in 2010, it nevertheless had an aggressive aerodynamic package. After its introduction in 2009, the double-deck diffuser quickly became the single largest generator of downforce on an F1 car. McLaren expoited this more than any other team, focussing its design philosophy on maximising the effect of the diffuser.

Even a layman could see that the MP4-25 was a long car relative to its opposition – a conscious design choice by McLaren to maximise the area of the floor capable of generating downforce. The diffuser itself was huge, its design intricate, fed by gaping holes in the floor made possible through loopholes in the regulations. It was a very different approach to eventual champions Red Bull, and made it one of the most radical cars on the grid.

Eliot wrote “in my beginning is my end”; and so in the first seeds of the MP4-25’s design philosophy laid the shortcomings that would be its downfall. By focussing more on underfloor downforce than their rivals, McLaren also created a car that was far more sensitive to pitch. In order to keep it within its narrow operating window, the car had to be run with incredibly stiff suspension. The result was a car that jumped at the first sight of a bump, as shown by the team’s lacklustre performance over the uneven surface at the season opener in Bahrain. The MP4-25’s ability to generate underbody downforce may have been its greatest strength, but this inadvertently created its most crippling weaknesses.

From 2011, the double-deck diffuser is banned, meaning the relative importance of the floor to cars’ aerodynamic performance will reduce. Inevitably, this will lead to a shift in focus towards upper bodies and wings to generate the majority of a car’s downforce. Strange as it may sound, this may be a blessing in disguise for the team from Woking; by forcing them to shift focus away from the floor and towards the upper body, it’s almost impossible that the MP4-26 could have the same weaknesses as its predecessor.

By banning double-deck diffusers, the 2011 regulations could well save McLaren from itself.

Why Red Bull needs KERS

November 26, 2010

The 2010 season is over, with Red Bull stamping their claim to being among Formula 1’s elite by taking both championships at the end of a thrilling season. Looking toward 2011, one of the key regulation changes is the reintroduction of KERS after a year’s absence. If they want to challenge for championships in a third consecutive year, it is essential that the Milton Keynes-based team equip their RB7 with the energy recovery system.

The reason for this lies in Red Bull’s peculiar way of winning races. As a general rule, there are three ways to win a race. The most simple method is to qualify at the front and maintain that position in the race. If that fails, cars in front can be passed through clever pit strategy. The third method is to pass on track. If all three fail, it’s a matter of hoping the cars ahead run into trouble.

Of the 21 races over the past two seasons won by teams other than Red Bull, roughly half were won from the front, with the rest earned through a mixture of pit strategy and overtaking, often – as with Hamilton in Canada – within the same race.

Red Bull, on the other hand, have their own way of winning. Of their 15 victories, 11 were won by the driver leading at the first corner. Two further victories, Brazil and Abu Dhabi in 2009, fell to drivers who were second through the first corner, only for the leader to retire. The remaining two, Germany 2009 and Hungary 2010, were won through pit strategy. None of Red Bull’s victories has involved a competitive overtake.

To reiterate: no Red Bull has ever overtaken another car to win a race.

That statistic speaks for itself, but it’s a lot more difficult to explain why that should be the case. Do Newey’s cars dislike running in dirty air? On-board footage of Vettel in Turkey and Belgium shows the RB6’s wing becoming curiously unstable when moving out of another car’s wake. Or is it the drivers, neither of whom has a great reputation for overtaking? Ultimately, it’s an academic question, as neither the driver line-up nor Newey’s design philosophy is likely to change for next year.

The RB6 was such a dominant qualifier that this was never an issue. 15 pole positions, equalling Williams’ and McLarens’ record for a season, meant there were more than enough opportunities to win from the front. Enough, indeed, to win both titles.

In 2011, however, KERS returns to the sport. If Red Bull run without the energy recovery system, then pole position will no longer be a guarantee of leading into the first corner. At the Nurburgring and Spa Francorchamps in 2009, the KERS-equipped Hamilton and Raikkonen respectively were able to gain four positions by the first corner against cars running without the system. If either McLaren or Ferrari (or, indeed, Mercedes) is able to build a car which can qualify consistently within the top five, they’ll have every chance to deny Red Bull the early leads upon which their successes have been built.

The easiest way for the boys from Milton Keynes to avoid this awkwardness would be to build the RB7 around a Renault-sourced KERS unit. If, however, they choose to run without it, there’s every chance Vettel and Webber will have to pass the likes of Hamilton and Alonso to earn their wins next year. There are those who doubt the newly-crowned champion’s skill as a racer; 2011 may just give Vettel the opportunity to silence his critics.

With the season building to a captivating close, the standings in the Drivers’ Championship create the possibility for some intriguing scenarios at Abu Dhabi this weekend. Here’s one which raises some interesting questions.

Imagine this: on Saturday, qualifying  is business as usual, with Vettel leading Webber in a Red Bull front-row lockout. In third sits Hamilton, fourth Alonso, fifth Massa, with Button sixth. Hardly a fantasy grid, as that was the qualifying order in Valencia, save for Kubica pipping Button to sixth.

Everyone gets a good start, and for the first stint the front-runners lap in the same order as they qualified. At this stage, the championship is provisionally Alonso’s, but realistically Webber’s: a fourth place from Alonso would rule Vettel out of the championship, so the German would likely let his teammate through to take the title in the closing laps. Again, nothing unbelievable about this scenario.

After a long first stint, with the fresh tarmac at the Yas Marina circuit proving kind on tyres, the front-runners pit. Except Alonso, like his teammate in Brazil, has a problem during his pitstop. The issue drops him to almost the back of the field.

This is where things get interesting. With Alonso out of the points, a Vettel win is enough for him to take the championship. The German would be  equal on points with Webber, and would take the  title on countback. Suddenly, Sebastian is in the pound seats.

This leaves Webber in second, needing to pass Vettel for the title, with nothing to lose by crashing out. It would be a nightmare scenario for Red Bull. With no love lost for either his team or his teammate, there would be nothing to stop Webber having a go.

This leaves two drivers with a dubious track record for overtaking battling for the lead with nothing to lose. If Webber is close enough to Vettel on pace, or a late safety car bunches up the pack, it makes it almost inevitable that the Australian would lunge for the lead.

Now imagine a repeat of the incident in Turkey. Webber gets his nose up the inside coming into Turn 1, and is briefly leading the championship.  But the two Red Bulls come together, and are both taken out of the race. It’s happened once this year, and could happen again.

Now Hamilton leads – again, not unlikely given his dominant qualifying pace in the 2009 race – and, with Alonso still struggling past midfielders, that gives him the Brit the provisional championship lead. Massa holds a strong top-ten position – where, exactly, isn’t important – as the race enters its final lap, with Alonso a distant 11th.

Hamilton crosses the finishing line, both he and the team celebrating his second championship victory. But the Formula 1 world’s collective jaw drops as, rounding the final corner, Massa pulls into the pits and parks his Ferrari. Under orders from his team, the Brazilian removes himself from the running, gifting the final point to Alonso, who now crosses the line 10th. The Spaniard draws equal to Hamilton on points, and takes the championship by virtue of having won more races.

An unlikely scenario, admittedly, but not an impossible one. Certainly, it’d raise a lot of questions: was Red Bull’s refusal to favour Webber naive? Do the points Alonso gained at Hockenheim after being allowed past Massa deny his third title credibility? Has the new points system worked?

If anything, the scenario shows just how much potential Sunday’s race has to be one of the most memorable – and indeed, controversial – season deciders of all time. Bring it on.

McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton retired from the Singapore Grand Prix last Sunday following a collision with title rival Mark Webber.

The collision, which occurred as Hamilton attempted to pass championship leader Webber, meant the British driver has failed to finish for the second time in two races. He is now third in the championship, having been leapfrogged by race-winner Fernando Alonso.

Despite qualifying within 0.2 seconds of pole, in race trim Hamilton’s McLaren had no answer for the pace of Alonso’s Ferrari or the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel, who pulled away from the rest of the field in a race-long duel.

After a clean opening lap from which the frontrunners emerged in the same order they qualified, the order at the front was established, with Alonso leading from Vettel, Hamilton some distance behind in third, pursued by Button and Webber.

Webber gambled on a contrary strategy to his championship opponents, pitting early after contact between Vitantonio Liuzzi and the returning Nick Heidfeld brought out the safety car. The gamble paid off, as both McLarens emerged from the pits behind the Red Bull. Alonso still led by a narrow margin from Vettel, but now the order behind him was Webber, Hamilton, Button.

The safety car was brought out for the second time after Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, which had impacted a wall, was collected by the Hispania of Bruno Senna. When the race restarted, Webber’s hesitation while passing backmarker Lucas Di Grassi allowed Hamilton to get a run on him down the straight.

The two cars entered turn seven side by side, and made contact as Hamilton, on the outside line, turned in. The McLaren picked up a puncture which forced Hamilton’s retirement from the race. Webber’s Red Bull was able to continue, picking up the final podium position.

The collision was investigated by the race stewards, who took no further action after judging it a ‘racing incident’.

“I’m still not exactly sure what happened with Mark and me,” said Hamilton following the race. “Telling it from my point of view, I saw that he’d made a mistake, and had got caught up with the backmarkers, so I was in position to slipstream him. I was on the outside going into Turn Seven, and he was in my blind-spot, just behind me.

“I thought I’d got sufficiently past him, though. I braked, turned in, and tried to leave enough room for him on the inside – and the next thing I knew I’d got clipped, my tyre was blown, and that was it. But, as the saying goes, I guess that’s motor racing.”

With four races remaining in the season, Hamilton trails Webber by 20 points, with a maximum of 100 points still available. The championship resumes next weekend, at the Suzuka circuit in Japan.

It didn’t take a psychiatrist to see that Sebastian Vettel was frustrated in Hungary. From his exasperated arm waving during his drive-through – not an easy task in a cramped F1 cockpit – to running into the board marking third-place in parc fermé, Vettel’s feelings were clear before he opened his mouth and removed all doubt at the press conference. After setting a dominant pace in qualifying and making a good start, Vettel couldn’t get over the feeling that tripping over a little-known rule had denied him certain victory.

It’s questionable whether that frustration is justified. Yes, the rule was an unusual one, and a sympathetic fan could forgive him for his ignorance over a small detail in the vastly complex regulations. Yet the fact that the rule has been so rarely brought into practice shows just how unusual Vettel’s behaviour under the safety car was – and not for the first time.

The young German has always taken an idiosyncratic approach to leading the field when racing has been suspended. Whether on formation laps or under the safety car, Vettel tends to lead at a crawl. The difference in Hungary is that Vettel wasn’t leading – at least, not in terms of absolute track position.

Although Vettel wasn’t in the lead of the race, he would have known that the only driver in front of him, Webber, still needed to pit. In the back of his mind, Vettel must have known Webber was out of position, and so acted under the safety car as if he were the race leader. Hence Vettel slowed to a crawl, backing up the pack, as we’ve seen him do many times while leading under the safety car. Vettel’s tendency to do this has always seemed odd. This time, it caught him out.

Vettel’s mistakes continued after the safety car went in. While Webber set about building a cushion between himself and the rest of the pack, Vettel was lapping at the same pace as Alonso. That he had pace to spare is beyond doubt: when the team instructed him to speed up in anticipation of a penalty, he immediately found 0.7 seconds a lap. Which begs the question: why wasn’t he doing that before? If Vettel had driven at that speed from the moment the safety car pitted, he would have been far enough infront of Alonso to rejoin the track in second after his penalty.

There are many reasons Vettel might have been running below the pace his car was capable of. Suggestions he was holding up Alonso to build a gap for Webber seem unfounded. Horner denied any such orders were given and, in any case, Vettel’s radio was (at best) working intermittently. Saving fuel would be another reason to back off, but Webber was able to drive flat-out for much of the race, and one imagines the two Red Bulls would be on similar fuel strategies.

Perhaps, then, Vettel simply allowed his concentration to slip, or felt there was no point in pushing when it seemed he had the win in the bag. We’ve seen before that Vettel is not a driver who pushes at 100% unless he feels he has something to gain by it. At Silverstone, when an unplanned pitstop to replace a punctured tyre placed him at the back of the grid, his pace suggested he simply couldn’t be bothered to push the car to its limits, knowing the win was beyond his grasp. Only the safety car roused him from sluggishness, as he picked up the pace when he closed up on the back of the field.

Vettel said after the race that the win should have been “a walk in the park” for him. It’s that feeling of having already won, of entitlement, that may have led his mind to wander behind the safety car – so, too, to lap seven-tenths slower than the car was capable of when, in hindsight, he needed that time most. To put it simply, it was Vettel’s feeling that he’d already won the race that may have cost him that victory.

Vettel’s claims that he should have won seem odd, considering he led only 15 of the race’s 70 laps. It suggests he feels his performance in qualifying, and strong start, entitled him to the victory. Yet races are not won on Saturday, nor on the first lap,  but only over a full race distance. If Vettel wants the victories he feels he deserves in the future, he’ll have to be willing to fight for them: not for 15 laps, but for 70.

Red Bull’s utter dominance in qualifying, at a track where overtaking is a rarity, suggested today’s Hungarian Grand Prix would be a tedious affair. While the chequered flag fell to a Red Bull, the race was anything but predictable, raising many talking points as Formula 1 enters its summer break.

After Ferrari’s actions at Hockenheim prompted a week of debate on team-orders, qualifying in Hungary saw action on track return to the limelight. While Red Bull have been nothing short of dominant in qualifying in this season, their performance in Hungary saw their hegemony emphatically reasserted. Locking out the front row with ease, the leading Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel qualified 1.2 seconds clear of third-placed Alonso’s Ferrari, with the red cars comfortably ahead of championship leader Hamilton, who would start from fifth. The 2008 champion had reported vibrations in the car during his reconnaisance lap, but following a check by his team, started the race without further action.

The notorious difference in grip between the clean and dirty sides of the Hungaroring grid led to a shuffling of the order at the start, with Alonso leapfrogging Webber into second. Hamilton encounted Webber coming into the first corner and, backing off harder than necessary, was passed by Petrov’s Renault. Hamilton was able to retake fifth from the overly-cautious Russian on the second lap, after which the order until the first pit-stops was established: Vettel in the lead, pulling away from the pursuing group of Alonso, Webber, Massa and Hamilton.

The race took an unexpected turn when, as the first cars began to pit for tyres, the safety car was deployed to clear a front-wing endplate which had fallen from Liuzzi’s car. The result was an incident-strewn dash to the pits, in which Sutil’s Force India collided with the Renault of Robert Kubica while a wheel which had worked itself free from Rosberg’s Mercedes ricocheted through the pitlane. Remarkably, no-one was seriously injured.

The first round of pitstops shook up the order at the front. Webber now led, but was yet to pit. Vettel and Alonso followed, but Hamilton took fouth from Massa after the Brazilian had to queue behind his teammate in the pits. The most significant effect of the safety car was not immediately obvious: as the safety car drove around the final corners before coming into the pits, closely followed by Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel – whose attention had wandered, and whose failed radio had left him unaware the safety car was returning to the pits – lagged far behind.

With Vettel holding Alonso, and Massa unable to challenge Hamilton, the only question seemed to be where Webber would emerge after his pitstop. Webber, who – unlike second placed Vettel – needed to push as hard as possible, started to open up a sizeable gap between himself and the rest of the field, aiming to build a sufficient cushion between himself and the pursuing pack that he could reemerge in first or second.

At this point, Vettel was radioed by his team with the news that he was being investigated by the race stewards for his behaviour under the safety car, and that he should pull out a gap from Alonso in case of a penalty. Regulations state that, during a safety car period, a driver must remain within ten car-lengths of the car in front, and Vettel had fallen much further than that behind Webber. He was soon notified he would have to serve a drive-through penalty. Just how much performance the German had in reserve became obvious: as soon as his team gave him the call to speed up, Vettel pulled out seven tenths a lap over the Spaniard.

As Webber continued to pull out a lead, pushing his option tyres further than anyone had during the weekend, Hamilton parked his car at the side of the circuit. The vibrations he had felt on the way to the grid had returned, only this time the effect was fatal. A gearbox failure cost him a good chance at a podium finish.

Eventually, both Red Bulls came into the pits, Webber to change tyres, Vettel to serve his penalty. Webber’s strategic ad-libbing had paid off, as he rejoined comfortably ahead of Alonso, but Vettel dropped to third. While he gave chase to Alonso for the remainder of the race, maintaining a distance of under two seconds to the Ferrari, passing proved impossible, and the race finished in that order: Webber from Alonso, Vettel and Massa.

The frontrunning teams were followed home by three drivers who put in season-best performances: Petrov continued the strong form he’d shown all weekend to take an important fifth, Hulkenberg drove well to finish sixth, while De La Rosa scored his first points of the season in seventh. Eigth for Button concluded a dismal weekend for McLaren, while Kobayashi’s remarkable charge through the field meant he finished ninth after starting from the back row.

The biggest story of the weekend, however, was provided by Barrichello and Schumacher’s battle for 10th place in the closing stages of the race. The German led the Brazilian, but Barrichello’s had the benefit of a fresh pair of tyres after gambling on a long first stint. Barrichello made a series of failed overtaking manoeuvres on the more powerful Mercedes before finally getting a run on Schumacher into the start/finish straight.

As Barrichello drew alongside Schumacher, the German moved right, forcing the Williams driver within inches of the pitwall at speeds nearing 200mph. In a radio message to his pitwall, Barrichello described the incident as “horrendous”, calling for Schumacher to be black-flagged. The seven-time world champion was investigated by the stewards after the race, and will suffer a ten place grid penalty at the Belgian Grand Prix in four weeks’ time.

For the first time at the back of the grid, all three of the new teams recorded double finishes, despite the race’s high attrition rate. As the circus packs up for its summer break, Red Bull now lead both championships, and the top five drivers are separated by 20 points – less than a race win. With seven races to go, the result of the 2010 championship remains anybody’s guess.

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