Archive for the ‘Drivers’ Category

Ferrari announced that Felipe Massa will be driving chassis number 294 in Sepang, as opposed to 293 that he used in Melbourne. This, by itself, is not major news. Teams do tend to go through a couple of chassis throughout the year. What’s interesting however is the wording that Ferrari used to justify this decision. They said: “This choice was taken to clear up any doubts about the unusual performance of his car during the weekend at Albert Park”.

This statement striked me, because there have been no suggestions whatsoever anywhere in the press (printed or online) that Massa’s Australian predicament was down to a defect chassis, there was therefore no need for Ferrari to go public with that. Ferrari’s decision to use the words “clear up any doubts” implies that, to them, it’s not an issue and that this has been an internal confrontation, apparently between Massa’s side and Ferrari management. Ferrari, though, go a step further and state that: “Felipe knows he can count on the team to do everything, both from the technical and the operational point of view, to put him in a better state to show off his talents – even at the cost of extra work in these few days that separate the Australian race from the one in Malaysia”.

To me, this reads like a disclaimer a lawyer would have written, and definitely not a simple team announcement. I read it like a direct message to Massa: we give you everything, we even respond to unreasonable demands at the cost of extra work, so it’s up to you to deliver. I am not used to Ferrari conducting (thinly veiled) dialogue with their drivers in public, so I am very concerned that the above statement is a prelude to the oncoming Massa’s replacement. It appears Ferrari have had enough, and are willing to go public just to make sure everybody understands it’s not the car’s fault, but Massa’s. If the situation inside the team was harmonious, then I would have expected a very simple and to-the-point statement, such as “Felipe Massa will be driving chassis No294 in Sepang”, and nothing more. The way the statement is written can be useful when terminating a contract, because it puts on records that: (a) the team have gone over and beyond their normal procedures to assist Massa, (b) they have done so at an extra cost in terms of man hours and shipping and (c) Felipe is aware of that.

All this additional seasoning makes me suspicious.

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From today’s press conference:

Q: (Andrea Cremonesi – La Gazzetta dello Sport) We will have six World Champions in this year’s championship but no Italian drivers. Most of you raced in Italy in go-karts or drove for an Italian team. May I have a short explanation about this situation, why it’s so difficult for the Italians to grow up and come into Formula One?

DR: (Speaks mock American-Italian!) If you watched Family Guy you probably know what I’m talking about.

Yes we do, Daniel.

Discussing Michael Schumacher’s driving style is challenging, because his career spans 3 decades or, if you prefer, 23 years (including the 2012 season) – 20 years if we take out the 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons. Considering that the official F1 championship started in 1950, this means that Schumacher’s career covers 31.5% of the time that we had a F1 championship. To get a better understanding, Schumacher has raced (and won) against drivers representing many generations of F1 drivers; to name but a few: Stefan Johansson, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, Jean Alesi, David Coulthard, Mika Hakkinen, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Eddie Irvine, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel… It’s fair to say that people come and go in Formula 1, but Michael is always there. Which makes the fact that he’s still competitive and he’s still racing at (near) the top, an extraordinary feat, unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the history of the sport. There are F1 drivers that joined the sport as promising rookies when Schumacher was already an established figure, and are now retired old-timers, like Jacque Villeneuve, Olivier Panis, David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, Eddie Irvine, Jos Verstappen, Mika Salo, Giancarlo Fisichella, etc… It sometimes hard to understand: no one would consider Jacques Villeneuve, for example, for a race seat in 2012 – it would be a folly. Nevertheless, Jacques joined F1 in 1996, i.e. 5 years later than Michael, and has retired in 2006 (i.e. 6 years ago and long overdue), yet Michael is still racing, which is a testament of a unique combination of sheer talent, determination and love for the sport.

That’s quite a long introduction to the subject of driving styles, but people need to understand that Michael has driven a large variety of F1 cars in his time, and, as we explained in our previous blog, a driver needs to adapt his driving style (sometimes drastically) to suit different cars, tracks and tyres characteristics. It would be silly to suggest that Michael is now using the same “style” as his did when he was racing the 1991 Benetton. However, there are things that never change, and they have to do more with the way a driver deals with the physics involved and his setup preferences. For example, Ralf Schumacher was a late braker; Jarno Trulli was the opposite. Jenson Button brakes earlier than Rubens but he is more progressive. Mika Hakkinen prefered a later turn-in than David Coulthard. Senna blipped the throttle in the middle of the corner, Schumacher was never really off it. Kimi Raikkonen is superb in weight-transfer situations. Ronnie Peterson couldn’t even park a car without power sliding it, etc, etc. The most important thing though that defines a racing driver is his feel for the limit, and we will expand later on that.

The principles of driving a F1 car haven’t changed dramatically from the past. Prost has said that the ideal setup is one with an inclination towards understeer, which preserves the rear tyres and makes the car predictable in fast corners. What Schumacher (and other great drivers in the past) has been able to do, is to drive with the same efficiency and speed cars that were not perfect, or to his absolute liking at all times. We mustn’t forget that Michael’s most spectacular season was 1997, when he fought for the championship in a car that was desperately temperamental, against much stronger opposition, and he would have won it had it not been for his radiator failing in the last race at Jerez, while leading the race.

Michael drove some difficult and temperamental cars in his career. People tend to forget that cars in the 90’s and early 00’s were completely different beasts to contemporary F1 cars, which are extremely well designed, predictable, and have huge amounts of driveable downforce. We have now reached a point that a driver can make little difference in lap times (certainly much less than in the past). The cars don’t twitch under breaking, don’t power slide, you can’t miss a gear change and you can’t over-rev the engine. But it was a different story back then. Up until 1998, Schumacher used to out-qualify his team-mates by 1 -1.5 seconds on average, each year. In fact, he out-qualified every team-mate he ever had from the end of the 1991 season until the start of the 1996 season, with the exception of the 1995 Belgian GP when it started to rain and Schumi hadn’t set a lap in the dry. He qualified 15th and still went on to win the race in spectacular fashion. Can you imagine spending almost 5 years without being out-qualified by another driver driving the same car as you? The reason I have mentioned these old times is because it makes much more sense to talk about Michael’s driving style up until circa 2004 than it is to talk about today. And I am afraid that I will have to follow Peter Windsor’s advise and not post any footage this time, because it’s illegal according to FOM (you can however search for yourselves in YouTube and find many gems).

So, what was it that made Schumacher so special? First, it was the purely visual element; Michael was a spectacular driver to see, especially in a hot lap, from the outside. It was a bit like watching ballet as opposed to bull fighting. The car was dancing around, but in a very premeditated, pre-calculated fashion. And if we watch his onboard laps, it’s easy to understand why. Michael, despite popular misguided opinion, was (and still is actually) a driver who prefers understeer, because he simply understands that this is where the lap time is coming from and that this is the ideal way to set up a car. In fact he is arguably the best driver in the history of the sport when it comes to dealing with understeer, as many team-mates he’s had in the past have attested to (Brundle, Irvine and Rubens). Ferrari, as a result of this, had always been (since 1999) a very stable and well-balanced car throughout Schumi’s reign, that always tended to understeer rather than oversteer at corner entries.

His main advantage was that he was able to carry huge amounts of speed into a corner, by using a gradually increasing steering lock as opposed to gradually decreasing left-foot braking. The interesting bit was that he was able to slide the car at the exact apex of the corner, timing this brief transition from understeer to neutral-steer to perfection. This transition wasn’t a result of something he did (e.g. wheel movement or application of brake) but it was more a natural transition from one state to the other that simply relied on physics and car setup. What was spectacular about it was the timing, since this slide would almost always take place on mid corner, so when viewed from outside it was a very fluid and natural movement, as if the car slid just this tiny bit in order to embrace the apex of the corner.

To accomplish that, Schumacher was rarely off the throttle completely, and even when he came back on it, he was very progressive and gentle – the first since many generations of drivers to achieve that. Popular belief, again, has Senna blipping the throttle inside the corners, in an on-off manner, and that’s true, but what many people don’t realize is that almost all drivers in F1 were just like that back then. Hakkinen, Berger, Coulthard, Alesi, Hill, Herbert, etc all used on-off throttle in the corners, but Michael was the first driver to take car control-by-throttle-usage to that different level. As a result, this slide at the apex of the corner, (which some have called “4-wheel drift” but I prefer to call neutral-steer), gave Michael a very significant advantage in positioning the car for the exit, by straightening the car very early. Michael never used extreme reactions to correct this slide, because it was all premeditated, just a small decrease of the initial steering lock, usually to the neutral position, which again made the transition from the apex of the corner to the exit extremely fluid and, to the onlookers, to appear as one movement. Not only the car, but the front wheels and the steering wheel were in perfect position to put the power down for the exit.

As a result of the above, Michael was indeed the first driver in the history of the sport to have maximized corner entry, apex and exit at the same time. If you like, he was the first driver to apply the fast-in, fast-out driving style. In fact, in order to be entirely accurate, we have to say that there were times when his apex speed was not the absolute fastest because of all the things that were going on at this stage, but overall he would be much faster than anybody else exactly because he didn’t have to compromise any speed either at corner entry or at corner exit. This relentless, absolute driving style required a very necessary ingredient: a very good and consistent feeling for the limit. Like we discussed in our previous blog, Alonso was able to drive the way he did in 2003 – 2006 because he had a very good feeling of how much the car was going to slide and at what exact point it would regain its grip. For Michael it was the same story, only more so, because he had to maximize all parts of the corner. His incredible, instinctive feel for the limit allowed him to drive like the way we described, using the slide to position the car and hardly ever using all the kerbs at the exit, simply because he was so nicely positioned for the straight that he didn’t have to. The only driver that has approached, ever since, this kind of driving style perfection is Lewis Hamilton, but not nearly as consistently as Michael who could do that one lap after the other, for an entire race.

This uncanny feeling for the limit came to the fore every time the track conditions were wet. Schumacher’s wet races from that era are legendary, and he used to thrive in changing weather conditions when you had to trust your instinct on how much grip is available before you commit yourself to a corner. His most spectacular race ever was the Spanish Grand Prix of 1996, when he lapped the entire field up to 3rd position, and then just cruised around to collect the 10 points (for victory, at that time); this remains the single most convincing display of natural talent and dominance I have ever seen in a F1 car. Of course there are many more examples of wet race dominance, like Spa 1997, Spa 1998, Monaco 1997, Nurburgring 2000, Spa 1995, etc, etc. Back then, when the track was wet, Schumacher wasn’t aiming to win the race, but to humiliate his opponents, something for which he paid dearly on occasion, like for instance in Spa 1998 when he crashed at the back of David Coulthard while trying to lap him. In addition to that, Michael was an extremely cunning racer, who could adapt to almost anything that a race threw at him. In 1994, for instance, in the Spanish GP, he lost all gears (from a 6-speed gearbox) except 5th, with 40 laps to go, whilst leading the race. Michael used this feeling for the limit and his knowledge from driving heavy sports cars to bring the car home in 2nd position, including 2 pit stops where he had to get the car going in 5th gear… When he mentioned that he’d lost all gears but 5th in the press conference after the race nobody believed him, and Benetton had to show to the press the telemetry from the car in order to convince them.

So, there you have it. If I had to characterize Michael according to his driving style, I’d call him the great Calculator. Watching him drive in his prime was like watching art. It was this spectacular visual element that made me want to become more involved with the sport and understand what’s hidden behind it. A lot of people tend to disregard Schumacher’s achievements, by arguing that he had subservient team-mates and superior machinery. These opinions never made me angry; they made me sad instead, because it is sad to not be able to appreciate the beauty that Michael has brought to the sport. Appreciating Michael as a driver has made me love the sport even more, and it is simply depressing that other fans are missing on that.

And what about today, I hear you ask. Well, Michael today is not the driver he used to be, by any stretch of the imagination. And this is painfully obvious in his driving style, which is a far cry from his driving style of old. The problem does not lie in reflexes, because this has never been Michael’s strongest point. There have been slightly better drivers than him in that department in the past; it wasn’t just quick reflexes that made Michael faster than anybody else. What is missing, at this point, is this tremendous feeling for the limit – this sense that every move, every correction and every slide is a calculated, analyzed and premeditated action. You can see that from his onboard laps; Michael is more hesitant, his movements are not fluid and his reactions are edgier. Michael’s reactions are just that: reactive. It’s true that the Mercedes W01 and W02 didn’t help, but Rosberg was much more stable and fluid in his driving and, as a result, faster. This loss of feeling was also obvious in qualifying, not because Michael was slower than Nico, but because it took him 2 or 3 laps in each qualifying session to find his groove, whereas Nico was bang-on-the-money from his 1st hot lap. A better car, as we all hope that the W03 is, will surely restore some of his confidence and will allow him to drive better, but it will not be able to restore all the characteristics that made Michael such a unique talent in the history of motor sport.

Schumacher has lost so much of his talent over the years, he is 43 years old and has spent 3 years away from the sport. The fact that he’s still with us and that he outraced Nico in 2011 is a testament, if one was needed, to a truly spectacular and unique driving talent. It also speaks volumes for his love of the sport, for Michael truly adores F1; he’s a hardcore petrol head through and through. And, just for that, we can but love him.

I have always been fascinated by the differences between driving styles, and the effect that they have on lap times, tyre degradation, consistency and, of course, spectacle. Endless articles and opinions have been recorded on the subject, however the leading authority on the issue remains Peter Windsor (twitter: @PeterDWindsor / The Flying Lap), who has over the years published some fascinating articles on the subject, where he compares different driving techniques and styles. To anyone seriously interested in the subject I’d wholeheartedly recommend following him and trying to find old issues of F1 Racing for which he once worked for as Grand Prix Editor.

My own fascination with driving styles started at a very early age, but I was able to get a deeper understanding once the internet started booming and I got access to numerous onboard laps posted online in various websites. Old timers will fondly remember the various sites that offered onboard laps, like the f1-gp.ru and F1 seasons, at a time when FOM couldn’t or wouldn’t appreciate the F1 fans’ thirst for quality and specialized footage. Those were the days of the dial-up connection, and I remember downloading at 1.5 or 2.0 Kbytes/sec. Those were legitimate speeds back then – it took more than 2 hours to download a 10MB clip, and if you account for all the dial-up connection crashes, it could take your whole day. Things got only a little better around the year 2000, when I was near the completion of my Master thesis, which meant I had access to decent (by the standards of that time) connection speeds in Uni, so I was going back and forth carrying backpacks full of 3.5″ diskettes with zip files – and oh, the horror of realizing once back home that one of the 85 diskettes containing a 150MB Avi race was corrupt…

Anyway, I digress. My point was that it’s a real shame that FOM still doesn’t understand or appreciate the importance of providing this kind of footage freely to the public or, even, at a fee that most hardcore F1 fans would be willing to pay. They have the footage after all, why not use it? If I were them, after each race, I’d be posting online download links for the entire race from onboard cameras, so that fans can select their favourite driver and pay a reasonable amount of money to see the entire race from his cockpit; the same could be done for qualifying. If the content was made available by FOM, I’d be willing to pay to get it.

Despite their inability (and unwillingness) to provide us with onboard footage, I have been able to scrape together a very decent collection over the years. What really strikes me every time I go back to this collection, is the incredible development in driving styles that has taken place over the decades. Most people tend to compare drivers between eras – internet F1 forums are filled with fans endlessly arguing about whether Fangio was better than Senna, and if Jim Clark was more naturally talented than Schumacher. The truth is that the conditions are so different in between eras that any meaningful comparison is not possible.

The reason is that the requirements from a racing driver change dramatically in between eras. Let’s see the factors that change throughout eras and, in turn, affect the driving style and skills:

1. Tracks: Racing circuits have changed significantly since the days of Rouen and the old Nurburgring. Gradually, throughout the decades, the tracks became wider, with accommodating kerbs at the corner apex and exits, smoother tarmac, bigger run-off areas and, of course, dramatically different layout philosophy. As the track gets wider and the kerbs become larger and more accommodating, drivers tend to explore the limits more, and use different racing lines.

2. Cars: The vehicles’ characteristics throughout the years changed dramatically. From cars that relied heavily on mechanical grip, to turbo-charged monsters, ground-effect and, of course, the playstation-like cars we have today, which are more heavily relied on aerodynamics than any time in the history of the sport. Comparing drivers from different eras is like comparing cars and trying to argue which is the fastest. The reality though is that it takes a very different set of skills to drive a 1955 Ferrari than to drive a 2012 Ferrari, or driving a turbo BMW-powered car with 1400 BHP to driving a 2006-spec F1 car, with 850 BHP and all the electronics turned on. It’s not a matter of difficulty, since in all cases you are driving to the absolute limit, but it is a case of different skill characteristics required from a driver. We often see drivers thrive one year and then struggle the next year, only because the aero balance has changed, so imagine how out-of-place Fangio would have felt in the 1988 Honda-powered turbo McLaren, or Schumacher in Jim Clark’s Lotus.

3. Drivers: Drivers themselves change, and the level of driving constantly changes from one year to the next (usually increasing). F1 used to be a niche sport, reserved for a handful of talented drivers complimented by rich aristocrats, empire heirs and journey men. Not only has this all changed, it’s now a much more athletic sport, with a larger pool of talent to rely on. As F1 grew through the years, more and more young kinds got into grassroots motor sport. The success (and untimely death) of Ayrton Senna, generated a lot of interest in the sport, which really took off during the Schumacher / Ferrari domination years. As a result, drivers are just as hardcore athletes as any track athlete out there and, more importantly, more kids are involved with the lower levels of motor sport which means that, when it comes to talent, F1 is spoilt for choice.

4. Tyres: Tyres have evolved as well, from the tall and thin Firestone, Dunlop and Pirelli tyres of the early 50’s, to the monstrous Michelins of the 80’s, the grooved Bridgestones of the early 00’s and now the Pirellis again, the tyres have evolved along with the sports in leaps and bounds. Making a tyre “work” is, arguably, the most important skill of a F1 driver, and (just like cars) we’ve seen drivers struggle from season to season, with tyre characteristics changing only be relatively small amounts. Truly great drivers, like Schumacher, can understand and work with tyres for many years (the length of 3 or 4 careers for an average F1 driver), but even these drivers have their limitations, because the skills you acquire and hone are not necessarily transferable from one generation of tyres to the next, or from one generation of cars to the next for that matter.

It’s important to understand that changes to the sport are not so slow and progressive as we sometimes think. Starting from the subject of tyres, it’s interesting to examine the way Fernando Alonso took maximum use of his 2005 and 2006 tyres, to gain an advantage not only against his team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, but to the rest of the opposition as well. The Renault F1 cars of that time had very particular characteristics, such as a rearwards weight balance which gave to the car very good traction out of the corners. More importantly, Renault, in collaboration with Michelin, had developed a suspension tailor-made to the very specific characteristics of the Michelin tyres.

Michelin, by the end of 2003, already had a better tyre than Bridgestone, with a more square profile that offered a significant wider contact patch, and more grip. The, let’s say, disadvantage of that philosophy was that the grip was not very progressive – especially in slow to medium corners there was a “bite” point for the front tyres that offered higher grip in comparison to Bridgestone, but was arguably harder to switch on. Also, the squarer profile meant that turbulent air coming from the tyre was more disruptive to the car’s aerodynamics. Bridgestone, on the contrary, traditionally had a much rounder tyre, which was a result of years of evolution in collaboration with Ferrari, with a view on minimizing the aero effect of the spinning wheel to the rest of the car. Although Ferrari tended to struggle in tracks with predominant mechanical grip (such as Monaco, Hungary and Monza), this was definitely a successful recipe as evidenced by the 5 WDC’s and 6 WCC’s between 1999 and 2004.

The different tyre philosophy of Michelin gave their teams an opportunity, i.e. an area of development that Ferrari couldn’t tap into. The first and only team to take advantage of that to the maximum degree was Renault. Flashes of the brilliance of the Michelin – Renault combination was evidenced as far back as 2003 (with Alonso’s stunning Hungary victory in which he lapped Michael Schumacher) and their 2004 domination of the Monaco grand prix, amongst others. It was just a matter of time for Renault to catch up with Ferrari on the aerodynamics department (i.e. minimize the disruptive effect of their square tyres), and this happened in 2005 and 2006. We must not underestimate the effect that the ban on tyre-changes during the race had on this overhaul of the F1 pecking order, because Ferrari and Bridgestone struggled massively in 2005 with tyres that had to last a race distance.

Fernando Alonso was the Renault driver who took maximum advantage of the Michelin tyres, and one can see the evolution of his driving style from 2003 and during 2004, working towards the perfection that of 2005 and 2006. It was fascinating stuff, watching a driver adapt to a tyre characteristic from one season to the next – a sign of brilliant skill and dogged determination. But let’s take a break here, and see an example of what we are talking about, to get a visual understanding:

As we can see in the above video clip, the first glimpses of Alonso’s trademark driving style are there (2003), however there some significant ingredients missing, like rear end grip and aerodynamic downforce coming from the car, and even Alonso himself is a bit hesitant in some corners, as if he’s lacking confidence on how the car is going to react. Let us compare what we saw with the following lap from 2005, and do some analysis:

As you can see, Alonso uses a lot of initial steering lock, causing understeer during corner entry. This kind of understeer is not coming from the car so much, as it is induced by Alonso on purpose. He uses an extreme slip angle (i.e. in layman’s terms, the difference between where the tyre is pointed and the car’s trajectory) to bring the car to the apex by sliding the front end. As a result, he tends to brake and turn a little bit earlier. This is quite obvious in corners 01, 05, 07, 09 and 14 (the last corner). An interesting phenomenon is the extreme wobble of the external front tyre, which is a direct result of the extreme slip angle utilized. However, it seems that Renault have tuned their suspension to operate that way, and Alonso is using it to the extreme. Note this wobble on the front right tyre at the 1st corner, and then also note how this phenomenon is gradually reduced as the lap goes on and the tyres pick up temperature.

The most interesting point of observation is the “bite” point that we discussed before. You will notice that once the Renault hits this bite point, Alonso immediately decreases the steering lock and gets on the throttle. As a result, he is much earlier on the throttle than other car/driver combinations and he has a hot, switched-on tyre for the apex and exit of the corner, taking full advantage of Renault’s superior traction. If we focus on turn 07 (the long, uphill right hander immediately after sector 01 and before the infamous turn 08), you can see the extreme initial steering lock (and induced understeer) at 00:41 and the bit point which comes a bit before 00:42. I have heard many fans argue that it is relatively easy to drive like that – you just “whack” it into the corner, and as soon as it bites you’re on the throttle.

I am afraid it’s a bit more complicated than that, for two main reasons. The first reason has to do purely with geometry; trajectory, if you prefer. What Alonso is doing is counter intuitive, i.e. instead of driving the car into the apex, he is sliding with the front end towards it instead. As a result you must have a perfect understanding in advance of how much the car is going to slide, to hit the apex perfectly. And if it’s hard enough to do it with a settled F1 car, imagine how difficult it is to do it like that. In fact, Alonso only barely misses two apex in the 2005 lap – the one at turn 09, but he gets a decent exit nevertheless, and the one at turn 12, at the end of the long straight, which was due to wind from the back that made him misjudge his braking point. You must also possess a great feeling of what the tyre is doing, to always be on top of that initial slide and understand the bite point as soon as it manifests itself.

The other reason has to do with oversteer. In order to drive like that, you need a very strong rear end, that will remain planted, no matter how much you are “hacking” the steering wheel. Furthermore, you need to be incredibly alert inside the corner because it’s very easy for this understeer to turn to snap oversteer at the bite point. Since your hands are already committed to a very big steering lock, it’s difficult to make small corrections to the oversteer once it exhibits itself. As an example of that, I am showing you the following lap, which is from Silverstone qualifying in 2006. You can see after he goes under the Bridge and as he turns into Priory towards the end of the lap, the kind of oversteer that we are talking about, which he is able to correct with tiny corrections on the steering wheel and by cutting the corner slightly.

As we all know, Michelin left the sport in 2007 and Fernando moved to McLaren which had a completely different design philosophy and driving characteristics. Fernando had to adjust within a very short period of time to a driving style he hadn’t used since, basically, his 2001 Minardi days. Despite all the negativity that surrounded his 2007 season and the off and on track shenanigans, he managed to make this transition smoothly and still be at the sharp end of the grid, fighting for the championship until the last race. It’s this kind of adjustments and ability to adapt to very different requirements that separate the great drivers from the merely good ones.

In our next article we will be taking a look at Michael Schumacher’s driving style and how it evolved from his Benetton years, to Ferrari and now, in the twilight of his 2nd career, in Mercedes.

Maldonado’s Williams topped the time sheets today, with a laptime of 1:22.3, which is further proof that (a) we should not pay attention to it and (b) we expect the top teams to be able to go possibly into the 1:20’s. Today, however, saw Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button embark on a full-race simulation, Schumacher completing 67 laps and Button 66 (typical Barcelona race is 66 laps long). Mark Webber was also on a similar program, however he did not do a full race distance (50 laps in total, including in and out laps). We have isolated these runs and present them to you in the following figure (as always, you can click on it to enlarge):

Long stints today for Mark Webber, Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button

Let’s focus on the McLaren Vs Mercedes stint for an instant, because they seem quite comparable. Both completed the same number of laps and both did 4 stints (actually JB’s first stint was cut in half, but we’ll consider it as one). The data are in the table below. The laps include the in and out laps of course, and the average laptimes disregard the peaks (which may represent either the driver easing up or facing traffic).

Comparison between Schumacher's and Button's race simulations

As we can see above, it seems that Mercedes are quite close to McLaren’s pace, although we can’t tell who’s ahead at the moment. We don’t have solid information of the tyres used (we believe that MS started on softs and moved on to the hard option, whereas JB started on the medium), and we don’t know the condition of the tyres (where they used, scrubbed in, brand new, etc). We also don’t know exactly how much the drivers were pushing, and whether they were using KERS (I presume they were, since KERS reliability is something that also needs to be tested). All in all, however, Mercedes’ long stints are much better in comparison to their 2011 pre-season testing, and let’s not forget that the other teams had one extra week in Jerez to get their cars dialed-in. An interesting observation has to do with tyre degradation; with the exception of the last stint, Button’s McLaren seemed to keep its tyres in better shape throughout the stints than Schumi’s Mercedes and Mark’s Red Bull. Again, it could be a factor of how hard the drivers were pushing, but overall we can see that Mercedes are there or thereabouts.

Red Bull’s pace, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult to decipher. Theirs was not a full-race simulation, therefore if Mark’s 3 stints are compared to MS’ and JB’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd stint, then Red Bull was massively faster today. If, however, they are to be compared with MS’ and JB’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th stint (which is what I believe), then we have the following picture:

Schumacher Vs Button Vs Webber

As you can see in the average lap times for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th stint, Mercedes is a bit faster. Of course, that’s not a conclusion; it’s not even an observation. But it’s an indication that Mercedes are not far off the pace (if at all). I am afraid, once more, we cannot decipher Ferrari’s lap times, because they were on completely different testing schedule, doing shorter runs and focusing, again, in data acquisition. Hopefully we’ll get more from them tomorrow.

Stay tuned…

According to reports in the media, Charlie Whiting (FIA safety delegate and head of F1 technical department, among others) is off to Jerez amidst concerns about the legality of the 2012 cars. An article in Marca newspaper suggests that Whiting is concerned by McLaren’s exhaust location because it was camouflaged and embedded in a strange bulge of the engine cover, and also from the fact that the diffuser was blanked.

Frankly, it’s common for Whiting to attend some of the pre-season tests, which is part of his routine schedule in preparation for the normal season. Furthermore, teams don’t need to comply with the technical rules to the letter during pre-season testing, as long as they fulfill a certain number of criteria set out in the technical and sporting rules published by the FIA every year (for instance, F1 cars must have passed all crash tests in order to participate in testing, which is a change from previous years).

On a more specific note, the exhaust “bulges” on the McLaren is nothing extreme and doesn’t indicate anything illegal; Ferrari are doing the same thing, more or less, by moving their exhausts as outboard as possible, but they use different bodywork fairings to accommodate the sidepod cooling outlets in the same place. As for the blanked diffuser; most teams had their diffusers blanked and it’s not a cause for concern.

During pre-season testing, the teams will spend a significant amount of time checking each other’s solutions and taking notes. The real huzzah will be at the first race, when all the protests and requests for explanation start piling up in Charlie Whiting’s e-mail inbox. I have yet to see anything in any of the cars unveiled so far that suggests illegality, but we’ve only seen just a few pieces of the puzzle. As testing goes on, the cars will grow different things, several of which will come under the FIA’s technical scrutiny. It’s nothing new and nothing to get excited about (yet).

In the meantime, Caterham has announced that their reserve driver for 2012 will be the Dutch driver Giedo van der Garde, who has held a similar position in the sport back in 2007, when he was the test driver for Spyker. His connection with F1 dates back to 2003 when he became part of the Renault F1 young drivers scheme, and then in 2006 when he joined the McLaren Young Drivers program. A decent racer in lesser formulae, he’s a good addition to the team. This leaves a question-mark over Vitaly Petrov who was allegedly going to replace Jarno Trulli in Caterham, with Trulli taking up test and reserve driving duties, as well as being groomed for an ambassador to the brand. In my opinion, the 2012 grid is still open and we may well yet see Petrov take Trulli’s place in the last moment.

If you haven’t heard yet, Jules Bianchi is moving to Force India, to take up the 3rd driver role and participate in Friday free practice sessions. The Frenchman, who comes from a family with racing pedigree (his grandfather was 3x world champion in the GT category and his father’s brother was a winner of Le Mans and a F1 racer from 1959 – 1958) has an ongoing collaboration with Ferrari. He is managed by Nicholas Todt (also a manager of a certain Felipe Massa) and has climbed the motor sport ladder in convincing fashion. From karting, to French Formula Renault champion, to Masters of Formula 3 winner, to dominating the F3 Euroseries alongside team-mates Valtteri Bottas (2012 Williams’ 3rd driver) and Esteban Gutierrez (2012 Sauber’s 3rd driver).

His Ferrari association peaked when he participated in the 2011 Abu Dhabi Young Drivers test, where he displayed maturity and speed. However, his meteoric rise to the top seems to have stalled a bit, following two consecutive fruitless seasons in GP2 Asia and GP2 Series, which yielded few race wins or poles and no championships, against decent but not mouth-drooling competition.

Bianchi had the option to remain in GP2 for another year, but his move to Force India makes a hell of a lot more sense. To start with, another season in GP2 would not have guaranteed a championship, and in that case the perception of him by the F1 circus would suffer as a result.

Furthermore, Force India are known to test drivers who are seriously considering for a race seat. He is, hence, going to a team who will consider him for a driver if he delivers the kind of performance and maturity that they expect. His contract with FI allegedly assures at least 9 Fridays of running, which is a great opportunity for Bianchi to get some exposure and put his name out there, next to some decent laptimes.

Once cannot help but consider the possibility that Ferrari had a role in this deal and that they will be monitoring the young Frenchman’s performances very closely. In my opinion, it’s an indication that they have started to accept the fact that Massa will not continue in 2013 and are preparing all the alternative solutions. One is Sergio Perez, who has acquitted himself nicely in his rookie year. Mark Webber is the 2nd one, and now Jules Bianchi could be the third, but definitely not for 2013 (Ferrari won’t take a rookie) but for the years to come, provided Jules does well and lands a race seat in 2013.

Anyone else sees Perez moving up to Ferrari and Bianchi stepping in at Sauber? Kobayashi should be alarmed with the news of Bianchi signing for FI’s, for it’s his job on the line in 2012. Sauber will be happy to go with Gutierres and Bianchi if Kamui doesn’t show considerable steps of improvement, particularly in qualifying which remains his weak spot.

According to F1 enigma (writing for the Greek site “Go Car” – you can find the like here, but it’s in Greek), the list of witnesses to testify in Sutil’s trial has been given to publicity and it does not include Lewis Hamilton, who has requested to be excused (a request which was subsequently granted, arguably with prosecution’s consent who would probably not want to see one of Sutil’s close friends on the stand).

Some names that are listed are:

Jerome d’ Ambrosio – Ex F1 driver for Marussia Virgin team.

Emma Brixton – That’s how she’s spelled at the Greek site, but I presume they are referring to Emma Buxton, who worked as contact press officer for Force India at the 2011 Australian, Malaysian, Chinese, British and Indian Grand Prix’s.

Manfred Zimmermann – Adrian Sutil’s manager

Youssef Hammad – I’ve never heard of before.

Eric Lux is also, obviously, called as a witness. The trial, which is due to take place on January 30 and 31 will more or less determine whether Adrian Sutil will have any future dealings with F1. One also has to wonder whether Caterham’s delay to announce that Trulli won’t be driving for them, as well as HRT’s delay in naming a 2nd driver has to do with waiting for the outcome of the trial.

Time will tell.

I presume you are all aware that Kimi Raikkonen has started testing with Lotus @ Valencia this week. The team use the 2010 car with last year’s tyres, in an effort to bring Kimi up to speed, i.e. familiarize with the electronics, the tyres and the various procedures. Reports state that Kimi completed 300 kms yesterday (23.01) and will do another 400 kms today.

At this point, it is clear that Lotus aren’t testing anything meaningful for the 2012 season. They can’t do that with their 2010 machine and it would make very little sense. It’s all about assessing Kimi and helping him find his feet. However, the team (as per the Article 22.3 of the FIA Sporting Regulations) are limited to 15,000 kms of testing, per calendar year. A chunk of that time has already been wasted during the season in straight-line testing and the Abu Dhabi young drivers’ test day. Kimi’s Valencia test means that another 700 kms must be deducted from that amount; 700 kms that have nothing to do with car development or reliability testing. That’s a big chunk of mileage to give away.

Pre-season testing will be crucial for 2012. Many teams will be experimenting with radical exhaust solutions, marginal cooling (just look at all those different sidepod ideas floating about) and other mechanical solutions such as uber-slim gearboxes, liquid mass dampers, etc. Pirelli will also introduce new tyre compounds, which will require testing and understanding. Some teams, if you recall, had problems with some of the Pirelli compounds throughout the entire last season.

At times like this, it’s hard to justify throwing away testing mileage like that. If Kimi turns out to be his pre-2006 self, then it might be worth it. Although I have no doubt with regards to Kimi’s talent or ability behind the wheel, his motivation remains a big question mark. Whether Kimi retains his motivation after a few races fighting for 12th place remains to be seen.

The ideal 2012 grid

Posted: January 20, 2012 in Drivers, Formula 1, Teams
Tags: , , ,

With all the drivers comings and goings, I began wondering what I’d do, if I was a master of puppets, able to position any driver I wanted in any team. That was an interesting exercise, and these are the results. My, let’s say, ideal 2012 grid; the one that would make me sit up and take notice. The one that would provide the most excitement. I mean, let’s face it, we all know in the majority of intra-team battles who’s going to come up on top. It will be Alonso over Massa, Vettel over Webber, Nico over Michael, and so on, and so forth. But I’d go for something like that:

Red Bull : Alonso + Vettel. The two best drivers in the best car. Fight.

Ferrari : Rosberg + Sutil. Both young, battle-hardened drivers, who have shown speed and have been waiting for a chance with a top team for too long.

McLaren : Button + Kubica (healthy). The Polish driver would be formidable. Button would ensure continuity and he’s a great British driver.

Mercedes: Hamilton + Schumacher. Give Lewis a slightly slower car than  the top 3 and watch him drive its wheels off. Schuey would be great for the development of the car.

Lotus Renault : Massa + Grosjean. Give Felipe No1 status in a midfield team and he’ll outperform the car. Grosjean is a GP2 winner and deserves his break.

Force India : Di Resta + Hulkenberg. Exciting pair, I am looking forward to watching them race in 2012, although Nico’s rookie season was a tad underwhelming given his success in junior formulae.

Williams : Senna + Conway. Give Mike a chance; he was faster than Bruno in Formula 3. And I prefer Senna over Maldonado. Ok, bias. Shoot me.

Sauber : Kobayashi + Perez. Yeah, why not. The outcome was inconclusive. I like both drivers, but Perez needs to stamp his authority if he wants to have Ferrari aspirations.

Toro Rosso : Webber + Ricciardo. I am all for Ricciardo getting a shot at it with a midfield team, but it would be better to pair him with a seasoned driver, to maximize his potential and get a better yardstick. Vergne can wait another year.

Caterham : Kovalainen + Buemi. I actually rate Buemi more than I do Alguersuari, and I believe he has a wiser head between his shoulders. He can push Heikki and can help Caterham with their development.

Virgin, HRT : Anybody with money.

Opinions?