Tuesday, 22 March 2016

"If It Ain't Broke Don't Fix It" - Australian Grand Prix Report

After some disappointing races at the end of last year and the long break of winter it was up for Formula 1 to deliver. And thankfully we were in for a classic start to 2016...

New Qualifying Format Flops

Qualifying certainly didn't deliver
As expected the rushed new knockout qualifying format flopped miserably. At first things looked promising. Rosberg made a mistake on his opening lap on cold tyres while Lewis lost track position to Grosjean's Haas while adjusting his seat belts. As the time ticked away teams rushed to get into Q2 and there was an air of excitement and good track action. However major flaws started to show in the next two sessions. The ever ticking clock was not allowing drivers in the pit lane enough time to set another lap. To add insult to injury there was no final shootout after Ferrari opted not to run at the end of Q3. It was judged too much of a sacrifice to compete with the Mercedes for track position than use up another set of tyres. A number of other drivers also followed suit and soon enough a big hole emerged in the logic of this last minute hash-up of the rule book. Thankfully for once there was universal agreement in the paddock - Christian Horner admitting that F1 "didn’t put a great show” and Totto Wolf declaring the new format "pretty rubbish". Talks were carried out on Sunday evening with old qualifying likely to prevail ready for Bahrain in two weeks.

Hamilton Bogged Down As Ferrari Fly

Last summer the FIA rightly decided to increase the skill required at the start of the race. If you've driven a manual car or motorbike you will be familiar with with the point in which you start to pull forward from a stop once throttle is fed and you 'release' the clutch. This 'biting point' as its known can be a bit more challenging to find in an F1 car. Their carbon clutches are strong but sensitive to heat meaning this point is changing all the time. Previously a team would 'learn' the perfect setting with  ''bite point finder' software off the grid and information from practise starts. Feedback  could then be relayed to the driver to preset the biting point for the start of the race. From the Belgium Grand Prix onwards drivers would now have to set the biting point themselves with no feedback and no use of bite point finder sofware on race day. Fluffing your start is now more likely with greater chance of spinning wheels or slipping the clutch. To further spice up the action in 2016 drivers must now also pull away with a single clutch paddle on the steering wheel rather than two. Two paddles allowed drivers to release one to begin the process and release the second once the car gained good traction allowing a smooth get away. Now with one paddle getting good traction off the grid is more of a challenge. Lewis Hamilton came a cropper off the grid as both Ferraris and Nico Rosberg sailed past with ease. Reflecting on this poor getaway Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted the more difficult start procedure "certainly plays a role". He went on to explain that "in the past if you would have a bad start off the line for the formation lap you could see how much the slip was. And if you can't adjust it makes a difference. Yesterday our practice starts weren't very good, and we weren't sure if this would cause a problem in the race. Lewis was a couple of metres worse up to 100m than Nico, but I'm not sure if it was a hardware problem or a software problem, a vibration or a slow reaction. We have to look into it."

Rosberg left little room for his team mate squeezing him wide into the first corner. Now Hamilton was on the back foot losing position to both the Williams of Fellipe Massa and the Toro Rosso of Max Verstappen. Thankfully he kept his fighting spirit and managed to overtake Massa by Lap 3. The Brazilian was caught out by the out of kilter Renault of Kevin Magnussen that had suffered a puncture on the opening lap. Hamilton found a way around the outside and moved back up to fifth. He would have to contend with the Ferrari engined Toro Rosso of Max Vestappen next. Although not as fast around a lap as the Mercedes the significant power of the Ferrari would make overtaking very difficult. In his own words he became "stuck behind this guy" and needed to look at a change of strategy as winning looked more and more unlikely.

Sebastian Vettel had completely aced the new starting procedure with himself and team mate Kimi Raikonnen out in front. However the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg was keeping within a second of the the pair. Rosberg pitted onto the soft tyre on lap 12 and Vettel quickly followed suit, not wanting to lose track position.

Alonso Walks Away From Horror Crash

Fernando Alonso had an extremely lucky escape on the run into Turn 3. Caught out by the closing speed of his McLaren on the Haas of Esteban Guiterrez under braking, the Spaniard clipped his right front wheel at around 190mph. This sent him slamming into the wall and sliding toward the gravel trap. As the car bounced with energy it dug into the gravel trap sideways and flipped. Now reminiscent of Martin Brundle's 1996 accident the car rolled twice in mid air until finally impacting the barrier. In a surreal moment a winded Alonso pulled himself immediately out of the mangled McLaren. "When I stopped, I saw a little space to get out of the car and I went out quickly just to make sure that my mum, who was watching on television at home, could see that I was okay".

Alonso clambers out
The twisted remains were a testament to the safety of a modern F1 car, absorbing maximum energy and protecting the driver. Alonso was clearly affected by the incident, later stating he was "lucky to be here and thankful to be here. I am aware that today I spent some of the luck remaining in life. I want to thank McLaren and the FIA for the safety of this car. I am alive thanks to the job of the last 10-15 years in Formula One."

Unfortunately 15 years ago track marshall Graham Beveridge was not so lucky when Jacques Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher were involved in a near identical incident at the same corner. A rogue wheel fatally wounded Beveridge when it flew through a gap in the catchment fence. A spectator was also injured.

Red Flag Shakes Up Strategy

Pace on the ultra-softs wasn't enough
The resulting red flag had teams having to re asses their strategy with teams allowed to change their tyres before the race restarted. Rosberg could fit the medium tyre which would complete his mandatory tyre usage and get him to the end of the race. Ferrari made a howler of a call which ultimately cost them victory, choosing not to fulfill their mandatory usage and fit the ultra soft. This would mean they would definently have to stop again and lose track position. The superior pace of the ultra soft they banked on didn't last, and as Vettel got further into his stint his lap times were marginally faster than Rosberg on the medium tyre. This wasn't going allow the lead Ferrari to keep out in front after his pit stop and the race win was doomed. To add insult to injury team mate Kimi Raikkonen had worse luck retiring to the pits on lap 22. Flames poured out of the Ferrari air box when it came to a stop as Raikkonen calmly got out. There was an air of frustration and dejection however as he walked to the back of the garage. The excitement of the opening laps had now fizzled out for the Maranello outfit.

Lewis Hamilton and the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo had made up positions on both Ferraris, with Hamilton also managing an overtake and moving up to second on lap 42. Vettel attempted to catch on fresher tyres but ran wide chasing Hamilton 2 laps from the end. The race order would remain with home favourite Ricciardo finising a respectable 4th. A blocked brake duct sent temperatures through the roof on Rosberg's Mercedes towards the end of the race, but he was able to nurse his car home to victory.

Further down Romain Grosjean put in a stellar performance to give the new Haas team a sensational 6th place on its debut. After all the teething troubles in testing this handful of points felt as sweet as victory. There was no love loss between the Toro Rosso team mates with Max Verstappen making contact with Carlos Sainz Jnr a few laps towards the end and spinning. The Dutch teenager had been infuriated with his team's strategy which saw Sainz pit first. Expecting his team mate to move over there was signs of teenage angst when he declared the situation on team radio a "f****** joke'. The pair finished 9th and 10th respectively. Just behind the Brit Jolyon Palmer took a solid 11th place on his debut in the Renault.

Final Result

Pos # Driver
1 6 Nico Rosberg    Mercedes                        
2 44 Lewis Hamilton    Mercedes                 
3 5 Sebastian Vettel    Ferrari                
4 3 Daniel Ricciardo    Red Bull-TAG Heuer
5 19 Felipe Massa    Williams-Mercedes
6 8 Romain Grosjean   Haas-Ferrari
7 27 Nico Hulkenberg    Force India-Mercedes
8 77 Valtteri Bottas    Williams-Mercedes
9 55 Carlos Sainz Jnr    Toro Rosso-Ferrari
10 33 Max Verstappen    Toro Rosso-Ferrari
11 30 Jolyon Palmer    Renault                
12 20 Kevin Magnussen  Renault         
13 11 Sergio Perez         Force India-Mercedes
14 22 Jenson Button    McLaren-Honda
15 12 Felipe Nasr    Sauber-Ferrari 56
16 94 Pascal Wehrlein    Manor-Mercedes

Not classified
9 Marcus Ericsson Sauber-Ferrari
7 Kimi Raikkonen         Ferrari
88 Rio Haryanto         Manor-Mercedes
21 Esteban Gutierrez Haas-Ferrari
14 Fernando Alonso McLaren-Honda
26 Daniil Kvyat         Red Bull-TAG Heuer

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Australian Grand Prix Guide

For UK fans like me it’s time to set your alarm clocks for the Australian Grand Prix. The mix of excitement, tension and sleep depravation finally reaches climax as the lights go out for the new 2016 season!

Carnage in 2002

The Albert Park circuit in Melbourne has hosted the race since 1996, using public roads around a lake in what is essentially a street circuit. Teams enjoy a chilled Australian atmosphere, often hanging out behind the motor homes on deck chairs. As per the nature of a street circuit your car set up and balance is forever changing as the weekend progresses. Dirt, oil and diesel slowly clears as the track ‘’rubbers in’ and the grip level increases. The mix of slow and medium corners interlinked by two straights requires good engine performance. Braking and traction is also of importance. Following the back straight is the high speed challenge of turns 11 and 12, a fast chicane that catches anyone out off line. If you’ve done a few laps here on a computer game you’ve probably enjoyed its flowing nature.  I became very familiar with the layout – mainly because I don’t really progress past the first race on season mode!

Brundle goes flying in 1996
The track is not without its incidents, especially with a tight and challenging run to the first corner. On the first lap of the first race back in 1996 David Coulthard thought he had killed Martin Brundle. Both DC and Johnny Herbert left little room for Brundle’s yellow Jordan on the run to Turn 3. The car made contact and was catapulted into the air. Landing upside down on the tarmac, the car then skidded into the barrier and rolled on impact. Fortunately for Brundle the roll over hoop did its job and he miraculously appeared unscathed. On a more solemn note track marshal Graham Beveridge was not as lucky in 2001 when he was struck by a wheel and killed. An incident between Ralf Schumacher and Jaques Villenueve sent the offending object through a gap in the fence, also injuring a spectator. 

Daniel Ricciardo will be looking for a great result this weekend even if the odds are stacked against him. Although finishing on the podium in 2014 he was disqualified due to fuel irregularities which means no Australian has ever officially finished on the podium at his home race. That said Mark Webber's 5th place in a Minardi back in 2002 surely felt like a win!

Good times for Webber and Minardi in 2002

Monday, 7 March 2016

Observations And Predictions After Barcelona Testing

As pre-season testing came to its conclusion fans and media were debating the future direction of the sport. An unpopular quick fire qualifying format has been knocked up for the new season with little consultation. Cue an online backlash from fans. The old adage 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' springs to mind, especially after the sport missed an ample opportunity to increase overtaking with the 2017 rule changes. The new 'Halo' safety device bought about further debate, its striking shape and form debuting on the Ferrari this week. After a near unanimous agreement for further head protection in the sport after the tragic deaths of Jules Bianchi and Justin Wilson, the very different look of the cars in the flesh stirred emotions. Drivers such as Nico Hulkenberg and Lewis Hamilton were outspoken, with the current World Champion going even further to express his dismay with the new device. "This is the worst looking mod in Formula 1 history. I appreciate the quest for safety but this is Formula 1, and the way it is now is perfectly fine."
Normal Service Resumed

After clocking up significant trouble-free mileage in week one Mercedes continued their impressive form. The team has completed 3743 miles over the two weeks - enough mileage to drive from the Spanish circuit to Moscow! Lewis Hamilton's testing came to an end on Friday morning with transmission failure, the first chink in the W07's perfect reliability. Hamilton remained positive - "I'm kind of glad I broke the car at the end of my final run today because it's better to have found something now than [at the first race of the season] in Melbourne!"
More intricate turning vanes on the W07

The team's ability to prove reliability from the start allowed experimental parts to be bolted on from day two, with the visually striking 'shark nose' and serrated barge boards. Further revisions featured in the final days including new intricate turning vanes, a serrated edge rear wing and 'monkey seat'. As tech reporter @ScarbsF1 points out it seems all these complex arrangements will mean more downforce but also more drag. This is unlike the Ferrari for example which features long, smooth bodywork. The Mercedes W07's intricacies hint at the team sacrificing qualifying and straight line performance for more cornering speed. Red Bull took their car in a similar direction during their dominant days, and with last years Merc being so dominant in qualifying and straight line performance this is a wise decision.

How Close Are Ferrari?

Ferrari tested the new 'Halo' device
With Ferrari sitting at the top of the time sheets over the two weeks their is much hype around this year's 'SF-16H', seemingly named after a jet fighter. The car features some big revisions with to its power unit layout in a quest to beat those dominant silver cars. But with Mercedes yet to truly show its hand its difficult to say how much of the gap has been closed.

The closest indicator we got was Rosberg's Monday lap of 1.23.0 equalled by Kimi Raikonnen on Wednesday - both on soft tyres. With the track ''rubbered' in for the latter, it looks like a few tenths advantage for the Mercedes. But we haven't accounted for exact fuel loads or engine modes making this a very rough and inaccurate comparison. The Ferrari looks quick but is this enough to be competitive?

Best Of The Rest

Williams are eager to make up ground after their unconvincing third place last year, considering their excellent 2014 campaign. Struggling with low speed corners chief technical officer Pat Symonds declared the team made "subsequently making changes, which we hope will improve the situation."

According to Karun Chandhok's track side observations the FW38 has looked squirmish and unruly on long runs, only setting decent times on the soft tyres. On the contrary the Red Bull looks planted and controlled. Perhaps its engine's outright power is the hindering factor.

The gap underneath the tightly packed Toro Rosso Gearbox
Toro Rosso bought their 'B-Spec' car to the second week of testing. The new design features some very aggressive tight packaging, demonstrated by the void between the gearbox and the floor! With Ferrari power this year the team is in the running for some good results.

Force India grabbed the headlines on the third day with a decent 1.23.110 on the soft tyre. The teams fortunes have improved ever since the B Spec debuted in the second half of 2015 and will have 3rd place firmly in their sights.

McLaren Improve - But Is It Enough?

After an encouraging first few days of testing a hydraulic leak followed by a water leak hampered running at the end of week one. Thankfully for Honda their new engine has demonstrated it can actually deploy harvested energy down the length of a long straight. This wasn't the case last year, losing a whopping 150hp while the opposition sailed by with ease.

The MP4-31 adorned Rasta colours
The second week started with more frustration when Fernando Alonso's telemetry systems stopped working just before lunch. Once repaired the car completed 93 laps. Things began to run smoothly, bar a suspension issue on the Tuesday that was quickly repaired. Adorned with colourful high-vis paint the team could focus on important aerodynamic work. McLaren will use this data to bring out a revised aero package for the season opener at Australia. With 2,053 miles completed throughout the entire test, this is world's away from last years dismal 1088 (which featured 4 more days).

Admittedly still down on power the McLaren was found at the bottom of the speed trap times. Furthermore the engine looks like its lacks the driveability of its rivals - the car sometimes snapping and squirming when throttle was applied in medium speed corners. Hopefully all this can be ironed out in time for the season opener in Melbourne and the Woking squad sees its torrid luck change.

'Haas' Some Problems

Haas was bought back to earth in Week 2
Terrible headline pun aside, with its partnership with Ferrari and Dallara there are big hopes for the new American team Haas F1. With experience in running in the NASCAR Sprint Cup across the pond Gene Haas has purchased the old Marussia base in Banbury, Oxford. Their partnership with Ferrari has stirred controversy - with the Italian marque previously exploiting a loophole to use Haas' wind tunnel data. It can only be a good thing for the new team to have some access to the wealth of aerodynamic knowledge at Ferrari.

The new V-F16 had a near perfect debut week for a new team. Apart from a front wing failure on the first day the team had 281 laps of near trouble free running, setting respectable times in the process.

Unfortunately reality was about to bite hard in the second week. A fuel system issue stopped Esteban Gutierrez after only 23 laps of running on the opening day. After the turbocharger was replaced overnight the car was thought to be ready for the Wednesday morning. With just the installation lap complete the turbo was spinning too fast and the car immediately called back into the garage. Even with some technical assistance from Ferrari the car couldn't be fixed in time for more running.

Thursday would prove the most testing when Romain Grosjean bought out three course flags  with brake-by-wire issues. The resulting imbalance sent him to the gravel trap twice. To top it off the car hit a high kerb at the end of the day and shut itself down on track.  Gene Haas admitting he was "a little bit overwhelmed" with the complexity of F1 was perhaps and admission he should have kept to himself.

Looking at the positives the team can enjoy resources and support an outfit like Manor could only dream of. If these reliability woes can be tackled the new car could be a good base for the team to build on.

Gene Haas will be hoping for less trials in 2016