Month: September 2014

Issue 33: Singapore Grand Prix Review

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23 September 2014

Race Summary: Lewis Hamilton won a lights-to-flag victory after starting on pole. Nico Rosberg retired with an electronics malfunction. Sebastian Vettel narrowly beat Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso to second place with the Australian and the Spaniard coming in third and fourth respectively. The Williams, Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari and Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren fought for lower points places. Jean-Eric Vergne put in a sparkling drive to claim sixth place.

The swinging pendulum

The Singapore Grand Prix was not a spectacular race, but it was significant, not least for the World Championship. Singapore gave us a further twist in the tale of the drivers’ title as a 22-point lead for Nico Rosberg turned into a three-point deficit after his retirement due to a faulty wiring loom that affected his car’s electronics. Nonetheless, there were still tense moments after Rosberg’s exit, in particular following the race restart on Lap 38 after a safety car period. Would Hamilton still collect the win that had seemingly been handed to him on a plate? The Briton had to pit stop again whereas the Red Bulls and Fernando Alonso immediately behind we’re going to the end of the race. Could Hamilton build a pit stop advantage or would victory require him to overtake? Could Alonso find a way past the Red Bulls or would Vettel and Ricciardo manage to resist? This phase of the Grand Prix was gripping stuff.

On the night, three of F1’s top performers – Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel – showed what they were worth. Alonso dragged his Ferrari into contention for a podium finish, Vettel dug deep to (finally) beat his team-mate even though Ricciardo’s power unit output was hamstrung by an intermittent battery glitch. And Hamilton delivered a succession of quick laps to build a sufficient gap after the safety car period to pit and rejoin the race less than two seconds behind Vettel. The German could offer little resistance to Hamilton given the age of his tyres. However, as impressive as these world champions were, the drive of the race must surely go to Jean-Eric Vergne, if only for that final phase after his last pit stop on Lap 44. He overtook six cars to take a storming sixth. He even had enough in the tank to build the required five-second gap to 7th place in order to absorb a time penalty for an earlier transgression. True Vergne was on much fresher tyres than the cars he overtook, but the moves still had to be made.

A wildcard strikes…

As is always the case, the timing of safety car periods benefit some drivers and disadvantage others. In Singapore, the safety car period (Lap 31-38) was a boon for everyone who was marginal on fuel, e.g. Red Bull and Ferrari. According to the fuel consumption graphic on the FOM world feed, Red Bull and Alonso had used about 48-49kg of the maximum 100kg of fuel by half distance. In comparison, Hamilton had used approximately 44kg at the same point in the race. Project this rate of fuel usage forward and had there been no safety car, Red Bull and Alonso would have used about 97-98kg/100kg while the Mercedes would have used roughly 88-89kg/100kg. Quite a saving. This insight on its own shows the power of the Mercedes energy recovery system (ERS). In short, the safety car saved Ferrari and Red Bull from having to manage their fuel consumption rate in the second half of the race.

Hamilton, by contrast, lost out when the safety car was deployed. Specifically, his five-second lead was wiped out and he still had to pit to run the Soft compound tyre. After the restart, however, the Briton was able to rebuild and add to his lead by utilising the superior mechanical grip of the Supersoft tyres he was on and going on the attack while the Red Bulls and Alonso conserved their tyres to avoid having to pit again.

Alonso loses out on a podium

The threat to Hamilton came in the form of the Red Bulls switching strategy under the safety car. They had planned a third stop, but then scrubbed this in favour of making an attempt to get to the end of the race. Tough, but not impossible. This strategy switch meant that Vettel and Ricciardo kept track position over Alonso who had stopped for a third time immediately prior to the safety car period in an effort to undercut Red Bull. However, although initially it looked as if Alonso was a winner from the safety car deployment this turned into a losing position once Red Bull had made their strategy switch. Luck was not on Ferrari’s or Alonso’s side. That said, had there not been a safety car, it is debatable whether Alonso would still have made the podium. To do so would have meant the Spaniard resisting the Red Bulls on fresher tyres once they had made their third stop. Not impossible, but difficult. Third was probably the maximum Alonso could have expected as would have had a better chance of defending from the ailing Ricciardo than from Vettel.

The surprise about Alonso’s Singapore Grand Prix for me at least was how competitive he – and Raikkonen to a lesser extent – was. In part, this was the Alonso factor, but Ferrari clearly go better on the Supersoft tyre.

The ‘speedster’ versus the ‘thinking driver’

As we enter the denouement of the 2014 season, I defy anyone to confidently predict the identity of the 2014 world champion.

Three times this season Rosberg has seen his 25-point+ lead greatly reduced or turned into a deficit by a combination of Mercedes unreliability and Hamilton on the rebound. Now as we approach the final phase of the world championship the same inevitable comparisons between the contenders are being made by pundits and fans. Hamilton, we’re told, is faster and a better natural racer, especially in close-quarter racing. Rosberg, on the other hand, is calm, collected and consistent. In my view, both characterisations are sweeping generalisations and pretty limited in value. Hamilton has shown an ability to think his way round a Grand Prix this season on more than one occasion and four wins on the bounce in the early rounds is hardly the mark of inconsistency. Conversely, Rosberg has proven that he on occasion can find more speed in his W05 Hybrid than Hamilton. If they can be split on performance at the moment, it is that Hamilton has the momentum and Rosberg is on the back foot.

However, none of the above really matters that much in the event of unreliability. Unreliability is so influential this year because only two closely matched drivers driving the same car are in the title fight. DNFs are therefore expensive if your team-mate goes on to win. Hamilton has had three race retirements to Rosberg’s two and has had to start from the back of the grid twice this season due to mechanical failures in qualifying. If Rosberg is more consistent in 2014 it is largely because mechanically, he has had the opportunity to be more consistent than his team-mate.

Unreliability for Hamilton or Rosberg in the remaining races cannot be forecast or predicted. It is, in short, the wildcard. And given unreliability’s influence already this season, one more mechanical failure may be the knock-out blow to one of the title challengers. It is far from obvious who will ultimately triumph.

@TheWheelspinner

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Issue 32: Singapore Grand Prix Preview

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18 September 2014

The mean streets

The streets of Singapore host the next round of the F1 World Championship this weekend. The drivers will once again thread the eye of the needle between concrete walls and armco barriers. Only this time they will race under 3,000 lux of artificial lighting. Many of the factors are in place for a spectacular race:

This is the longest Grand Prix of the season, pushing close to the two-hour time limit. The Marina Bay Circuit is low grip, bumpy and unremitting. Errors are punished swiftly because of the proximity of the barriers. In turn, this means that safety cars are a near-certainty in the race as the marshals clear crashed cars and debris from the track. The circuit is also very tough on brakes, especially the fronts, and is one of the highest on fuel consumption. There is an epic battle for the world title in progress and the FIA has just let off a grenade in the form of restricting the type of information that can be transmitted from pit to car during live sessions.

The only spicy factors in short supply in Singapore are variable weather conditions – it will be hot and humid – as well as overtaking opportunities. That said, some 35 passes for position were made in the 2013 Singapore Grand Prix. The best overtaking spots are down into the left-hander at Turn 1 and under braking for Turn 7. This corner immediately follows the fastest part of the track, which enables quicker cars to close on their quarry ahead, especially if the leading driver has a poor exit from Turn 3, and then use the DRS after Turn 5 to attack them into Turn 7. A successful overtake requires more bravery, car control and trust in the driver being overtaken than usual due to the close confines of the circuit.

Given the difficulty of overtaking, race strategy and the timing of pitstops in particular increases in importance. Some drivers will attempt to ‘undercut’ their rivals ahead by stopping a lap or two earlier and using their fresh tyres, set quicker sector times than their competitors in order to jump ahead when the car ahead on the track makes their pitstop. However, the near-certain deployment of a safety car at some point during the race means that race/pitstop strategies must be adaptable to take advantage of potentially earlier than planned windows.

The route to success in Singapore

A fast car round Marina Bay Circuit offers the driver plenty of mechanical grip and traction, but not at the expense of overheating the tyres, especially the rears. Mechanical grip is necessary due to the low grip and bumpy surface. Cars that produce more aerodynamic downforce will offer greater stability through the succession of 90 degree corners. Moreover, unlike other street circuits, the track at Marina Bay evolves at a slower rate, which places an even greater premium on grip/downforce.

Given the constant pattern of acceleration and deceleration, a power unit that offers a predictable torque curve is an advantage. Furthermore, whilst the demand for top-line speed is lower in Singapore, the high rate of fuel consumption means that any cars with a thirsty internal combustion engine (ICU) and/or a less efficient energy recovery system (ERS) will be at a disadvantage.

Finally, a car with supple suspension will go some way to smoothing out the bumps and keep the car more balanced in the corners.

How the competitive order is likely to shape up

The Mercedes W05 Hybrid ticks all the boxes above even if it probably does not develop as much downforce as the Red Bull RB10. Hamilton and Rosberg will rightly be favourites for victory. But who will prevail? Three things are likely to strongly influence this battle:

1. Whoever prevails in qualifying

2. Fuel consumption rate in the race

3. Luck

The pole-sitter has converted his grid position into a win 4/6 times in the history of the Singapore Grand Prix. I slightly favour Hamilton here given the importance of braking at Marina Bay and his strength under braking compared to Rosberg. Qualifying matters for track position and because the lead car at Mercedes gets first choice on strategy.

On fuel consumption, Hamilton has had the advantage all season. According to Mark Hughes’s excellent article on Lewis Hamilton in the current issue of Motorsport Magazine, his lower fuel usage is a function of his driving style. In a race with one of the highest rates of fuel consumption, this is likely to pay dividends.

Finally, luck. This is the wildcard. Especially when it comes to the timing of safety cars and reliability. It cannot be forecast and is not subject to ‘probability management’.

One question. If the two pretenders to the 2014 crown get into wheel-to-wheel combat in Singapore, how hard will Rosberg fight and will he crack under the pressure of close-quarter racing given the events of the last two races?

Behind the Mercedes, it’s likely to be advantage Red Bull. They have the best chassis and that will pay them back around the Marina Bay Circuit. Whilst there is a lower demand for top-line speed, minimising one of the RB10’s weaknesses, Red Bull, like the other Renault runners, will almost certainly need to carry more fuel due to their powertrain’s higher fuel usage. And if they don’t manage their fuel consumption well, they could find themselves with less power to defend with come the closing phase of the race when they might be under pressure from a Mercedes-powered car. Like Red Bull, Ferrari will be less disadvantaged by their power deficit to Mercedes, but their less efficient ERS means a greater reliance on the ICU and a higher fuel consumption rate. McLaren meanwhile have the right powertrain and the MP4-29 has good low-speed grip, but when they’ve had to open their bodywork for cooling in previous hot races, their car’s aerodynamic performance has suffered. Finally, Marina Bay plays less to the strengths of the Williams; Bottas and Massa will struggle to beat Red Bull this weekend.

Radio silence

Much has already been written about the FIA’s new restrictions on the type of information that can be fed to drivers on the radio and via the pit boards when the car is on track. My feeling is it’s too early to judge the true significance of this ruling for several reasons:

1. The terms of the ban are currently under negotiation between the teams – who are unhappy – and the FIA. There is some pretty heavy lobbying likely to be going on behind the scenes on the part of the teams.

2. The teams will probably find ways round the ban. Some of the smartest strategists and engineers in the world work in F1. They solve problems.

3. The restrictions will likely have an effect on relative performance in only very specific circumstances, e.g., fuel usage at Singapore cannot be communicated to a driver, so anyone marginal on fuel, as is likely will be exposed.

This said, whilst the ban is the same for everyone, I think the restrictions will mean that teams who have smaller in-car dash displays will be forced to make more choices about what information to communicate to their drivers, potentially meaning that a driver misses out on some important information. Moreover,  restrictions on driving advice is likely to make it harder than before for one driver to respond to their team-mate mid-session.

Overall, I am cautiously in favour of restricting what information the driver receives mid-session because it returns F1 more towards the gladiatorial racing of old. However, too much restriction would mean that the emotion of the driver over the radio will be cut out, which is a bad thing in my view as this adds to the drama unfolding on-track.