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.

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