Month: October 2014

Issue 37: United States Grand Prix Preview

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30 October 2014

How the West was Formula 1

‘Don’t miss the US GP showdown’ runs the promotion for this weekend’s race in Austin, Texas. And what a showdown it promises to be! In fact, it will be showdown number 17 between the tussling Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. The US Grand Prix at the new Circuit of the Americas (COTA) marks the start of the final run-in to the finale of the 2014 World Drivers’ Championship.

Of the new tracks on the F1 calendar, COTA is probably my favourite. The circuit offers an interesting mix of fast sweeping corners, tight hairpins, long straights that precede heavy braking zones and marked elevation change. Crucially, straights and heavy braking zones means overtaking opportunities. The first of these is down – or should that be up – into Turn 1, a tight left-hander taken at 60mph. The apex of the corner is unsighted but the preceding straight – with DRS available will enable faster cars to attack under braking on the inside line. The second opportunity to pass round COTA comes under braking for Turn 12, another tight left-hander at the end of the 0.6 mile straight. To aid the overtake, pursuers within a second of their quarry ahead can activate DRS after Turn 11. There’s likely to be plenty of action here during the race.

Sector 1 is characterised by a series of fast left-right, left-right corners from Turns 3-6. Cars that produce high levels of aerodynamic downforce and have good high-speed balance are likely to perform best through here. Sector 2 begins with the slow and twisty Turns 7, 8 and 9, but in reality this middle sector is all about power and traction. Power to take full advantage of the long straight between Turns 11 and 12 and traction to launch off Turn 11 and attack slower cars in front. Some low-speed grip doesn’t go amiss either for the slower corners in this sector; drivers will want a strong front end to minimise understeer and get the nose of the car into the apex. The final sector of the lap – from Turns 13-20 – is mostly composed of slow-speed corners that again reward cars with low-speed grip and traction. Turns 16-18 is the fastest corner in this sector. This triple-apex complex is reminiscent of Istanbul Park’s fantastic Turn 8.

Power, brakes and grip

Power units and brakes get a full workout round COTA. The start/finish straight and the straight between Turns 11 and 12 will push the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) and turbo hard. The drag up the 133-foot incline to the first corner will, as Renault’s Remi Taffin explained, require the turbo to spin faster in order to maintain maximum power output at the crest of the hill. Brake wear is high too given the four big stops around COTA, two of which occur in Sector 2.

Pirelli is bringing its Soft and Medium compound tyres to the US Grand Prix, which will no doubt offer the teams better mechanical grip than last year when the Italian manufacturer brought its Hard compound tyre instead of Soft. Mechanical grip is at a premium in order to help launch the car off the slow-speed corners and hairpins. Pirelli’s bolder choice of tyre makes the call on strategy less clear-cut. While Pirelli anticipates a two-stop race, cars that are kinder on their tyres, such as Force India, are likely to have the option of making only one stop. Either way, realistic contrarian race strategies add a performance variable to Sunday’s race.

The might of Mercedes

The 2014 US Grand Prix has domination by Mercedes-powered cars written all over it. I expect the new World Champions to battle Williams for the quickest times in Sector 1. A Mercedes ICE and turbo is clearly what’s needed to best cope with the step entry to Turn 1 at the end of the start/finish straight. The Williams FW36 has proven strong high-speed balance to add to its Mercedes powertrain, so expect Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa to be on it through Turns 3-6 too. Red Bull might even be able to keep pace through Sector 1’s Esses at least given the RB10’s strong aerodynamic platform. However, the former world champions will fall away in Sector 2 given their deficiencies in top-line speed. Again, Williams have a very efficient chassis so will be well-placed to set quick times down the long straight in Sector 2. However, I anticipate that the works Mercedes will hold a clear advantage over Williams in the slow-speed Sector 3. The FW36 has performed less than favourably around tracks with slow corners such as Hungary and Singapore, in spite of a good performance in Sochi three weeks’ ago. The superior aerodynamic and mechanical grip of the W05 Hybrid will probably be enough to win out in Sector 3.

Only the early practice sessions will give us clues as to which Mercedes driver has the edge of pace. Hamilton holds the momentum and I think that if he qualifies on pole and/or gets ahead early in the race, he will be difficult to stop. Rosberg will have to do something special to beat him on track. That might require a contrarian strategy or some luck when they come up to pass backmarkers.

Reports that Sebastian Vettel may not even participate in qualifying are disappointing. However, whether he starts from the pit lane or incurs a 10-place grid penalty for having to use a sixth powertrain this season, it opens the door even further to Williams in particular to beat Red Bull to the podium again.

Exit Caterham and Marussia

The biggest disappointment, however, is the absence of Caterham and Marussia from the US Grand Prix. That two teams will fail to line-up on the grid mid-season is a sad indictment of the state of F1’s business model for all parties concerned except the commercial rights’ holders who are doing just fine thank you very much. F1 needs the little guys. The tryers at the back who give their all and are occasionally rewarded with points. Their absence also deprives young drivers of scarce opportunities to gain precious F1 experience. Think Fernando Alonso at Minardi in 2001 or Daniel Ricciardo at Hispania Racing in 2011. The financial barrier to entry must be lowered in order for enterprising racers like Frank Williams to still compete.

F1 should be arriving in the US on a high; its new hybrid powertrains are a technological success story, albeit an expensive one, and the on track racing in 2014 has been driven by a fantastic and intense intra-Mercedes battle for supremacy. So much better than 2013. However, a tragic accident and collapsing finances for nearly half of the grid means F1 will instead race under a cloud.

@TheWheelspinner

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Issue 36: The driver market moves and early indicators for the 2015 season

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29 October 2014

Sebastian Vettel announced in early October that he would be leaving Red Bull Racing at the end of 2014. Fernando Alonso and Ferrari agreed to part company at the end of this season.

I can’t resist musing about the recent much-publicised announcements in the driver market and the possible implications for the 2015 season. It is very early to be drawing any hard-and-fast conclusions, but a little speculation now and again is fun…

The driver merry-go-round

Whenever a world champion decides to up sticks and move to a new team it’s big news. When two world champions decide to leave their teams it sends the global F1 community into a frenzy. At the Japanese Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel announced he was leaving Red Bull at the end of this season. At the same time, Fernando Alonso was released from his Ferrari contract a year early. Neither driver confirmed which team they will be driving for next season. However, as has been widely reported, it is almost certain Vettel will be driving for Ferrari. Alonso’s destination is less certain, but conventional wisdom says McLaren-Honda. There are other scenarios too, however, such as both Vettel and Alonso driving for McLaren, Alonso taking a sabbatical or making up with Ferrari to fulfil his contract for 2015.

Two questions interest me about Vettel and Alonso’s moves: (1) On the assumption that Vettel is driving for Ferrari from 2015, can he ‘do a Schumacher’ and propel the Scuderia back to the pinnacle of F1 for multiple seasons? And (2) Could a Vettel and Alonso superteam at McLaren challenge Hamilton and Rosberg at Mercedes in 2015?

1 – Can Vettel succeed with Ferrari where Alonso has failed?

Alonso arrived at Ferrari in 2010 with the aim of winning at least one world championship for the Scuderia. He has failed despite Herculean efforts on the Spaniard’s part in particular. In an era of Red Bull dominance, repeating what Schumacher achieved was a fantasy. Red Bull’s dominance is now over, so perhaps Vettel can succeed in making the Prancing Horse champions again. However, I doubt it for several reasons:

– When he left Benetton in 1995 to race for Ferrari in 1996, Schumacher took several key technical personnel with him. These individuals became instrumental to Ferrari’s success; Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne specifically. So far, Vettel has taken no-one of note from Red Bull with him. In fact, some Red Bull personnel have left to join other teams.

– In the early 2000s, Schumacher was unmatched in terms of driving ability and with the best car underneath him he was unstoppable. Vettel on the other hand, will have to beat drivers better than him, notably Alonso and Hamilton, but Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Rosberg might justifiably argue their case too. Alonso is generally regarded as the driver most able to get the absolute maximum out of the car underneath him. In 2014, he has regularly put his car higher up the finishing order than it should have been. If Alonso couldn’t make Ferrari champions why would Vettel do any better?

– Ferrari’s current top management lacks professional racing team managerial experience. Marco Mattiacci and Sergio Marchionne are not racers. They are automotive executives. They are not the type of personalities most likely to bring racing success back to Ferrari. Red Bull showed the value of employing and empowering racers to make decisions at the summit if F1 teams. Conversely, the recent F1 experiences of Toyota, Honda and BMW illustrate clearly why car manufacturers don’t run successful F1 teams. Mercedes understand this. Do Ferrari’s current management get it?

– It’s been some time since we saw any ground-breaking technical innovations come out of Maranello. This doesn’t inspire confidence that Ferrari have the technical capability to deliver a car good enough for Vettel. In 2014, they are racing with the least successful powertrain and their chassis is probably no better than fourth best on the grid. True, the Scuderia had done little in the seasons prior to Schumacher’s arrival in 1996 and they endured a painful season that year too. But, the best people were being put in place to change that. I don’t see that happening now.

Of course, Vettel could improve as a driver, key technical personnel from Red Bull or other teams might follow Vettel to Maranello and Ferrari might decide to hire a team principal with professional racing team managerial experience, making wins and titles a lot more likely.

2 – Can a McLaren-Honda superteam challenge Mercedes in 2015?

In short, I doubt it. But beyond 2015, quite possibly. With both Vettel and Alonso driving for them, McLaren could at least be sure that their drivers will wring the maximum performance from the car. However, the real keys to a McLaren challenge to the might of Mercedes are the strength of the Honda powertrain and whether McLaren can make its chassis develop more aerodynamic downforce. The Honda powertrain is the wildcard here. The Japanese manufacturer will no doubt have been able to learn from the experiences of Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari in 2014 and integrate the best bits, as far as can be gleaned, into their 2015 powertrain. Honda will also have had the bonus of gaining greater knowledge of F1’s benchmark power unit, which has been powering a McLaren in 2014. Moreover, Honda are a technology company; complex power units that integrate cutting edge energy recovery systems is what they do. And reports say that their powertrain is performing well on the dyno in Japan.

On the flipside, Honda have no real-world data, unlike Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault. Moreover, Renault’s power unit also performed well on the dyno pre-season, but once it was slotted into the back of a Red Bull for pre-season testing in Spain and Bahrain, significant problems quickly emerged.

However, even with the best power unit, McLaren have been nowhere near Mercedes in 2014. Their chassis is weak. They will not win championships if they don’t change this, regardless of whether Honda can match Mercedes. However, a couple of early indicators suggest McLaren can look forward to a better chassis in 2015. The first of these concerns Honda’s powertrain. @ScarbsF1, in his recent analysis of images of Honda’s powertrain, suggested that Honda appears to have produced quite a compact engine with the more complex parts sited at the rear. This means the unit can be moved forward to enable slimmer sidepods and better airflow to the rear of the car. Perhaps this is early evidence of good chassis-powertrain integration. The second indicator is the return of Peter Prodromou, formely Red Bull’s head of aerodynamics under Adrian Newey. Prodromou is well-regarded and will likely make a difference to the way McLaren produces its chassis. He will at the very least bring the experience of working in F1’s leading chassis-design team. Perhaps he’ll even be able to share with McLaren exactly what Red Bull do with the rake of their car that allows the leading edge of the floor to run so close to the track but the diffuser at the rear to run higher off the ground than any other team.

Looking ahead to 2015

Nevertheless, even if McLaren is on the upward performance curve next season with Alonso and Vettel behind the wheel, that is still likely to be insufficient to mount a championship challenge. In fact, the upshot of all of this is that Mercedes will probably be very well-placed to dominate in 2015 because their chief rivals – Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren – will all be in various states of transition. Furthermore, none of these teams will have the benchmark powertrain (as it stands now) nor will they develop their chassis and powertrain as one, with the obvious exception of Ferrari. It’s looking like Hamilton and Rosberg battle resumed in 2015.

The media’s voracious appetite for news – no matter how speculative – has meant that excessive attention has been paid to these driver line-up changes. Yes, fans care about their driving heroes, but my contention is that for the 2015 season at least, where Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso end up will be less significant to the outcome of next year’s world championship.

@TheWheelspinner