That was quick, wasn’t it?

11 weeks on from Sebastian Vettel’s title-winning drive to victory in Abu Dhabi, we’re up and running again. Not that we ever really stopped in the first place. The public face of Formula 1, the weekends that show the difference between prize champ and prize chump, might have disappeared from view in the middle of November but the race continues year-round. Some have spent the winter making detail changes, others trying something altogether different from the rest of the pack and all are preparing to show their hand.

Today, new cars from Red Bull, Scuderia Toro Rosso, Ferrari, Renault, Mercedes, Sauber and Williams made their debut appearances in Valencia. Tomorrow the new Lotus will join them, with Virgin and McLaren following next week. HRT will return too, rolling out their new car the very instant they have a new car to roll out. 2010′s battle for the championship saw four men in contention at the start of the final race and left this year with a big act to follow, but there are already plenty of points to discuss. Here are 5 for starters:

Movable rear wings

2011′s headline rule change sees the introduction of a driver-adjustable rear wing designed to increase straight line speed and provide more opportunities to overtake. Using a switch mounted on the steering wheel, drivers will be able to open up a gap in the wing, with the resultant lowering of air resistance leading to an increased top speed. In practice and qualifying they’ll be able to trigger the new wing system at any time. In the race, they won’t.

The plan is for the wing to be activated using electronic timing loops located around each circuit. During the first 2 laps of a race, nobody will be permitted to use the device. After that, only those who are within a second of the car ahead will have the option to adjust the wing, being allowed to do so only while inside a designated overtaking zone determined by the FIA. Drivers will know when they’re close enough to take advantage thanks to a light in the car’s cockpit, while the car ahead will not be permitted to use their wing as a means of defending their position.

You can see the wing in action here:

The concept is an interesting one but how well it’ll work in practice is a matter for debate. The governing body seem to be adopting a flexible stance, having not announced the location of any overtaking zones as yet. The current belief is that zones will be selected in the week prior to each Grand Prix, which gives the FIA rulemakers a chance to monitor the effectiveness of the wings and adjust the rules where necessary. This is vitally important, since the two keys to making adjustable rear wings work are going to be correctly locating each passing zone and ensuring the time gap between the two cars has been calculated properly.

Why? It’s largely to do with matters of common sense which you’d hope have already been thought of. Place an overtaking zone directly before a fast corner and there won’t be any way to complete the pass before everyone arrives at the turn-in point, at which point someone has to play follow the leader. Make the zone too short and the car behind will never catch up. Take it to the other extreme, with a long straight leading directly into a hairpin, and the chasing driver will either breeze past down the straight or else complete a simple pass into the hairpin. Should the wings be more effective at increasing speeds than anyone expects, a gap of a second would be gone quickly enough that any one of us could make a passing move.

The big danger, then, is that we’ll move from being fans of a sport in which overtaking is difficult but moves are often superbly judged to one where there are 5 passes on every lap that could have been carried off by any driver in the world. Which is better?

Pirelli

After 14 seasons, Bridgestone have said goodbye to Formula 1, with Pirelli the successful applicant when the sport’s tyre contract was put out to tender.

Since the start of 2007, the F1 tyre supplier has had to bring two different kinds of dry tyre to each race, with each team having to use both compounds during the course of a normal dry race. Too often, particularly after the refuelling ban was introduced at the start of 2010, the difference between the harder and softer tyres has been so small as to make them indistinguishable, while the tyres have been built to provide durability and consistent performance.

As a showcase for the tyre manufacturer, it’s been fantastic. Want a quality tyre? Buy some everlasting Bridgestones. As a means of encouraging exciting racing, it’s been abysmal. Without there being any great difference in the tyres or any great drop-off in performace, there’s been no reward for trying different strategies, with the result that everyone starts on the same kind of tyre, pits to change at the same time and slogs around for the rest of the race without any difficulty.

The exceptions have been races where, through unexpected weather or peculiar track conditions, teams have had to rethink their tyre usage. Think of the 2009 Monaco event, where Sebastian Vettel took 5 laps to destroy a set of soft tyres, or last year’s race in Canada which saw everyone abandon their usual stop-once-and-that’s-it plans in a frantic bid to understand the behaviour of their rapidly disintegrating rubber. Pirelli’s task on their return to the pinnacle of motorsport is to design a range of tyres that produce the same varied approach to tyre management at every single race weekend.

Schumi

From main event to first bout on the undercard in 19 races. Last season began with fanfare and fireworks, huge hype surrounding the return of the most successful driver the sport has ever known and a promise that he was back to win an 8th world title. It ended without a single race win, without a single podium finish and with the slow-dawning realisation that in Singapore, Michael Schumacher really had finished 13th.

How could it have gone so wrong? Did it, really? Parallels were drawn with Niki Lauda’s 1982 comeback and Alain Prost’s title-winning return to action in 1993, but those parallels tend to ignore that neither man had spent 3 years away from F1, Prost’s Williams was so dominant that year that the world crown was won at a relative canter and Lauda was beaten by his team mate John Watson in his first year back. The reason such apparently useful bits of information were ignored was connected entirely to Schumacher’s approach.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have listened to talk of another championship tilt, of more race wins to go with the 91 he collected first time around. Perhaps Michael and Mercedes should have held 2010 as a learning year, a chance to ease the great man back in before a proper shot at things in 2011.  They didn’t, we listened and we did so because it was Michael Schumacher. Surely nobody could be bang on the pace after such a long absence, but if anyone could…

He couldn’t. Amidst talk of a Mercedes whose characteristics he disliked and Bridgestone front tyres that gave him no confidence to push to the limit, Schumi was summarily dispatched by Nico Rosberg, another man who professed to hate the car Mercedes had given him.  Rosberg has often seemed somewhat put out by the insinuation that his inter-team victory came about through Schumacher being poor rather than any brilliance on his part, understandably and perhaps with justification.  It’s difficult to assess, simply because for every race where Michael was on song – his season-ending run of form in Japan, Korea and Brazil was enough to remind everyone that there remains a very talented racing driver in there – there were a couple earlier in the season where he was at best anonymous and at worst atrocious.

His upturn in form towards the end of 2010 provided encouragement to his legion of fans, though downplaying expectations for 2011 would still seem the wisest choice.  Already, though, there’s talk of podiums, wins and another championship for the Red Baron. A case of no lessons learned or one of genuine hope?

Renault’s exhausts

You read that and you said, “Wow…” Perhaps you rolled your eyes somewhere in there too.

It’s traditional for the exhausts on a racing car to exit at the rear of the car, just as they do on your daily driver. When you’re running a car full of tightly-packaged heat-producing components in an environment where good temperature management is crucial, conventional wisdom has it that the best place to channel hot gases is far away from anything important.

Conventional wisdom, one assumes, hasn’t made it as far as the Oxfordshire base of Renault’s design office. The exhausts on their new R31 exit the car at the front of each sidepod, being designed to blow the hot exhaust gases directly underneath the car. The intention is to improve the airflow along the bottom of the R31, accelerating the air so that more downforce is created – for an explanation of the full ins and outs, Craig Scarborough’s blog should be your first port of call.

The theory underpinning the idea is a sound one, but the main concern has to surround those temperatures. Protecting key components from exhaust heat over a 90 minute race, particularly wiring and radiators, won’t be easy but must be done effectively, since the fastest car in the world is no use to anyone if its insides melt every 10 laps. If Renault can manage it and demonstrate a big performance gain over the winter, watch for every chief designer in the pitlane setting to work on their own version. 2008 had the shark fin, 2009 the blown diffuser and 2010 the F-duct. 2011 could be the year of the front exit exhaust.

The rise of the funded driver

Throughout its history, Formula 1 has been open to the well-funded enthusiast as well as the highly-paid professional. The introduction of the Super Licence and stricter conditions for those wishing to take part in Grands Prix went a long way to improving overall driving standards and ensuring that only those truly capable of doing so were allowed to race competitively, but as recently as 1995 the occasional wealthy no-hoper was slipping through the net with teams who had no alternative but to take whatever funds were available. Prime examples include Jean-Denis Deletraz, whose brief Grand Prix career with Larousse and Pacific was eloquently summed up by the great Murray Walker, and Taki Inoue, whose lasting contribution to motor racing was to somehow be ran over by a safety vehicle during the Hungarian Grand Prix that same year.

Of course there’s a video.  Stay with this particular clip to its conclusion for a description of Taki’s other triumph, in which he was turned upside down by a collision with a course car at Monaco while his broken Arrows was attached to a tow rope:

 

The 2011 grid features a new kind of pay driver filtering towards the front of the grid. At the sharp end, the top teams remain wholly concerned with winning races, with success attracting the sponsorship funds needed to invest in car development and attracting the best personnel. Towards the rear of the field where substantial investment is harder to come by, Narain Karthikeyan’s drive at HRT comes with backing from Tata Group while Virgin virgin Jerome d’Ambrosio brings around 4.5 million Euro with him. What’s a little more unusual is the reliance on funding towards the middle of the field, with several examples worth highlighting.

Renault have retained Vitaly Petrov for a further 2 years, after a 2010 season which featured occasional flashes of promises buried underneath prolonged spells of crashing into things. The team will continue to benefit from sponsorship sourced from across Russia and the former Soviet bloc, Lada and Snoras Bank being the most prominent brands on show, though it’s tempting to wonder whether the team would end up in better shape come year end if they hired a faster driver with no personal sponsors, bringing home more prize money and fewer repair bills to compensate.

Sauber, perennial home of the mid-grid journeyman and the up-and-coming hotshoe, have 21 year old Mexican driver Sergio Perez driving alongside Kamui Kobayashi this season. With Perez, whose career to date has been steady rather than stellar (2nd in the GP2 series last year is the highlight on paper, but look at who he beat rather than where he finished and it loses a fair amount of shine), comes a deal with Telmex, the Latin American telecoms firm who own almost every phone line in Mexico City. A clear sign of the economic times, especially when you consider that Peter Sauber’s insistence on running Kimi Raikkonen instead of Enrique Bernoldi in 2001 would ultimately cost him his Red Bull funding; this is not a man renowned for chasing the corporate dollar.

Frank Williams was one of those men once, in the early days when he ran his team from a phone box and survived on a race-by-race basis. His standing, both professionally and financially, moved on to such an extent that when Honda came to evaluate their F1 programme during 1986, he was in a position to refuse to run Honda’s favourite son Satoru Nakajima. The Japanese company would take their engines to Lotus and McLaren instead, while Williams underwent an interim year with Judd before forging a new and hugely productive partnership with Renault.

The second half of the last decade saw Williams tail off, settling into a midfield role with the occasional podium finish to lighten the mood. When blue-chip backers such as Philips and Royal Bank of Scotland came to the end of their contracts, there were no ready replacements. It is for this reason and this reason only that Pastor Maldonado drives their second car this year.

Maldonado comes with US $10million of support from PDVSA, Venezuela’s state owned oil company. He replaces Nico Hulkenberg, who was his team mate at ART in the 2008 GP2 series. Nico was a class rookie that season while Maldonado, a permanent fixture in GP2 during recent years, was entering his 3rd season. One of them won the championship, the other finished 6th and by now you won’t need to be told which was which. Nico has no financial backing. He gave Williams their first pole position since 2005 with a stunning series of laps on a damp track at Interlagos last October, but he doesn’t bring a penny with him.

For the midfield teams, money might be the primary focus in a world that has less of it to spend, but will taking the less talented, better financed option prove to be a false economy?

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Comments
  1. Paul Kelly says:

    Nice piece, Adam!

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