What exactly goes on inside a Formula one team over the course of January and February as they head all too quickly towards the first Grand Prix of a new season?
Having been part of a number of pre-season campaigns, I can assure you it’s a hectic spell.
Most people head back to work after the Christmas break with a sense of trepidation, knowing what’s about to hit them and there’s really nothing that can prepare you for what this time can throw at you.
Often the very early days of January can actually be a little slow and tedious at times as the mechanics wait for the first car to be delivered into their racebays. Most areas of the factory are flat out, desperately trying to meet tight deadlines, but until the race team get their hands onto a new chassis, there’s only so much they can do. Having said that, there’s always pit equipment that needs making or adapting to suit the new car, things like radiator or brake duct fans etc, so there’s certainly no chance of anyone getting bored.
Once the first chassis arrives from the carbon shop, which is actually normally chassis 02 because 01 is the one that gets put through the FIA’s crash tests, the mechanics get their first look at what they have to work with.
The first few days are spent inspecting, adjusting and then pre-fitting some of the basic new parts that are available. It’s rare that all of the components are ready ahead of the chassis, just waiting to be fitted. Things move so quickly in Formula One that the first iteration of any new component can often be superceded by an updated version before it ever even makes it onto a car. That can mean a frustrating time for mechanics as they wait for the drawing office or production to create the part that might be holding up the fitting of other items in the build.
By the time we get to September, a familiar race car can perhaps be built up from scratch in around 24 hours if need be, but in January, when parts are scarce and some need modifying to fit properly, it can take a couple of weeks to get together.
Often, mechanics will spend days building up the steering and suspension components, fettling them to fit and operate perfectly, only to have to then strip the whole thing back down again to send the chassis off for modifications or to be painted. It might seem silly to carry out all that work, only to have to ‘undo’ it, but the first time things are put together is when the majority of any problems or areas of improvement are found, so it’s best to take the time at that stage and get it right. That way, in theory, when it comes to building up the painted car in preparation for the first test, it should go together correctly.
Any modifications to parts or the chassis obviously need to be mapped and fed back into the system to ensure that future components all come out to the same modified specification moving forwards.
One of the milestones of any new car build, particularly this year, is the first engine fire up and gearbox shift check. When McLaren fired up the MP4-29 for the first time last week at MTC, almost the entire factory gathered around the racebays to hear the new sounds and witness the dawning of this new era of Formula One.
Not only is it a test of the new engine, or power unit and gearbox, but it’s the first test of most of the new onboard systems too. Engineers from the team and engine partner crowd around laptops and pore over data, whilst mechanics check for leaks, correct clearances of moving parts and general working operation. The process can take all day, as gremlins are ironed out in software, mechanics prepare the car, the engine’s pre-heated, factory exhaust extraction systems are hooked up and everyone involved is 100% sure that their bit’s ready to go, before a slightly nervous gearbox mechanic presses the button on the starter for the very first time.
Once that bit’s successfully completed and the swarms of people dissipate from around the car, the mechanics are left to continue preparations which include fitting the car’s carbon fibre floor and attempting a first set up on the team’s measuring table. This is not only a chance for the team to implement the base set up onto the car, including things like camber, caster and toe angles of the suspension and steering, ride heights etc, but also the first opportunity for engineers to corroborate real life measurements and weights to those predicted in the design process. Hopefully, nobody finds any surprising results at this stage, but it’s not unheard of.
As the first test draws nearer, everyone’s working towards a deadline which is normally the last point at which the trucks need to leave to reach their destination, this year Jerez. In that time, the car, all of it’s spares, which are limited at this stage and any associated equipment needed to run the test must be finished, checked, tested and loaded onto the team’s trucks.
In the days of big fancy press launches, it was obviously the target to have the car ready to unveil for that date, ahead of the test. Whilst the banks of photographers lined up to snap the new challenger as its cover was pulled off by the drivers, I’ve known more than one occasion when the car was actually far from finished underneath the shell, even on one occasion without an engine under the bodywork, not that anyone noticed.
Usually, on the night before the car leaves the factory, finally in its near complete state, it gets whisked away at the last minute to be professionally photographed in a studio to enable the team and its partners to use the glitzy photos for promotions and to release to the media the following day.
From then on it’s into the unknown as the car hits the track for the very first time. From here on in no one knows what to expect. Everyone of course has high hopes, but until a driver gets in and begins to wind up the lap times after the first exploratory days, things could go either way.
The mechanics and engineers work long hours, even with the benefit of today’s night shift systems, as they check and change parts constantly, strip everything each evening for crack checking, or to swap components as used bits get returned to the factory for inspection. It’s at this stage that any faults or signs of wear are recorded and used to implement a strategic lifing system for rotating the car’s key components during the course of the season.
This year, more than any other, every team heads to Jerez and Bahrain not knowing where they might stand. The new technology has already caused headaches, particularly at this early stage as reliability issues mean lots of extra work for the guys and girls in the garages.
F1 cars are designed to be built in the factory and go quickly around a race track, they’re not designed with much thought for mechanics constantly having to change bits during January and February, so it will be a very long and very hard twelve days of pre-season testing in the life of a Formula One race mechanic in 2014.
So McLaren have notched up their half century, to reference the cricketing term. But far from merely being deserving of the traditional ripple of applause around the proverbial cricket ground, the achievements of this motor racing legend warrant something more of a fan-fare.
I’m proud to be able to claim a very small part in the history of such an impressive institution and, whilst the legacy I left at Woking may be minute in the grand scheme of things, the impact the company left on me has been more significant.
It takes a certain type of person to work at McLaren. I’ve seen many come in, at all levels of the hierarchy, with the most ambitious and admirable of intentions, only to walk away before their missions were complete, simply not able to fit into the McLaren way.
To understand the ‘McLaren way’, I’m pretty sure you need to have been part of the ‘family’, so to speak, long or short term in some way or another.
I spent much of my near-decade at the F1 team cursing Mr Dennis in particular, for some of the ‘pointless’ and ‘frustrating’ things I was asked to do as a mechanic.
Of course I now look back fondly on the whole experience, in the knowledge that most of it wasn’t pointless at all and in fact, served a greater purpose than most people within the shiny, spotless buildings ever realise.
Ron Dennis was, and crucially still is, a visionary individual.
His vision for McLaren originally began at the age of 34, when the idea of taking over the struggling team became a reality. Since that day in September 1980, the race team and the company has never really been the same.
There are very few people in this world driven enough, determined enough or clever enough to make such an impact at such a young age. Even fewer who can still, at the age of 66, continue to be one of the innovators of industry…and today of course, not just one industry either.
What McLaren have done, under the leadership of Dennis and others, is successfully diversify. They’ve created a high end brand, using the decades of success of the F1 team and applied both the image and reputation, but also the developed technology, into other areas.
We all know about the F1 achievements together with CanAm, Indy 500 and Le Mans success, but I’ve seen the company grow in many different areas, all using the same ethos.
McLaren have developed and built components that have gone into space; they’ve worked with Olympic teams, perfecting the technology they use to compete; they’re now leaders in electronics, most notably motorsport related, but in other industries too; the company uses its expertise in product design and the healthcare sector, not to mention the global success of McLaren Automotive, their road car division.
It’s an impressive and broad application of the skills and expertise the group have acquired through competing at the highest level in Formula One. It’s a sign of a company never happy to rest on its former glory and always looking for the next big opportunity, no matter where it may present itself.
The team have led the way with many aspects of F1 and worked hard to steer the sport in the right direction. Carbon composite chassis’; high tech purpose built factory facilities; impressive, sponsor wooing paddock buildings; revolutions in pitstop procedures and technology and the importance of the professional image, are all things which we all take for granted today, but that were pioneered by McLaren.
There are of course many initiatives the company has tried, that have failed, but that in itself is a mark of a team willing to stick their neck out and try something new.
I was once told by Ron that the new, revolutionary and trend setting team clothing we’d been asked to wear (silk all-in-one black suits with zip off arms and legs), may be different to we were used to, but give it a year and everyone would be following our lead…they weren’t.
Much as we hated it at the time and it was ridiculous, looking back McLaren were trying to move the company and the sport forward. As far back as most could remember, F1 team clothing had always been trousers and collared shirts, so they were looking to break the mould and, like normal, be the first to do it.
They were the first, years ago, to look seriously at human performance when it came to pitstops and tried things like special cooling suits for the crew to keep them at the optimum temperature during races. That little venture didn’t work either, but all teams now realise the fitness and wellbeing of their pitstop guys and girls is key to the ultimate stop.
There are numerous examples like this, where McLaren have been pioneering in their fields and it’s something which deserves enormous credit. Whilst it’s certainly true to say that McLaren wouldn’t be where they are today without Formula One, it’s also fair to say that the sport of Formula One wouldn’t be where it is today without McLaren.
The standards that McLaren set themselves are incredibly high, almost unobtainably high, but the perfectionist traits of the man who took over the company from its small beginnings, to the futuristic place, housing over 2000 staff it is today, are prevalent throughout.
Everyone working at Woking knows what’s expected and is conditioned to deliver, but far from being the dull, grey environment it’s often portrayed to be, McLaren’s full of great people who know how to have fun and know they’re part of a special organisation.
I’ve no doubt there are many still there today who moan and complain about having to work the ‘McLaren way’, but as someone who’s been there and come out the other side, I know doing things that way works. Not only does it work for McLaren, but actually learning to do things properly, portraying the right image and being professional are all great ways to approach life in general and I’m a better person for my experiences there.
McLaren’s something that everyone who’s been involved can be proud of and McLaren should be very proud of all those who’ve been involved.
Happy Birthday McLaren.
Qualifying was all about timing today and whilst some gained hugely, others lost out to the same degree.
In Q1, with a damp track, most opted for intermediate tyres and it looked to be the right decision. As the session progressed, inters remained the optimum tyre selection, but the backmarkers with nothing to lose chose to gamble on a set of medium slicks.
The circuit’s so long here at Spa that the decision to change, if you’re going to, has to be made relatively early on and there came a point where it was clear only the Marussias and the Caterham of Giedo van der Garde were left out at the end on slicks as the track became quicker and quicker. All three progressed to Q2, van der Garde in P3 and Chilton escaping Q1 for the first time in his career.
Q2 began on a dry track, with the main players starting on hard tyres, before changing to mediums as the pace picked up. Sebastian Vettel, in typical style, left it late to leave the garage, but delivered a P1 lap on his medium slicks when it mattered. Kimi went quicker still with a lap that highlighted his high downforce set up, fastest of all in the slow, twisty middle sector, but nowhere near the top in the speed trap standings, something which may leave him vulnerable in the race.
Q3 went through differing phases of grip, starting with light rain and getting heavier. Almost all went out immediatley on mediums to try and get a banker lap in, but quickly realised it was too wet and had to abort the laps to return for inters. Paul Di Resta was the only one who waited and left the garage on inters to begin the session and as everyone else peeled into the pits, he got a clear lap when the track was at it’s quickest early on.
That lap stood as the fastest and looked like being the pole time, until right at the end when the track evolved again to become quicker as the rain began to clear.
As we’ve seen before in these conditions, the last to cross the line has the best shot and today that was Lewis Hamilton, pipping Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel moments before him.
Tomorrow’s another day and it’s still not clear how much the race will be affected by rain, but both Mercedes’ will be very happy with their starting positions.
Raikkonen and Alonso will be hugely dissapointed, they both had pace in the dry, but both suffered the fate of poor timing, not really through any fault of their own today.
No rain yet at Spa, despite the skies being overcast and temperatures low.
The familiar face of Sebastian Vettel topped the timesheets again this morning, but only a tenth clear of Ferrari’s Fernado Alonso.
The times are a clearer indication of qualifying performance than yesterday’s running as teams now have limited time to adjust cars and therefore have them as close as they hope to run them in qualifying as possible. Drivers too, prefer not to get into a car this afternoon that’s drastically different from this morning if they can possibly help it, so it’s small tweaks only in the two hours before the cars enter parc ferme conditions.
With temps lower than yesterday afternoon, many struggled with tyres and that manifested itself in numerous lockups into turn five and the last chicane. Lewis Hamilton looked particularly unsettled under braking, something we’ve seen him have difficulties with at times since joining the Mercedes team.
It’s almost certain that the rain will come at some point this afternoon, so teams now face tricky decisions on how to approach qualifying, keeping one eye on tomorrow’s race, which could also be rain affected. Downforce levels are the key area of decision making, as the last thing you want on a wet track is a lack of it, but too much in the dry will seriously harm the crucial high speed sectors 1 and 3.
Ominously Sebastian Vettel, early in FP3, looked impressive on his longer runs on the harder tyre. Whilst others were tailing off at a rate of up to half a second a lap at the same point, his 8 lap old hard compound tyre delivered his fastest laptime of that run.
Mercedes still have work to do, but despite both cars finishing well down in the session, they still have the capability to pull something out of the bag for qualifying. Ferrari looked better on the medium compound tyre and if the track does remain dry, they could be in contention too.
The afternoon brought higer temperatures and bright sunshine and so attracted everyone out for lots of laps. The medium compound tyre showed considerably more performance than the hard compound, delivering over a second of laptime gain for many.
Whereas this morning the Red Bull looked to be struggling a little in the low grip, damp conditions, they excelled in their low downforce configuration this afternoon. Both cars topped the time sheets and also the speed traps, which isn’t normally the case as their car often seems inherently slower than some others in a straight line.
Not only were they fast over a lap, but the high fuel, long run pace on the medium tyre also looked decent and consistent.
The worry for the team might be that conditions aren’t likely to remain like this for the rest of the weekend, with rain predicted at various points over Saturday and Sunday, but at least they have lots of data to work from.
What could turn out to be the biggest story from today, was the right rear tyre failure on Sebastians car. Although we haven’t seen close up footage of the moment it let go, it resulted in a partial delamination and Pirelli, along with everyone else, will be desperate to know the cause as quickly as possible.
Lotus ditched the passive DRS for FP2 and didn’t look to be quite as happy as we might have predicted here. It’s still early days, but although Kimi did a lot of laps, his comparative long run to Sebastian’s on medium tyres didn’t look quite as impressive.
Lewis Hamilton struggled throughout and hasn’t yet found the right balance for the car, however we’ve seen that before recently and Saturday’s another day. He finished the session down in 12th position.
A very tricky first practice session for all teams and drivers here in Belgium after the four week summer break.
With the weather being the dominant factor during the ninety minutes, teams were limited with the amount of meaningful work they could undertake, as the circuit changed from damp to dry and back again, but varied greatly between its different sectors.
Teams have an extra set of intermediate tyres to use on Fridays, but with rain set to play a part right through the weekend, most were reluctant to use over and above that extra allocation in FP1.
Points of note were both Lotus drivers, running the team’s passive drag reduction device, doing by far the most laps early on as they worked to set up the tricky system for this long fast track. If they can optimise the kit and get it working consistantly, they stand to gain more here than at other circuits because of the extreme difference between the fast and slower sectors.
If succesful, the E21 can run a higher downforce level to cope with the demands of the middle sector of the race track, yet shed the drag that goes with it in the high speed sections at the beginning and end of the lap.
There are an interesting array of aero set-ups up and down the pitlane, but notably a striking difference between Red Bull Racing and Ferrari. The RBR has a rear wing similar to the skinny units deployed at Monza, whereas Ferrari are running a more medium downforce rear element.
Visually the difference is clear and it looks like an attempt by RBR to defend against the speed of the likes of Mercedes and co. However, after FP1, mixed though the session was, Fernando Alonso topped the times and both Red Bulls were by no means the fastest through the speed traps around the lap.
We might see them play with this more this afternoon.
A year from now, September 2014, sees the much anticipated launch of the inaugural FIA Formula E Championship. For many reasons it’s an exciting prospect, groundbreaking even and the Formula One world, along with racing fans in general, are keeping a very keen eye on proceedings.
Of course it’s all too easy to jump on the band wagon and champion the project simply because of its ‘green’ credentials, because it’s the ‘right thing to do’, or because it’s making headlines right now, but just how good a prospect is it?
Well, the Formula One world aren’t just sitting back and keeping an eye on things, some of the major players have jumped at the chance to get onboard from the very beginning and that in itself tells you something.
Two of the sport’s best known and most successful teams have signed up as technical partners and not just in terms of title either. McLaren, through their McLaren Electronic Systems branch, are developing and producing the electric motors to propel the new racers around the city centre circuits on their ten race calendar. They’ll also supply all onboard electronics for the cars.
Alongside them Williams, through their Advanced Engineering company, are producing the 200kw batteries which will power McLaren’s motors and give the single seaters speeds of up 225kph (limited by the FIA) and 0-100kph times of around 3 seconds.
As well as these two historic giants of Formula One, Renault are also part of the technical group and will oversee the integration of the various systems on the car, named the Spark-Renault SRT_01E. Michelin will produce a specification tyre for the championship and Tag Heuer will provide all event timing.
It’s not hard to see from the impressive list of partners so far, not to mention the fact that the world motorsport governing body, the FIA, has sanctioned the series, that there’s a little more to it than just a pie in the sky idea about making motor racing ‘green’. So who stands to gain what?
The project has some serious financial backing, something any new venture of this nature needs, but the individuals behind Formula E Holdings don’t stand to make fortunes in their first couple of years, clearly the initial outlay’s substantial for something on this scale. Everything’s new and needs developing from scratch, it’s not like they can just go and buy the technical elements off the shelf and in truth that’s the last thing they want to do with this anyway. Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E Holdings, along with his team, are in this for the long term and it’s their long term goals that are perhaps most exciting for all concerned.
They see the championship as, not only an exciting city centre spectacle on a global stage, but as a catalyst for the development, expansion and promotion of electric, emission free vehicles (EV’s). By showcasing electric cars in a serious racing environment, it demonstrates to the public just how far the technology’s already come, but also by placing it into a competitive environment, accelerates that development far quicker than even the biggest motor manufacturers are able to do. We all know the power that F1 has in terms of R & D and it’s hoped the Formula E teams and technical partners will help to push battery and motor technology along in the same way, something the EV industry desperately needs to happen to ensure the long term success of environmentally friendly cars.
Over the past year some of the world’s best known cities have been clambering over each other to secure a position on the inaugural calendar, something we’re seeing happening the other way round at the moment in F1.
We all know Bernie Ecclestone would love to see a Grand Prix around the streets of London or LA, but has for many years failed in any attempts to make it happen. Various logistical, technical and environmental issues have held such events back, but by far the biggest stumbling block and the reason we’re seeing some of F1′s current host nations even trying to offload their current contracts, is the outrageous cost.
Not only is it a world cheaper than F1 as a host city to secure an event at the moment, with the series still in its infancy, but the potential benefits are substantial.
Firstly, there is of course on one level the spectacle of seeing real racing cars speed through some of the world’s most famous cities, past globally recognisable landmarks and on the doorstep of millions of people. Think about the glamour of F1 street racing in Monaco or Singapore, but with cars designed specifically for those type of tracks and tracks laid out specifically for that type of car. There’s obvious revenue to be made off the back of having the expected high numbers of people descending on each city for events and being a city centre, there’s already infrastructure in place to deal with such numbers. There’s no doubt that the best F1 races are close to big cities to enable fans and teams to utilise the facilities close by for events, hospitality or just social interaction away from the track.
On another level, the governments of these cities are seen to be promoting environmentally friendly initiatives and taking the lead with emission free motoring in their towns. Cities are after all where this type of car are most needed and indeed best suited. Investment in electric vehicle charging networks or schemes to increase electric car sales are already taking shape off the back of the host city announcements, so the industry and its customers benefit too.
It’s motor racing that’s actually helping to clear the cities of pollution and because these electric cars are ‘cool’, fast cars, it’s helping to change the perceived image of this type of vehicle from the slow and boring descendant of the milk float. What better way to market an event and product?
The McLaren’s, Williams’ and Renault’s of this world, along with the teams competing, stand to steal a march over everyone else in an area that surely will become inevitably commonplace over time. In Formula One, we’re already seeing far greater integration of electrical power with the regulation changes for 2014 and it’s not too hard to look further down the line to a time where electrical energy overtakes the combustion engine as the primary propulsion of motor racing’s highest echelons.
Not only are these teams and companies as a whole gaining valuable knowledge and understanding in the field, but so too are their staff.
If motor racing one day heads into a new ‘green’ era (something you could say is happening with Formula E), who has any experience of the technology? Mechanics, engineers, designers and indeed drivers have all been brought up on a diet of big, loud, gas guzzling race cars and it’s that previous experience that makes them experts and the best at what they do. So it’s not out of the question that those involved in Formula E over the next few years could become hot property for Formula One teams as they themselves need to bring in experts in this new, rapidly developing area.
Formula E’s looked at the business model of Formula One and other leading championships and, at least at this stage, looks to be cleverly trying to use the good bits, but address the issues that don’t work so well.
The series is groundbreaking in technical terms, but the organisers want to be groundbreaking on every level so there’re plans to make the tv coverage spectacular too, using the very latest technology available. Fans will have easy access to online streaming, along with a mobile app for live timing amongst other things and plans for an interactive online video game or simulator will give people another variation on the experience…and you can bet it won’t cost anything like F1 prices.
For those attending, you can expect action packed events, with practice, qualifying and races all happening over one day (another attraction for the host city, with less disruption and cost than F1) and a host of ancillary shows, concerts, parties and stands to compliment the on-track racing.
All sounds pretty good huh? What are the bad bits?
Well, it’s hard to say right now because everything has such a positive spin on it, but the fact that there is so much positivity around the project is a good sign.
Driving these cars will take a different set of skills to a petrol engined or traditional car, so one might wonder how that could impact on a drivers’ credentials? The circuits will all be street circuits, again a different experience to driving an out and out race track, so would a winner in Formula E necessarily be a natural choice for an F1 team for example? It remains to be seen, but most drivers would counteract that by saying they’ve grown up honing their skills in other formulae, so have that experience and would probably argue they managed to adapt to Formula E, so would do the same for Formula 1.
The doubters and purists raise points like the fact we won’t have the screaming engine noise we have and love in F1. That’s true, but if you look at the series, not as something trying to compete with F1, but as an entirely new category, you take the noise the cars make as the unique sound of Formula E. It’s a futuristic sound to go with a futuristic car and something I think should be embraced. As F1 fans we’ll still have our screaming engines to listen to, but if you’re open to something entirely new, give Formula E a try, when this type of thing becomes commonplace, you can say you were there from the very beginning.
The other area of concern for some is the fact that current battery technology limits flat out running to around twenty minutes in race mode. The way organisers have overcome this is by including mandatory pitstops to switch cars twice during each race, while the depleted batteries are recharged.
Some say this makes the series gimmicky, or instead of showcasing EV technology, is actually highlighting how restricted it still is. There may be elements of truth in some of this, but my feeling still remains that the championship is the best way to push the development of battery technology forward.
Much like the sound of the races, if we open our minds and embrace car swapping pitstops as a new spectacle and competitive element, it could really add something to the show, it doesn’t have to be gimmicky at all.
By racing flat out around the streets, the formula still shows what EV’s can do and removes them from the category of boring, tree huggers statement makers and into the category of fast, sporty and exciting alternative cars, not to mention the comparatively tiny running costs in a city environment. I don’t imagine many people would have thought an electric car could do the sort of speeds on show with Formula E.
I for one, can’t wait for it to get going and hope Formula E gets the credit I’m sure it already deserves for pioneering in something that’ll no doubt shape the future of motorsport and the motor vehicle industry alike.
The Formula One World Championship is, in its most basic form, a competition. There’re many aspects to it which set it aside from other competitions and many arguments to say that it’s not altogether fair, as one might think a competition should be.
There’s clearly no parity when it comes to the financial might between teams and that translates directly into obvious advantages for the wealthier competitors.
The larger teams can afford better facilities and technologies, the best engines, the best staff and the best drivers. The groups of teams further back can often barely afford to go racing and are forced to make the best of what they have.
Formula One as a whole, does very little to address this and it’s generally accepted as the way things are and have always been. The result is that a Grand Prix consists of, not just a race or competition for first place and the winners trophy, but a number of battles throughout the field with each team fighting for position and status within their own ‘financial’ group.
Occasionally in the sport, there are certain elements which are standardised and supplied to all teams by an external third party and in these cases, it’s a rare opportunity for a level playing field in F1.
In the past we’ve had things like the pitlane refueling equipment, supplied by a French company, Intertechnique, to all teams in a standard form. With pitstops being so crucial to a race, teams occasionally tried to come up with ways of modifying the kit to make it more usable or efficient, but the regulations, and the company themselves, did their best to ensure everyone was using equipment of exactly the same spec and that no-one could gain or lose out in that area.
Today, we have a standardised ECU and driver display unit for all teams. They’re supplied by McLaren Electronic Systems Limited (MESL) and strictly controlled and monitored by the FIA to ensure that everyone has the same. They quite rightly can’t be tweaked or changed and have no influence on the sporting outcome of F1.
Similarly, on board timing equipment’s provided to all teams by FOM. It’s all identical and can in no way provide advantages to any teams over any others.
The most obvious and prominent example of standardised equipment, provided by an external supplier, is of course Formula One’s tyres.
Pirelli have a contract with Formula One and with the teams to provide a range of tyres suitable for the task in hand at each Grand Prix. As we know, the range consists of different compounds and tyre types to cope with the varying track, temperature and weather conditions found, as the championship winds its way around the globe.
The biggest difference between the tyres and other third party products, is that they not only have a direct, varying and substantial impact on car performance, but that there’s a choice on which of the tyres is brought to each race weekend.
With the ECU, teams know how it works, they’re given the kit at the start of the season and know that it’ll stay the same, provide them with what they need and can to a certain degree, be forgotten about for the majority of the time. It doesn’t give them headaches in terms of car performance. Re-fueling rigs were the same, timing transponders and so on.
With Pirelli’s tyres however, they’re crucial to car set up, race strategy and of course lap time. Unlike the other ‘bought in’ products, the tyres aren’t a constant, they can change in type from race to race. That variability, along with their importance in transmitting the grip levels between car and track surface, means that some cars, some drivers, some teams, on some days, fair better than others with their use.
We all now know that certain teams’ cars work better with certain compounds and in certain temperatures and that knowledge is what puts the tyre supplier in a slightly awkward position.
At the beginning of the season, Pirelli selected their compound choices for the first few tracks that F1 visits. The circuit characteristics, tyre loading, surface abrasion and the likely temperatures seen in those countries at the time of year, all affected the decisions, but back then, no-one knew how the selections might affect each car.
They were briefed by Formula One to try and deliver races that consisted of two to three pitstops in the interests of creating the best show for fans and so that’s exactly what they tried to do.
That’s fine and whilst there were a number of inevitable complainers about the degradation levels of the new tyres, Pirelli had done pretty much as they’d been asked.
As is always the case, some teams excelled with the 2013 range of tyres, some struggled more so and the arguments raged on about whether it was the right thing for the sport or not. That’s still really up for debate, but as with any standard parts, equipment or regulations, it’s the teams’ job to make the best of them and try to use them to their advantage.
As this season, and any season, progresses, the drivers, teams, fans and of course Pirelli gain a better understanding of the products and how they effect each competitor differently. We all now know, for example, that the Lotus E21 is particularly easy on it’s tyres. It’s secured great race results in the first half of the season by managing to get through a race at a decent pace, yet often doing one less pitstop than the likes of Red Bull’s RB9. Other teams like Force India and Ferrari have also produced cars able to manage their tyre usage better than some rivals.
As the nuances of each teams’ tyre useage becomes clearer to all, it raises the question about the impact of compound selection on the competition. Pirelli currently choose which two dry weather tyres from their range to take to each GP and that decision can have a major impact on the way each team performs and therefore potentially the outcome.
Not for one minute am I suggesting that there’s any wrong doing on Pirelli’s part, but armed with the knowledge they inevitably now possess, should they be put in the position of having to take such an influential, and often subjective, decision with Formula One’s stakes so high?
After coming under so much criticism from many areas, it’s been suggested recently that their compound selections for upcoming rounds are overly conservative. On one hand, one might say that’s understandable, the company doesn’t need any more bad press about their tyres not lasting very long, so by selecting the harder, more durable of the range, it perhaps minimizes that element. The poor public perception of a Pirelli tyre may well translate to the core business of their road car products and that goes against the entire reasoning for them entering the sport in the first place.
On the other hand, by making such selections, it’s clear that some teams will benefit and others will lose out and everybody now knows who they are, including Pirelli.
Of course it works both ways if tyres in the softer end of the range are chosen, but the point is should we be looking for a fairer way to make the selection?
What are the alternatives?
If we assume that the current regulations and guidelines will remain, in terms of having a range of tyres to suit all conditions and each driver having ‘primes’ and ‘options’ to use at each event, there aren’t too many ways around this.
a) Pirelli could make selections for the entire season before round one, based on the technical aspects of each track and the teams know what they’ve got right from the start. The problem with this is that, as the cars get faster and more understanding’s gained, the loads put through the tyres as the season progresses can increase. Pirelli might want to modify their selections in response and then we’re back to where we are now.
b) The FIA could make the selection. This at least takes the pressure off the tyre supplier and removes any speculation of third party influence.
In reality though, if the FIA had the responsibility, they would only make their selections based on advice from the tyre supplier, but at least could perhaps do it solely on a technical basis and not off the back of any potential PR connotations.
c) A third option could be to allow the teams to make their own selections for each race.
There are obvious logistical complications here for the tyre supplier, so selections would have to be made by each team in accordance with a strict deadline, but at least there couldn’t be the same complaints we see today. The likelihood is that most teams would actually make the same selections, but they could, if they wanted to, tailor it to their own strengths and weaknesses. We could still see great racing and Pirelli would be back to being simply a non-influential supplier.
I’ve simplified the arguments here of course, but it surely can’t be right or fair, that a company can come into Formula One and either have the ability to, or be tasked with, making subjective decisions which influence so enormously, the outcome of races and the championship.
Perhaps it’s time for a rethink in the interests of fairness to the competition and fairness to the sport’s outside contractors?
The scientific world has, for the last few years now, been getting very excited about the prospects of a relatively newly discovered material, graphene.
Only now is it becoming more widely known about as the potential uses and applications start to approach reality.
A brief trawl across the internet, which I recommend you do quickly now, will provide a wealth of information, as ever, some more accurate than others, some perhaps sensationalist or fantasy, but there’s no doubt that the potential to revolutionise many industries and our daily lives is tremendous.
Graphene was discovered at The University of Manchester, England in 2004 and, in basic terms, is a flat, 2 dimensional layer of carbon atoms (only a single atom thick), bonded together in a honeycomb formation. It’s actually these graphene sheets, or layers, which when stacked together, form the more commonly understood and widely used material graphite.
When separated into graphene sheets, scientists found that the new, molecular level material displayed an entirely new set of properties, properties which bucked the trend that most substances follow when they’re reduced in mass or density. After nearly ten years of research and development, governments and commercial entities are finding more and more ways in which this remarkable discovery can be applied to a range of industries and hundreds of patents are being applied for each week. Interestingly the UK, where Graphene was discovered, has relatively few patents to date, the most by far have been granted to Chinese industry.
Graphene boasts a set of superlatives no other known material can come close to. It’s the strongest, thinnest, lightest, most impermeable, most conductive of both heat and electricity and is flexible, transparent and non-flammable to boot.
According to a Columbian engineering professor studying the subject, “It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of cling film”, pretty impressive.
Graphene’s so thin, 300,000 times thinner than a human hair, it would take 3 million sheets, stacked on top of each other to reach just 1 millimetre in thickness.
It can comfortably stretch by 20% of its width and length and yet is relatively stiffer than a diamond.
It can carry more electricity more efficiently, faster and with greater precision than any other material.
Graphene now holds the record for thermal conductivity, it’s better than any other known material.
It’s the most impermeable material ever discovered, even tiny helium atoms can’t pass through it.
The amazing transparency of graphene makes it useful as a potential solar cell component or for touch screen computers.
It takes a bit of getting your head around a material which is effectively only two dimensional, a single sheet of atoms you can actually pick up, but equally for those that are getting their heads around it, the possibilities are potentially ground breaking and seemingly endless.
Of course, while the prospect of a wafer thin touch screen computer I can fold up and put in my pocket is fascinating, naturally I want to look at ways the new ‘wonder material’ might impact Formula One.
The last revolutionary material to transform our sport, was of course carbon fibre and transform it, it certainly did.
When McLaren raced it’s MP4-1 in 1981, it was the first chassis to be made from carbon fibre composites and was truly ground breaking in it’s strength to weight properties. Obviously in Formula One, good strength to weight translates directly into performance and safety gains and so is therefore invaluable and it wasn’t long before it became the ‘only’ way to make an F1 car.
One of the obvious potential uses of graphene could be to transform the way the parts of an F1 car are made. If graphene sheets can be laid up, or dispersed into other composite materials, the product could be made far stronger and lighter by using less of the more traditional composites, whilst taking strength from the ultra thin nano material. Imagine a carbon/graphene chassis at a fraction of the weight and thickness of the current model. Crash structures like the nose or side impact zones could be made much smaller, but with increased effectiveness, therefore perhaps even changing the overall shape and aerodynamics of the cars as we know them?
The heat conducting properties of graphene will undoubtedly be of enormous benefit in F1. Engine bays, exhaust outlets and brakes are all areas where teams are always trying to find new materials to use as heat shielding or for heat transference. Currently, heavy metals or composites coated in ceramic are used or gold foil sheets at great expense. With a single atom thick sheet of graphene, heat can be not only be incredibly effectively drawn away from hot spots, but transferred to other areas where it can be used for different applications… and all with almost zero weight penalty or space constraints.
Another area where heat build up has one of the biggest drawbacks is inside electronics. The crucial workings inside all computers are normally limited in their packaging by the ability to, not only manufacture smaller and smaller components, but the provision to allow enough space for airflow around those components to prevent overheating. Graphene can help on both counts and the possibility of placing sensors, receivers, processors and ECU’s etc, in areas never before thought possible, will be mouthwatering for teams and the likes of McLaren Electronic Systems who provide the onboard computing power for the entire grid as things stand. They can be smaller, lighter and do considerably more, much faster than the systems used today. Engine manufacturers too, would love to be able to make heat resistant electronics in the same way.
On board displays could be wafer thin, located inside a driver’s visor or wrapped around the flat edge of the chassis opening or the steering wheel, saving 99% of the weight and bulk of the current units.
Graphene is said to be the best electrical conductor known to man. In simple Formula One terms this means that electronic signals can be sent significantly faster around the car or even around an individual electronic component. ECU’s could process infinitely more data and do it much, much faster and this could give engineers and drivers more information, more accurate information and perhaps information they can’t currently get.
Today, when a car is reversed into its garage, there’s a delay as the enormous amounts of data from the run are downloaded onto the garage systems for engineers to begin analysing. With graphene garage cabling and system components, that data transfer could be almost instant and the knock on effect is a faster transfer of information to the relative factories and around the garage and therefore a much faster response time by engineers and mechanics to enable the car to get back on track.
Inside the garage itself, the current banner systems, or walling, with the teams’ sponsor logos could go, being replaced by floor to ceiling, wafer thin, transparent touchscreen displays. Sponsor logos, advertisements, basically anything they want, could be shown dynamically on the walls over the weekend. Drivers could bring up Skype or Twitter on a section of wall and respond to fan questions from the garage during the day, all in view of the public at the track and pitlane TV cameras. The possibilities are almost endless.
The weight of the currently heavy and bulky wiring harnesses and their connectors, running the length of an F1 car, could be slashed, or even dispensed with all together as the ‘wiring’ or ‘circuits’, could be integrated into the chassis itself or just laid flat in a sheet along the chassis sides.
One of the most interesting areas of development to potentially impact the sport and the automotive world as a whole, is the use of graphene to produce super-capacitors.
The KERS units on modern F1 cars generally use Lithium-ion batteries to store the energy recovered under braking. They work, but are heavy and cumbersome. In fact, batteries in general aren’t particularly good at storing energy, bizarre though that sounds. In relation to other energy storing materials like fossil fuels or petrol say, the amount of energy stored per kilogram is far, far less. They’re also not particularly quick to recharge. In the automotive world this has been one of the biggest drawbacks and downsides to the advancement of fully electric vehicles.
Graphene will change this.
Whereas a capacitor, another device for storing energy, will charge and discharge much faster than a battery, it doesn’t hold anywhere near the amount of energy for its size. The answer, approaching quickly over the horizon, is the graphene based super-capacitor. Because of the material’s properties, it can not only hold enormous amounts of energy, but discharge it quickly and recharge just as fast. Mobile phone’s which will use this technology soon, will hold a charge for considerably longer than today and have the potential to fully recharge in around thirty seconds!
With the possibility of making super-capacitors small, light, powerful and efficient, it’s not too difficult to imagine a very different Formula One where the focus is heavily weighted towards green, energy efficiency on a whole other level to that coming in 2014. Look further down the line and, much as the purists won’t like it, the day’s of F1′s combustion engine formula as we know it will surely be numbered.
However this new material, and others like it change our lives, there’s no way Formula One’s escaping it. Those intrigued by the technical prospects, the ones who embrace change and progress in the sport have every right to be excited by what graphene will bring. It’s no understatement to say it will revolutionise this, and almost every other industry, so for the old fashioned, traditional camp, stuck in their ways and opposed to our sport moving with the times, it might be time to rethink the way a future Formula One might look?
As well as the ways that graphene might be used by the teams, it’s important to say that it will clearly affect many other areas of Formula One.
These are exciting times in the way we watch the sport at home. The electronics inside TV broadcasting equipment can be revolutionised too. FOM and television companies might look at low level airborne cameras for example or minute devices in new locations onboard the cars and the speed of data transfer across the world will be transformed. At home, we could watch on any number of futuristic devices, perhaps the size of an entire wall, or more than one wall, giving a panoramic experience of F1.
With similar technologies being applied to the aerospace industry, it’s easy to see how travel and freight costs and timescales might be reduced dramatically too, something else which would affect F1 and it’s ancillaries.
Some of these advancements are clearly further away than others, but there’s no doubting that graphene’s a very exciting discovery for the world. It’s currently expensive, but as with everything, before too long it’ll be mass produced and accessible to all. In Formula One terms it’s the kind of thing that designers have dreams about, although having spoken to the drawing office at a leading team on the subject, whilst they’re not yet looking at it in serious terms, it’s certainly on the radar and one day, someone will take the lead like McLaren did in 1981.
Press Call, or Hard Pressed Call?
After almost four months of waiting, Formula One fans were finally treated to the opportunity of watching their favourite drivers break the silence and talk collectively about the event we’ve all been desperately looking forward to, the first Grand Prix of 2013.
The first driver’s press conference, commanding a half hour live TV slot and being frantically transcribed around the world, did absolutely nothing at all to enhance the excitement on the eve of the cars breaking cover for the very first time at a GP this year.
The age old media model of sticking a sportsman in front of a microphone or television camera before or after their big event, certainly has provided some great moments at times over the years.
Kimi in 2006 talking on the grid to Martin Brundle before his last race for McLaren and Schumacher’s last before retiring first time round. I was there, about to strap him into the car for my last time and remember thinking, that’s what I’ll miss about working with Kimi, he’s unique and there’s never a dull moment.
Jose Mourinho, upon his arrival to the English Premier League, announcing himself as “The Special One”, and his subsequent tactical playing of the media to his, and his team’s, advantage at every opportunity.
Who remembers Eric Cantona, with his short and sweet, bizarrely cryptic message about seagulls and sardines, to the assembled press following his conviction for the assault of a football fan in 1995?
Little gems like this are few and far between, even more so in today’s world and even more so still in the tightly controlled media world of Formula One.
Almost all Formula One drivers today say exactly what they’re told to the press and media folk at each Grand Prix and at a time of year when teams are more secretive and protective than any other, the leash around their star name’s neck is noticeably shorter than ever.
Thursday’s press conference at Albert Park, Melbourne was duller than most. Partly because, despite excited fans around the globe tuning in on the edge of their seats, only one out of the six involved looked like they weren’t hard pressed to be there. Homeboy (no, not Lewis), Australian Daniel Ricciardo beamed from ear to ear and appeared enthusiastic to even be in the press line up, let alone about to begin a crucial season, whereas most of the others came across like they were appearing in an Al Qaeda hostage video at gunpoint.
That was one reason it was dull. The other was undoubtedly the array of inane and repetitive questions from the worldwide media.
Anyone whose even stumbled across Formula One in the last few weeks knows about the difficulties faced by all teams with regard the incredibly low temperatures and poor conditions during pre-season testing. The casual follower will also know that no-one, either team or driver, is likely to predict its position in the pecking order right before the first race of the year.
Despite these givens, a series of questions, to which most people could have quite accurately predicted the answers followed and the responses barely raised an eyebrow. Asking a driver if he can win the race, or win the championship, is he motivated this year or how will the new tyres affect the car, generated the kind of ‘pissed off’ or deflected responses you’d imagine from some of them and made for almost uncomfortable viewing at times.
On a slightly different tack, which at least provoked a couple of smiles, one journalist from Germany asked Seb and Fernando to “describe each other as a person and as a driver”. The question was met with standard answers about the pair’s mutual respect for each other as you’d expect, but at least endeavoured to unlock a tiny bit of the personality of each and received perhaps the longest answers to any posed during the session.
The bottom line is it was dull TV and although the headline writers went away and did their best to churn each answer into a story, very little came out of the whole affair.
Is it time to change the way we do things here?
The microphone in the face of a driver or team principal during the heat of battle, type interview, will always produce some great answers, insight and controversy and should always have it’s place. However, have the days of individual freedom to speak openly at pre-arranged press events run their coarse?
With Formula One being the secretive, closed off world that it is, teams and their press officers are inherently wary and protective when it comes to dealing with the media. They’re terrified about giving too much away and, to be honest, stuck in a distant era shaped by widespread industrial espionage based around a very different set of F1 regulations and technical freedom.
Today, the sport’s slowly waking up to the fact that by showing fans behind the scenes images of their garages, or allowing their drivers to communicate directly with fans through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, it won’t cost them a world Championship.
Former Williams chairman, Adam Parr, commented earlier this year about the need for race fans to start demanding more from our sport. He’s right. There’s absolutely no reason today for fans to not be granted direct access to the teams, their factories, garages and drivers. It has all round benefits, commercial or otherwise, for everyone concerned and is surely the way we should be moving forward.
With that said, how about opening up the Thursday driver and Friday team principal conference to the fans of the sport?
Social media can deliver live, on the spot questions through written, spoken or video formats and because it’s the fans asking, those lined up to answer should feel a certain responsibility to put on something of a show with regards their answers.
If Lewis Hamilton knows he’s talking to a fan through Skype, rather than a ‘dreaded’ journalist, there’s no way he’d be anything other than enthusiastic in his response.
In the same sense, a fan sitting at home, watching on tv and sending a question through Twitter, will ask whatever’s on his mind. He won’t be worried about asking something difficult and having his media privileges or relationship with that driver disrupted at this early stage of a long season. He might ask something about the driver’s personal life, not about the cars and generate an interesting insight into the superstar’s ‘real’ persona away from the track.
The other thing of course, is that by doing something along these lines you not only let fans feel closer and more involved in the sport, but you open up the range of questions by an unlimited number. A producer off screen can obviously filter them, but he has millions, instead of just five, to skim through and choose from.
Journos still get their stories, perhaps some even more juicy ones and fans help to create a TV slot worth watching.
A sceptical, or new fan of Formula One watching Thursday’s live press conference would’ve been forgiven for turning off from the sport in disappointment. On the eve of one of the most hotly anticipated championships for some time, a selection of it’s premier stars sat in front of the cameras and looked uninterested and bored. They certainly didn’t look like a group of privileged young athletes, living their dreams, private jetting from luxurious holiday to winter retreat and back again…feeling refreshed and thrilled to be addressing their fans ahead of the new campaign…which is what I suspect most of their fans hope they are.
F1 has many areas which need addressing in order for it to move with the times, fan integration’s a big one and after watching thirty minutes of dull live television on Thursday in Australia, this surely has to be one to consider?