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Nick Heidfeld on the Nordschleife

On Friday, Nick Heidfeld took the BMW Sauber F1.06 around the Nordschleife circuit at Nurburgring, as promised. You can see the video on the BMW Sauber website or (naturally) on YouTube.

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The car was shod with demonstration Bridgestones, which are slower than racing tires, and Nick had strict orders to take it easy but, even so, he looked to be trying pretty hard at some points. Not at the Karousel, however – he rounded that very carefully, understandably since it is very bumpy by modern F1 standards and the car would bottom out even with the ride height jacked up as far as it would go, as it was.

But there was a story a few days ago that he would not be allowed to take the Karousel at all so we should be grateful that he went round it at all. In the end, it was a fantastic sight and gave us a glimpse of how things might have been had F1 continued racing at the track through the intervening years.

Safety reasons have been the excuse for dropping so many circuits off the calendar but, in the Nordschleife’s case, there is no doubt that this was true. Even with the amount of money floating around in the sport today, it would be impossible to provide adequate marshaling and emergency coverage for the full 14 miles of the track. But that doesn’t mean we can’t dream.

Perhaps there should be an annual event of this type at the circuit, one to include the other teams as well; just demonstration runs by each car on its own, so that we could be reminded once again of the great circuit and its famous history combined with the sound and speed of modern F1.

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But, whatever happens, thank you to BMW for making this happen and for the video – a wonderful sight.

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A Few Malaysian Points

Apart from the first lap, there was not a great deal of overtaking in this Grand Prix. And yet it was very interesting. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrated that McLaren have closed the gap to Ferrari. Even had the McLarens not got the jump on Massa and Raikkonen at the start, they clearly were as quick and would not have been left behind if the Ferraris had grabbed the lead. When the Italian cars had nothing in front of them, they went no faster than they had been going behind Alonso and Hamilton.

Alonso

Alonso’s race

Naturally, Jean Todt denied that this had anything to do with the tightening of the test for flexible floors, that it was merely that McLaren had found more improvements since Melbourne than Ferrari had, but I think there is more to it than that. The BMWs were able to run at Ferrari pace, as shown by Heidfeld keeping Massa at bay, and there was a string of cars just behind this pair; did everyone improve more than Ferrari?

Some of the loss of Ferrari’s advantage can be explained by Kimi’s reliability worries. He was obviously content to hold station rather than risk the engine and would have been better advised to take the penalty and show us the true pace of the Ferrari with a fresh engine, I think. In spite of his determination to pamper the engine for points rather than a win, he was able to stay with the McLarens; with a new engine, he could have bullied his way through to fight for the lead.

The Finn’s face in the post race press conference spoke volumes – he is with Ferrari to win the championship and, if that means sometimes he has to go a little slower and let Massa have the glory, he is prepared to do it. And the glow around Felipe is beginning to fade; this was a race that he expected to win but threw away in frustration when he lost his lead at the first corner. It is Raikkonen, not Massa, that Alonso will have to fight for his third championship in a row.

A little further back, Williams entertained us with a great drive from Rosberg that deserved better than retirement and a charge through the field from Wurz. Hopefully, the car will get even better and we can enjoy the sight of a Williams battling for the lead again.

The performance of the Renaults and Hondas was interesting, both racing much better than they qualified. This would indicate that their main problem is in adjusting to the Bridgestones, rather than fundamental flaws in the design of the cars. If they can get on top of the tire problem, they will leapfrog into the top ten, I think.

And give Fisichella his due: he is doing a far better job than his much-hyped Finnish teammate, driving the car as fast as it will go without drama and taking the points on offer.

Toyota performed their usual disappearing act, Trulli circulating anonymously in the final points positions while Ralf managed to find his way back to keep the tailenders company. If anyone drives like Fisichella’s reputation, it is the Toyota team!

Note that Super Aguri were not so impressive in Malaysia – they have slipped a little and now run with their natural competitors, the Toro Rossos. This is a trend that is likely to continue, since their car becomes ever more out of date as others develop their later designs and get them to work with the tires. Expect Toro Rosso to get better and better, however, as Red Bull get the RB3 sorted out and drop a few hints to their second team.

Finally, I have to say it: Scott Speed finished well ahead of Liuzzi. Yes, tell me that Vitantonio had a little argument with Sato that spoiled his race – the point is, Scott didn’t. He ran consistently with a gaggle of allegedly better cars throughout the race and brought it home in the end. Staying out of trouble is part of racecraft too, Gerhard…

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So What’s With Honda?

Aerodynamics is an arcane science. In fact, to call it a science is probably giving it more credit than it is due – it remains an area where things can seem perfect in theory and the wind tunnel, but go hopelessly wrong when the car actually gets out on the track. That seems to be what has happened at Honda this year; according to all their calculations, this should have been the car to take them to the top, but in practice it has proved a huge step backwards. Super Aguri reap the benefits of development of last year’s chassis while the factory team scratch their heads in puzzlement as to what to do next.

Honda

Weight of the world on its shoulders…

It reminds me of the Arrows A2, the “Buzz Bomb” of 1979. On paper it should have been the best of the ground effect cars, with its extensive areas intended to suck the car to the ground like a leech; in reality, it was almost undriveable, porpoising down the straights as the low pressure area wandered around under the car as it pleased. The engineers slaved away with it all year, trying to make it work, but gave up in disgust and reverted to standard practice in 1980.

Not that the Honda is as obviously as bold an experiment as was the A2, but it may well be that the designers have made a similar mistake in pushing the theory further than it is ready to go. Aerodynamics has come a long way since the early days of ground effect but it is still a discipline in which there are few rules and practical experience remains the arbiter of what is right or wrong.

The change to Bridgestone tires has not helped either. Only McLaren and BMW of last year’s Michelin runners seem to have progressed in their understanding of how to make the Bridgestones work properly; the rest are struggling. And poor Honda has to work out how much of their car’s handling problems are due to the tires and how much to some undiscovered design flaw.

So is the Honda a bad car? It is far too early to say – there may be a tweak or modification that is all that is required to get the engineers moving in the right direction. But, even if that happens, there will be a mountain to climb to catch up to the front runners. Honda may not be down and out for this year’s championship but they have certainly made things very difficult for themselves.

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The Excitement of Traction Control

Autosport dot com has a good article on the techies’ view of the ban on traction control from 2008 onwards. It means a lot of re-design work for them but generally they seem content with the decision.

They do not think that the racing will be more “exciting” as a result, however. That may be true but I don’t think that was the FIA’s intention anyway – the idea was surely to allow the drivers’ skills a bit more influence on the race results. Everyone is agreed that the ban will help with that, Williams technical director, Sam Michael, admitting that “those who can feel the rear tyres and the throttle will shine.”

Prost

Alain Prost

Well, yeah. Which means that those who can save their tires by more skillful driving will benefit. Years ago Alain Prost was legendary for being able to take care of his tires and then to challenge strongly at the end of the race when everyone else’s tires were shot. In fact, without that ability, it is doubtful that he could have been quite as strong a teammate to Senna when they were both at McLaren. And it is drivers with the smooth, economical style of a Prost who will gain most from the ban, while the more spectacular but abrasive drivers will have to be more careful.

Certainly, it won’t be more exciting – but we might find the usual order shuffled a bit. Just as an instance, Kimi Raikkonen is rumored to be quite hard on his car and that means tires too. If he has to curb his instincts somewhat, that could put him in range of a lot of pretenders to his crown as one of the three quickest drivers. And they do say that Jenson Button is one of the smoothest drivers around…

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