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Bunny Ears and the Aero Boys

Sounds like a new cartoon adventure, doesn’t it? But it’s just the story of testing in Barcelona this week. First we had McLaren putting the nose of their car in brackets, then bunny ears sprouted from the Hondas and, finally, Ferrari talked about their amazing shrinking sidepods.

The McLaren development seemed logical enough to me, surely just taking the idea of “mustachio” front wing elements, as seen on several of the cars this year, and extending them from endplate to endplate, thereby maximising whatever benefit they give.

Williams

A mustachioed Williams

The strange growth of ears on the nose of the Honda looks like desperation, however. Obviously they are intended to give a little more downforce and control to the front of the car under braking, but a more inelegant solution can hardly be imagined. If that is the best their aero boys can come up with, methinks they need a better wind tunnel.

Honda

Honda or Bugs Bunny?

And then there’s Ferrari. When Kimi Raikkonen seems much happier with developments and there is mention of major advances in the design of the sidepods and engine cover, rather than bits and pieces added to the nose, it is time for the other teams to get worried. All the teams are talking about steps forward being taken but it sounds as though it’s Ferrari who have made the most important advances.

Notice that these are all aerodynamic tweaks, however. In this era of frozen engine development, the concentration on aerodynamics becomes even greater until it seems the only way to squeeze a little more speed or grip from the chassis. The FIA may be congratulating themselves on helping the engine manufacturers to economize but the money just gets spent in other areas instead. And F1 hardly needs even more effort put into aerodynamics, blamed as it is for the dearth of overtaking these days.

Somehow we need to get back to a situation where all aspects of a car’s handling are equally important. Whilst the science of aerodynamics cannot be “un-invented”, it is certainly possible to introduce regulations that make it less important, thereby encouraging renewed life into suspension and chassis design in the quest for mechanical grip.

It seems to me that the first and most logical step towards this would be to change the flat bottom rule. At the moment, the floor of the car is supposed to be flat between the rear face of the front tires and the front face of the rear tires; extend the flat bottom rule from the nose to the rear face of the rear tires and you immediately do away with the raised nose that has consumed the great majority of aerodynamic work over the last few years. The designers would be forced to look at other ways of clawing back some of the downforce they have become used to and, more importantly, would have to find non-aerodynamic methods for coping with the huge reduction in downforce.

The flexi-floor saga is an illustration of how ridiculous things have become, thanks to the flat bottom rule being circumvented. If the FIA had insisted that the floor of the car must mean the bottom of the chassis, the extended lip would never have been necessary and flexi-floors would be pointless. Hence my suggestion that the floor be extended to the nose – let them try to circumvent that rule!

The FIA has delayed the introduction of new aerodynamic regulations and even these do not envisage anything so radical as a truly flat-bottomed car. It seems that the regulators would rather fiddle about with ever-more-precise measurements of what can be done here and what is allowed there. It is all wasted energy; the designers will keep the aerodynamic advantages they have developed over the years unless you take away their toy completely. Remove it and they will have to go back to cars that corner quickly because they work better, rather than relying on a huge aerodynamic hand forcing them on to the ground.

And with aerodynamics put in its place, who knows, we might even have a bit more overtaking in F1. Now that should keep everyone happy, surely.

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Frying Tonight in the Honda Camp

I understand completely why so many have given up hope of Jenson Button ever fulfilling the promise he showed when he first arrived in F1. Year after year he has carried English hopes into battle, only to disappoint through no fault of his own. It is no wonder that we despair of him ever getting the right drive at the right time.

And I have tried so hard to be loyal, even sticking my neck out and predicting a championship for him this year. Who could have guessed that Honda were about to confuse themselves utterly with a car that just does not do what it’s supposed to? Once again it looks as if I will have to shelve my hopes until next year.

Honda

Except that now there is a new hope from England, the amazing Lewis Hamilton who has done everything right so far, even picking the right team at the right time at his first attempt. The temptation to desert poor Jenson and join the masses betting on Hamilton is very strong.

But I will soldier on for a while yet, believing that miracles are still possible and Honda will work out their problems before long. Fat chance, I know, but this is probably Button’s last chance and I’m not ready to give up on him yet.

It does not help that Mike Lawrence has written a very good article for Pitpass dot com, analyzing Honda’s weaknesses, most of which I agree with. He places much of the blame on Nick Fry’s shoulders and it is hard to argue with his assessment; the buck stops inevitably with the boss of the outfit.

I think Mike makes a mistake in dragging Henry V in as an example, however. It’s an unfortunate choice that weakens the force of Mike’s argument. Henry was England’s hero, not only because he gave them victories, but also because he stood with them in their troubles, sharing their hardships and inspiring them to great things. Shakespeare’s version of Henry’s speech before the Battle of Agincourt may be romanticized but it is as good a guess as anyone else’s; the fact is that Henry’s troops fought as well as they did because they loved him.

“And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

Extract from Henry’s speech, Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3

The whole speech can be read here, if you’re interested. I know it’s a bit off the subject of motor racing but hey, it was Mike who introduced the idea. And I would hazard a guess that, were Nick Fry to have anything like the leadership qualities of Henry V, Honda would not be in the mess they are now.

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Theissen on Small Teams

Mario Theissen has returned to the theme of “small is beautiful”, repeating his intention that the BMW team will not grow into a huge operation, as so many of the successful teams do. Historically in F1, this is the way to go, smaller teams being more flexible and able to react to change faster than the big ones.

Theissen

Mario Theissen

This may be at the heart of the problems confronting teams like Honda and Toyota, their overabundance of funding meaning that they can invest in so many facilities that confusion rather than focused development is the result. There is also that old theme of mine to be considered: passion. It is easier to inspire a few people with a single vision than a big operation with many departments and localities.

BMW seem to be getting everything right at the moment. Even though they remain very realistic, as is clear from Nick Heidfeld’s recent interview, they are clearly the team with the best chance of competing with the front runners, Ferrari and McLaren. If anyone is capable of beating those two this year, it must be BMW.

It has to be said that the reason for the effectiveness of the BMW team is Theissen himself. He is a model of the successful F1 team manager, being able to direct his personnel in a common direction, provide vision without straying into fantasy and dealing with the press without drama. Compare the turmoil and personnel changes in a crisis of Nick Fry’s Honda team with the steady, unflappable improvement at BMW Sauber. Any team becomes a reflection of its leader and the Honda management should make Ross Brawn an offer he can’t refuse if they want to get their team moving forward.

It’s a philosophy that all the manufacturers should consider. The corporate direction of an F1 team just doesn’t work, as has been demonstrated so often. Mercedes have had it right, although I detect a move towards greater involvement of management in McLaren’s affairs, and FIAT have had the sense to let Ferrari get on with it, until recently, at least. If Toyota and Honda finally get the idea, watch out!

This year has seen some big changes in the teams, with established stars departing and new faces appearing in many places. Looking further ahead, we may actually be witnessing one of those changes of era that come along perhaps once a decade. If BMW continue their drive to the front and McLaren and Ferrari suffer a decline caused by greater interference from their attached manufacturers, the whole shape of the grid could alter over the next few years. Is it possible that the battles of the “two thousand and something teens” will be between BMW and Williams-Toyota? And McLaren seriously embarrassed by the greater success of their B team, Prodrive; perhaps Ferrari in another period of chaos and internal conflict?

There is one thing for sure: change will always happen – it’s the only thing you can depend upon.

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The Most Wanted Man in Formula One

I seem to be saying “I told you so” a lot these days. And, when a rumor gets out that McLaren want Ross Brawn to work for them in 2008, it’s inevitable that I will say it again. It makes sense that they would want his services, if only to deny them to the competition.

Ross

Ross Brawn

One can understand too why Honda should be thinking about making Brawn an offer he can’t refuse, although it is unlikely that he could start soon enough to help them this year. When you’re as far up the creek without a paddle as Honda are, the chance of an outboard motor like Ross must seem very tempting.

Naturally, Ferrari chime in with Brawn’s promise that he’ll consult with them first; their motives may be similar to McLaren’s, however, and I doubt that they will offer the job that Ross wants – to be team boss. Nothing less will persuade him to work outside England again.

Although I think McLaren will win Ross over in the end, especially as they are talking in terms of next year rather than this (thereby allowing the man to catch a few fish in the meantime), the Honda offer may be quite tempting to him. No doubt there is a fat paycheck attached but, more importantly, there is a matter of the challenge involved. It’s risky but, if he could turn the team around and make them successful, his reputation would be enhanced even further.

What we tend to forget in all these possibilities is that F1 is a competition between teams. The sport has its stars and it is easy to assume that they would succeed wherever they went; history tells us a different story, however. Ferrari’s success over the last few years was achieved because they built a winning team – each of them had a part to play and did so admirably well. But remove a few from the equation and it begins to fall apart. Already there is muttering about the Malaysian GP and how things would have been different had Michael and Ross been there.

There is no such thing as a magic wand in F1. What is required is a whole bunch of them. Consider how John Barnard was regarded with awe while he was with McLaren yet failed to bring Ferrari success thereafter. And now Red Bull has Adrian Newey – the man who was expected to put them at the front of the grid this year. It hasn’t happened because it takes more than one man to make an F1 team.

Even so, Ross Brawn has much to offer the Honda team. He won’t fix the problems with the car but he could build them a team instead. That is clearly what he wants to do next – hence his determination to be boss at Ferrari or nothing. Nick Fry would have to take a lesser role but hey, if you want the best for the team, sometimes sacrifices have to be made. And, if anyone can knock the team into shape, it would be Ross.

The more I think about it, the more I think Ross has a great opportunity here. Even if he went to Ferrari as team boss, he would have Montezemolo looking over his shoulder; the Honda team would be his alone, however. And what a chance to show how important he was in Ferrari’s success!

He’s not asking me but, if he ever did, I’d have to say, “Go on, Ross, live dangerously. Take the Honda job and show us just how good you really are.”

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