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Renault Tomorrow and Yesterday

A flurry of news and views from Renault has revealed that they intend to win the championships again in 2007. Fisichella has been assuring fans that he will be champion and Flavio Briatore has stated that Fizzy has the ability to do it. “If he doesn’t step on it this year, we’ll make him do it,” said Flavio.

Renault

Which sounds like an ultimatum to me, especially as Renault Technical Director, Bob Bell, agrees that it is a make-or-break year for Fisichella. Nelson Piquet Jnr waits hungrily in the wings to see whether he breaks.

Perhaps more interesting than all this optimism (par for the course before the season opener), are Briatore’s conclusions after the recent tests on Bridgestone tires. He says he understands now why Ferrari instigated the ban on mass dampers halfway through the 2006 season; the dampers just don’t work with Bridgestone tires.

It amazes me that Ferrari’s influence on the FIA seems to be accepted now; other teams raise no eyebrows at Flavio’s sometimes pointed remarks, almost as if it were common knowledge that the rules are made with Ferrari’s benefit in mind. Of course, we all know they are, but it shows a certain defeatism that no-one even bothers to protest anymore.

I love the FIA’s response to any such protests: Formula One’s governing body has dismissed suggestions that world champions Renault have been penalised in recent races to favour Ferrari and Michael Schumacher*. No discussion, you will note; just dismissal. If they were to discuss the matter, Bernie Ecclestone’s open admission that “Ferrari is the only team to get political support from the FIA” might be mentioned. And that could be embarrassing.

Although this comfortable relationship between the FIA and Ferrari has existed for decades, it could be about to change. Now that the governing body has decided to cast its lot with the manufacturers, it may find itself with many more customers to please than just FIAT/Ferrari. All is sweetness and light at the moment but I wonder what will happen when some of the manufacturers see the future differently from others. It’s a difficult business, keeping an alliance of competitors together.

*Autosport magazine.

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The Best Car of 2006

It seems to be the general opinion that the best car in 2006 was the Ferrari 248 F1, at least in the second half of the season. Yet we should not forget the huge influence on performance of the tires; when Bridgestone was on top and the track dry, the Ferraris were good but so were the Toyotas and Williams. And they all suffered in the wet. Take out the influence of the tires and it is much more difficult to say which was the best car.

Autosport magazine has a brief interview with Bob Bell, Renault’s technical director, in which he mentions the effect of the tuned damper ban on the R26. It is clear that the ban had some effect on the performance of the Renault, even if only marginally (and F1 is a sport of small margins), but Bob says that the whole affair just made the team that much more determined to win the championship.

R26

Renault R26

Until the Indianapolis Grand Prix, the Renault and Michelin had an advantage over the Ferrari, as demonstrated by their results. But Bridgestone made a big leap forward with their tires at that time, an improvement that was masked to some extent by expectations that the Ferraris would be particularly good in the USA; no-one was surprised when the Renaults were unable to win there. The Bridgestone advantage was confirmed at the French GP, however, and from then on they retained a lead in the dry.

So Renault were already battling against a car on superior tires when the damper ban occurred. That extra little degradation in performance was enough to make the R26 look less effective a design than the Ferrari and it was only the occasional wet race, where the Michelins were better than Bridgestone’s equivalent, that enabled Renault to remain ahead on points.

But this is all about tires – is it possible to say which car was better if all other factors had been equal? It’s a matter of opinion in the end and we can never know for sure. But the fact remains that the R26 was competitive even when the Michelins were not the best tires. It was always in with a chance, regardless of the type of circuit, and looked well-balanced and quick at all times.

And that was the strength of the Renault, that it was so adaptable to circumstances. The Ferrari was very good when it was good but there were a couple of tracks where it performed below par. And, for my money, that makes the R26 the better design.

Another Spanish double champion, Carlos Sainz of rallying fame, has been trying out last year’s Renault, the R25. You can read what he has to say on its merits as opposed to a rally car in this F1 Racing-live report.

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The Mass Damper Judgment

The FIA’s Court of Appeal has ruled that the mass dampers are illegal after all. Which also means that it was optimistic to suggest the court might take into account the unfairness of banning technologies halfway through a season.

As we all know, the team that will suffer the most from this ruling is Renault. It is suggested that the dampers are worth half a second a lap to them, which would explain their loss of form ever since the ban came into effect. And the Hungarian race was no pointer to their having found a solution; what made the difference there was the superiority of the Michelin wet tires, a fact demonstrated by the resurgence of the other Michelin-shod teams in that race.

Renault

Renault R26

Although several teams, including Ferrari, have used the dampers at various times through the year, Renault seems to have been the only constructor to incorporate them into their design from the beginning. Since the system had been used in 2005 without objection from the FIA or the stewards, it was reasonable to assume that there would be no problem in this integration into the design. But, of course, that takes no account of the unpredictability and arbitrariness of the FIA.

The implications for the future are more far-reaching than might be thought at first. It is more than just one championship that is affected by the decision. What encouragement does this give to the designers in their quest to break new technological ground and so gain a performance advantage? If the FIA can ban previously-accepted technology in mid-season, what guarantees are there that any team that, through inspiration or hard work, gains a slight advantage over the others will be allowed to keep their new tweak?

Obviously, as long as the FIA continue to behave in this manner, there are no guarantees and the motivation to advance technology must suffer as a result. The situation is complicated further by the fact that the FIA does not ban all new tweaks and so it becomes a gamble to introduce anything new. It is tempting to say that, if your name is Ferrari, you can go ahead, but otherwise you had better be pretty careful about anything you put on the cars. But I won’t; I think things have moved on a bit since the days when it seemed that the FIA was a rubber stamp in Ferrari’s hands.

As for introducing a revolution, like Cooper’s idea of putting the engine in the rear or Chapman’s ground effect, forget it. Anything that gives such an enormous advantage will be banned as soon as it sees the light of day. I wonder how long it will be before F1 becomes a standardized car formula…

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Pascal Vasselon on Mass Dampers

F1 Racing-live dot com has a very interesting interview with Pascal Vasselon, Toyota’s senior chassis manager, today. Perhaps the most revealing part of the whole interview was what he had to say about the mass damper controversy (which the International Court of Appeal is due to give a ruling on this Wednesday):

“Mass damping is one of the critical things that engineers have to sort out. We are forced to use stiff suspensions to maintain a stable aerodynamic platform. And, on the tyre side, we use low pressure for grip. So it means we put stiff suspension on top of very soft tyres and that causes a lot of problems. The combination means that at some frequencies the suspension is locked and the car is effectively bouncing on the tyres, which are not damped. The mass damper is one of the possibilities to control the frequency.

“From our side, we disregarded this because we considered it to be moving ballast, which is not allowed. Our development focused on suspension and another route that, for us, was more in line with the regulations. The mass damper is not an innovation, it is well known in engineering. It was actually used on the Citroen 2CV to counteract wheel hop! The question was: do we apply it to F1 or not? I would say it is obviously borderline. But then we also believe the issue of – it should be banned for the future, but it has been accepted, so why ban it in the middle of the season? Let’s wait the end of the season – will be answered by the International Court of Appeal very soon. That’s probably the true question that has to be answered.”

This is the clearest explanation of mass dampers I have yet come across and gives us a much better idea of why it is such a contentious issue. Had the FIA described it as “moving ballast” in the first place, instead of their vague reference to moving bodywork, I think everyone would have understood the problem sooner.

Toyota

Toyota TF106

Pascal also puts his finger exactly upon the most important point in the whole matter: the FIA’s choice to outlaw the mass damper right in the middle of the season. One could see the necessity for so hasty a decision if it were a safety matter or some tweak that gave an unfair advantage, such as Brabham’s fan car of 1978. But the mass dampers have been used since last year and to ban them suddenly in the middle of this season seems either stupid or deliberately antagonistic.

Do the FIA actually enjoy these trips to court where the whole business of F1 is made to seem contentious, chaotic and obsessed with trivialities? Is it impossible to reach some sort of agreement between the governing body and the teams that the rules will not be tinkered with during the season? So one team or another might make some huge technical breakthrough midseason that gives them a big advantage (unlikely but possible) – is that really the end of the world? Ban it at the end of the year if it’s so important.

With a little common sense and a spirit of compromise, so many of these storms could be avoided. I suppose we have to be grateful that there are still men like M. Vasselon involved in F1 who have plenty of both.

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