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Our Nige Takes the Test

It being April Fools Day, one has to be a bit wary of sensational stories on the net. But here’s a bit of fun that you can take as true – a Top Gear interview with Nigel Mansell and his lap on their test circuit to see how he measures up against other F1 drivers previously tested.

Our Nige

Our Nige and his best mate, Nelson

I was going to call him “Birmingham’s most famous son” but then it occurred to me that he might not be – maybe there is a Brummie I haven’t thought of. Tolkien lived part of his life in or near Birmingham, for instance, but he wasn’t really a Brummie. There is always a chance that I have missed some celebrity who originated in Birmingham without my noticing (Ozzy Osborne? Nah, he can’t be more famous than Our Nige…). Any suggestions?

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Compound Confusion

So far, I have said nothing about the plan to make Bridgestone identify the two tire compounds to be used in races this year by having a blob of paint smeared on one or other of them. This is mainly because I really don’t understand the whole business.

Buddies

Best of buddies – Mansell and Piquet

For a start, what is the point of forcing the teams to use both compounds in each race? Since everyone must do this, it seems like a pathetic attempt to introduce more artificial strategy into racing – as if we didn’t have enough already. And it will very quickly become clear whether it is best to use the soft tires at the beginning of the race or the end and all the teams will react accordingly. Not much room for nail-biting stuff there.

Then there is the silly business of whether there should be visual indication of which compound each car is using. I am told that this will make things more exciting for the fans since they will be able to see at a glance which cars are on softs and which on hards. And everyone seems to agree that this is a great idea – or it appeared so until until this morning, when I read a post on Formula 1 Linksheaven that questions the motivation behind the sorry business. I particularly liked the following statement:

The casual fan does not give a damn what compound a driver is using. The CASUAL fan can’t tell whether it’s Liuzzi or Speed gone by in the Toro Rosso. So this wont enhance their enjoyment of a race. And the hardcore fans will likely not want their beloved sport to take a further step away from being the cut-throat world that it is.

I would go even farther and suggest that the dedicated fans too will not care once it comes down to it. They understand that these things even themselves out in the race and that any excitement created by them is artificial and temporary only. What really matters to us is that there be as little interference by regulation in the races as possible – the attraction of F1 is competition between the best drivers and cars in the world and there is no need to “spice up” the show with idiotic and pointless requirements inserted by a governing body obsessed with TV ratings and convinced that we are all so moronic that only a circus will keep us amused.

As an example of just how much we care about tires, consider the British GP of 1987. Everyone remembers it as the race in which Nigel Mansell passed Nelson Piquet to win after having been twenty seconds down; some even consider it to be Mansell’s greatest race. The fact that Mansell was so far behind because he had changed his tires late in the race and that Piquet’s tires were shot is quietly forgotten. In fact, all that race proved was that a car on new tires is quicker than one on worn ones – big revelation.

No, we don’t care about tires and any attempt to re-introduce interest after having ensured that there will be no competition between tire manufacturers is a matter of wanting to have your cake and eat it. There are arguments for and against tire wars in F1 but, having decided to standardize on one manufacturer, the FIA should leave it at that, instead of monkeying about with details in the hope of preserving a vestigial interest in tires.

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Helmet Design

Williams quietly unveiled their FW29 today and kept the hype very low key – the car must speak for itself on track, they advised. It is visibly a Williams with colors not much changed in spite of their new sponsor, Lenovo, but it appears to have grown a splendid mustache this year, the upper component of the front wing assembly curving up and away from the lower element. Messing around with the nose of the car is almost becoming a Williams tradition.

Helmets 1

As I was looking through the photographs, I came upon the standard portraits of the drivers and was struck by the complexity of their helmet designs. Much of this is caused by the profusion of advertising, of course, but there does seem to be a trend towards increasingly confusing designs. These days it isn’t easy to identify the drivers as they whoosh past, hunkered down between their high cockpit sides and its shoulder bulges, and these modern helmets don’t help with their profusion of colors and strange shapes.

Even a driver as recently arrived as David Coulthard has a clear and simple design for his helmet, based on Scotland’s flag without embellishment and instantly recognizable as a result. Compare this with Kathikeyan’s, also inspired by his nation’s flag but managing to appear similar in its spiky Indian wheel to Wurz’s red and white zigzags. Considering how much of the helmet is obscured by adverts, it hardly seems worth going into such detail with the design.

Helmets 2

Back in the good old days (said the old fart) things were much simpler. Nelson Piquet’s red and white teardrop and stripes were easily identified and Senna stuck with an even plainer theme of green and blue stripes on a yellow background.

Speaking of yellow, it does seem to be the in color of the moment – most new drivers use it somewhere on their helmets and Lewis Hamilton favors it almost to excess. I wonder if this is a subconscious hope that Senna’s magic might have come partially from his helmet colors. Don’t laugh – the F1 drivers are a pretty superstitious bunch.

Take green cars, for instance. There is a tradition going back over fifty years that green is an unlucky color in racing. That might have come from the fifties, when all the British cars were green and were routinely thrashed by the Italian red, and it should really have been exorcised by Lotus in the sixties and Benetton in the nineties. But I suspect that the myth lingers on, perhaps given new life by Jaguar’s brief return to F1.

To return to helmets, the fashion for complex designs certainly doesn’t help commentators and could make Murray Walkers of them all. Which is bad news for young drivers trying to make a name for themselves. If I were a driver just entering F1, I’d buck the trend and go for the simplest helmet design imaginable.

Oh, wait a minute – wasn’t Mark Webber wearing an unadorned white helmet in one of the recent test sessions…?

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The Secret Weapon of F1 Design

If you want a winning car, hire a South African to lead your design department. Ferrari did so when they took on Rory Byrne and many years ago Brabham and then McLaren opted for Gordon Murray, also a South African.

Both designers have not been content to follow the herd in creating reiterations of established practice; they were innovative right from the start and always on the look-out for something different that might give their cars an edge. Byrne showed this very early on with his Toleman TG183 – putting the radiators in the front wings and attaching the rear wing to the sidepods. No wonder he was to become the revered force at Ferrari that he is now.

TG183

Ayrton Senna in the Toleman TG183

Murray too began with new ideas and created several championship-winning cars in his career. Consider this long line of excellent designs:

BT44

Brabham BT44, Carlos Reutemann aboard

Not quite a championship winner, the BT44 still won many races over a long career. Note the radiators in the nose and the triangular body section.

BT49

Nelson Piquet in the BT49

Murray’s take on the ground effect design of Colin Chapman’s, the BT49 was the most successful of all Brabhams, winning the driver’s championship with Nelson Piquet aboard in 1981. After driving the BT49 for the first time in 1982, Piquet’s new teammate, Riccardo Patrese, remarked that “anyone could win races in that car!” Piquet responded with, “Yes, and it took us two years to make it that good…”

BT50

Piquet again, this time in the BT50

Incredibly fast but unreliable, the BT50 was Murray’s first turbo-engined car. Piquet took on the task of getting the BMW turbo to last a race distance (while Patrese enjoyed the BT49) and also re-introduced refuelling to F1. He would hurtle off from the start, build a massive lead and then come in for fuel, usually rejoining the race still in the lead. The fragility of the engine meant that the strategy worked only once, however – the Canadian GP of 1982.

BT52

Patrese in the BT52

A new design for the first year without skirts, the BT52 benefited from the work done on the BMW turbo by allowing Piquet to win his second driver’s championship in 1983. The long sidepods of the ground effect era have given way to triangular stubs at the rear but the family resemblance to the BT50 remains.

MP4 5B

Senna in the McLaren MP4 5B

Well, okay, a McLaren looks like a McLaren – all the flair and brilliance of the MP4 5B is hidden by what now seems a standard body. But this was the car that dominated the early years of the 1990s.

It’s a list that any designer would be proud of. Murray called it a day in F1 after that and went off to design road cars. But he and Byrne have written in bold letters across the sport: South African designers have something special!

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