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Undertaking in Barcelona

Did the new chicane make a difference to overtaking at the Spanish GP? You know it did not. But the modification to the track will sit there and grin at us from now on, having ruined a couple of fast corners without giving us anything in return. Track alterations stay, whether they achieve the desired result or not – after all, it is more important that the track designer save face than that the racing be improved at all.

Start

So Barcelona remains the track where you overtake in the first few hundred yards or not at all. Alonso made his bid for the lead, failed and that was the end of any real fight at the front. Technically, Fernando was a little ahead at the corner and by the unwritten rules was entitled to claim the line in theory. But Massa was already committed and had nowhere to go, even had he wanted to after being criticized in the early races for not being aggressive enough. The slight bump that sent Alonso into the gravel was the risk he took and both drivers were lucky not to have suffered worse – a racing incident, indeed.

Thereafter things settled into the usual pattern of waiting for the driver ahead to run into trouble. Kimi Raikkonen duly obliged, electrical problems putting him out early and allowing Alonso back into third. Perhaps only Chris Amon can truly understand the thoughts that must be going through Kimi’s head as he wonders whether his bad luck has followed him to the ultra-reliable Ferrari team.

If we were only interested in the lead, Barcelona would have been boring indeed. But there was plenty to interest, mostly in the form of progress by some and disaster for others. David Coulthard had a great race in the Red Bull RB3, showing that it is becoming a force at last, and Super Aguri scored a point, admittedly thanks to Renault having a problem with their (French-made) fueling rig.

BMW were a little less convincing this time out, Robert Kubica coming in fourth but Heidfeld being on the receiving end of some blundering pitwork that saw a wheelnut deserting to the Toyota team. A little more Germanic efficiency required, methinks (and a rap on the knuckles for the lollipop man, no doubt).

Talking of Toyota, they joined Toro Rosso in having a truly (Trulli) dismal weekend, both cars retiring before lap 44. Not even Ralf’s optimism and Jarno’s amazing effort in putting the car into sixth in qualifying could save them this time. I have more sympathy for Scott Speed, however, who looked set to prove all his critics wrong with a tenth fastest time in practice and then a leap from last to 14th in the race, only to have a tire explode. After being robbed of the chance for a decent grid spot by engine failure in qualifying, it was Raikkonen-like luck indeed.

The interest was all in what might be coming in the future of this season. Yes, we have a battle royal for the title that should continue for a while at least, but we also have a few teams that look to be getting it together at last. Red Bull are beginning to threaten BMW’s third fastest spot and Renault are improving faster than Fisichella had predicted. Williams are a bit unpredictable but quicker than Toyota at least, while Toro Rosso show signs of real improvement. Things are tight in the midfield and could become even tighter.

And now we look ahead to Monaco, traditionally the circuit where driving skill counts for more than aerodynamics. Hamilton is confident, having raced in the principality before, Fernando and Kimi know it only too well; can this be the circuit where Massa finally convinces me?

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The FIA Might Clip Some Wings

According to an F1-Live story, the FIA is considering a ban on the winglets and flip-ups that have sprouted from F1 cars over the last few years. This has to be a step in the right direction, considering the strange growths seen in testing in Barcelona, McLaren’s over-the-nose wing and Honda’s bunny ears.

Renault rear view

The big problem is going to be in defining what is an aerodynamic protuberance and what isn’t. As can be seen from the above shot of last year’s Renault R26, there are bulges and extrusions all over the outer surface of modern cars, most of which are primarily aerodynamic in intent. But some are caused by what lies underneath – the blisters above the rear suspension mounting points on the Renault are an example. So how are the FIA to draw a line and say that’s the limit?

All those obvious winglets on the body would have to go but the flip-ups are more problematic; at what point do they cease to be a necessary part of the body and become aerodynamic extensions? Barge boards and the increasingly-complex additions to the front wing could perhaps be outlawed – but who is to say what is part of the wing and what is an addition?

It could be a thorny problem and has the potential to involve the governing body in complicated discussions for years. But they are right in that something needs to be done. Although aerodynamic extensions have increasingly been sprouting from the cars over the years, this year’s engine freeze and consequent saving of money has ensured that the extra cash goes into aerodynamics instead. The result is an acceleration of such developments and yet more problems with overtaking as the cars become completely dependent upon clean air to function properly.

I have been saying for some time that it is not the car that needs to have its wings clipped – it’s the science of aerodynamics. Extend the flat bottom to eliminate the raised nose, consider getting rid of wings completely, and you leave the aerodynamicist very little with which to work. That may be what the FIA will be forced to do in the end, instead of trying to define what bits are allowed where and how big they can be. Simplification is what they should be aiming for, not endless complication.

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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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The Overtaking Myth – Part 2

If you accept that there is about the same amount of overtaking in F1 as there has ever been, has this harmed the sport? Has it ensured that the fans drift away in their thousands? You know it hasn’t; F1 is more popular now than it has ever been, rivalling football as the most-watched sport in the world. From being a niche interest of dedicated petrol-heads, it has become a major player in the global viewer stakes.

Turkey

Schumacher closes in on Alonso, Turkey 2006

If F1 is so boring, why do people continue to watch it in such huge numbers? The answer has much to do with television, of course; make the sport available to anyone with a TV and the spectacle will do the rest. Our perception may be that there is no overtaking but the reality is that racing at the cutting edge is gripping, with or without overtaking. Only those who were never going to be captured by the sight and sound of F1′s glorious and bewinged speed machines and the tussle between supremely gifted drivers can resist a Grand Prix.

Some of the greatest races have happened precisely because there has been no overtaking. Think of the Spanish GP of 1981 and Gilles Villeneuve holding back a train of six cars that were all faster than his slowing Ferrari. All true F1 fans recognize the skill it took to keep those cars back for lap after lap and to win in the end. And then there was Monaco in 1992, when Senna held Mansell back after his late pit stop for tires. The race is memorable in that Senna succeeded and Mansell never managed the overtaking manouver that looked inevitable.

We need to admit that overtaking is not what makes F1 racing exciting. There are moments of great overtaking manouvers (F1 Fanatic has picked out his fifty favorites – but I thought he said there was no overtaking…) but the real drama is the battle between talented drivers in closely matched cars. One of the highlights of 2006 occurred in the Turkish GP, when Michael Schumacher closed in on Alonso and challenged him for the lead. We were all fascinated by the struggle between two such gifted combatants in the best cars of the year. And did it matter that there was no overtaking, that Alonso stayed in front to the flag? No, we knew we had witnessed the essence of F1 – real competition between the best with everything at stake.

I am not saying that F1 does not need overtaking; my point is that it already has plenty and tinkering with the rules in an attempt to artificially make overtaking easier is always counterproductive. The FIA has been trying to increase overtaking for twenty years now. The result? Nothing has changed – it is still just as difficult to pass in a GP as it ever was. Meanwhile the restrictions on the designers have increased to the point where there is no room for ground-breaking innovation – we deal in thousandths of a second when looking at lap times. And still they talk of even more restrictions “to make passing easier”. Will we ever learn?

I have not finished. In fact, this has been such an enjoyable rant for me that I shall continue tomorrow. Now that I have mentioned the FIA, let’s have a closer look at their tinkering in this matter of overtaking in my next post.

To be continued…

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