Thursday, April 30, 2009

Red Bull's Growth

Lost a bit in the kerfuffle of the New Diffuser World Order is the fact that Red Bull is surprisingly competitive this year. What makes it surprising is the fact that the car does not yet feature a double diffuser.

While one could wave aside the victory in China as Vettel cementing a reputation as a wet-race specialist, the fact remains that the car was extremely competitive in Bahrain, out shone only by the Brawn and the Toyota.

The records of the first four events show us that the car has qualified extremely well so far this year. Third and tenth in Australia. Third and seventh in Malaysia. First and third in China. Third in Bahrain, with the second car impeded. The car is clearly quick over the short haul, and Vettel's performances in the races make it clear that the car is quick over the long haul as well.

Another interesting thing to think about is the fact that the car features Adrian Newey's pull-rod suspension design. I read somewhere that this design on the rear of the car will make implementing a double diffuser a non-trivial task, due to the spaces that the suspension occupies.

But one really has to ask -- should Red Bull even bother? There are other areas where the car can be improved, and they are clearly not at an excessive disadvantage due to the lack of such a device.

Red Bull has come a long way since their Jaguar roots. I was one of those who wrote off Red Bull's performance their first year as being entirely the result of Jaguar's efforts the year before, and called their purchase of Minardi (or Torro Rosso) as a dangerous over-extension of the team's reasources. The following years proved me correct, as the Red Bulls frequently found themselves circulating with, or even behind, their "junior team" brethren.

Last year showed what the potential of the car was with Vettel's performance in Italy. I believe that Torro Rosso's performance there was almost entirely due to gambling on the wet conditions and being correct, instead of trying to do a safe and conservative compromise. Had the conditions ended up being different, Torro Rosso would not have factored in at all that day. I am not trying to take anything away from Vettel's performance that day, I am just saying that it was Torro Rosso's gamble that gave Vettel the opportunity to shine, and he grabbed it with both hands.

Red Bull is definitely in the "Best Of The Not-Brawn Cars" group, a group which includes Toyota, and possibly McLaren or BMW depending on the day.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Toyota: Brave Strategy

Some of the post-Bahrain analysis has been critical of Toyota's decision to run the unpopular harder tire during the second stint, running the better performing soft tire during the first and third stints.

I personally thought that the decision was a brave one, one which might have conceivably paid off with at least a second, and quite possibly was the factor which kept Toyota on the podium at all instead of sliding further down the order.

The gamble here was three-fold. First, Toyota gambled that they could get far enough ahead during the first stint such that those pursuing would end up behind the Toyotas after their first stops, seeing as how they will run longer than the Toyotas will. This is where Timo Glock was unlucky; his stop dropped him right down the order and he never really recovered. Jarno Trulli was luckier, and only Jenson Button's heavily fueled Brawn managed to get past in the first round of stops.

The second gamble is that even though Toyota was on the harder tire during the second stint, and therefore slower than the opposition on the softer tire, they were still fast enough to keep the faster cars behind them. This paid off, as Sebastien Vettel was unable to find a way past Trulli's Toyota.

The third gamble is that assuming that Toyota will again lose out slightly in the second round of stops -- again presuming that Vettel will run longer, lighter, on the faster tire -- Toyota will have the advantage of a fast car on the better tire in the final stint and be able to pass then for at least that position. Here is where the gamble failed to pay off, in that Vettel's Red Bull was the same as Trulli's Toyota had been in the second stint -- not the fastest, but fast enough to prevent being passed.

Trulli ended up in the final stint having one of the fastest cars, fastest of all except perhaps Button's Brawn, which wasn't seriously tested in the third stint. Had he been able to find a way past Vettel, there is little doubt in my mind that he could have cruised up to the back of the Brawn. As to whether or not the Toyota could find a way past the Brawn is entirely another question, one we'll hopefully get to see for ourselves another time.

This is a fantastic demonstration of where Toyota is as a team right now. The car was legitimately fast, straight up, against the other front runners, with nobody being absent due to track or car dramas. Straight up, the Toyota was fast; straight up, the team's strategy showed different, yet still effective, thinking from the herd mentality.

In any other year, one could confidently say that attrition or track dramas would conspire at some point in the year to present Toyota with a victory. However, with reliability being what it is, and with the drivers showing an unusual amount of discretion when it comes to attempting potentially car-bending maneuvers, Toyota might just have to continue the improvement and get their win straight-up without any help from the other random factors.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Not Quite The Worst

The good news: Raikkonen brings his Ferrari home 6th, bagging three points. This averts the "worst start to a Ferrari F1 season in history" headlines everyone was warming up.

The bad news: well the good news isn't really that good, is it.

In a way, Ferrari is the victim of the FIA's success. Through the leveling of the playing field, the grid from front to back is much, much closer than in previous years. This means that even tiny mistakes at critical moments will have a magnified effect, as the rest of the field goes roaring past. This is seen in Ferrari's stumbling in qualifying and in some of the strategic thinking that has been happening.

The other way that Ferrari is falling behind is reliability. With the comiditization of key components -- gearboxes with restricted or no development, engines with restricted or no development over the past few years, and other areas to come -- reliability across the board is up. In Bahrain, we had one non-finisher, and the rules regarding retirement are such that even no-hopers like the BMWs were compelled to continue pounding around the circuit. So with nobody falling out ahead of you, you are forced to make up positions either through strategy or through passing on the track. And it doesn't help that Ferrari's reliability is starting to fall apart, as this was the third out of four races where Massa had a technical problem ("mechanical issues" in Australia, engine issues in China, and now KERS issue in Bahrain).

These issues put sharp focus on the problem of the car's obvious lack of pace. One could argue that McLaren has improved their car to rough parity with the Ferrari, or perhaps even slightly better. Other teams have similarly improved. At the beginning of the season, one expected the Toyotas to be dicing with the front runners -- and with the exception of the all-conquering Brawns, they are.

This season is shaping up to be one of the worst since the early 90s or even earlier. This is what I expected to happen after Schumacher's retirement -- the braintrust that Schumacher gathered around him has moved on, and the replacements are not capable of having the team perform at the same level. The same thing happened after the palace intrigues of 1991, where a wholesale change in team members resulted in several years of poor performance.

Team management needs to look very closely at what has happened this year and decide if it is an aberration, if the team is really capable of competing with these team members in this rules environment, or if changes need to be made.

2009 doesn't need to be a write-off, but we must still keep our eyes on the future.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Ferrari: Finishing is the main priority
Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali says that finishing tomorrow's Bahrain Grand Prix is the team's top priority after both Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa made it through to Q3 for the first time since Melbourne.
The goal is nothing less than getting both cars to the finish. At least one of those cars should be in the points; both would be better.

Come on Ferrari! Let's have the Force India cars dicing with the Ferraris, rather than the Ferraris back dicing with the Force India cars!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Tied With Force India

It is almost inconceivable that Ferrari has sunk this low: three races in, and only Force India sits with Ferrari as not having scored any championship points this year.

Some people are pointing to Massa's positioning before his retirement as a good sign; some had him finishing fifth or fourth splitting the Brawn cars had he been able to continue running. The team's evaluation is even rosier, claiming a podium was not out of the question. While I think that more than a bit optimistic, points were definitely on the table when this "electrical" problem forced him to come to a stop. The bottom line is that you shouldn't go counting your points before the checkered flag. No finish == no points, with Massa only 1 for 3 in the "finished" category this year. And Malaysia was a lottery when it came to finishers and points, but it is a lottery Massa failed to score in.

Raikkonen, on the other hand, comments on a lack of grip after a pitstop, a problem which "went away on its own". While the Ferrari is definitely not a world beater, in Kimi's hands these days it looks especially ordinary.

Looking ahead, there is little change in the cards for Bahrain; new aero bits are scheduled for Spain.

There are, however, rumblings in the media. Take for example this story from Autosport:

Ferrari not ruling out writing off '09
Speaking at Shanghai on Sunday night, Domenicali refused to rule out the possibility of the team abandoning the development push on its 2009 car if matters do not improve when a double-decker diffuser version of its F60 is raced for the first time at the Spanish Grand Prix.
In other words, the story says: Ferrari isn't giving up on 2009 yet. Well I don't see stories being written about McLaren giving up on 2009 yet.

It is far too soon to start thinking this way -- there is a lot of work yet to be done for 2009.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Now That's The Way You Do It

F1 Fanatic tells us that McLaren brought a new diffuser to China.

Rumor has it Renault will show up with something new this weekend too, although everyone expects it to be incredibly ugly.

But seriously, Ferrari? Get with the program. We expect more from you.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

If The Diffusers Were Illegal

From the on-the-internet-someone's-already-done-the-math department:

The championship table if the diffuser gang were thrown out of the Australia and Malasia results.

Even though it might be amusing, I'm not going to do an alternate-reality Engine Manufacturer's Championship table.


The Court Of Appeals has denied the appeal of the Stewards decisions at Australia and Malaysia, declaring the "double-decker" diffuser designs on the Brawn, Toyota, and Williams cars as legal.

What is mind-blowing about this is Ferrari's response:
"Unfortunately this decision forces us to intervene on fundamental areas of the car's design in order to be able to compete on an equal footing with some of the teams from a point of view of the technical regulations, and that will take time and money," said Domenicali.
Uh excuse me, are you new to Formula 1?

If this is true, it represents a monumental tactical blunder on Ferrari's part.

The moment the team saw the first of these "double-decker" diffusers in pre-season testing, the team should have had designers investigating them, and doing change manifests to see what other changes to the car would be required to fit the modification. Even if the team was 110% confident that the diffusers were illegal, it only made sense to start planning for the moment that they were not. If this preparation was not done, it only compounds the advantage that the "diffuser club" has over Ferrari.

The rumor is that McLaren will have some revised parts relatively quickly, which implies that they have been doing this work even as they appeal against the validity of them. Allege what you like about their honesty, McLaren is never shy about doing the work.

I assumed that the well-financed teams (McLaren, BMW, Ferrari) were off doing diffuser designs even as the appeal was pending. To find out otherwise is shocking, frankly.

Ferrari has again dropped the ball, and added to the pile of evidence suggesting this season will be one blunder after another.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sea Change At Ferrari

It is becoming clear that the Ferrari of today is different from the Ferrari of a couple of years ago.

When Micheal Schumacher left the team, many expected that the team's production would drop off; instead, Kimi Raikonnen would sneak through to grab the Driver's Championship at the last moment.

I have been expecting a bad season to come along; primarilly because Formula One is cyclical, and Ferrari has been near the front for over ten years now; but also just because the people in positions at Ferrari have changed.

The problem is that much of the success of a Formula One team depends on the groundwork laid in the previous year, and in that Raikonnen clearly benefited from the same brain-trust that had provided winning cars to Schumacher through the years. However since that time, more and more of the personnel from those winning years have left, leaving us with the team as it stands today.

This 'halo effect' which carries over from the previous year has been seen before. For example, Red Bull purchased the Jaguar team from Ford and was immediately more successful than Jaguar had been. This, of course, was due to the groundwork that Jaguar had done the year before. However Red Bull still believed in their own press and went out to buy the Minardi team to use as a junior team; the following year, both the Red Bull cars and Torro Rosso cars were circulating in approximately the same place near the back of the grid.

I firmly believe that Brawn GP is successful only because Honda agreed to write off 2008 and permit the engineers a full year of development. This advantage has been pressed home for all it is worth. Next year, however, I suspect that Brawn GP will not enjoy as much success, as the better funded teams will out-resource them.

Ferrari currently has the dual-problem of trying to make up for time spent last year chasing those titles, while trying to find people to put in the right places for success both this year and in the future.

The engineering department is not as strong as it has been; the performance on the track is proof enough of that. Similarly, the race team strategy is somewhat lacking compared to previous years.

Stefano Domenicali can be as unhappy as he wants to and say what he likes; however, the current crop of people appear no match for the group which rebuilt Ferrari in the late 90s.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Nothing, Built on Nothing

Well after that afternoon swim that passed for a Formula One race this morning, there isn't much to say as far as Ferrari is concerned.

The car just obviously is not good enough under these conditions. No points from four starts is not a very good opening for the year and definitely puts Ferrari's quest for the Championships at very serious doubt.

With two races gone, it is too early to nail the coffin on the season, but the team has not even threatened yet this year, and strange tactical decisions (Massa in Australia, Raikkonen in Malaysia) don't seem to be doing any good.

This will be the test of the team. Can they turn it around and become competitive either on the track or in the hearing room?

In previous years, smaller and/or inexperienced teams may have had success early on in the year, but they find themselves unable to keep up with the development that the big teams can continue to do on the car. Brawn/Honda clearly has a huge advantage at this point, having written off 2008 very early in the year, and they are reaping the rewards of that effort now. But can they continue? And more to the point, will they excel next year, having both run a competitive season and had to develop their own car -- all without Honda's deep pockets?

Ferrari and McLaren both have deep pockets -- it will be interesting to see if they can run Brawn down.

But before we see any more action on the track, there's the small matter of the diffuser hearing next week.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Joe Saward on revisionist history:
Honesty is important, but Formula 1 has never been a world where morality is strong and hanging McLaren out to dry when other teams have done much worse over the years is hardly a positive thing to do.
...unless of course it is Ferrari which is the transgressor, eh? Come on, we all know that if a Ferrari had been in Lewis' place, the press would have been all self-satisfied and full of them-there cheaters need to be put in their place, honesty is an important part of the game!

The fact that the establishment takes great offense to people trying to subvert the process, sometimes greater offense than the original offense being examined, should be news to no one. You have to take your kick in the nuts with the dignity with which it is meted out, regardless of whether or not such punishment was fair.

This isn't about "fairness" or "justice" -- it is about the process.

The argument that because other offenders have gotten away with the same, or worse, offenses should not carry any weight. I have always thought that if you break the law, you are the one who should suffer the consequences. The estabilshment's inability, or unwillingness, to prosecute others for the same offense has no bearing on the situation.

Besides, the best way to uphold a higher standard is to uphold it yourself.