Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Formula 1 Deadpool, Revisited

Well I didn't see BMW's departure coming at all. I figured that BMW would recognize that the dynamic change in the rules, coupled with the predictable unstable "clarification" of some rules with respect to the aerodynamics (specifically, the double-diffusers), that this year was going to be a down year. I fully expected them to brush themselves off and carry on building towards a more successful year next year.

Their involvement and support of both the FIA's wacky technologies (KERS) and FOTA's insistence on having some control over their own destinies showed that they were trying to bridge the gap between the two positions and embrace the future of the sport.

Instead, they are gone.

In the short term, this is the perfect time to quit. It means that they can focus on finding a new ownership group for the team instead of paying to develop next year's car. The ownership should be pretty straight forward, the rumblings seem to suggest that Peter Sauber will get control of the team if nobody else more attractive comes forward; from that point, building for the future becomes someone else's problem. This reduces the risk that BMW will feed another Brawn, paying to develop a car which ends up being much more competitive than expected and making the departure look premature.

So what else has changed since we last looked at the deadpool?

Red Bull has become unexpectedly competitive. This will breath new life into Torro Rosso as a 'junior' team, assuming that the results continue to be suitably 'junior' and costs can be kept under control.

Toyota has had a down year. While they were optimistic about their chances this year, the results have followed the path from previous years -- being on the verge of a break-out at the beginning of the year, then falling back as the rest of the pack continues development. For some reason Toyota builds a better car on average at the beginning of the year but just can't develop through the season. It is an odd failing. Toyota also has to face the fact that their goals in joining Formula 1 will not be met -- they joined to beat Honda. The problem is that 1) Honda isn't in Formula 1 any more, and 2) even having left, Toyota can't beat the remnants (Brawn).

Renault has been revealed to be a bigger budget team than suspected. This makes them a prime candidate to be the next to depart, especially considering their results thus far and the treatment they are receiving for their behavior in Hungary. Their parent company continues to have a rough year financially and the Formula 1 team has to look increasingly like low-hanging fruit to cut from the expenditure table.

Toyota and Renault's uncertain future has to have an effect on their customer teams too. Williams and Red Bull are current engine customers, and should the parent team leave the supply of engines may be eliminated. One wonders if Red Bull knows something we don't, as there have been stories that they are seeking a supply of Mercedes engines instead. It's quite possible that they want to get rid of the Ferrari engines that Torro Rosso is using, and shuffle around who is using what, but the fact that they might have been quietly told that alternate arrangements will be required cannot be dismissed.

All in all, things are looking pretty grim for Formula 1 as a premier series. The series enjoys its status because of the manufacturer involvement. Should too many of the manufacturers withdraw, it will become just another international series.

We can only hope that Renault and Toyota stay the course for the next few years and then re-evaluate things as the costs come down.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Massa's Impact

F1 Fanatic has a well put together entry examining the physics of the hit Massa took this weekend:
By the numbers above, Massa would have been 14 times better off being hit by Nolan Ryan fastball. He would have been four times better off letting Barry Bonds take a full-force swing at his head. For that matter, in terms of sheer energy, he’d have been better off letting Barry Bonds hit him in the head at the same instant that someone shot him point-blank with Dirty Harry’s gun.
Hmmm, a little hyperbolic.

But still, the point is that taking 800 grams to the head at 100 miles per hour could quite easily have been a tragedy and can still be a career-ending incident. The brain is an amazing construction but can still be damaged in ways we do not understand.

Filipe not only lives, but looks to have a strong prognosis -- this alone makes him very, very lucky. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

Changing Of The Guard?

F1 Fanatic is talking about a potential sea-change for the rest of the season based on the Hungarian Grand Prix:
The Hungarian Grand Prix was an odd race in every respect. We saw a massive shake-up of the competitive order with McLaren and Ferrari and Brawn - the team which dominated the first third of the championship - struggling even to score.

If this sets a pattern for the rest of the year, we’re in for another unpredictable end to the season.
I disagree, and this is why:
  • The Hungarian Grand Prix is a specialist event. It is very much a stop-point-and-squirt track with little opportunity to let the cars run at sustained speed. For this track, the KERS-equipped cars were always going to excel -- and surprise surprise, that's exactly what happened.
  • Brawn hasn't lost the plot. While I can accept that McLaren and Ferrari have the resources to come up with improvements to close the gap on Brawn and Red Bull, I find it very unlikely that McLaren AND Ferrari AND Williams AND Renault have all come up with developments to put the Brawn AND the Red Bull in the shade. More likely these cars suited the specialist nature of the Hungaroring.
  • Red Bull (probably) hasn't lost the plot. The fact that the other "front runner" of the season also had a poor showing at this event reinforces the fact that this is a specialist track. (I say probably because I'm still surprised at their competitive level this year!)
  • Neither McLaren nor Ferrari has a complete line-up. Let's be honest here -- Filipe Massa will probably not return to the car this year (if ever -- my feeling is that this is a career-ending injury, and even should he return he will never be as competitive again) and Heikki Kovalainen isn't getting the same performance from his McLaren that Lewis Hamilton does. One could even argue that Kimi Raikkonen's motivation is somewhat inconsistent from event to event. Without two top-flight drivers, neither team will be able to put in the consistency required to challenge for the Manufacturer's title.
My feeling is that the Brawn and Red Bull cars excel at running at sustained speeds, and should be better suited to tracks coming up like Monza and Spa. The KERS cars should do well at Valencia, and the Renault should be suitable there as well (if they can get around the ban in time). But for the end run of the season it will be Brawn and Red Bull, with McLaren amongst those scrabbling for the remaining points.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Renault Banned for Loose Wheelnut

According to the stewards:
Having carefully reviewed the available film recordings and radio recordings and having met the team manager twice to discuss the matter the stewards believe:
  1. that the competitor knowlingly released car no. 7 from the pit stop position without one of the retaining devices for the wheel nuts being securely in position, this being an indication that the wheel nut itself may not have been properly secured,
  2. being aware of this failed to take any action to prevent the car from leaving the pit lane,
  3. failed to inform the driver of this problem or to advise him to take appropriate action givent he circumstance,s even though the driver contacted the team by radio believing he had a puncture,
  4. this resulted in a heavy car part detaching at Turn 5 and the wheel itself detaching at Turn 9.
Offence: Breach of article 23.1.i and Article 3.2 of the 2009 FIA Formula One Sporting Regulations.

Penalty: The competitor ING Renault F1 Team is suspended from the next event in the 2009 Formula 1 World Championship.
The relevant sections are:
3.2 Competitors must ensure that their cars comply with the conditions of eligibility and safety throughout practice and the race

23.1.i) It is the responsibility of the competitor to release his car after a pit stop only when it is safe to do so.
My initial reaction was that this was an excessively strong punishment. Other commentators have pointed out that there have been incidents in the past which, while not exactly the same, are similar enough to draw some comparisons to. A more proportional penalty would have been a fine of some kind.

Consider that the last team to get a ban on participation was the BAR team, and this was after they had been caught running their cars underweight ie a blatant violation of the technical regulations.

But after the death of Henry Surtees last week, and Massa's accident this weekend, being concerned about debris on the race track and large masses of parts being shed at racing speeds... it still feels like a knee-jerk reaction, but one which might be understandable.

The suggestion from the Stewards' report is that Renault was aware of the problem before the car was released. This does make it a more serious offense. However I'd put it down to miscommunication in the pits during a high-stress event.

I would look for Renault to appeal the ban, and at the very least tie it up in the courts until after Valencia.

Oh, and probably quietly fire the guy who was responsible for the front-right.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Aero Change at Ferrari

Ferrari fires aerodynamic boss Iley
Ferrari has dismissed its head of aerodynamics and wind tunnel John Iley, Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport reported on Wednesday.
Interesting choice of words in the release: a "serious" mistake in the area of the aerodynamics.

John Iley has been working with Ferrari since 2004 and so worked on several championship winning cars, so he's nobody's fool; the fact that he's already being linked to Brawn reinforces that notion.

It sounds to me as if the aero problems on the car this year led to a situation where all involved decided a change would be required. With development set to ramp up on the 2010 car, now is the best time to make that change.

Monday, July 13, 2009

BAR vs. Stewart

It occurred to me this weekend that the two teams at the top of the grid this year, Red Bull and Brawn, both have their roots in teams which were started about the same time. Red Bull has its genesis in the Stewart team started by Jackie Stewart in 1997, while Brawn's modern roots go back to British American Tobbaco's buy-out of Tyrell in 1998.

At the time there was a lot of back-and-forth in the media over whether it was better to start a new team from scratch, or effectively buy an entry from an existing team and throw everything else away.

In the end it was kind of moot as both teams went through a couple of metamorphasis to get to where they they are: Stewart -> Ford/Jaguar -> Red Bull and Tyrell -> BAR -> Honda -> Brawn.

But it is interesting to see two teams which were formed at the same time coming to prominence at the same time.

Contemplating the two teams, I am surprised that Honda bailed out when they did. While I am sure that the Honda board is kicking themselves for bailing out just before a dominant and successful season, I have serious doubts as to whether the team would have been as successful with a Honda engine in the car as opposed to the Mercedes. It also remains to be seen if Brawn can produce another competitive car for next year while pursuing this year's championship.

I am surprised that Red Bull managed to succeed at all. Their first year was flattered by the preparation done the previous year as Jaguar, and I really through they had bitten off more than they could chew when they immediately went out and bought Minardi as a junior team, and was unsurprised that by the end of the first year of Red Bull/Torro Rosso all four cars were circulating more or less together. The fact that Torro Rosso got the umbrella's first win (Vettel in Italy last year) only showed the ineptness with which the organization was being run. I had them pegged as an "all flash no dash" team and fully expected them to have divested themselves of Torro Rosso by now.

In a way both teams profited by the big two teams dropping the ball the way they did. However the fact is that they both had the means to take advantage of those mistakes by others.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Refuling vs Overtaking

Brad Spurgeon eavesdrops on Pat Simmonds:
“We were talking about overtaking earlier,” he added, “and I think there is too much reliance on strategy to be used for overtaking. And this is one of the things that I think I saw at Silverstone; people had similar performance and they were thinking, well, I have a couple of laps in this car so I will just push for two laps and I will get in front of him in the pit stops. But without refueling maybe we will see a bit more racing. I think we have to keep an open mind. Let’s try it for a few years.”
Interesting thought, that. However I think that for the most part the lack of overtaking is due more to fancy cars that get unhappy in unstable airflows, rather than any passiveness on the part of the drivers.

Taking the strategy out of it might encourage more attempts, but I rather doubt that many of them will succeed, and we will end up with more collisions at the end of the day than anything else.

...although the media would argue that collisions make for good press.

Personally I'd get rid of refueling on safety grounds more than anything else, and then see about making the rules such that the cars can actually pass each other.