Saturday, February 10, 2007

The strange world of A1GP, customer cars and the importance of preparation

The recent Antipodean rounds of the A1GP series, at the narrow, twisty Taupo, and the dustbowl-ish Eastern Creek circuits, were both dominated by the German car driven by Niko Hulkenberg, and the elegant New Zealand entry, driven by Jonny Reid. It seems a little odd at first - Hulkenberg was good, rather than outstanding in German F3, itself a championship with nothing like the standing it once had, in the days of Schumacher, Wendlinger, Frentzen et al. Jonny Reid has, until now, been a relative non-entity in the world of Japanese F3. There is, in short, nothing in the CVs of either driver which would suggest they would be able to see off former Minardi F1 driver Alex Yoong, Would-be F3000 champion Tomas Enge, promising young French hotshoe Loic Duval or one-time British F3 champion Robbie Kerr for instance.

Nothing, that is, except for the fact that they both drive cars run by experienced GP2 operators SuperNova. Last year, it quickly became apparent that a DAMS-run machine was the passport to success, and France and Switzerland basically shared out the wins between them. This year, it is clear that veteran David Sears' boys have learned something about the odd-looking F3000 based Lolas that has so far eluded all the other teams.

There is nothing particularly unusual in this. In the first two years of GP2, the title has ended up in the hands of Frederic Vasseur's ART organisation on both occasions. In the dying days of F3000, predicting the champion was a simple matter of checking who the lead driver at Arden was that year. In the F3 Euroseries, ASM is a surefire passport to success, while over in British F3 in recent years, Raikkonen-Robertson Racing and Carlin have vied with each other to establish themselves as the leading team.

GP2, A1GP and F3000 all use, or used, ostensibly identical chassis, while in F3, theoretically one can use any chassis which meets the regulations, but in practice, everyone uses Dallaras. Yet despite this, there are clear differences between the teams. It wouold be easy to speculate that the differences are not as great as they seem, that the leading teams simply have the greatest access to the most promising drivers. While there may be a grain of truth in this, it can't be the whole story. In A1GP, for example, the New Zealand team are restricted to the not exactly over-flowing pool of New Zealand talent. And remember how Timo Glock went from being nowhere in particular to being a real frontrunner in GP2 when he moved from BCN Competition to ISport in the middle of the season. For sure, ISport needed Glock, as it turned out, but Glock certainly needed ISport as well.

What is easy to forget is that although spec-formula cars are relatively simple when compared with Formula 1 cars, they are still enormously complex pieces of engineering. If they weren't, then probably anybody would be able to buy a Dallara F306 for the price of a Ford Mondeo. The result is that modern racintg cars are really quite difficult to engineer - there's a lot of variables that can be adjusted, and they can affect each other in unpredictable, non-linear ways. To make matters more complicated still, what works at one track will most likely not work at another - and what works at any given track on any given day may not work at the same track a month later when the temperatures are completely different. While its all but impossible for anyone to understand all these factors perfectly, that doesn't matter. All you need is someone who understands them better than any of your rival teams do. As a result, a few good engineers can be worth an awful lot in the world of motor-racing - even when working with fundamentally the same raw materials.

This brought me back to thinking about customer cars in Formula 1. Last week's article got mixed reactions, with one commenter coming out firmly against allowing customer cars, and another two coming down in favour of them, and noting that it will almost certainly happen anyway. My first thought was that this would be very bad news for Spyker and perhaps for Williams too.

But on second thoughts, I'm not so sure. Its hard to know how big a part the fundamental quality of the car plays in ensuring how competitive teams are in F1. After all, in Champ Car last year, everyone ran the same Lola chassis, and yet the gap from the best teams to the worst was much the same as in Formula 1. Other factors clearly play a part. Look at last year's Toro Rosso, for example. Everyone knows that this was just a rebadged Red Bull RB1, and yet in the hands of the former Minardi crew that ran the team, it rarely ran anything like as quickly as it had done last year - even allowing for the engine rev-restrictions. In short, the team simply didn't have the experience or the technical strength in depth to engineer the car very well. And I wonder whether things would really be any different for teams buying off-the-peg customer cars from the big teams. After all, most teams might be happy to sell last year's car to Dave Richards or whoever, but they'd be far more reluctant to give them their current car. And even if they did, what are the chances that they would get the development parts? Or even the previous year's set up sheets? And how much use would these be, if the track temperatures were 10 degrees lower, or if the wind was blowing from a different direction, or if Bridgestone's tyres were markedly different from the previous year.

The example of the junior formulae shows that there is an awful lot more to running a succesful racing team than simply having the right chassis. Having an experienced, talented team in place to run that chassis is just as important - and probably all the more so in the more rarefied, complex world of Formula 1. If I were Spyker, I might be a little nervous right now. But, on reflection, I'm less sure that Frank Williams need worry about the boys at Super Aguri and Toro Rosso.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having been on the inside of a World Series by Renault team I discovered a few things about one make series - it comes down to resources. In our team the engineers discovered that the torsion bars for the rear suspension measured differently depending on the load, thus, two bars that were supposedly matched had altogether different characteristics depending on the load. That is only one example where a more resourceful team can win out by measuring each unit and match them. There were also some tire issues, with tires that differed wildly in their characteristics. In both cases the opposite was expected. Shelf items that should be reliable in their characteristics but were not. The big teams knew this, partly because of inside information and because they could spend more resources to research the cars and their components. The car makers that win the bids for one make series are in it for the money and that is key to understanding this type of racing. I don't doubt that there are car makers out there underbidding to get a deal but then they are going to have to cut their costs to make any money and quality will suffer. The big teams can overcome this by buying enough of the critical components before the season starts and test them to avoid being caught out buying parts at the track on a need-to-have-basis.


10:59 AM  

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