Monday, March 29, 2010

Received Wisdom

There was a fair bit of overtaking at the Australian Grand Prix last weekend, wasn't there? Among the front-runners, there were more moves, quite possibly, than in the whole of the first half of last season. After the soporific anti-climax of the opening race at Bahrain a fortnight ago, it was a much-needed shot in the arm for Formula 1.

But wait a minute... Why was it so? The Albert Park circuit is hardly one particularly conducive to overtaking. The two corners that present half an opportunity, turns 4 and 13, are both preceded by fast 4th and 5th gear corners. Aren't F1 cars supposed to be all but impossible to follow at close range through such corners? Isn't the aerodynamic turbulence coming off the leading car supposed to rob those following of all front downforce, leaving them fighting hopelessly against deathly understeer and unable to get close enough to try a move under braking? Wasn't that why Bahrain, a circuit which for all its flaws, presents rather more of an obvious passing place, at the first turn, than Albert Park does, produced such a deathly procession?

Ah, but of course, the Australian Grand Prix was a wet/dry race, with constantly changing conditions and low grip for all. We all know that wet races provide for much more in the way of action and excitement than dry ones. At the end of the race, I suggested on Facebook that there is really nothing wrong with modern Grand Prix racing that couldn't be fixed by the introduction of trackside water-sprinklers, only to find that over on the BBC's 'F1 Forum', Jake Humphries and Eddie Jordan had been discussing exactly the same thing, with Martin Brundle observing wryly that in the spirit of the X-Factor, they could perhaps be turned on and off by fan phone polls.

It sounds like an idea from the same madhouse that produced such ideas as 'overtaking lanes' and needless compulsory pit-stops, but at the risk of irking the purists, I reckon this is an idea whose time has come. Well, maybe not the phone polls, but bear with me... Unlike the great majority of schemes for 'spicing up the show', it doesn't fundamentally alter the competitive nature of the sport. There's no penalisation of success by forcing winning drivers to start from the back or carry ballast. And no forcing drivers to pit when they know the quickest way round is actually to stay out on the same set of tyres. If someone is absolutely inspired on the day, and able to lap a second quicker than anyone else, then they can get on with it, see if they can beat Jackie Stewart's 4 minute winning margin in the 1968 German Grand Prix (which, by the by, was a wet race.) But if things are closely matched, if the cars are running closely, drivers would at least stand half a chance of finding a way past each other.

And as someone who's always thought the ability to be quick on a wet or half-dry track is the ultimate test of a driver's capabilities it seems to me that it would add to, rather than detract from, the notion of F1 as a contest between the greatest driving talents in the world. The superhuman car control of Hamilton versus the calculating intelligence of Alonso and the silky smooth calmness of Button, and oh, a seven time world champion with a reputation as a Regenmeister, a couple of young kids little more than half his age keen to usurp said man's claim to be Germany's fastest racing driver and an incredibly quick Polish guy pushing a recalcitrant bumble-bee with 'Lada' on the flanks faster than it has any right to be going? On a wet track, every fortnight? People would tune in...

It'll never happen. Not least because F1 seems so keen to go to places where water is in rather short supply, regardless of the utter disinterest of the locals (or at least those locals not paying CVC/FOM's bills). Although I doubt CVC would be keen to fork out for the sprinkler systems either. But it did get me thinking. In the last couple of weeks, the one thing I keep hearing time and time again, is that if the racing is to be improved, something needs to be done to change the balance between aerodynamic downforce and mechanical grip of modern F1 cars. That they have too much of the former, and too little of the latter. I've said as much before myself, but I wonder if we're missing something that's right under our noses.

I'm not a physicist, but it strikes me that there's something obviously wrong with this assertion. Last weekend, the rain ensured that the cars had a whole lot less mechanical grip, but they had exactly as much aerodynamic downforce as they did in Bahrain two weeks earlier. So is the problem of overtaking really all about the downforce the cars can produce, or has it got more to do with mechanical grip? A wet track lessens the amount of mechanical grip the tyres are able to obtain from the tarmac, but it doesn't of itself reduce the amount of downforce generated by the cars' wings. And the drivers could run close to each other, they could pass each other, the racing was some of the best I have seen in 25 years of watching Grands Prix.

I know it's a bit more complicated than that. Yes, the cars are actually producing less downforce because it squares with speed, and the lack of mechanical grip afforded by a wet track meant that the cars were cornering more slowly, and hence generating less downforce, and so were less affected by the turbulence of any car they were following. But the point stands - wet races demonstrate that the problem of cars being unable to follow each other closely, and consequently unable to pass, can be dealt with by massively cutting the mechanical grip produced by the cars. The other advantage is that, by use of a control tyre, it might be rather easier to achieve than cutting downforce. The FIA have been trying that for years, and it appears they are engaged in a battle with the car designers reminiscent of nothing so much as the Lewis Carroll's Red Queen - It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

Do something to successfully limit mechanical grip, and all the downforce in the world will buy only a relatively limited advantage. And short of my water-sprinkers idea (about which I am only being partially facetious) it strikes me that the obvious way to do this would be through producing much less grippy, more primitive rubber. The 'exhibition' tyres Bridgestone provide the teams for street demos and television work might be just the trick, but really the idea should be to move tyre technology back thirty years or so, to produce cars which have about as much grip in the dry as they currently do in the wet.

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Anonymous Don Speekingleesh said...

You're in good company with your idea of hard tires - Frank Dernie has been saying the same recently. Can't remember where I saw it.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Actually it was talking to someone with no interest in F1 about it that got me thinking along these lines - when he asked the simple question "so, do they have less downforce in the wet then" in response to my explanation of why cars are (supposedly) unable to overtake.

2:56 AM  

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