Monday, June 25, 2012

The Art of Driving Part I: Caressing the car

Consistency vs outright speed ? Stewart vs Fittipaldi ? Senna vs Prost? Schumacher vs Hakkinen ? Alonso vs Raikkonen?

Driving styles and techniques differentiate from driver to driver and although this has come into the spotlight frequently times nowadays thanks to onboard cameras, telemetry and the new media. While we all are familiar with how important taking care of your tires in Formula One is this season in order to achieve a good result , we fail to notice and appreciate another key aspect of driving : Caressing the car, taking care of not just the tires but also the suspension , engine , brakes etc.

“To finish first, one must first finish”

Over the last decade reliability problems in Formula Cars have been few and far between as compared to the earlier eras. Reliability really came into the spotlight for success during the dominant Ferrari years of Schumacher. I don’t think we will ever see those levels of reliability ever with a cap of 8 engines and 5 gearboxes one can use during a season even though these limits were introduced cut costs and hence making reliability and longevity of engines more vital than ever.

But can reliability be attributed to a driver? The way he drivers the car?  The way he manages the resources of his car even though being on the limit? 

We all know Senna was fast, lightning fast in fact. His key attribute was driving on the limit , on the knife edge of grip. Every onboard video you watch you can see him constantly fighting the car , making minute corrections at every corner . He was also famously known for his constant tapping of the throttle mid-corner or whilst coming out of a corner. Many attribute this as him being a “human –traction-control device”, but did this come a cost?
During the 1989 season he had 6 retirements: One electrical failure, one differential failure, two collisions, one engine failure and another incident where he spun off due to gear selection problems and stalled his engine.
Senna returning back to the pits after his engine failure. 1989 Canadian Grand Prix.

Prost on the other had had only two retirements, the first one of the season marked in the history books due to his collision with Senna at the final chicane at the penultimate race at Suzuka and the other at final race of season. Having already clinched the world championship, he withdrew from the race due to atrocious weather and deemed the race unsafe.  A race in which ultimately Senna retired as well , colliding while trying to lap Martin Brundle.
An interesting fact is that in the 6 races Senna retired, Prost managed to achieve four wins and a second place. In all gaining a total of 42 points over Senna (Championship points were awarded on a 9-6-4-3-2-1 basis ).

Smooth driving style?
So, what does a smooth driving style really mean?I shall try and explain this without getting too technical but rather keeping in mind the "feel factor" while driving. Much of this is applicable while driving your everyday road car as well. 
  • ·        Steering and throttle:  A smooth driver will with precision and subtlety guide the car and mechanically tell it what it’s going to go through next, mind you it’s not as easy as gradual throttle or steering inputs. Gradually telling the car what its being subjected to next in terms of physics helps in using momentum , abruptly turning into a corner will make no use of momentum as a lateral force into corner rather lateral forces end up acting against the direction of the tuning of the car.It’s all about making the corners shorter, making the car know that a corner is coming in and angling it to the apex before the turning point. Making sure mid-corner that tire scrub and the angle of attack as well the lateral load on the suspension is as less as possible. 

          Although cutting the corner by going hard over the kerbs is ultimately faster over one lap , in a race distance constantly doing this might damage your suspension and end your race.  

  • ·        Breaking: Kimi Raikkonen once said that the most important part of driving a formula one car is judging breaking for a corner. Smooth driving is not as easy as always getting the breaking point for a corner right every single time, it’s more about how your foot comes on the break and how it goes off it . It’s also important to note the rate of which you turn into the corner as well and come off the break. Ideally, race engineers and driving coaches promote breaking in a straight line and then coming of the breaks entirely before turning into the corner however “experimentally” it seems that a slight amount of “trail breaking” is ultimately the most common technique with many onboard cameras showing us that drivers still do this. However, last amounts of trail breaking cause lockups and break failures.

  • ·        Gear Shifts: The current breed of formula one cars have a semi-automatic sequential gearbox what this does it change gears with the help of paddles and although the transmission has two clutches , changing gears in a F1 car does require the driver to disengage the clutch before selecting another gear. As of the 2009 race season, all teams are using seamless shift transmissions, which allow almost instantaneous changing of gears with minimum loss of drive. Shift times for Formula One cars are in the region of 0.05 seconds.
  •     However, around 2 decades ago , The longevity of an engine and transmission in the race was entirely down to the driver as they used the same method of shifting, every road car with a manual gearbox uses. Shifting was done via a stick and the clutch would be disengaged every time to do so, missing a gear or having a bad shift meant putting extra load into the transmission which could lead to a failure , or extra load on the engine or delivering extra amounts of torque to rear wheels. 
In all I've just skimmed through the details of smooth driving , telemetry and onboard laps on youtube will show much more interesting and notable information.

Currently in F1 , its no rarity to find drivers who adopt this smooth style. In fact, nowadays almost every driver on the grid is of the highest degree of professionalism ,skill and fitness that they all have adopted to changes in their driving style. A good example of this is when Michael Schumacher was one of the first drivers to smoothly and progressively come on the throttle rather than what was the conventional method in those days , the Senna-esque style of tapping the throttle vigorously. Now , every driver uses Schumacher's technique of "smoothness".

Another technique Schumacher promoted was left-foot breaking . And till last year , all drivers had adopted that technique as well , except for Reubens Barrichello. 

Although the main advantage of left foot breaking was to be able to be on the throttle and break at the same moment. (in karting terms "double-peddling") This technique did allow drivers to control their left foot to come on and off the breaks gradually and not stomp on it with their right foot coming off the throttle in a hurried state and then hastily coming off the breaks to get on the throttle again.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

First Post : 2012 European Grand Prix

My first blog post.

The 2012 European Grand Prix Review :

A thrilling grand prix on a track which historically hasnt ever produced a good race. The previous grand prix's at the Valencia Street Circuit were all processional with hardly any excitement at all.
The man of the moment...Fernando Alonso stormed through the field starting at 11th on the grid to 1st , becoming the first double winner in the 2012 Formula One season. He did this by pulling off some great overtaking maneuvers throughout the race.The most important one was going round the outside of Romain Grosjean in the Lotus into turn 1 after the Safety Car came in. His race being exactly what as his Engineer described his driving style back in the Renault days “Fernando in the car is like a controlled nuclear explosion”.

Although Grosjean would retire a couple of laps later with an alternator problem , this was strategically important since it gave Alonso clear air, crucial this year in looking after your tires. Would Grosjean have overtaken Alonso later on the race if he had not retired ? We would never know , In my opinion he wouldn’t have. The DRS was very well judged by the FIA this time around giving only an advantage for someone who was hugely quicker than his opponent in front of him. This was usually the case when tire degradation came into play. As all the front four pitted for fresh Hard Tires on the same lap( when the Safety Car came in ) , tire conditions were to play with. Using the Hamilton – Raikkonen battle as a reference point , it did seem that the Lotus was clearly looking after its tires better towards the end of the race but Alonso did not let his tires fall off the cliff and I think Hamilton was pushing too hard towards the end (locking up in the final hairpin and missing the apex on 2 consecutive laps before his tires hit the wall ). With clear air in front of him and good pace ( he did build up a 1.3 seconds lead before Grosjean retired ) I don’t think Grosjean could have done it. As all things in motor-racing, we will never know. F1 is just if spelt backwards.

Overtaking move of the race:
Grosjean on Hamilton for the second place on lap 10.
This was those few moments where the DRS showed what it in reality was supposed to do . We usually associate it with a car trailing within a second behind flying past the car in front but this time the FIA got it just perfect. Letting the following car to use the DRS to get side-by-side going into the breaking point and then allowing driver skill and precision to finish the move.

Moment of the race:
Clearly the safety car. This cut – short Vettel’s lead at the front and allowed everyone in the top 5 except for Ricciardo to pit for new tires. Vettel later blamed the safety car for his alternator failure . Surprisingly it was the same failure as Grosjean , both using Renault engines. They’ll be a lot of worried faces back at Enstone . Vital points for both teams were squandered with what nowadays seems like an anomaly in Formula One, an mechanical problem .
Key Strategy of the Race: This race didn’t have as big a strategy involvement as the Canadian Grand Prix however , looking at the race data we can conclude that as a result of Alonso missing out on Q3 and having an extra set of Softs which he used after his 1st stint he managed to pass a lot of other drivers who switched to the Harder tires after their first stint. This enabled him to get into fourth place right behind Hamilton, closing the gap at .6 seconds a lap before the safety car. As a result he  was able to pass Hamilton after McLaren again had a horrendous pitstop.

Looking forward :
Having a 23 points margin to Hamilton and 26 to Vettel , Alonso’ nearest championship contender is Mark Webber. In the following races, Red Bull look strong after their revised their tunnel underneath the exhaust. Without sounding too technical the team basically changed the tunnel that goes underneath the exhaust ramp, making the inlet much larger than it was. Aerodynamic tests on track had shown that the tunnel was not acting as the team expected because airflow through the tunnel was much less than anticipated as a result there wasn’t a good steady flow of air to the diffuser which created problems with the balance of the car.

McLaren will be strong at Silverstone too , announcing that they would bring updates as well. The usually cooler temperatures of Silverstone might be advantageous for Mercedes GP as well , I’m hoping for a Schumacher win .

The Championship So Far : 

Random Stats :

  • This is Fernando Alonso's 20th consecutive race in which he has finished in the points.
  • The last time Sebastian Vettel retired due to an engine fault was the 2010 Korean Grand Prix and again the driver waiting to pounce for the win was Fernando Alonso
  • The last time a driver won his home race was 4 years ago when Felipe Massa won the Brazilian Grand Prix.