We are all creatures of habit. Writing had become a habit of mine over the last couple of years, though blogging itself is rather a self-indulgence and might be viewed as a rather bad habit. Anyway, I almost managed to kick the addiction but the sheer interest and excitement of this year’s races has drawn me back. I hope that everyone who reads this blog feels the same way about this fascinating season.
The real problem is deciding where to begin. So much has happened since my last commentary that I find that I want to comment on many issues and there cannot be a central theme to this posting: which is something I always used to strive towards. So here goes. I will comment on each issue as it occurs to me, but today I have time to discuss only one team and its drivers.
The Ferrari Renaissance
Most of the British journalists seem to have rather underplayed the way that Ferrari has bounced back from its uncompetitive start to the season, but this really is the big technical story of the last three races, eclipsing even McLaren’s return to winning form. Over the last three races Kimi Raikkonen has never been off the podium and has scored comfortably more points than the next most successful driver in these three events. Who is Lewis Hamilton.
Heikki Kovalainen lies third in this recent battle, albeit having scored only half the points that Kimi has in the last three races. It is obvious that the teams that are threatening to dominate the final races are the two big guns who started the season by building cars that complied with rules that were later re-interpreted to their disadvantage. You may think that it a rather arbitrary choice to look at these three races in isolation. But I think that Hamilton’s unexpected win in Hungary, and Raikkonen’s equally fine drive into second place marked a sea-change in the pecking order.
McLaren and Ferrari have been working flat out to catch up with the teams that got the jump on them at the start of the year. Both teams have more than adequate budgets, and a wealth of engineering talent. The fact is that it took until the Hungarian weekend for these experienced outfits to catch up. McLaren had introduced more interim modifications in the earlier races than had Ferrari, who spent more time gathering data before deciding what direction to take, but both bounced back to the sharp end of the field at the same moment.
The nightmare sensitivity of the tyre temperatures is still a challenge for everyone, and can produce surprises race by race. McLaren are back to race winning form but are still struggling with the issue as we saw at Spa. Brawn are on a frustrating knife edge with the tyres. Toyota bounce from the front to the back of the grid depending on the way their car responds to the track and the temperature on the day, BMW yo-yo in the same way, and Force India amazed us all at Spa as their car hit the sweet spot and ran right at the front. But Ferrari seem to have achieved a more consistently fast set-up than anyone else and my feeling is that Raikkonen will be a major force in all the remaining races.
The Development Path
How has this been achieved? Obviously if I had been told what had been done it would be impossible for me to leak the information. But I can say that way back before the Silverstone race there was a robust debate within the design department of the Scuderia. When Bridgestone introduced slicks for this season they did so in a simple way. The same moulds were used to produce the slicks as had been used with the grooved tyres. Because of the different ratio of grooves to width the area of rubber that was in contact with the road grew by a greater percentage at the front than at the rear, and few. if any, teams realised how significant this would be. The grip of the tyre is determined by the compound of the rubber. It is not affected by the width. The wider the tyre the greater the cooling of the tread and this will only give more grip if this is exploited by running a softer compound. Thus the front tyres have more cooling this year than last, and it is now even more of a problem to bring them up into the working temperature range. Tyre temperature is proportional to the work done. The only way of increasing the total work shared by the two front tyres is to move the car’s centre of mass forwards. Nothing else will have the same affect.
Adjustment of the centre of gravity has become routine in F1 by moving ballast weight forwards or backwards within the wheelbase (or even beyond it by mounting ballast on the front wing, despite secondary disadvantages). This year the additional weight of KERS has meant that teams running the system, which offers a real performance advantage, have less ballast is available for c of g adjustment. The additional weight of the KERS components also moves the centre of mass rearwards. A double disadvantage. So tyre changes have made it imperative to move weight further forwards and the scale of the required change is hard for anyone to achieve and even harder for teams that run KERS.
This is why the drivers now struggle to shed weight rather like jockeys. Even though the driver’s weight is well forward of the centre of gravity, the lighter he is the more ballast that can be placed even nearer the front of the chassis. A small but important contribution that must have changed the dietary habits of many people.
As I said in an earlier discussion of these issues, the most elegant way to shift the c of g is to re-position the sprung elements of the car relative to the wheels. Basically, if you can move the front and rear wheels backwards by several millimetres you will then have a centre of mass that is nearer the front. This seems simple but involves a total re-design of the suspension components and then a re-working of the aerodynamic elements as the wheels are now in a different relative position and they have a big affect on the flow. Effectively you will have to design a new car, which is a much bigger task than the usuall progressive mid-season development. Ferrari was unable to move the rear wheels further to the rear because they had no more angularity left in the driveshaft constant velocity joints. McLaren was probably in the same situation which is why they referred to Hamilton’s winning car in Hungary as a “short-wheelbase” chassis. Unable to move the rear wheels backwards they had been forced to move the fronts only, resulting in a shortened overall wheelbase. It seems that they were reluctant to run this set-up at Spa, and their performance was disappointing in Belgium as they were presumably failing to work the front tyres hard enough. Though do bear in mind that it is inconceivable that the full engineering story will be revealed to the press by any of the teams. Anyway, Ferrari needed to shift weight forwards and had experimented with c of g position at earlier events when they knew that they were uncompetitive and might as well treat the weekends as test sessions.
The next big issue is stability. Basic instability not only prevents a driver from driving the car at its theoretical limit (which no driver can actually exceed, and the best simply approach more closely than the others), but it also results in him stepping from the car complaining bitterly not simply about “lack of grip” but about the car “not working at all” or being “completely impossible”. Kubica has been saying this sort of thing about the BMW fairly frequently. Ferrari don’t just rely on feedback from frustrated drivers, but have a stability-program which is run by their computers from the data logged at the circuits. The stability level that this program computes has proved to be a very good match with the pace of the cars in race stints, though the drivers can sometimes set surprisingly good single-lap times even when the stability-program numbers are poor. Stability in this sense means that the c of g position with regard to the tyre dimensions (as discussed above) must be correct and the centre of total downforce must be very close to the same point. If this can be achieved the car can be tuned to whatever mechanical balance the driver prefers by small adjustments to relative roll stiffness front to rear, and into aerodynamic balance by small changes to the wing settings. When on the move the driver will find that the car will respond in the corners to every small steering input and throttle adjustment. And as Jack Brabham said about driving racing cars many decades ago: “It’s all about balance”.
So within the Scuderia there were two points of view. Factions if you like. There was the group who argued that the crucial thing was to achieve stability by matching the optimum and real c of g positions and trimming the centre of downforce into the same place. Then there was the argument coming mainly from the aerodynamicists themselves that the push should be directed at gaining the raw downforce that the newly liberated interpretation of the bodywork rules had made possible. Bear in mind that, despite what you hear on TV about the teams struggling to claw back a little of the 20% reduction in downforce that the new Overtaking Working Group inspired regulations had achieved, the abandonment of the simple single-panel underbody rules has made possible an even greater increase in downforce. From the evidence of the pace of the cars at Spa it is possible that they are already generating more downforce than last year and overtaking is consequently no easier at all.
The development of any racing car is all about compromise. Just as the drivers strive for balance on the track the design team has to strike its own balance between conflicting requirements. However fiercely opposed were the proponents of the two different approaches to development, back in those dark days when the red cars were mired in mid-field and worse, the correct compromise position must have been reached. Now from within the team comes the confident assertion that “We’ve had the fastest car for the last three races”. Certainly as early as Silverstone no less a team than Red Bull were paying very close attention to the new parts that were appearing on the Ferraris. It even strikes me that if Kimi’s final run in Q3 had not been started late by a mere 8 seconds (probably because he had to be held for a gap in the traffic) he would have been able to run a second lap as had been planned, and would probably have started at the front of the grid. With a little more good fortune this win could have been even easier.
The Ferrari Drivers
For almost a year I have found it hard to know what to say about Kimi. In his first year with Ferrari he was clearly faster than Felipe and hung on with superb determination to win the World Championship. Last year he no longer seemed to have the upper hand within the team and it was Felipe who made a run at the championship, only being thwarted by the crazy points system. Raikkonen didn’t really look convincing after Singapore and this year he has struggled with an uncompetitive car which made his own performance difficult to assess. From within the team I heard doubts. And also the view that it was difficult to believe that someone could binge-drink at the reported levels of Kimi’s partying and still be competitive in an F1 car (even if he was Finnish). I didn’t pass on any of this negativity at the time because I was so pleased when Kimi won his first championship in 2008 and want him to do well. I also felt that many of his poorer races had been destroyed by a single piece of bad luck, much the way Button has been suffering recently.
The word now from within the team is that Kimi has driven really well in the last three races. This is not simply a journalist or a pundit talking: this sort of praise does not come lightly from within an F1 team. Whether because the car feels so much better, or because he has a better rapport with his new engineer, Kimi seems to be back at the very top of his game. With any luck he will continue to score more points than anyone else for the rest of the season, and I think that Ferrari are expecting further wins.
Looking towards next season it is far from clear what is going to happen. I never even ask people whether Alonso is going to join the team. Even if they knew the answer they would be duty bound to deny any knowledge. Putting pressure on friends to give answers on subjects that they are forbidden to discuss makes everyone uncomfortable and is a good way to force people to avoid you. To me it certainly seems that Ferrari have at least three drivers for two race seats in 2010. The rumour of Fernando’s arrival at Maranello is persistent and convincing. After Massa’s accident it seems obvious that the team would want Kimi in the second car. But could it be that Kimi actually wants to retire at the end of this year? I have no idea, but it is a plausible hypothesis, and his pleasure in the sport would have been at a low ebb after the struggles in the latter half of last year and the first half of this season. Before Felipe’s accident you would have to say that it was more likely that the younger man would have wanted to stay on alongside Fernando, should he arrive. But now things are different. Kimi is driving superbly and enjoying himself in the car again. My suspicion is that he has yet to decide what he wants to do next year and his decision may not be made until well after Monza.
Luca is a charming man, an excellent driver, and has made a tremendous contribution to Ferrari’s success over the years. How many miles must he have driven around Fiorano testing new developments as well as shaking down the race cars before each race? I used to think that he had the best job in the world. He probably did until the teams introduced the testing ban that meant that people like Luca never again drove the cars around a circuit. Naturally, he would always have wanted to race one of the cars. It seems a cruel irony that Luca got his opportunity when he was least prepared for the challenge. I felt for him as he struggled around Valencia and Spa and I hope that he will look back on this experience with satisfaction. He is one of the handful of men who have had the opportunity to race an F1 car for Ferrari. He should focus an this rather than be overwhelmed with disappointment that he struggled so badly.
There is one bright side to this story. Luca might still have been contributing to the team by bringing his long experience of development driving to the races. My sources have denied that any such thing went on. But I was particularly struck by the speed-trap data from Spa. Badoer’s car was very fast indeed. Could it be that Luca was running Monza levels of downforce last weekend in what was in effect another test session? I like to think that this was not so much Luca struggling and failing to perform in two races, but rather his last contribution to the team as a test driver. Perhaps the Scuderia go forward to Monza in better shape than would have been possible without the efforts of their senior test-driver?
Whatever the truth of this Badoer was the best available driver to step into the breach at short notice when Schumacher had to withdraw. The problem mid-season is that you cannot simply pop a driver into the vacant seat who will not be on your payroll for the following year. To do so simply reveals your operating procedures and gives an insight into the technology of your car to someone who will take the information to another team at the end of the season. Luca would have been prepared to step aside again as soon as another driver was available.
And Giancarlo is that very man. Fisichella is still a very quick driver as his second place at Spa demonstrated. I am sure that he has always wanted to drive for Ferrari just as many Italians longed to see the Commendatore’s long-standing refusal to risk having another Italian killed in one of his cars come to an end. I suspect that Giancarlo was resigned to losing his Force India seat at the end of this year and would have jumped at the chance of ending his career with five races with Ferrari. The test-driver contract for 2010 means that he will not be taking Ferrari’s secrets away to another team, and there is a chance that he may have a race seat if Kimi does choose to retire. Imagine the atmosphere at Monza as he makes his début with the team.
Now on to darker subjects. I was really disappointed that Michael was unable to race the Ferrari. If I was disappointed Michael himself must have been heartbroken. The team lost a great opportunity, Raikkonen lost the certain improvement that Michael’s input would have brought to the team, and we all lost the opportunity to see history being made. If Michael had been able to rejoin the team he would have done whatever they required, whether driving as Kimi’s rear-gunner to boost the Finn up the drivers’ table, or simply to gain as many points as he could for the constructor. Absolute competitiveness after such a lay-off was not a given, but I think Michael might have been able to run right at the front by the end of the season. Watching him cope with an unknown track like Singapore would have been fascinating.
I speak to Michael whenever I get the opportunity and it says something for his style that he is always receptive and polite. But I think I pushed the limit of his tolerance the last time I saw him at the Ferrari Finals day at Mugello last year. I said that I thought he should not be racing motorcycles and I got the impression that he was weary hearing this. When I said it was dangerous he said “Life is dangerous”. It was a fair point as far as it goes, but how much I wish he had listened to all the voices urging caution. And how much he must wish himself that he had stopped before suffering the neck injury that made his return to Ferrari impossible. All you can say about this is that Michael’s motorcycle injury could have been much worse.
I have studiously avoided using the word ‘tragedy’ with regard to Michaels’ situation. I have to reserve that for Massa’s accident and its aftermath. I still do not think that many people have understood how seriously he was injured in that freak accident in Hungary. I must be blunt. I think that it is very unlikely that Felipe will race in Formula One again. We should all be hoping for him to recover fully enough to enjoy a completely normal life. To expect his return to Ferrari is probably not reasonable.
Felipe was hit by a two kilogram spring shed from Barrichello’s Brawn. This was the ‘heave’ spring; which means the vertical ride spring. It was coiled over one of the damper-like inerters. Bumping over a runoff area the inerter failed catastrophically. The heavy spinning elements blew the casing apart and the coil-over spring was released as well as other heavy pieces of debris. This was unprecedented. A damper would have merely blown its seals. I understand that at least one other team had destroyed their inerters at this point of the track. So long as this component is liable to fail in this way it should perhaps be contained in some way. Or care will have to be taken that the runoffs do not have any dangerously big bumps.
That really is all for now. I will have to discuss the other teams some other time.