Archive for the 'From The Pit Lane' category

F1:Nail-biter season; IRL: A lean year for American Motor sports

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

F1

This season was one of the most competitive in the history of Formula 1.  The title battle went back and fourth between Ferrari and McLaren; even BMW Sauber led the championship for a short time. The new season starts as soon as the checkered flag falls on the last race.   After 4,000 miles of racing in 17 events across that many countries the fact that the championship came down to the last three hundred meters of the last race of the season is nothing short of amazing.
There was so much development on the part of all the teams especially Ferrari and McLaren; it was truly an amazing season to witness.   Every season starts the same way with ten teams interpreting the rules handed out by the FIA and building their cars to the rules based on what they think is the best and most competitive design. This year the level of competition and development was the highest and most expensive in the history of the sport.
As the season went on, both top running teams embarked in massive development programs which made the McLaren MP24 2.5 seconds faster at the end of the season than it was at the beginning. The difference in performance between these two teams was often measured in hundredths and thousandths of a second but at the end of a day the championship was not decided so much by performance but by the mistakes made during the season by both teams.  Take away just one of the mistakes made by either driver or team and the point’s race would not have been as close.
2009 will be different; new rules will change the cars dramatically; less down-force, slick tires, and the KER system are some of the major changes that will be implemented. By now thousands of hours and many development parts have been tested in the wind tunnels and seven poster rigs at the respective factories to finalize the design of the new cars. As in 2008, teams will start with a design, which will not be frozen; rather they will start with cars that will continue to be developed throughout the season. In the old days teams would freeze the design at some point before the beginning of the next season and go into production with the cars.  Development through the season was limited to small aero pieces, some geometry changes, and engine and gearbox changes. Now the whole design seems to be in a state of flex.  McLaren, Ferrari, BMW and Toyota were a good example of that this year; their cars continued to evolve with each race.  In the case of McLaren and Ferrari they didn’t have any choice; the competitiveness of the championship demanded it.  One thing that is not yet clear is what impact the global economic slow down will have on F1.   With the way the car industry is doing here in the US and all over the world it’s hard to believe that some sort of effect will not be seen in F1.  While it is still the premier form of racing in the world it is still hard to justify the price tag, maybe F1 will need a bailout too.

IRL

If the stock market and auto executives begging for a bailout in Washington are any indication of the current state of the nation, American racing could see one of the worst seasons ever in 2009.  At a time when the IRL needs to revamp their formula with new chassis in 2010 and at a time when engine manufacturer’s involvement is desperately needed in American open wheel racing, this economic slow down could not have come at a worse time. Tony George made a big investment in open wheel racing last year which finally prevailed over the rival Chap-Car series; he gave all the Champ Car teams, who committed to a full season in 2008, cars and engines for the season, as well as a piece of the participation fund which was about $1.0 million dollars that helped a lot of teams survive.  That made for better fields and more competition, but 2009 will be different.  There is virtually no sponsorship money out there and car manufacturers are out of the game for the foreseeable future.  So what does that mean for the IRL? I think the smaller teams are in for a very difficult year and some of them will not make it.  The fact is that no matter what Tony and the IRL do in 2009 to help the competitors, you still need lots of money to do a whole season of Indy car racing in 2009. Even if they get free engines again and use the chassis they have, there is still travel, personnel, fixed overhead and oh yes, crash damage just to mention a few.   The bottom line is that you need at least $4.0 million to $5.0 million even with the help of IRL to be a full time competitor and is almost impossible to find that kind of sponsorship money out there today. So what can we expect in 2009? I think that we’ll go back to the 18 to 20 car fields and they may not be the same 18 to 20 cars every race. It’s unfortunate that this recession happened just when open-wheel racing could finally make a come back.
The bad news extends beyond open wheel racing as well, NASCAR teams are experiencing trouble selling sponsorship too but their situation is slightly different.   They are coming off the greatest boom run in their history; teams have gotten big and very expensive to run making their budgets hard to manage.   We’ve already seen some teams go out of business and others consolidate like the Ganassi and DEI marriage of convenience. Oddly enough I think many NASCAR teams may be more vulnerable than their IRL counterparts but it may not be as noticeable because they have so many teams.  In the last ten years or so the IRL teams were tightening their belts and looking for ways to be more efficient while NASCAR teams experienced unprecedented growth and bigger budgets with big infrastructures making it harder to lean out.  It’s going to be interesting to see how everything develops. Maybe this will be an opportunity for sponsors to see value in open-wheel racing with the IRL and the Indy 500.  I guess we’ll see.

Singapore when it rains it pours….

Monday, October 6th, 2008

The race weekend was filled with excitement as F1 made their debut in Singapore; the first night race for these guys on a true street course, filled with tight corners and tricky chicanes, all in the middle of bustling down town city streets.
It rained Friday morning before practice leaving everyone wondering if there would be more rain.  During practice Hamilton and Masa were quickest with Kimi and Kubica in third and fourth.  Mark Weber hit the barriers during the first practice session and several other cars including Coulthard’s, Piquet’s and Trulli spun out.   During qualifying Massa proved to be quickest clenching the pole, with Hamilton, Kimi and Kubica behind him, in the order.  The race started quickly with Massa pulling ahead with a good lead.  Hamilton followed behind him waiting for a moment to pass.  The first quarter of the race was uneventful; Massa had a steady lead.  Massa then decided to pit during a yellow and that’s when disaster struck.  The team was still refueling when the pit light turned from red to green.  Massa charged ahead and ripped the fuel line out of the tank, dragging it all along pit lane, spewing gasoline all over, nearly injuring a few of his crew guys.  Massa pulled over the side of the pits and waited for his crew to dislodge the line.  Kimi then entered to pit, causing Massa to wait even longer for help.  After about 20 seconds or so, the crew ran down and wrestled with the line out of the fuel tank.  Massa eventually got back on to the track in dead last.  There were some movements up front and some crashes and spins in the back.  Kimi crashed in lap 58 and Massa spun leaving him to finish 13th.  Hamilton finished 3rd extending his lead over Massa by seven points.  Alonso won, running steady all race long, with Rosberg right behind him in 2nd place.  McLaren leads the championship by 1 point above Ferrari.  These guys have three more races to straighten it out and if Ferrari wants to pull ahead I suggest they get their stuff together.  Next is the Japanese Grand Prix October 10-12th.

A Word on Ferrari’s Mistakes

Ferrari was a very tightly run team when Russ Brawn was there and it seemed to stay pretty much that way for the first season or so after he left but I think his departure was really felt this year. Brawn’s philosophy is that if something is not reliable it should not be used in race conditions even if it proves to be an advantage. The reason for that is simple and it goes back to the basics of racing; to finish first, first you must finish. Ferrari has made too many mistakes as a team and had too many failures this season to really deserve to win the championship.  Singapore was a typical example of that. Massa did everything he had to do to fight for the title but the team let him down as it has many times this season.  I am not sure how the pit spot and release lights work, I can only assume that they are connected to some kind of motion or proximity sensor that signals the green light when the fuel nozzle is detached from the car, maybe it is hooked up to the handles of the nozzle so when the fuel guy pulls out, it activates the green light. But whatever it is, it didn’t work this time and it is not the first time, they had a similar problem with Kimi earlier in the year. So maybe the old paddle should have been used until the light system was completely reliable. I am sure that if Russ were still there that would have been the case. Making more mistakes than your competitors is very costly in F1 but making the same mistakes more than once is terminal. I think McLaren is way to smart and well trained to screw up now.  I think this championship is over for Ferrari and I predict McLaren will win it all in 2008.

Talent and common sense prevail; Vetel gets maiden win

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

F1 Qualifying
I am sure most people know that race cars, especially formula cars, are normally optimized for track conditions which means there are wet set-ups, dry set-ups and everything in between. A wet set-up is not very good in the dry and a dry set-up is not very good in the wet. One of them is stiff and low with less down force and the other is a little higher and much softer with more down-force.

I love F1 but there are some things about the FIA and the F1 rules that make me crazy.  One of them is this “Parc-Ferme” rule after qualifying where the teams can’t touch the cars or change the set up for the race.  I fail to see how this is better for the sport.
Saturday I watched F1 qualifying in the rain for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza; a very high speed, low down-force circuit and saw a bunch of drivers trying to go fast on the wrong set-up because they had to race what they qualified with.
I can understand the fuel bit, they pick the fuel they are going to run for the race and that’s it.  But the teams should be able to change the cars for the race conditions. If that were the case we would have seen cars qualify on Saturday in the rain with a good wet set-up and race on Sunday with a set-up appropriate for the prevailing conditions but that’s not what happened in Monza. The Ferraris have been struggling all year in the wet; in fact they have been struggling since Japan last year.  However their McLaren counterparts had a seemingly great car in the rain, so I expected Hamilton or Heiky to be in front; obviously the gamble by Lewis to take intermediates for Q2 prevented that and Kimi basically sucked and didn’t make it to Q3 either. Heiky managed to run well and got a front row start but the guy that stole the spotlight was Vetel.  They had nothing to lose so they probably put a sensible set up on the car and ended up with the pole.  It’s hard to say what would have happened if teams were allowed to use a set-up for qualifying and then change for the race but I guess we will never know.

F1 Race
I expected Heiky to blow right pass Vetel at the start but boy was I wrong; Sebastian just drove away from the field. He was probably helped by the fact that they started with the pace car, but never the less he was a rocketship. What I can’t get my mind around is why Ferrari is soooo bad in the rain.  Neither Kimi or Felipe could do anything; both of them basically sucked.  Their cars looked very stiff to me and I think their version of softer is still harder and less compliant than everyone else’s.  It’s hard to believe that a team that big and sophisticated could not get it right at ANY of the wet races. Neither Kimi nor Felipe can get on the power out of the slow corners, the cars just have no traction in the rain and they are visible slower under acceleration than their counterparts.
Another topic is the brakes.  It seems that Mc Laren had some temperature issues with the Heat Co brakes.  One thing that is critical with carbon brakes is the temperature, they like to run hot but they have a narrow window, they cool very quickly so it’s a little tricky to keep them in the right operating window, especially at a track with a long straight and in wet conditions.  From what I can see the Brembos may be a little more forgiving in that department.
Vetel did a great job.  What a feeling it must be for him and the team, they had great common sense with race calling and strategy and they had a solid car. They didn’t show much of his car during the race but with what little I saw, it looked very good. They say that the rain is the great equalizer and it was never more true than this weekend.
The championship is now pretty tight between Massa and Hamilton.  I predict that Mc Laren will win the appeal and Lewis will get his points back but there are some tracks coming up that may favor the Ferraris.  For example, in Brazil where Massa could be in a class of his own, but he’ll have to earn it, as Hamilton doesn’t give anything away.
The next race is under the lights, a first in F1 and it will be a great show, with all the exhausts and brakes glowing in the dark.

Rules of the road part II

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

F1

Rules of the road part II

It seems that no matter what we cant escape controversy in F1 lately.  Spa is a beautiful setting for an F1 race.  It is one of the few truly remarkable old style circuits; fast, technical and dangerous. I really thought the Ferraris would dominate there, so need less is to say, I was both surprised and disappointed to see McLaren get the pole.  However, as the race developed it was clear that Massa was carrying a few more laps of fuel on board which may have something to do with it.  It was nice to see Kimi get with the program and go to the front from the start with some authority.  Many people are questioning Kimi’s ability, which is crazy considering he has always been fast regardless of what car he drove.  I really think the tire construction has a lot to do with him dropping back during the last few races. I don’t think he likes the primes for whatever reason; maybe construction gives him an insecure feeling on turn in and under heavy braking. Kimi has a pretty abrupt turn in, especially in low speed corners after a long straight where he seems to brake deep and if the driver doesn’t trust the back of the car to stay under him under those conditions, it’s hard to be aggressive. When he passed Hamilton he pulled away without any problem but again that was on the option tire and when it came to the last stint with the primes it was obvious from qualifying, that Hamilton was faster on the primes (he turned a great lap in Q2 on the hard tire).  So, I had my fingers crossed that Kimi would have enough of a lead but as soon as Hamilton started pushing I got worried.  I saw the gap getting smaller and eventually disappear. Even without the rain I think Lewis would have been all over the back of the Ferrari but with the rain it was just a matter of time before Lewis got around him. Kimi did not go down without a fight though and it made for one of the most exiting races of the season. I hated to see the Champion end up in the wall; too bad the points are getting away from him.

The other interesting thing is the way the Ferraris were set up compared to the McLarens.  They turned similar lap-times but they were fast in different sectors of the track.  Hamilton was faster in sector 1 and 3, while Kimi was faster in sector 2.  One was faster in the faster corners and the straights while the other on the medium corners.  I think the McLarens have a little more mechanical grip than the Ferraris at this point, therefore they can run a little less down force (and drag) and get away with it, which makes them faster in the straights.
Either set up will work for doing a fast lap but the low down force set up may be better to race with, especially since Lewis was able to get off the Bus Stop turn well and therefore set people up for a pass through Eau Rouge and the fast section that followed.

I think Hamilton deserved to win even though I am a Ferrari fan.  He did a great job and I’m sorry to see the results tainted with controversy. At the end of the day the best man will get the championship and we’ll have to stay tuned to see who that is.

Indy Car

It was Dixon’s season and his championship to lose

I thought that it was Dixon’s year and he deserved to get the championship.  He did a great job all year and even though Helio got a little too close for comfort at the end, it was Dixon and Ganassi’s championship to lose. After making some questionable calls in the last two races, the Ganassi boys got down to business and performed beautifully in Chicago.
The Team Penske also did a great job to stay so close all season long and take a run at the title at the end of the season, especially considering all the adversity they had with the trailer and cars burning down before Sonoma.  Goes to show you what a championship caliber team is capable of.
Next year should be a good year to follow Indy car.  All of the ex-Champ car teams will be in a better position to compete, with the ability to do some winter testing and catch up to their counter parts. Newman Haas should be a contender, as well as Servia with KV if they stay together.  I think Oriol is a great driver and a class act as well.  He is what I call track smart; he is fast and brings the car home.
Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Green racing will be strong as well next season but I think it is going to be a lot more competitive. As far as drivers coming back, I like the Dario/Ganassi combo.  He is another driver that knows how to bring the cars home. With all the teams under one roof and more cars than the IRL has ever had, I hope that the consolidation will bring about a revival of open wheel popularity in North America in the next few years. The 2009 season started Sunday when the checkered flag flew at Chicagoland Speedway.