Saturday, 14 April 2012

Why is Formula One so close in 2012?

At the end of Q2 in China, we saw just 1.796 seconds covering the top 16 cars. That's something that, in recent times, has been practically unheard of in Formula One. It is to be expected in a category with cars of the same specification - like GP2 or Formula Ford - but in Formula One the cars and designers are tested as much as the drivers. So why is F1 so close this season?

Force India are right in the heart of the midfield battle.
Whilst Formula One has been using Pirelli rubber since the start of last season, the Italian tyre manufacturer chose to bring the compounds closer together this year. That means that there is less of a difference in time between the prime and option tyres taken to a race weekend, but as we've seen already durability has bean kept at a relatively low level - degradation has been, and will be, an issue.

But Pirelli are also unique from the previous supplier, Bridgestone, in that they are looking for more speed constantly. They have a specific test team who have recently acquired a 2010 Renault and Jaime Alguersuari to drive it. That means the tyres can only get faster.

Exhaust-Blown Diffusers
Arguably the largest change in the technical regulations for 2012 has been the removal of exhaust blown diffusers. Since 2010 teams had been using the exhaust gasses to 'blow' the diffuser, giving the car a huge amount more downforce at the rear. With that being removed, teams have had to make a difficult decision - try and replicate the same effect within the new rules, or to find the downforce in other areas. As it stands, it appears Red Bull and Ferrari have lost out the worst due to this - but it has closed the pack up significantly. Because all of the teams are doing much the same thing by placing their exhausts in the same sort of area and trying to replicate the effect, the cars have become more alike - and therefore the times will be closer.

Pure Luck
Some people, particularly those in such a technical sport as Formula One, would say they don't believe in luck. But the cars are so close together on the timesheets even though they are so different in design. Already, after just two rounds of the championship, we have seen teams emerge with their specialities. Mercedes, thanks to their 'double-DRS' boost system, are the fastest team on the straights, yet eat their tyres at a frightful rate. Red Bull are once again one of the fastest through medium- and high-speed corners, yet cannot seem to string a fast lap together because they are lacking in top speed. McLaren appears to be more of an all-rounder - depending on venue they can be the fastest, and whilst they are not hardest on their tyres, they are still not the easiest.

So with these relative benefits and drawbacks to all the teams on the grid, it just shows that we are extremely lucky in 2012 to see such a close battle in terms of times between cars. It is not necessarily something that has been done by design, it's just down to pot luck of designers all coming up with different solutions that appear to make a Formula One car complete a lap in almost exactly the same time. Great stuff.

Image (c) Pirelli/LAT/F1Fanatic

Thursday, 16 February 2012

2012: Make Or Break For Ferrari

Ferrari have won just seven races in the last three seasons. No mean feat, you might say; but Formula One's most successful team haven't won a driver's championship since 2007. With mixed noises coming out of Maranello this week about the team's new car, the F2012, the upcoming season looks like it will be an important year for the Scuderia.

Critics have been quick to build up against the F2012
In honesty, the figures quoted above may seem unfair. The team came painfully close to the driver's championship in both 2008 and 2010. Fernando Alonso alone took five wins in 2010. So what has gone so wrong?

The first person to take the wrap is the team principal - in this case Stefano Domenicali. Viewed by many in the paddock as likeable yet hard-working, it is fair to say that he lacks the 'edge', the out-and-out need to win that drove his predecessor Jean Todt. Indeed, if the team endure another barren year in 2012, then Domenicali could be booted out. The team have already replaced all sorts of technical staff below him, and this season looks to be Domenicali's hero or zero year.

Another question to be asked is that of the drivers - nabbing Fernando Alonso for 2010 was a coup, despite it being rumoured for many years. In Alonso, Ferrari have a solid and quick driver; many believe him to be the most-rounded on the grid, and it's not difficult to see why. His contract renewal to stay with the team until the end of 2016 has given the team some much needed stability - although despite this, I cannot see Alonso staying around for five winless seasons, and it is likely he would jump ship if the team do not give him a championship-contending car soon. The team's second driver, Felipe Massa, remains as more of a question mark. 2012 is very much his last chance - he's been at the team as a full-time driver since 2006, yet he became the first Ferrari driver for thirty years not to take a podium after completing a full season last year, and it is safe to say that if he does not step up his game in 2012, he will be replaced for the following season by someone like Sergio Perez or even a Sutil or Bianchi.

The last piece in the jigsaw is arguably the most important; the car. It is difficult to draw any real conclusions from testing times, but it is perhaps more revealing to listen to what the team says about the car. Massa is clearly not overwhelmed by the new chassis, saying it needs 'a bit of work' and that it is not a 'complete package' yet. It must be questioned why Ferrari felt the need to create a completely new car when their previous car won the sole 2011 race where the regulations were closest to what they will be for this season. That they were fastest at a race where exhaust regulations were temporarily tightened - as they will be this year - and that they did best on softer Pirellis - all tyres are becoming softer this year - to a casual, and even trained, observer, it is troubling to try and work out why Ferrari have chosen to create a completely new car, rather than create an evolution of their last, which could soon prove to be a rod for their own back.

2012, then, is going to be a very important year for Formula One's oldest and arguably best-loved team. There will be no doubt that the Tifosi will stick around, but how long will Alonso? And how long can Massa and Domenicali cling on for? Only time will tell.

Testing starts again next week at Bareclona.

Image (c) Ferrari spa/Ercole Colombo/F1 Fanatic