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

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