6 May 2013
The first 4 races of 2013 have been what we would term 'Flyaways' we use this term as the teams are all based in Europe but these races are on another continent. When F1 returns in Barcelona it will be off the back of a 3 week break, but whilst the TV camera's have stopped filming the action, work still continues in the factories on gaining performance on their rivals.
Barcelona signals a pivotal point in the season as it allows the factory to provide the race team with a raft of upgrades that would be a headache in terms of logistics to send to a 'Flyaway' race. That's not to say that teams don't concentrate on upgrade packages for these early races but planning for a larger step in Barcelona is a considered approach. Barcelona also affords the teams a benchmark to work from, as we know with Pre Season testing being conducted at the circuit they have plenty of data to pour through making it the ideal place to understand any big upgrades.
The over familiarity of the circuit with both the drivers and teams however makes it a place that really is driven by the changing of the guard in terms of the upgrades bought to Barcelona and their success. Some teams will have smaller packages for Barcelona having already played the 'little but often' card, systematically upgrading their challenger throughout the start of the 2013 campaign. Others however will find their practice programs cramped with both upgrade and setup changes in order to extrapolate the performance differences between packages. Not all of these changes will be transparent especially when we consider the performance that can be gleaned aerodynamically from the exhaust.
Red Bull find themselves in the position they have for the last 3 seasons, on the top. However the margin to other teams is much more finite this season with circuit characteristics, setup and of course tyres bringing the trailing teams ever closer.
Lotus are once again consistent and whilst converging on the Red Bull exhaust cross-under tunnel arrangement still have very distinct differences in the way the rest of the car is designed. Their tyre management is of course where Lotus is making strides over their counterparts during the race but this does come at a slight detriment to them in terms of qualifying. Lotus however find themselves in a position where qualifying will become more and more crucial over the season as the other teams find ways in which to balance their degradation issues over a race distance. Qualifying at the end of the day rewards you only with track position for the start of the race, if you leverage too much tyre damage in the quest for a better grid slot you could relinquish an advantage for the race. This leads to a fine balancing act between the best time achievable and the optimum time for qualifying whilst thinking of the damage it may do to the race strategy. I'm not saying that drivers have to nurse their tyres but more can be gained through good strategy on a Sunday than show boating on a Saturday.
Ferrari's problems with the F2012 seem to be a distant memory and I think it's fortuitous for the other teams that they have had issues that have led to bad results thus far. Last season the team struggled desperately to correlate performance seen in CFD and their Wind Tunnel(s) with their on track endeavors. This season their efforts have been scuppered by a catalogue of on track misfortunes yet they still find themselves well within the hunt.
Mercedes are leveraging some of what was learnt in 2012 but cast aside to favour future progression, the W04. Mercedes made a decision early into last season that they must bite the bullet and switch their Wind Tunnel operations from 50% scaling to 60%. 10% may not seem a lot but finite margins like those are what make the tenth of second differences between teams in F1. It allows Mercedes to test items that simply couldn't be made in 50% scale and so the end result should be more reliable data and parts coming from the factory. Many have speculated that the Mercedes FRIC system is the reason the team have climbed to the fore this season and although it is undoubtedly a factor it's not the only reason. The team provided very little in terms of upgrades throughout the 2012 season leading to the team falling away, their implementation of the 'Coanda' style exhaust was short lived and instead the team focused their attention of the their 2013 challenger. The development curve of an F1 car throughout a season should see an improvement of at least 1 second in lap time and I believe this wasn't the case for the W03. Some of the improvement that should have been seen throughout last season instead resides in the W04 giving the team a spring board into 2013.
Force India from the outside appear to have the same car as last year, however the VJM06 is virtually all new giving the team much more scope to progress and refine their car. The VJM05 started the 2012 season without a 'Coanda' exhaust layout and so by following the trend and installing their own version they were always compromising the results. With a fresh canvas the VJM06 started it's life with the 'Coanda' layout installed and some of the inefficiencies ironed out. Having a step nose design in 2012 the team didn't take the concept to it's full extent as a trade off occurs at the highest point with the aero gains from the underside of the higher nose being lost to erratic aero from the step. The Vanity Panel installed by the team allowed them to continue to maximise the height of the nose without the disadvantages of the step. The VJM06 is another example of a car being kind on it's tyres and has allowed the Force India team to make strides towards good points paying positions. Their points haul should also put them closer to Mercedes had they not had had the wheel nut issues in Malaysia and/or had Adrian Sutil had better luck this season.
McLaren made a bold move going into 2013 with an all new car and many of their detractors have been critical of them for this. It was a gamble, one unfortunately at this stage hasn't paid off and will likely blight their season as a whole. Having been stead fast in their approach towards a lower nose over the last few seasons the team made adjustments mid way through last season in order to make gains. A higher nose however is only part of the story and for the effects to be carried across downstream the tub itself must also be raised. The MP4-27's tub was around 550mm high whereas the '28' has been raised much closer if not to the limit of 625mm (limited to that height by regulation) This change in tub height impacts EVERYTHING aero wise on the car requiring adjustments up and down the car to re-balance it. Allied to these aerodynamic changes is McLaren's switch to pull rod suspension at the front of the car and although I don't see this as one of the teams issues it does make life more difficult. Ferrari learnt the same lesson last season and have now made changes to their suspension in order to affect changes more quickly. The team started testing the MP4-28 with more complex Turning Vanes mounted under the bulkhead but in order to make setup changes more quickly they had to revert to very simple Vanes under the nose. The movement of these Vanes further forward with a higher nose/tub will undoubtedly have an impact on the airflow leading to the Sidepods, especially in Yaw. Others have been critical of McLaren's Front Wing design and it's easy to see why, with some of the lead teams now featuring 6 and 7 element Front Wing's the 3 element Wing used by McLaren could be seen as archaic. I too have pointed to the Front Wing as an area the team could perhaps find improvement from but it's worth noting that a 3 Element wing can be as efficient as a 6/7 tier counterpart if designed efficiently. The team have already made alterations to their 'Coanda' layout in order to rectify some of their downforce problems, targeting the exhaust plume in a different way to remedy issues caused when the tyres deform under load. Like some of the other teams it appears that McLaren have missed the ball in terms of understanding the aerodynamic effects as the rear tyres deform under load. The team have been seen getting old skool and cutting sections of the outer Diffuser footplate away in order to extract performance from it. In an ideal world the footplate would run as close as possible to tyre but because of the way the sidewall of the Pirelli's deform this year this gap has to be altered for a wider operating window. I've talked about the role tyre squirt plays on the Diffuser in the past and so managing it's effects on the Diffuser is crucial, with tyre deformation making this task even more difficult.
Toro Rosso have stolen a march on Sauber and Williams through virtue of similar reasons to the struggles we see at McLaren. The STR8 is not a complex machine and instead builds upon it's predecessor much like we have seen with Force India whom also didn't originally design their 2012 contender with a 'Coanda' exhaust. Having done away with their 'Double Floor' concept the STR8 is a less complex car but perhaps has more potential. Meanwhile Sauber and Williams are fighting with the same demons at the rear of the car have mentioned with McLaren and chiefly the way their 'Coanda' exhausts, rear floor and Diffuser work with the tyre dynamics. Sauber's sidepods caught the attention of everyone when they launched the C32 due to their narrow width, having seen an opportunity to slim the width of the Sidepods when Perez crashed in Monaco last season. The narrow width of the Sidepod however means that components have had to be extended longitudinally, increasing the width of the Coke Bottle region. This has an impact on the 'Coanda' exhaust trajectory and the other airflow looking to make it's way to the back of the car. Also affected by the narrowing of the Sidepods is the internal airflow which must now make it's way rearwards through a more constricted pathway. Sauber also made their intentions clear early on that the car was packaged around the use of DRD, sporting an engine cover outlet that is designed to contain some of the pipework whilst also designing their Rear Wing with a bowed central section. The central section of the Wing was designed this way in order to leverage both additional downforce and less drag but with the car lacking overall balance they have been forced to abandon their DRD attempts in favour of other setup work. (As we know setting up DRD for each circuit can take a considerable time) Sauber tested a more conventional rear wing during Free Practice in Bahrain and have reportedly got another to run in Spain. Williams pre-season didn't seem to highlight the type of issues the team have encountered during the first few races. Mike Coughlan has been vocal throughout this early stage of the season that replicating the 'Coanda' exhaust in their tunnel is quite a difficult task. Having been on the back foot by only testing the solution during 2012 and not running it during a race the team are having issues with extracting consistency and balance. The team also trialled their version of a Red Bull style Exhaust ramp cross-under tunnel but abandoned it prior to Melbourne probably due to the very same reasons. It's clear that neither Sauber or Williams are in a position they expected to be this season but I expect they will both make headway from Barcelona onwards.
The battle of the two newer teams as I still like to call them is even hotter this year with Marussia coming out of the blocks like a scolded cat. Both teams deserve the right to compete on the Formula One stage in my opinion and are making extreme efforts to bring themselves closer to the fight, not only through their efforts at the circuit but through personnel, associations, technical tie ins and infrastructure. Marussia have excelled this season considering they are using KERS for the first year still utilising the Cosworth engine and purchasing their KERS unit from Williams. The MR-02 proved to be a solid base having built on the MR-01 and have continued to provide upgrades to the car throughout the start of the 2013 campaign. Caterham on the other hand chose a very different route to start 2013 with the CT03 essentially a slightly revised version of the CT01. The team have been pinning their hopes on a resurgence at Barcelona with a large upgrade package that would see them not only vieing for position with Marussia but drag them ever closer to the midfield pack. The team decided to speed up the process however and take a multitude of parts to the Bahrain GP with Heikki returning to the fold to test them. The results were so impressive that the team installed what they had on Charles Pic's car for Bahrain, resulting in around a 0.5 sec per lap gain. With more to come in Barcelona (The team were seen testing a Vanity Panel on the CT03 at a filming day last week) the battle for the last prize winning position (tenth) is going to be an exciting prospect. (My Bahrain Technical Roundup features the Caterham upgrades)
As I have already alluded to I believe Red Bull still have the quickest point to point car on the grid but what they won't like is the gap has narrowed. Ferrari have the best all round machine in my opinion with the ability to extract both 1 lap performance and stave off degradation moreso than Red Bull. The fast grid starts their 2 drivers are able to perform make them even more dangerous as they don't need to qualify on the front row to be in lead by the first corner. Lotus have the best race package as they able to extract better strategy through virtue of their ability to look after their tyres. Their achilles heel however (much like 2012) is qualifying but in order to qualify better will they leverage too much of their race strategy advantage? Mercedes are the reverse of Lotus, able to extract performance during qualifying they leverage to much from the tyres to the detriment of the race. These top four teams are probably only separated by the matter of 2-3 tenths per lap in terms of raw performance but with qualifying and the race causing a critical difference in the strategy they use I think we will continue to see a yo-yo of results for some races to come.
Force India and McLaren seem to be sitting in their own little group at the moment with the former achieving both good qualifying and race positions through a good understanding of their entire package. McLaren meanwhile as we know are struggling but their problems are quantifiable and so it is just a matter of time and perseverance before they rejoin the lead 4 in the battle for race wins. Track and conditions dependent these two seem to be around 4-6 tenths off the pace and through virtue of strategy and others misfortunes they are able to mix it with those ahead.
Toro Rosso, Sauber and Williams are all around 7-8 tenths away from where they would like (From the lead times), the latter 2 have a chance of significantly reducing that gap should they be able to rectify some of their aerodynamic issues but for the time being I can't see Toro Rosso making massive strides towards the front.
Marussia and Caterham will continue to battle it out for tenth place throughout the season but with the least resources of all the teams you have to wonder who will shift focus first. As we know 2014 is a monumental task for all the teams but as you move down the grid it becomes even more difficult in terms of both financial power and infrastructure. Had the 2014 rules not made it so the engine suppliers are required to use the same mounting points, Marussia may be a little disadvantaged not having a supplier with Cosworth going by the wayside. What will also be interesting is Caterham's technology share with Red Bull whom they purchase their Gearbox and rear suspension. With 2014 seeing teams use 8 Speed gearboxes in favour of 7 it could be the first time we see Red Bull supply the same Technology they use to their customers. (Caterham currently use an older derivative Red Bull gearbox and suspension layout)
The shift we see between the teams from race to race is not only one of the human endeavor of race driver vs race driver or one born from a driver being better at one circuit than another but the harmony of driver, team personnel, the race car and conditions (amongst a plethora of other factors). But something that perhaps goes unnoticed is the dicing of positions that are made by the installation of new parts, half a tenth here or a tenth there can really make a dramatic difference to the outcome of any race. So I look forward to Barcelona and Monaco as the teams present what could be some of the biggest changes we have seen so far this season and we perhaps start to see a changing of the guard. Lest we forget the challenge is a moving target and for arguments sake McLaren who I've earmarked as being 4-6 tenths off the lead pack need to not only make up that deficient but any additional time the lead teams find.