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The Way It Is/ Can anyone catch McLaren? And discussing F1's technical future

by Gordon Kirby
The United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis this weekend will be a critical round in this year's Formula 1 world championship. The Indy superspeedway cum Mickey Mouse infield road circuit is a different animal yet again from Monaco and Montreal so it will be interesting to see if McLaren-Mercedes can carry its advantage from Monaco and Montreal to America's Midwest where the likes of Ferrari, BMW, Renault and Williams-Toyota will be hoping to be more competitive and begin chiseling away at McLaren's strong early lead in the championship.

In Monday's column McLaren's head of race engineering Steve Hallam described the team's strengths this year technically and in drivers, and Renault's technical director Pat Symonds doffed his cap in Montreal last weekend to the job McLaren is doing. "They really are showing class on every sort of track," Symonds remarked. "I won't say it's impossible. Nothing's impossible. But it will be very difficult to catch up during the course of this season."

If there was any surprise in Montreal it was Nick Heidfeld's strong drive to second place for BMW. Heidfeld has responded admirably to Robert Kubica's arrival at BMW and has outpaced the talented Pole in most races this year. Heidfeld beat the Ferraris in qualifying in Montreal, then drove a faultless race to score BMW's best result to date. BMW's technical director Willy Rampf commented in Montreal about the team's move toward the front.

"It feels quite good because it's the first time we are the third strongest team," Rampf said. "We are definitely aiming to move even further forward and to see if, with our development, it is possible to beat one of the teams in front. They are currently maintaining the gap and McLaren is even pulling away a bit, but that still has to be our aim, to try to beat them. But there are also very strong and very experienced teams just behind us taking any opportunity to beat us."

Rampf says BMW has benefitted primarily from a substantial increase in the amount of time spent in the wind tunnel. "As everybody knows, the wind tunnel is the most important tool in F1," Rampf commented. "We have increased the amount of wind tunnel hours by a factor of, let's say 2.5, from about one and a half years ago to now. Similar is the CFD (computational flow dynamics). We have increased that development by a factor of three to four which means we can do much more development in this direction.

© Gary Gold
"Also when we started with the wind tunnel we were quite careful with all the calibration and everything to be 100 percent sure that what we measured in the wind tunnel is what we see on the track. Up to now we have good correlation and that also helped us over the wintertime by changing the tire and still being ahead of the internal target of aero development."

It's been widely reported that one of Renault's problems this year has been adapting to the different aerodynamic properties of Bridgestone's tires compared to the Michelins on which the team won two successive world titles. Pat Symonds elaborated a little on this matter.

"It's true to say that when we first put the Bridgestone tire on our car we suffered in performance whereas some other teams suffered less and in one case maybe even--in relative terms--improved," Symonds said. "I'm certainly happy that we're using the tire well, as a tire. I'm not sure we fully understand it aerodynamically, but I think we're pretty damn close now."

Added Symonds: "It's a big, black round thing, whizzing 'round in the air and [the Bridgestone and Michelin tires] are very different shapes. The aerodynamics of a modern F1 car are incredibly subtle, as you see from the various appendages on the cars. Certainly, with Michelin we worked a lot on the aerodynamics of the tires with very, very small changes to shape, to the shoulders, and to the sidewalls to tune the tire aerodynamics in conjunction with the car aerodynamics. Now we're dealing with a differant animal."

Honda's F1 technical director Jacky Eeckelaert said his team has also struggled with this problem. "I think at the end of 2006 the two fastest cars on Michelin tires were the Renault and the Honda," Eeckelaert observed. "We were clearly in front of the McLaren the last few races of the season. Then five weeks after the last Grand Prix when we went testing with the new Bridgestone tire we had lost quite a bit of performance by switching tires. This was difficult to anticipate because the tire became available for all the teams on the same day at the end of October. The interaction of the tire with the car is a very complex thing, not just mechanically but also aerodynamically."

As McLaren's Steve Hallam noted in this week's Monday column, all of this year's rev-limited and homologated 2.4 liter V-8 F1 engines are very similar in performance. Renault's and BMW's technical directors Symonds and Rampf agree with Hallam on this point.

"I think one of the interesting things about the homologated engines is that it was done at one of the few times in the history of Formula 1 when engines were remarkably even," Symonds observed. "That surprised me because it was a new formula and it's the time when you might expect there to be more variation. But I think the fact that the 2.4 V-8 is a very limited design anyway, in terms of its mass, its center of gravity and a lot of principal dimensions, it probably meant there wasn't a lot of room to manuever anyway. When you couple that with an imposed rev limit, I think the engines are remarkably even and probably more even than I remember for many years."

Rampf confirmed Symonds view. "Everything is so specified--crankshaft height, center of gravity," Rampf said. "I think the major part--the rev limiter--is the same for all the engines. I think there is not a lot of scope for a huge difference in engine performance."

Honda's Eeckelaert added that the FIA's freeze on internal engine developments under the homologation procedure has also helped keep the engines very close in performance. "It's not only the limiting of the engine revs," Eeckelaert said. "Of course, that is the factor that has been used in the past to increase the power of the engine. But it's also the stopping of all development of the internals of the engine. [Without that, it] could lead to different coatings, reducing friction--which is then increasing horsepower--or reducing bearing size by using different materials. But all that has been stopped."

Williams technical director Sam Michael said substantial cost savings have resulted from this year's move to homologated engines. "One of the things that's been quite understated is the savings made from going to the engine homologation and the engine life these days, the savings have been significant," Michael commented. "Maybe it's different costs for different companies, but if you look at the number of engines that you use, if you only go back to 2002 we used six engines every race weekend and now we're using two every race weekend. So the changes have been massive and I think that was one of the reasons for doing it."

The FIA will introduce a standard ECU to F1 next year and energy derived from regenerative braking systems will be added to F1 in 2009. A new package of green rules has also been suggested by the FIA for 2011 which includes a possible move to smaller, turbocharged engines. Inevitably, in Montreal last weekend there were some spirited arguments about these potential changes.

"I think they are very interesting changes," Pat Symonds commented. "They surprise me somewhat. It wasn't long ago that we decided engines would not be a performance differentiator. We decided on homologated engines and limited development. And now it's been suggested that perhaps the only performance differentiator will be drivetrain and chassis aerodynamics. Vehicle dynamics is effectively put down a peg. I find it a little bit strange that some of the things we are doing imminently will be changing again in 2011.

"We are working on kinetic energy recovery systems for 2009 that are very different from those that would be required in the suggestions for 2011. Similarly, we are adopting a standard ECU next year which has been a lot of work to get ready. There are various restrictions associated with that and then again suggestions that in 2011 we open up the electronics to further development. So some surprising things."

© Gary Gold
Symonds doubts that F1 needs to entirely recreate itself. "I think my first question is, do we need it? Is this what we want? I think Max (Mosley) is a very powerful leader and he has some very good ideas and there are many times when you need that powerful leadership because as teams we will tend to bicker and get nowhere. So I'm certainly not criticizing the power of his leadership. But I do wonder if we need to really say, 'Well, F1 is broken, let's reinvent it from stage one.' I'm not sure we really need to.

"I think there are many things we can do to improve F1. I think we can improve the spectacle. I think we can be more ecologically aware. But I don't think we need to tear everything up and start at zero again. I think there are many things that can be adopted, many things that are of interest. But above all I guess the thing I find hardest is that they are going to cost us a lot of money."

Symonds is not a believer in the transfer of technology between racing and road cars. "The one thing I'd probably take issue with the FIA on is the idea that the new rules should be relevant to road cars," he commented. "That was not actually a mandate that I believe was ever agreed. It was agreed that new rules should be helpful to society at large, or useful to society at large. I think that is a slightly different thing because the lead on from that is that if the new rules produce technologies that are road relevant then our parent companies will come in and pay for them.

"Well, that is absolutely not the case with Renault. Renault do not see F1 as a technical exercise to make a better Clio, Megane or Laguna. It's a very difficult thing and certainly they are not going to put more money into F1 than they do now. The so-called road relevant research, the financing for that, will not come from the Renault Group."

Sam Michael disagrees with Symonds about the transfer of racing technology to road cars. "I think a lot of the things Pat says are pretty valid," Michael added. "But there are transfers of some things. I think there is transfer of CFD technology to road cars and that is valid. It's not the fact that you go and develop a rear wing that you then go and put on your road car. It's that you develop the understanding of aerodynamics and CFD that helps you better develop road cars."

Michael also pointed out that the FIA often floats ideas before modifying them after debates with the teams and manufacturers. "It's not an unusual process for the FIA to publish a first position and then go through a series of discussions to try to hone down what we really want to do," Michael remarked.

Eeckelaert says Honda agrees in general terms with the FIA's ideas for 2011. "We support most of the drafted regulations," Eeckelaert said. "I think it will push the manufacturers to build more fuel-efficient engines because probably the fuel flow will be needed. If you want to go faster with a given amount of fuel in a given amount of time you need to make a very fuel-efficient engine and this will probably find some spin-offs in the road cars, sooner or later. Of course, Honda supports the environmental position of the FIA, especially in the case of hybrid technology which will also be the case in 2012."

Meanwhile, the immediate focus of teams like Ferrari, Renault, BMW, Williams and Honda is on closing the gap to McLaren. If they're not able to make any ground soon, then Ron Dennis and his Mercedes-powered team will be headed to a dominant sweep of F1's 2007 drivers and constructors championships.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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