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That fine balance between success and failure….

26 Apr

Aside from the pure racing we have seen on the track, over the past ten years or so we have also witnessed another side of F1 – namely a plethora of new ideas on the technical side. Constant research and development, innovative minds and creative, brilliant people have given us the twin-keel vs single-keel era; the “walrus” nose of Williams; the “Dumbo” ears from Honda; the J-Damper from Renault; the double- diffuser from Brawn; the blown carbon diffuser from RBR; and also the f-duct from McLaren: and these innovations represent only a small portion of the new vernacular that has entered – and then possibly quickly disappeared from – our racing lives.

Some of these innovations worked so well that they resulted in championship wins – or in instant sanction. Renault’s J-damper, for example, was banned after complaints from rival teams led to the Court of Appeal deciding its fate. Another championship-winning, “clever engineering” idea was the double-deck diffuser. The Brawn of 2009 was a championship-winning out-of-the-box car – although many other designers had been warned off the idea by the FIA over the preceding six or nine months. It was a question of presentation. Of politics. And of making the right phone call at the right time. And it won Jenson Button a World Championship. Who would have thought?

Getting it right or getting it wrong is thus a fine line upon which the teams must constantly tip-toe, 24/7. Taking a risk is part of the job – but how far can you go? There are financial risks either way: if the idea doesn’t work it’s money down a black hole. If it does work – too well, perhaps – it may be banned. So what are the parameters? How do teams face this knife-edge judgment process with any sort of logic?

An F1 car is an amazing piece of machinery. It produces around 2,500kg of downforce; it has a top speed of 350 kph; it has deceleration forces in the region of 5gs-plus; it weighs around 420 kg without driver and engine; the operating temperatures range from 80 deg C to 900 deg C; and about 75% of the car is built out of carbon fibre.

Keeping a car competitive on all types of circuits and in all kinds of conditions requires amazingly hard work. The race teams themselves are effectively medium-sized companies with hundreds of employees working in harmony (for the most part!), producing a race car that should work flawlessly on the track. Communication and team work are vital. Modes of operation are also vital. Teams frequently restructure or recruit experts.

The development line consists of design, pattern-making and testing – a procedure that lasts from one and a half to two months. It’s a complicated procedure to design and to send a piece to the race track. We frequently hear of parts being sent out to the race tracks via private jets or as cabin baggage with team members. Last-minute updates are the rule, not the exception.

“Constant development is the key”, say many technical directors. But in order to have development you have to build a solid base. Some times it works, some times it doesn’t. Do you remember when something big just didn’t work out? A lot of solutions have failed to work, but I don’t think anyone will forget the McLaren MP4-18.

McLaren worked hard on the MP4-18 after a season dominated by the Ferrari F2002 in the hands of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. The Woking, Surrey-based team wanted to turn things around and made a breakthrough with their new car. A car that unfortunately never made it to the grid. It was crashed several times, it failed the FIA side impact crash tests and it was bedeviled by engine cooling problems. Why did it fail? What went wrong?

All this happened because McLaren passed the thin line between success and failure. The engineers examined each part of the car and squeezed it to its limits. No area was left untouched. Quickly, though, the thin line was passed on the other side. The hard work and knowledge gained from this project were used to bring the updates to the MP4-17D car. It made it to the start that season – and it was not a bad car at all.

This year, McLaren have also introduced a radical car. They feared for its pace during the pre-season tests but already the car has proved to be a race-winner. Different times? Perhaps. More importantly, a completely different personnel line-up in the design department. Such is evolution.

Ferrari, by contrast, seemed to match the Red Bulls in the recent winter tests but were nowhere near them in the first races. They blame wind tunnel problems but in reality it is all about the people who operate the tunnels. As McLaren have proved, you don’t have to have the best wind tunnel in the world, providing you build up enough constants and enough consistency. Ferrari may well change their tunnel specifications; but if they do go on to win races in 2011 it will be because of the way they use their tunnel, and digest its data, rather than because of an improved tunnel in and of itself .

The low transmission structure of the Williams FW33 has proved not to be a winning solution but the forward-facing exhaust of the Lotus Renault continues to look good. The 2011 F1 grid is still poised to surprise.

How far is “too far”? I guess no one can answer this question; or, as the Thompson Twins would say, “To be precise, there isn’t an answer”. Formula 1 is a complex sport in all aspects. It’s not always easy even to distinguish the location of the boundaries. In order to be competitive you must clearly study the thin line. Passing it in one area will give you a performance gain. The opposition you will be beating, though, is an opposition that never sleeps and will always fight back.

And there is something else: we talk here of a sport with the biggest annual TV audience in the world. For 19 weekends the teams are exposed to the public. Their image is on the line. Getting it wrong, or worse, is something they cannot afford to contemplate, let alone to survive. What if the double diffuser from Brawn GP hadn’t worked or the “flexi wing” from Red Bull Racing had been banned?

Formula One as we know it today would look very, very different.

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