Saturday, 22 February 2014

Race Relations 23/02/14

At this very moment Formula 1 is busy testing in Bahrain, NASCAR is gearing up for the 500 at Daytona, and V8 Supercars are in the gooch weekend between their first and only test for the year at Eastern Creek and the season opener in Adelaide. The storm is about to break and I can not wait.

Just don't tell me this will be Ambrose's breakout year. I've been hurt before (image via Speedcafe).

The goss coming from F1 has been varied and interesting - there's relief from the drivers that the new turbo F1 cars aren't as slow as second-tier GP2 cars after all, which is good. Old fogies were also sent into raptures when Martini-branded merchandise arrived in online stores - surely that meant the iconic racing colours would be seen again in 2014? I was less enthused, it always seems to me that these people are so busy mourning the past they miss the legends being created now. And I maintain the Vodafone McLarens and Telefónica Renaults will go down among he sport's iconic liveries. Wait and see.

For a while, though, the big news was will the Red Bull even leave the garage in Bahrain? Vettel has faced the press and done his best impression of Legolas by admitting: "We still have lots of problems - large and small - that we need to fix." That's kind of worrying, because the Bahrain circuit gives the cars a very different workout to Jerez. The Spanish circuit's many high-G corners mean it's all about downforce, whereas the Middle Eastern autodrome is all long straights and hairpins, making it about minimal drag and brutal braking zones. In theory a car that has trouble at one should be okay at the other, unless something has gone wrong on a very fundamental level. Red Bull, we're all starting to get very worried about you.


I'm betting F1's dry running was envied by the V8 Supercar crews. Their only pre-season test at Sydney Motorsport Park (I don't know why they changed the name, it'll always be Eastern Creek to me) was rather spoiled by drizzle, meaning kind of the only thing the test proved was that the cars actually run - not a huge concern when they run on the best cutting-edge, state-of-the-art technology of 1993. Actually that's not quite fair - the metalwork has barely changed in 20 years, but the technology for controlling ignition timing and compression has improved out of sight, which is why a 1993 touring car had 335kW where a modern V8 is pushing 490 - without any increase in capacity or revs. That's progress for you.

Anyway, despite the rain we got to see the cars in action and see what liveries they'll be running this year. No real changes for FPR or Red Bull Australia, same Pepsi/Red Bull colours as last year; in contrast, HRT seems keen to prove they're a whole new beast, with the Holden red and white backed up by SP Tools and Mobil 1 colours. That's kind of a weird mash-up: to me SP Tools still means the #9 Mercedes from last year, while Mobil colours are associated with the Group A cars driven by Brocky - both VN Commodores (one of which he shared with Allan Moffat) and - no, really - a BMW M3 he shared with Jim Richards. Yeah, you can see why Brock fans would rather forget those days. But on this year's HRT Commodore, it has a kind of "greatest hits album" effect. We'll have to see if the reborn HRT can become an icon in its own right.

Oh, and Robert Dahlgren has a Swedish flag on the roof. Lol and good on him, I say. At least we'll have no trouble picking he and Scott McLoughlin out of the pack: just shut your eyes and listen.

It seems I have to eat humble pie regarding my gearbox analysis from January 28. I complained that eight speeds gives the engineers too much room to fine-tune the car to the circuit; I should have read the rulebook properly, because then McLaren posted this in their Facebook feed:

Yep, it's not eight ratios per weekend, it's eight ratios for the entire season. Now that is interesting...


And if you objected when I referred to NASCAR's biggest race as "the 500" and still insist "the 500" will happen in May, good on you, I'm glad hard times haven't taken the fight out of you IndyCar fans. I for one would love to see Indy come back, because I can really see it working as a rolling laboratory for the Big Three to develop the kinds of engines we need right now. Speedways are usually won on fuel strategy, so a turbocharged, small-capacity, highly-efficient IndyCar motor that could give Ford, GM and Chrysler some sex appeal and street cred would go a long way to bringing Indy back to the forefront where it belongs. It'll be a long war of attrition while NASCAR stands in your way, but I sincerely hope you guys can do it. Just don't make the mistake Tony George made and try and keep it all-American: the 500 can be a great race or it can be an American race, but not both. We don't live in that world anymore.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014


Poor Renault. The Jerez F1 test turned out to be quite a memorable one for le géant jaune, and for all the wrong reasons. Whereas Mercedes and Ferrari left with over a thousand kilometres covered by works teams alone, Renault's combined customer base barely managed to break five hundred, with favoured sons Red Bull suffering most of all. Sebastian Vettel managed just 11 laps in the first two days.

Ricciardo, just as he realised Webber saw this coming.
(image via Skysports)

Daniel Ricciardo was still on his first-ever lap in a Red Bull when he had to pull over with smoke coming from the back of the car. PR man Remi Taffin must have felt like a toe in a pool of piranhas when the press corps swarmed in.
"The RB10 rode back to the pits on a flatbed truck. As the tow truck came down the pitlane, the transponder in the racecar triggered the official lap counting system. The timing and scoring TV screens duly recorded that Ricciardo had completed his first lap.

"Ricciardo later managed two more laps and came back to the pits. There was a slot - measuring about 12cm by 3cm - cut in the bodywork near the floor just ahead of the left rear wheel. Whatever was behind the slot was glowing red hot and sparking and sending off little shoots of flames. A mechanic aimed a fire extinguisher at the slot and gave it a couple of squirts.

"That was it for Red Bull on Day 3." - Dan Knutson, Auto Action #1577
That's a little more whimsical than Dan's usual style, which tends to conform to the industry standard tone of, "the facts, but with a smirk." I guess that's what happens when reality follows a screenplay. Anyway, the word is that Renault misunderestimated the difference between the dyno where they did all the R&D and the actual cars they were for. Unsurprisingly, it's Red Bull who've copped the worst of this, since as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, Adrian Newey has always been a designer who takes Porsche's Maxim - that the perfect racing car crosses the finish line in first place and then falls to pieces - strictly literally. His extreme design philosophy once led him to convince team boss Christian Horner to get rid of the Ferrari engines his team were using and do a deal with Renault instead, an odd decision at the time because Renault's engines were known to be down on power, but there was method to Newey's madness: Ferrari's engines ran too hot and needed too much radiator to give him the trim sidepods he wanted; Renault's wimpy but cucumber-cool V8s offered a better aero profile. Is it any surprise that cars built to the same philosophy are running into trouble when it turns out the power unit needs more cooling than the manufacturer originally quoted?

Overall this ranks somewhere near the middle of the sliding scale of engineers' headaches. At the top of the scale are problems they'd love to have, like the drivers hating each other's guts because they're always taking wins off each other. Fantastic: the car's winning races and the biggest headache is the moaning of whoever finished second, which isn't your problem anyway. Below that are problems like "The car's really fast, but it keeps breaking all the time" - meaning some re-engineering is needed, but at least the car is fast so you can trade some speed for reliability. If you can talk the accounts department out of a bit more funding maybe you can just upgrade to a stronger material. At the very bottom of the list is when the driver comes back and says "The car feels fantastic, engine's great, handling is beautiful. Why are we two seconds off the pace?"

The current problems with the Renault Energy F1-2014 (dumb name, Renault) seem to be issues with "turbocharger and boost control systems with knock-on effects on the associated engine management systems." That could be a sideways jab at a rival, since the black boxes controlling the engine are still made by McLaren Electronic Systems, a part of the McLaren Group but sworn to be independent of the McLaren F1 team (originally brought in to get rid of traction control, but the other teams have never been happy about a rival getting a look at their technology). But it could still mean a software tweak is all that's needed. Alternatively, the entire back of the car could need to be rebuilt to get some cooling through, but at least they know what they have to fix. It's just that the compromise will be a painful one for Newey personally, since he'll have to give up - or at least seriously rethink - most of his pet aerodynamic ideas for this generation of F1 car. That will make the car slower than he originally hoped. It's too early to say whether the RB10 enjoys the same huge performance edge as its dad and great-grandad, but it's entirely possible that after Newey re-sculpts the airflow to suit his prima donna new powerplant, the result is a car that's only as fast as its rivals. As the Zen master said, we'll see.

The funny thing is that Renault used to be the kings of this sort of thing. I was there for their glory days in '05/'06, when they won both titles convincingly, and, well... do you realise how hard it is to win back-to-back World Championships like that? Car development stops for most teams in the last third of the year when it's clear they're not going to make up the difference, and they sensibly switch to next year instead. But for the teams in the title hunt, development of this year's car actually gets ramped up - no team is going to sacrifice a minor shot at the title next year when they have a major shot at it this year. The result is that development of next year's car gets put off, like a uni student's homework, until holy crap it's due at 10am tomorrow and the team has to put some coffee and a bag of noodles on because they're going to have to pull an all-nighter. With that in mind, consider that a Renault-mounted Alonso won the last F1 World Championship to be contested with a 3-litre V10 engine, and also the first one with a 2.4-litre V8.

If you know your maths you'll have spotted already that 3 divided by 10 is the same as 2.4 divided by 8, so a lot of components could have been shared between those engines. But still, a V8 - any V8 - requires different timing than a V10, meaning lots of new bits have to be made. Moreover the V8s had to be overbuilt to a new 95kg minimum weight, so it wasn't a simple matter of taking a hacksaw to the RS25 and cutting off the last two cylinders. Throw in the shortened timetable all the teams had to get those V8s rolling and Renault's achievement seems quite incredible.

But still, it's kind of heartwarming that even a engineers as experienced as the crew at Viry-Châtillon can make a rookie mistake like forgetting the difference between a dyno and the racing car. Next time an older racing fan complains that motor racing just isn't the same as yesteryear, you can tell them that actually yes, it totally is.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Meeting His Destiny In Quite A Similar Way

Meet Robert Dahlgren.

He's a Bloody Volvo Driver ®, and he's come to Australia to drive a Volvo S60 in the V8 Supercar Series for the team formerly known as Garry Rogers Motorsport. The long-time Holden faithful have done themselves a nice deal to become the Aussie branch of Volvo's expanding motorsport programme, so as of Clipsal this year they're no longer GRM: they're Volvo Polestar Racing.

We'll skip the irony of using the Polestar name in the Southern Hemisphere and go straight to who they are; Polestar are to Volvo what AMG are to Mercedes and FPV are were to Ford, in-house performance specialists that build hot Volvos for consumption and liaise with the racing teams. Polestar have made a moderate splash in this country with a tuned, limited-edition Volvo S60, predictably called the Polestar, and the word is it's pretty good - just not quite good enough to take on AMG, HSV and the M-Division. The engine isn't quite exciting enough and there's a tad too much understeer to call it a true sports sedan, but overall it's a decent first try for a company that's always been the very antithesis of performance motoring. For the first time Volvo have built a car enthusiasts might actually want to drive, instead of one they wish they were driving when the inevitable crash happens.

Enough sarcasm: I for one welcome our new Swedish overlords, packing up your whole life and moving to Australia as Dahlgren has deserves serious respect, regardless of how much success results (yes, I'm sending some good will to Alex Prémat, GRM's last Euro import, who by "mutual agreement" has decided to return to Europe rather than continue making up the numbers here. Sorry it didn't work out, Alex: brofist for even trying). But Dahlgren isn't exactly a stranger to the V8 paddock, having raced British Formula Ford against our own James Courtney and then British Formula 3 against Will Davison, taking the title in '03. Weirdly, he won his big prize - the Scandinavian Touring Car Championship - the same year as Courtney too, in 2010.

That's one more top-level touring car title than Scott McLoughlin, the kid who's almost certainly going to make his life absolute holy hell this year. Scott's already shown he has a knack for these machines, which are nothing like European-style touring cars Dahlgren's used to, which make their laptime under braking and turn-in. By contrast, NASCAR star Kurt Busch tried an Aussie V8 in Austin and found it reminded him of a GT car, but with vastly more power and deceptively fast mid-corner speeds. His summary was: "It's a muscle car, but it's a sports car at the same time."

It will be a big change, especially when I start racing. When you're at the point of overtaking, passing and start procedures, that will be the small thing. The big thing will be to adapt to the cars, the championship and getting used to the media around the championship. Everything is new. - Robert Dahlgren

Everything, including the car. GRM have lots of experience building V8 racecars, but until now it's been with Chevrolet's Holden's battle-hardened mechanicals. This will be the first time they've run with a Volvo engine, which didn't even exist this time last year. Amazingly, Volvo declined Mark Skaife's offer of a generic "category engine" and instead developed a new 4.4-litre V8 of their own, which they've stretched out to the 5-litre limit and say they're "very happy" with the figures it's producing. Aero testing is now done as well and the shape has been locked off by laser scanning and saving it as a 3D model, and if VPR deviate too far from the model they'll start attracting penalties. I sincerely hope they don't, because even in Westinghouse White the S60 looks properly beasty, like something the Stig would use for school runs ("Some say he actually drives a Volvo..."). Clipsal will have to tell whether it has the go to match the show, but like the Erebus Mercs, at least it'll have a soundtrack all its own.

Dahlgren has superstition on his side as well: last time a man named Robbie raced a Volvo in the ATCC, it won the championship and gave us our first Kiwi champion (that was 1985 if you're curious: the car was a square-ended, slab-sided geography teacher-esque Volvo 240 Turbo. Dick Johnson derided it as a block of flats on wheels, and even the team name sounded like a joke - keep a straight face and tell me "Volvo Dealer Team" doesn't sound like something made up by Mel Brooks. But they also had John Bowe and the team manager was John Sheppard, who'd managed HDT the year Brocky crushed 'em, so yes, they did win. That's also one more ATCC crown than Mercedes-Benz have ever managed, if you're keeping score, so this year it seems to me the Erebus Mercedes and Volvo Polestar teams have the clear goal of beating each other).

Anyway... unfamiliar car, unfamiliar circuits, a red-hot teammate tipped as a future champion: Robert Dahlgren has the world's hardest job this year. I wish you well sir, and hope your debut down under brings more encouragement than heartbreak. Our job as spectators will be almost as hard, though - we'll have to stifle the giggles whenever you talk to the press.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Formula Ugly

Here we go again.

F1's first four-day test at Jerez in Spain is now complete, and the implications are surprising and fascinating. While Mercedes managed a full race simulation, Red Bull are struggling to finish a full lap without the car coasting to a halt in a cloud of its own smoke. It would seem Jenson's prediction of a "hilarious" first test have come quite true, but it shouldn't really have surprised us: even before he joined Red Bull, Adrian Newey's cars were highly-strung glass cannons, and the fact that the Red Bull RB10 is breaking tells me he pushed it slightly over the razor's edge yet again. The relative ruggedness of the Mercedes W05 could just mean it is slow, even if they did start pouring resources into the turbo car a lot sooner than everyone else. If Red Bull can get the RB10 to hold together, I think it will give the rest of the grid a bit of a shock, but, as the Spartans pointed out to Phillip of Macedon, the key word is, "if." Too early to call, but at this stage it looks like we could be in for a tortoise-and-hare style championship, like '05. How fun!

But journos and Facebook experts are saying nothing about this. They've got smaller things on their minds - the crude and rather suggestive nose shapes most of the teams have emerged with. Williams were the first to debut their new car and, well...

The giggling started pretty much straight away. One Facebook page ran a caption comp (my entry being, "Why yes, I do drive a rather flash car, how did you know?" Didn't check to see if it got any likes), while others agreed Williams are just begging for sponsorship from a condom manufacturer, which I feel is just wrong.

Plainly it should be Lotus.

And that's why there hasn't been much analysis of the Jerez test yet; everyone's too busy moaning about how ungodly ugly the class of 2014 is.

I swear they do this every year. In 2012 it was the step-noses that so offended to their optical apparatus. Before that it was the new wings, which looked less like Grand Prix machinery and more like, "a Formula Atlantic car from the 1970s." The year before that it was all the aerodynamic furniture encrusting their sleek noses and engine cowls (Honda's "Dumbo wings" and Renault's "1950s land speed record fin" drawing particular ire). And there will always be a segment of the fandom upset the cars have wings at all.

Not to be rude, but you can't help noticing that the guys making this kind of talk tend to be of a... certain age. Auto Action #1576 ran with the cover "Formula Ugly", and editor Rob Margeit's column was fairly typical:

For me, as a child growing up and falling in love with F1, part of the appeal lay in the simple beauty of of the cars. I still remember the first time I laid eyes on Mario Andretti's low-slung JPS Lotus. Respendent in its classic black-and-gold warpaint, Andretti's sleek racer was everything a race car should be. In the 1980s, I was enamoured of Gordon Murray's Brabham BT52 that propelled Nelson Piquet to the 1983 title... In 1991, team boss Eddie Jordan turned to F1 and made an immediate impact with the 191, designed by Gary Anderson and featuring the classic "coke bottle" shape. Look at it today and it still makes your heart beat just that little bit quicker.

And then, like clockwork:

Go back to the 1960s and F1 car design was an art. From sleek Brabhams, nimble Lotuses and gorgeous Dan Gurney Eagle, the 1960s represented the apogee of F1 car design. At least in terms of aesthetics.

Sigh. Yes, even in 2014, there are still people who can't forgive us for moving on from the Lotus 49.

Now I'm sorry Rob, everyone, but I just don't get it. You know what the cars of '66-'68 looks like to me? Primitive. They were simple, sure, but as far as I'm concerned simple is for simpletons. Give me complexity. Give me the fluid razor curves of the 2008 title rivals, the Ferrari F2008 and McLaren MP4-23, the most evenly-matched cars of the Noughties, maybe of all time. All I ever read in the official publications was how they looked like an aerodynamic dog's breakfast, but I just loved visualising the slipstream flowing around them, like some sort of fractal art in motion. I didn't care that they were the opposite of simple, they were clever, their shapes the result of an incredible amount of computer jamming, trial & error, and sheer hard work. They were and are, absolutely breathtaking.

It's no secret what's going on here. Everyone's idea of what Formula 1 should be is formed in the early days when they first encounter the sport; that's the era that gets framed by the nostalgia goggles and held up as the standard by which all other eras are measured. It happens to all of us, so I'm not going to be so unkind as to deprive the older fans of their right to an opinion. I just want them to realise that it happened differently to us young'uns. If you need a moment to gather up your blown mind, take all the time you need, we'll wait.

Cars with dongs on the front take a bit of getting used to, I'll admit. I'm not going to explain the technical loophole that created them, others have done a better job of that better already. But I will finish off by pointing out a basic principle. Want to see the four most beautiful Grand Prix cars of all time?

1992 Williams

1998 McLaren

2002 Ferrari
2011 Red Bull
The car that wins most looks best. So has it always been.