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.

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