Another passing fancy?
With the F-duct banned, this season it’s the turn of the moveable rear wing to try and boost overtaking opportunities in F1. And the return of
KERS should help, too
Asked at the first test what he thought of his new Mercedes MGP W02 Michael Schumacher replied that with so many new elements to consider it was too early to make much of a judgement.
“There was never in history— that I remember — such a substantial change in tyres and regulations,” he commented. Coming from the man who at Magny-Cours in 1998 asked whether Ferrari had ever previously enjoyed a one-two finish, you might take such a sweeping statement with a pinch of salt.
However, the German is probably not too far wrong, certainly as far as his two-decade tenure in Formula 1 is concerned. This year’s combination of the moveable rear wing, the reintroduction of KERS, a new tyre supplier and a cut in downforce has created a massive workload for all the teams.
And it’s equally challenging for the drivers. Managing the fragile Pirellis and extracting the most from the new gizmos at their disposal will play to the strengths of the very best, which is surely no bad thing.
The most talked about element of the 2011 package is of course the moveable rear wing. Referred to by some as the MRW, simply as ‘adjustable bodywork’ in the regulations, and as the ‘drag reduction system’ or DRS by engineers who like to complicate these things, it’s the second attempt by the FIA to address the thorny issue of overtaking.
The last effort, in 2009, was a flop. The front flap adjuster (or FFA) was intended to enable drivers to more closely follow the car ahead when coming onto a straight. Its introduction was supposed to go hand in hand with a big cut in downforce, but helped by the arrival of the double diffuser, teams soon clawed that back. Instead the FFA became a tool for balancing handling.
Front wings are now fixed once more (or at least they’re supposed to be!), and attention has turned to the rear. And it’s clear that the DRS is going to be a much more effective tool than its predecessor. Indeed, some are worried it could be too effective.
So how does it work? The driver simply presses a button that raises the upper flap and creates a 50mm ‘slot gap’. That reduces downforce by 10 per cent, cuts drag, and gives a straightline speed boost of some 10-15kph. When the driver brakes, the flap returns to its normal position. He also has the option to pre-empt the software by manually switching it back. In effect it is a more efficient alternative to the F-duct — banned this year — which reduced drag by stalling the rear wing.
In races drivers will only be able to use the wing in a 600-metre zone at the end of one straight on the lap, nominated by the FIA. For the first three events in Bahrain, Australia and Malaysia that happens to be the pit straight, but at other venues, such as Shanghai, it will be elsewhere.
The FIA will ‘detect proximity’ some 200m before the preceding corner. If the driver is within a second of the car in front, he’ll get a signal via the standard ECU which indicates that he can operate the wing on the following straight. White lines painted on the track at the timing point will give TV viewers a good idea of what that one-second gap looks like.
Crucially, the wing can’t be used in the first two laps after the start, or the first two laps after a safety car. Thus there will be a premium on opening up a gap to the car behind before the end of that second lap. And indeed staying in touch with the one in front…
The wing will always be available for use, in that it’s not controlled as such by the FIA. It’s up to the driver not to operate it by mistake, or at the wrong point in the lap.
Nobody quite knows how successful the wing will be, and even the final pre-season test in Bahrain — where the FIA and teams are due to have a close look — won’t necessarily give all the answers. The FIA reserves the right to adjust the 600m figure, but it will remain the same at all tracks, so that the wing is not more effective at venues with a long straight. It’s even possible that the FIA will extend its operation to more than one straight per lap.
Purists have their doubts, and there have been concerns that overtaking will be too easy. However, it’s not supposed to be a magic button — one top FIA source says we should see it as a device that allows a driver to make better use of the slipstream and put himself in a position where he can launch a move. He still has to finish the job.
“It’s certainly a step in the right direction,” says Schumacher. “If you think last year on occasions that overtaking was not possible, with the new rules, it should help. It doesn’t mean that we should clearly overtake because we push the button and pass the guy in front, that’s not going to happen. But it will at least bring us into position, and with these current cars, that hasn’t been the case.”
Until Sunday drivers are free to use the DRS at any point during the weekend, and thus in qualifying they’ll use it to find time on every straight around the lap, much as they did with the F-duct. Getting your seventh gear ratio just so will be at a premium.
“During qualifying you’ll use it on every bloody straight and all over the place,” says Patrick Head. “And that’s going to be pretty busy, particularly if you’re using KERS more than once on the lap as well!”
One driver who’d tried Spa in a simulator told me what he had to do for Eau Rouge. In recent years it’s been flat and undramatic in an Fl car — but how about with 10 per cent of your rear downforce missing?
Out of La Source he flicked the wing up for the rush down the hill, restored it to normal at the bottom, and then flicked it back up at the top of the hill for the run down the straight.
Think about that for a minute. While exploring the very limits of grip at the fastest corners, drivers will have to make critical decisions as to when they add or subtract 10 per cent of their rear downforce. And that could be marginal at places like Copse at Silverstone, or 130R at Suzuka…
Wet conditions would have opened up all kind of risky scenarios in terms of playing with downforce levels. Mainly due to speed differentials in low visibility, the FIA has taken the simple precaution of decreeing that the wing can’t be operated when wet tyres are fitted.
However, qualifying sessions with slicks on a drying track will have an added element, as drivers will have to judge lap by lap just how early they can risk deploying the wing as they exit each corner.
One key factor is to what extent a driver will rely on pressing the brake pedal to flip the wing back. Inevitably, there is a time lag before full downforce is restored, and there are many situations — slippery tracks, worn out tyres, heavy fuel loads, being off-line while trying to pass, braking into a corner — where he can’t wait, and will have to judge when to switch the wing back manually.
“If the result of hitting the brakes with the flap up is that you spin at high speed, it won’t be too good,” says Head. “So the driver might have a habit of saying, ‘I’m going to take my finger off the button first, and then I’m going to hit the brakes.’
“If there are repeated instances of inappropriate use causing drivers to spin or have bad moments, I’m sure the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association will raise it with the FIA and they will take a close interest. Because it’s operated through the ECU, they’ve got the power to put inhibits in there. The final one being ‘it’s not going to work’…”
Inevitably some are concerned that a wing could stick in its up position, but the design chosen should address that.
“Obviously the safety needs considering,” says Ross Brawn. “That’s why the wing is one you have to force into its neutral position, and if you lose that force it will automatically go back to a loaded position.
“People will develop wings that work in both configurations in the most efficient ways — you want a wing that works most efficiently when it’s open and when it’s closed. There might be some interesting positions come along there. The thing we’ve all got to learn is how are we going to use it?”
Red Bull’s Christian Homer has some doubts: “The principle of it is OK, but it’s important that the safety aspect is right. The thing that scares me is it not reattaching [for full downforce], because a driver doesn’t have time to check his mirrors to see if he’s got a full rear wing going into Copse!
“Also I think the usage should be consistent, in that it probably doesn’t make a great deal of sense to be able to use it at any stage in qualifying, and yet only in certain areas during the race. It needs to be bulletproof and problem-free. There’s a lot more to learn about it. What you want to avoid is a situation like Mark [Webber] had with Heikki Kovalainen in Valencia, where you have a massive closing speed.”
Some cars have a wing button that works like an on/off switch, others have one that the driver holds down with his thumb and then releases. Either way it’s added to a cockpit workload made even more complex by the return of KERS.
KERS is back because energy recovery systems will play an even bigger role in the turbo era which begins in 2013, and now is as good a time as any to get going with development.
Only four teams raced with it in 2009 — Ferrari, McLaren, Renault and Sauber — and only the first two persisted. With Robert Kubica sidelined the only drivers on this year’s grid who have raced with KERS are Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso and Kovalainen, and the last-named won’t have it at Lotus.
The actual regs have remained unchanged. What is different is that in 2009 the weight limit was 605kgs, and some teams found that KERS plus lanky driver put them over the limit. Even those who were under by a small margin had less scope to play with ballast, and hence weight distribution, than KERS-free rivals. Now the limit is 640kgs, so the problem is less acute.
With everyone bar the three youngest teams running KERS, we won’t see the extreme situations we saw in 2009, when McLaren and Ferrari jumped ahead of quicker cars at the start and then used KERS as a defensive tool.
Nevertheless some systems will prove more efficient than others, and there’s a still a strategic element in how much energy is deployed and at what points around the track. The problem for the drivers is they have to constantly refer to the dash readout as they juggle with the system.
Pirelli remains the big question mark heading into the season. Manufacturers have come and gone, but never has a new entrant come in to supply the entire field. It’s a huge responsibility, and Pirelli has had the added challenge of being pressured into improving the show by creating tyres that wear out. That’s something that the inherently conservative Bridgestone company would never have set out to do.
“It will make racing more exciting,” says Nico Rosberg. “We’ve seen in the past that the most exciting races have been when the tyre collapsed in the biggest way, like Montreal last year.” “Pirelli have said, `Ah well, we’re going to do what the FIA said and make them delicate,” jokes Head. “But would they have known how to make them robust if the FIA had said make them robust? “It will throw some quite big spanners in the works, because if overtaking is easier you won’t necessarily qualify on the softer of the two compounds. Somebody who qualifies on the harder tyre, and is therefore a lot stronger in the race, can easily overtake.
“Until now you’d go for grid position, because even if your tyres were knackered you’d still be quick on the straights, and you could probably hold people up around the corners. It’s going to change the thinking a bit, and we’ve also got to learn how well this wing thing and the KERS is going to help with overtaking.”
Teams will have to develop their cars to protect the rear tyres, although the cut in rear downforce hasn’t made that task any easier. But in the end, much will come down to the drivers.
“In truth the driving style of someone like Jenson versus the style of someone like Lewis will be quite interesting,” says Head. “Last year Lewis had more speed than Jenson, but it was probably by giving the tyres a slightly harder time. But the Bridgestones were pretty tough and could take it. I’m not sure these Pirellis can. I think the tyre will maybe play more into the driving style than the car.”
So not only do drivers need the mental capacity to deal with all those new controls, they’ll have to focus much of their energy and skill on protecting the tyres. Whoever wins the title in 2011, the longest season in history with the addition of the Indian GP, is going to have to earn it.
Another passing fancy?