Who's got the new formula figured out?


Some of the mist of close-season F1 testing cleared after the first day of running at Melbourne. The new hybrid formula’s personality and the revised competitive order began to emerge. Perhaps predictably, it was engine noise that dominated the general reaction.

The balance of opinion from fans was that the hybrid turbo V6s were simply not loud enough – and from trackside I can confirm that they are quieter by a massive degree, the volume perhaps only 30 per cent of that of the previous V8s. You can continue to converse as a car passes. But close up – rather than through a TV speaker – the quality and variety of the noise is fabulous.

They whistle, growl, whine, cough and burble their way through each phase of the braking/corner/acceleration sequence – and the aural distinction between each make of engine is far clearer than ever it was in the wall of sound V10 and V8 eras.

Under heavy braking you hear a combination of a metallic meshing whine, like straight-cut gears and a low rumble as the braking and turbo go about recovering the energy. As the driver gets tentatively back on the power there’s the cough of cylinder cut as they conserve every drop of that precious 100kg fuel allowance, then back on full power and the recognisably V6 burble is contained to a cultured tone by the turbo.

That turbo then provides the sound sensation of the acceleration rate itself actually accelerating, a phenomenon absent from F1 since the 1980s. By the end of the straights they are flying along visibly faster than the V8s ever did. Faster up to the corners, slower into them, faster out of them, they are visually way more spectacular, the drivers much busier, old-fashioned power slides out of slow turns.

Quietest of all in the braking zone are the Ferrari engines, with downshifts that border on inaudible. There’s a reason for that. Ferrari has used the secondary motor-generator turbine that’s mounted on the same shaft as the turbo to provide the revs ‘blip’ for the down-change. No fuel-burning throttle is used.

As well as being more economical, the engine speed increase of the blip can be controlled much more precisely, helping with braking stability, a quality that is very much at a premium with this generation of car. The brake-by-wire systems that automatically compensate the brake balance for the massive changes in torque reversal as the ERS unit stops harvesting are not yet finely-tuned.

Several cars are suffering from a pattering effect of their rear ends under braking. This is only amplified by the reduction in rear downforce; without the lower beam wing, there is hugely more variability in downforce as the car goes over bumps – and that compounds the problem.

There’s an exception to this though, a car that has braking stability and corner entry downforce that’s of a different order to anything else – and it’s the Red Bull. Whenever Renault Sport gets that engine anywhere near as good as the Mercedes motor, the RB10 is gone.

What to expect

From the perspective of right now (a perspective that can often be badly distorted, it’s true) the Mercedes team needs to win everything while the Red Bull is compromised by that motor, because the blue cars will be coming back at the silver ones in a big rush.

Ferrari looks more competitive in qualifying – where there’s no 100kg fuel limit to worry about – than in race day trim when it seemingly has to run less power to remain within the instantaneous fuel flow limit of 100kg/hour. Because the energy recovery is not as efficient, more use has to be made of the engine itself – costing fuel. So to keep the fuel usage on target, it has to run lower boost.

Second free practice times
1 Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes 1:29.625
2 Nico Rosberg, Mercedes 1:29.782
3 Fernando Alonso, Ferrari 1:30.132
4 Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull 1:30.381
5 Jenson Button, McLaren 1:30.510
6 Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull 1:30.538
7 Kimi Räikkönen, Ferrari 1:30.898
8 Valtteri Bottas, Williams 1:30.920
9 Kevin Magnussen, McLaren 1:31.031
10 Nico Hülkenberg, Force India 1:31.054
11 Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso 1:31.060
12 Felipe Massa, Williams 1:31.119
13 Sergio Pérez, Force India 1:31.283
14 Adrian Sutil, Sauber 1:32.355
15 Esteban Gutiérrez, Sauber 1:32.468
16 Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso 1:32.495
17 Jules Bianchi, Marussia 1:33.486
18 Romain Grosjean, Lotus 1:33.646
19 Max Chilton, Marussia 1:34.757
20 Marcus Ericsson, Caterham N/A
21 Kamui Kobayashi, Caterham N/A
22 Pastor Maldonado, Lotus N/A

Although drivers were able to lean on the tyres around Albert Park – and were definitely not needing to drive to a delta time to get competitive stint lengths – there was still a displeasing endurance-style aspect about keeping within the fuel limitation – for some cars, at least. Drivers were having to lift and coast, with as much as a one second gap between lifting off the throttle and getting onto the brakes.

This doesn’t lose you all that much lap time, but does improve fuel consumption. But it’s surely not how we want to see Grand Prix drivers having to drive. We like that they need to work at the wheel more, use up more track and call upon their car control skills more frequently. We don’t like them having to use the throttle/brake sequence like little old ladies. Overlapping throttle and brake to manipulate the attitude of the car upon the corner entry – the very core of what separates the great from the good – is now a no-no.

The Mercedes-powered drivers don’t need to worry as much about this as the others for the efficiency of their energy recovery is such that even around Albert Park – a circuit with the second or third highest fuel consumption of the year – Mercedes teams were considering not putting in the full 100kg of fuel and perhaps short-fuelling. It implies that it’s quite feasible there will be no circuits on the calendar where the Mercs are fuel-limited.

“If that’s the case,” said one Renault-engined team engineer, “then they might as well give the trophies out now.” Ferrari and Renault are nowhere near achieving this at the moment.

There’s a lot more fascinating detail to learn about these cars, but many of their secrets have surrendered to a bit of scrutiny in the first session of the new formula.

More from Mark Hughes
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The world according to Niki Lauda
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