Speed versus reliability

Four races into the 1999 Formula1 season and the pattern is becoming clear. McLaren have retained their performance superiority from last year, but have achieved it at the expense of reliability. Ferrari have really hit the track running this time, only hesitating momentarily to come to terms with Bridgestone's tyres. They are much closer in performance to McLaren and are displaying a superb ability to focus on and deal with problems as they arise. The momentum they had during the latter part of 1998 seems to have carried through, undiminished, to this year.

Of the others, Stewart and a rejuvenated Ford-Cosworth have been the big surprise of the year. Their performance lies a little short of the top two teams and they need to nail the remaining few reliability problems. However the new Ford V-10 has confirmed the value of a light and powerful engine and has Prost and the Supertec customers moaning about their lumps. 800+PS, 17,500+ rpm and less than 100kg is the new Formula1 minimum standard.

Ferrari may not yet have achieved the engine weight of Mercedes and Ford, but their V-10 is powerful and reliable. Their chassis displays excellent mechanical grip, but is not yet the equal of the McLaren aerodynamically on the high-speed circuits. They are able to match the cornering performance, but only by carrying more wing. As a result, top speed suffers and, in an era when overtaking is so difficult, that is definitely not desirable.

Very little is known about details of the McLaren MP4-14 however, it is apparent that Adrian Newey has concentrated not only on the aerodynamics but also on bringing the engineering of the rest of the chassis and transmission system to the standards of the Illmor-designed and built Mercedes engine. Newey has worked with Mario Illien before and is familiar with the jewel-like qualities of Illmor Formula1 engines. Formula1 gear boxes and ancillary systems have been overdue for a similar design and engineering approach: incredible attention to design detail, aided by computational analysis, and manufacturing precision. Paring the weight down on hot, highly stressed components requires extensive proof testing and tight quality control. McLaren have shown that their car can finish races, but cannot guarantee that yet. The transmission and hydraulic system appear to be suffering, possibly from the vibration problems associated with such lightweight assemblies. Illmor went through some similar reliability problems with their engines in the past and Cosworth is doing so with theirs. However, McLaren, backed by Daimler Chrysler, have the resources and will to sort out their problems; the only question is how many points Ferrari will take off them while they do so.

Behind the top two teams, the situation is less clear. Among Jordan, Stewart, the three Supertec teams - Williams, BAR and Benetton - and Prost, it is difficult to determine whether they would be up with the leaders if only they had a better engine/better drivers/Adrian Newey. BAR is beginning to show up Williams and Benetton as the fastest Supertec-engined car (or is it just the Villeneuve-effect?), but all three are obviously suffering from a lack of power and excess engine mass: around 25kg more than the lightest engines. BAR has yet to get on top of reliability, but they have the resources and in-depth engineering of Reynard to enable them to progress quickly.

"It is better to be fast and add reliability, than the other way round." (Chorus to be sung by McLaren and Stewart.)

Benetton are displaying their usual, inexplicable, up and down performance. Hopefully they will not be discouraged from innovation by the disappointing performance of their FTT, front differential system. Williams meantime, appear to have temporarily lost the plot - perhaps as a group they are trying to do too much.

There have been a disconcerting number of rear wing and suspension failures, both in winter testing and the races to date. Engineering highly stressed components in CFRP encourages the technique of bonding components together, rather than using fasteners. Composite design is critical where point loads are applied to them, and so the replacement of fasteners with bonded joints allows a uniformly spread distribution of load into the laminates. Modern adhesives are extremely good, but the bonded joint cannot be inspected thoroughly. The strength of the joint depends on the operator cleaning and preparing the surfaces correctly, preventing subsequent contamination, mixing the adhesive according to the specifications, and correct clamping and curing. Quality is built in by the process operator, not checked for by inspection. The aerospace industry uses clean rooms and automated processes, but such investment is only possible among the richest teams and subcontractors.

The recent IRL tragedy at Charlotte, in which a number of spectators were killed or injured by crash debris, has brought into sharp focus developments to keep wheels attached during accidents. The new for 1999, Kevlar tethers have had a mixed debut, sometimes working well to keep the wheels and uprights connected to the monocoque (where they continue to inflict damage on it) sometimes not. There are signs that even when they fail, they are absorbing considerable amounts of energy and are contributing significantly to taming these potentially dangerous projectiles. To solve the problem completely will take lots more development and careful analysis of results from every kind of accident.

When Goodyear decided to withdraw from Formula1 and so temporarily call a truce to the tyre war, the FIA approached Bridgestone to co-operate in trying to maintain its objective of holding speeds to 1996 levels. Bridgestone agreed to a fourth groove on the front tyre (to cancel out the wider fronts introduced last year) and to harden compounds. A measure of how well they have met the objective can be gleaned from examination of changes in average speed for qualifying and race fastest laps on the four tracks to date:

The trend is towards slightly slower qualifying times and slightly faster race fastest laps; the variation being generally less than 1%. This makes good sense considering the harder compound will stay consistent longer and permit quick race laps when fuel is low but the tyres are getting close to being changed. If this trend continues, the target can be said to have been met.

The saddest event of the season has been the untimely death of Dr Harvey Postlethwaite, coinciding with Honda's apparent, but yet to be confirmed decision to abandon their ambitions to be Formula1 constructors in their own right. Harvey was doing what he was best at: drawing together a group of designers, engineers and specialists and quietly producing a straightforward, effective Formula1 car. Whether it was internal politics or the number of zeros on the bottom line, when Honda finally added it all up, that persuaded them to draw back we shall probably never know. Nor will we see what Harvey could have achieved with his racer's approach and Honda's resources behind him. He will be missed - he was one of the good guys.

The season is entering the phase where strength in depth shows. Maintaining the pace of development as the series enters Europe for a long, hard summer, sorts out the real winners. Reversing a downward trend caused by a car that does not work as intended, is just as hard work as staying at the front. Jordan managed a spectacular turn-around about this time last year, and have maintained their progress since. As much as watching Ferrari and McLaren slug it out, it will be interesting to see whether Stewart can keep their place; whether BAR can keep on up the steep learning curve; whether Williams can re-group prior to BMW coming aboard; whether Benetton can find consistency; and whether Prost can fulfil the aspirations of France. The racing may sometimes not be as exciting as one would hope, but in workshops everywhere the action will be as fraught as ever.

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