JULY 2, 2011
FOTA Fan Forum - The Technical Men
At FOTA's latest fan forum at McLaren's Woking base earlier this week, some of the sport's best technical brains made themselves available to answer fans' questions. Red Bull Racing's head of race engineering, Paul Monaghan, was joined by McLaren and Renault technical directors, Paddy Lowe and James Allison.
Q: With the introduction of tyre degradation, DRS and KERS in 2011, it would seem that less driver skill is required in order to overtake. How can we get that back?
Lowe: Overtaking is a very difficult topic and it's one that's been constantly debated over the last 10-15 years. People often look back to some rosy picture of the old days, when there were great overtakes and they ask why there aren't any more. You do need overtaking, you need it at every circuit and not just at some circuits. You need it to be a great moment, it mustn't be trivial, and I liken that to needing something that you have in football, rather than what you have in basketball. What we've done this year, with the combination of the three elements you mention, has dramatically improved overtaking, so are there now too many and are they too easy? I don't think so. Occasionally it's easier than you might have liked, but it's still never easy! We still see plenty of places where overtakes have failed and they can be just as interesting as successful overtakes. The balance is better and with the DRS we can tune it to be even better. Bearing in mind DRS was a FOTA initiative, which we designed last year, we were clear that we wanted the FIA to have some knobs they could turn in order to tune the extent to which DRS affected overtaking. Those specific knobs are the length and the position of the straight where you can use it and the other one is the gap - the one-second interval that triggers it. We've left that for the FIA to select on a race-by-race basis in order to make overtaking balanced. We're only eight races in and they're still learning about the system, so it can only improve.
Allison: I reject the premise to some extent because I don't think driver skill is in any way reduced by this year's rules. There is more overtaking, certainly, and that was the intention of the rules this year. But in no way does that diminish the driver skill, it just means there is more overtaking. There might have been a little bit too much overtaking at the odd track this year, but if you look at the season as a whole, there have been several absolute crackers. At most tracks the overtaking remains extremely challenging and while there is an element of the DRS in particular that offends the purist, which I completely understand, I think the overall balance is of a sport that's more thrilling to watch. If I use my wife or my Mum as a yardstick, as opposed to someone who's really into the sport, I've seen my wife in particular willing to sit through a whole race. There's excitement from start-to-finish and I think all of us know that that hasn't always been the case in the past. Some tracks we went to with a heavy heart because we knew that it was going to be an extraordinarily boring affair from beginning to end. We haven't had that this year and that's a good thing.
Monaghan: I don't think we've diminished driver skill at all. A lot of the things we've spoken about, such as KERS, are complementary to their skills and they choose to exploit them. It's up to the teams to provide the driver with a car that can exploit all of these things. In establishing DRS, we sought to give a trailing car a small performance advantage; you don't make the overtaking a formality, you've still got to present a reasonable challenge. The drivers who exploit these new rules are still the good ones.
Q: Paddy, how do you set about making a rule change?
Lowe: We have a number of FOTA groups, who look at the rules. We're all on the TRWG, the Technical Regulations Working Group, which looks at the technical regs. We will discuss, generally a year or so ahead of time, initiatives that might for instance control costs. If there's something that we're all doing and spending a lot of money doing it and it's all a bit needless, we may agree to constrain it. Or initiatives such as the DRS, where we see an opportunity to make the sport more entertaining and more fulfilling for the spectators. We vote and there is a majority system, and anything we agree will get put to the team principals within FOTA. If they agree to it, it will go to the formal FIA bodies, which are the TWG, the Technical Working Group, and there's a voting process there. If it's too near to the coming season, it requires unanimity to change something; if there's enough of a notice period, which is about six months or more, we can change it with majority. The DRS for instance was all developed in the TRWG in a very friendly manner, I must say. It then went to the TWG for the text to be carefully scrutinised over several months so that we would have exactly what we intended. Then it goes to a number of other bodies, working its way up the chain and ultimately ending at the World Motor Sport Council, who will approve that text. That's how a technical regulation is made.
Q: What does the panel think of the double DRS zones that we had in Canada and Montreal?
Lowe: I still don't fully understand the reason for the second DRS zone and I think the FIA are acknowledging that now. There might tracks where two DRS zones is the right way to go, but in Canada the first zone was very much longer and if you were going to make an overtake stick, generally you were going to do it there. The second zone was just a means of opening a gap for the guy who'd already got past.
Allison: The FIA has done a pretty good job at trimming it this year. It's their first time round with all the circuits this year. By and large they've set the distance variable pretty well.
Q: What issues have you had adjusting your cars for the off-throttle diffuser ban at Silverstone?
Monaghan: It affects how we operate the engine. Your first step in addressing this is to ensure your engine complies with the latest interpretation of the rules, which is a reasonable chunk of work in itself. Assuming you accomplish that, you can have a look at the effect on your car and all the cars will be affected differently. The first thing we'll look at is what's the loss of downforce and how does that affect the balance of the car around the lap? We can at least tailor our investigations to suit Silverstone. You do your utmost to identify the deficiencies it will give you and concentrate your efforts on how you're going to get back what you've just lost. I'm sure these guys have been as busy as we have and on Sunday afternoon we'll see who's been the most successful at achieving it. I don't think it will particularly change tyre degradation and I don't think it's necessarily going to be the magnitude of change that's being forecast in some areas. As long as we're still on top, I don't mind!
Allison: We're all a bit coy with one another about the power of these devices. It will vary from team-to-team. I won't give you our number, but I'll give you a sense of it: if you imagine they're worth 0.8s compared with having no blown diffuser. We're now going down to about half of the previous authority of it. You've still got plenty of blowing going on because you've still got an engine running and that exhaust is still going right into your floor. We're not able to optimise the use of the engine to make it also efficient as a pump when we're on partial throttle. That's the new interpretation that's being applied.
Lowe: For next year the teams have all agreed to a change in regulation on the geometry of the tailpipes. They will go back towards the high level exits that we had a year or two ago. Generally the teams are finding this change mid-season not the best way of solving the problem. Also, the problem is a little bit difficult to understand because teams have been blowing exhausts through diffusers for 20 years, so the timing of the rule interpretation does seem a bit strange. But we all have to react to it and we'll see where we turn out at Silverstone.
Q: How fast could an F1 car go and what would it look like if the rules were completely open?
Monaghan: My technical boss, Adrian Newey, designed a car for the Sony Playstation game. There was no rulebook for that; he went and did what he thought was his ultimate car and I'd refer you to that.
Allison: I don't know whether Adrian drew that, or whether it was a stylist's dream. I think it would be an extraordinarily dull sport if the rules were completely free. You'd have little beetle-like things that would be fully skirted up to the floor with fans sucking all the air out from under them and sealing them to the ground. Drivers would go round every corner with their feet hard on the throttle and I think we need to be thankful that there are a decent set of rules to restrict us.
Lowe: There's a fundamental problem with it in that you'd create cars that might be impossible to drive. The driver would be the limiting factor. At the moment the cars generate up to 5g while cornering. That's where they've been for the last 20 years. As we've developed even more technology, we've changed the rules to bring back performance to a consistent level. If you left no limit, you'd end up with cars that would do such high Gs that the driver would pass out. Apart from anything else, the cars would be so fast that they'd be very dangerous and there would be absolutely no overtaking because the cars would be following such extreme trajectories.
Q: With fuel being finite, are you looking at what to do afterwards, whether that be hydrogen, electric- driven engines and so on?
Allison: I think F1 will be one of the smaller problems to cope with when fuel runs out! The 2014 engine is already moving in a direction that recognises the way in which the world is going. Fuel is becoming increasingly expensive, at some point the world will reach peak oil production and then decline from there. The 2014 engine is all about recognising those realities and we will have electric energy in the car in quite large measures. We already have it to a small degree now. When we get to the point that a non-petrol cars are a part of our sport, you'll really need to look what's going on in road cars to determine that. I don't think there are too many analysts who expect hydrogen cars on the road in the near future, although fully electric cars will have an increasing role in city centres. The technology with electric cars isn't there yet to put the performance that we need on the road, so I don't think it's coming in the next five years and I think you need to look to the road cars to see what it will look like when it does come.
Q: Are there any plans to share technical data with fans through the Internet?
Monaghan: We've got to be prepared to open up. There are probably some commercial difficulties to overcome, but in terms of making more available, I think it would be good to do so. Having said that, secrecy is a part of the sport. We're in competition with one another and we build prototype cars. Every time we go to a grand prix, that's the best statement of our technology and our knowledge at the time. If we see something on James's car that we like, we're not too proud to copy it and, equally, there might be features on our car that he might like. I think that aspect of it is something that we want to keep because we are a constructors' championship and we race one another. I hope as a show it's entertaining. A little bit of competitiveness and a little bit of secrecy go hand-in-hand with our sport.
Lowe: It's very like the discussion we had earlier about radios because the same goes for seeing cars. There are rules that stop us from placing covers around the car and around the garage. A few years ago it had reached a point where the 'whenever the car was in there. Bernie [Ecclestone] came out one day and said it's all stopping and there's now a rule that prevents that. It's the same for everybody and the winners are the fans because they get to see the cars which, after all, is what they switched on to see. It's a great shame if we don't stand together with openness on that. Although it's in some ways amusing what Paul's guys do behind their cars, the reality is that James and I know exactly what's going on behind that because we have photographs from other occasions - something we all do - and I quite enjoy sending the odd photo to Paul after a race of his floor! What's fantastic about the fan base of F1 is that it's generally a very technical audience. That sets you apart from the football fan let's say. You understand, and you want to understand, technology and we want to keep feeding that.
Allison: There is so much all the teams do that is more or less the same. All of us could talk about the technical detail of the sport without betraying any particular secrets of our particular team because we'd just be revealing things that go on in the sport that are interesting, which we're all doing.
Q: Why aren't there more women involved in F1 engineering?
Monaghan: We receive applications and react to them. There are a number of graduates in our company: we have a number of undergraduates completing their industrial year with us and some of them are seemingly very bright young people, of which some are bright young ladies. One of our best FE (Finite Element) engineers is a lady, I don't think there's any prejudice. It's more a case of if you apply you stand as good a chance as anybody of getting a job.
Lowe: We're seeing more women coming through. We try and encourage it when we can because it's something that should be pushed. We are seeing many more successful applications. We have more women in our engineering team than we've had in the past.
Allison: I certainly feel no duty to employ women over men. I get mildly annoyed by the stereotypes of woman being good multi-tasking decision-makers and men are good at parking, although that bit's obviously true! We react to the quality of the applicant and what's fantastic is that as the years have gone on and F1 has become more and more impressive, the quality of applicants - both men and women - is always increasing. Some of the people who apply to us now, the quality of their intellect and what they bring to us is breathtaking. I can echo what Paddy says: we see more and more women applying to us now and more women with real quality and as a consequence we're seeing more and more women employed in our company at a technical level.
Lowe: The media is full of the problems of the youth of today and I have to say the youth that we see coming through are much more disciplined and hard working than I seem to remember we were at that stage and I find that immensely encouraging.
Q: What are the main differences between team mates that you guys see?
Monaghan: There are two aspects to it. First, their confidence levels and, second, how well they handle that last part of qualifying. You can see the confidence levels between team mates rise and fall during the course of a season. We saw that last year within our team. As for the last part of qualifying, the data might reveal a small mistake by one driver at one corner and he then pays for that down the subsequent straight or series of corners. It might produce a laptime difference of 0.2s, or three places on the grid. They are minute gaps and I wouldn't suggest that either one of your drivers is underperforming. In our case, I'm sure Mark will sort Sebastian out at some point this year, and he probably can't wait to do it at Silverstone.
Allison: It's very easy to think a driver is a constant when he's not. His ability waxes and wanes with his confidence. When he thinks he's going well, things will go well for him because his confidence is up. One of the things that makes this sport so interesting is the dynamic between the team-mates. It would be a much less interesting sport if every team only entered one driver because that would be one area of wrangling that would be gone. Some of the relationships get quite fraught and some are more friendly, and I find it absolutely fascinating.
Lowe: Having two drivers in the same team with equal equipment is a very important part for the spectators. It's said and it's really quite true that the most important thing for a driver is not to be beaten by your team mate because he's in the same equipment. I also hear it asked whether we give the same equipment to both drivers and I'm sure my colleagues would agree that we go to a lot of effort to build the best car we can. It takes an immense amount of work and an immense about of money to do that and the idea that we would hold something back from one of the cars so that it wasn't as quick as we knew how to make it is really absurd. There are very rare exceptions to that: if you produce a magic widget and you can only make one of them for that weekend, then you'll only run one, but I've only known that to happen once at McLaren in the last five years. The equipment's the same and I think it's fascinating that team- mates can compete against each other as well as against the other teams.
Q: Would you like to see refueling brought back?
Allison: Personally, I think it would be the wrong thing to do. Having a race with no refueling means you tend to do your racing on the track, not via pit stop strategy; the refueling makes the pit stops slow and much less of a spectacle than the current ones, which are a frantic explosion of activity, and, from a team point of view, it costs quite a lot of money to shunt the refueling equipment around the world and have the people look after it. Also, it's stuff that we don't design, we have to buy it from an outside supplier. When it goes wrong, and no matter how much love and attention you festoon upon it, it goes wrong at some point, it's an extraordinarily bitter feeling to see your opportunities in the race squandered by something that you don't have direct control over.
Monaghan: I wouldn't rush to bring it back. I don't think the sport has suffered without it. The pit stops are now an amazing spectacle and we're very privileged to be able to stand so close to them. If you're on a good pit stop, you hear all four wheel guns go together and you feel them all go again and then the car's gone. The ban on refueling has also given the drivers an extra element because they now have to take a car from qualifying, when it has very light fuel, to the race, when it starts with a full fuel load and that's a transition they have to get on top of.