Features - Technical

APRIL 12, 2000

Formula1 2000-a two horse race


Just three races into the 2000 Formula1 World Championship, and it is already clear that it is a two horse race.

Just three races into the 2000 Formula1 World Championship, and it is already clear that it is a two horse race. The Ferraris and McLaren-Mercedes are so superior to all the other competitors, and Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen so in tune with their cars, that it is difficult to see any one else getting a look in at the front. The two drivers' records of double World Championships speak for themselves, but why should their mounts be so much quicker, during a period of relative rule stability and only one tyre supplier, than those produced by teams that have proved they are also capable of winning championships?

It is not a case of Ferrari and McLaren having some secret performance feature on their engine or chassis that makes a half or one second difference in lap time, but rather that these two teams have got everything right, forging together a combination of driver, engine, chassis, organisation and the funding to support it, that optimises the performance of their cars. Formula1 is so competitive that it is no longer adequate to have a brilliant driver or the most powerful engine to win a championship; everything must be right and within a few percent of the best available. Ferrari and McLaren are the only two teams compared to those of the opposition that have the funding and history to be potential challengers, that have the complete package:

Team Driver Engine Chassis Organisation

Ferrari Double WC Excellent Excellent Excellent

McLaren Double WC Excellent Excellent Excellent

Williams No race winners New Good Proven, variable

Benetton No race winners Customer Medium, variable Proven, variable

Jordan Race winner Customer Good, variable Good

Jaguar Race winners Excellent, unreliable Good, variable New, developing

BAR Single WC Good Medium New, developing

It is not necessary to have absolutely the best of everything, as Schumacher showed last year: when he qualified within 0.5% of a McLaren Pole time, he usually won the race. Though the Ferrari chassis could not match the McLaren for speed in the early part of the season, Schumacher's race craft allied to Ross Brawn's strategic planning were enough to beat the McLarens. However, one weak part of the package and only chance will yield race wins. Add to this the sheer effort and resources that the two top teams put into their racing, working round the clock throughout the year, and it is not surprising that they are so far ahead. Ross Brawn has said that the closest thing to the state that Ferrari are in, is a state of war. It is doubtful that the second rank teams are working in the same way, when basically only the points for 5th and 6th are up for grabs - unless something happens to the top four cars.

It has taken at least three years for both Ferrari and McLaren to put together this combination of people and technical partners and learn to work together. Their competitors are changing engines or drivers or designers, looking for the right combination, while Ferrari and McLaren concentrate on optimising all aspects of their engineering and racing. McLaren had almost everything they needed three years ago, but were lacking one ingredient. Once they had hired Adrian Newey, thereby delivering a double blow to Williams, they had the final piece.

The last three years have been a period of reasonable stability in chassis and engine development, and the cars are becoming more alike. Inevitably, they look more and more like the McLaren, as other designers (except Ferrari's Rory Byrne) try to capture some of Newey's aerodynamic secrets. Thousands of hours spent testing 50% models in wind tunnels over the last half of 1999 have resulted in many detail changes on all the cars. Areas coming in for particular attention are the usual ones: diffuser, front wings and their end plates, barge boards, cockpit details around the driver's head, flip-ups ahead of the rear wheels and radiator exit ducting. McLarens "ventilation stacks" ahead of the rear wheels, indicate just how important it is to get rid of hot radiator air without either disturbing the diffuser/underbody airflow, or the rear wing. Exhausting this hot air into the low pressure area under the wing and into the base region behind the car, is the best for maximising the cooling flow but worst for the downforce.

McLaren and Ferrari seemed determined not to copy features from the other's car, and McLaren are one of the few who have not converted to exhaust pipes exiting through the top surface of the bodywork. This location minimises variations in the underbody airflow with throttle opening and permits shorter exhaust pipes for optimal tuning. McLaren seem quite happy with their exhaust location, so there cannot be much in it.

Ferrari's tunnel work has produced a car that has been described by Schumacher as the best car he has driven. They seem to have sorted out the aerodynamic pitch characteristics such that the car is now at least as driveable as the McLaren.

A sign of just how far teams are prepared to go to obtain the maximum and most efficient downforce was exposed when David Coulthard's McLaren's front wing end plate was found to be 7mm too low after the Brazilian GP. It has been speculated that it had been set too near the lower limit of the permitted ±5mm, which it exceeded by 2mm. Lowering the end plate down to the 5mm tolerance would produce a measurable gain in downforce, but increased the risk of exclusion on a bumpy track like Interlagos.

Mercedes (Illmor) led the way in a size and weight revolution in engine design, and Ford (Cosworth) were the first to follow. There is some evidence that going too small and light (under 100kg, i.e. about the same as a Formula 3 engine) affects reliability, though no doubt these engine suppliers will get on top of their current problems. In CART racing, Illmor has backed off slightly from the super-small/super-light engines they raced last year, as the small, realisable advantages were offset by reliability problems. Other engines suppliers, such as Honda have not tried to emulate them. In Formula1, the reduction in weight behind the Centre of Gravity can be balanced by low mounted ballast ahead of it, to the advantage of better handling, and is still pursued vigorously. Over 80kg of ballast is rumoured to be possible on some cars, meaning that the empty car, without ballast, weighs under 450kg - less than a Formula 3 car. Various exotic metals are used to minimise the volume of this mass of ballast, from tungsten (density: 19gm/cc), silicon carbide (density: up to 15gm/cc), and even depleted uranium (density: up to 19gm/cc), obtained in Russia.

Power output is rumoured to be up to 840PS, at anything up to 19,000rpm.

Weight reduction in the rest of the car has come about from redesign of all components. Two cars that have made major steps are the Arrows and Minardi, both of which appear to be good handling chassis, but without the latest lightweight/high power engines. Arrows have taken an unusual step in reverting to pull-rod suspension at the front, ostensibly to permit the mounting of the heavy, steel suspension components low in the monocoque, and so reduce Centre of Gravity height. Whether this benefit outweighs the additional loads the pull-rod arrangement puts into the suspension, compared to the push-rod layout, remains to be seen. Not many of the details of the cars have been exposed to the public eye yet. We will have to wait until Monaco, when the cars have to be worked on in the open Pit Lane, and cannot be protected from prying cameras.

Bridgestone has purposely narrowed the difference between the two compounds it brings to each circuit in an attempt to make the choice (and the pit stop strategy that goes with the tyre choice) less clear, and so introduce some speculation and hence publicity surrounding the tyres. With Michelin coming back to Formula1 next year, they will soon be surrounded by all the publicity they could ever want!

Several drivers claimed during winter testing, that their new cars were much more stable that the previous ones. I suspect that this was more a function of the work Bridgestone did on the rear tyres, which are basically too narrow, to make them match the fronts. The gain in stability, especially under braking, is evident by the fact that fewer cars seem to be spinning on entry to corners, while there is more understeer evident in qualifying and during the races, when drivers are pushing hard.

New gearboxes and new electronics/software still plague several teams after three races. Prost lost so much pre-season testing time with electronic glitches that they must wonder whether they will ever catch up and sort out the handling of their car. Formula1 cars are now so complex, so tightly packaged and so lightly constructed that developing the level of reliability needed to compete effectively in an even, takes more than the few test sessions available over 2 or 3 months. Teams such as Ferrari and McLaren are out testing new components and assemblies long before the end of the previous season, and before the November test ban. From this year, the ban extends to December also, so the problem will get worse. Once the race season has started it is terribly hard to catch up, make a car reliable, and develop it to keep up with the inevitable overall pace of development. At the moment, one or two teams appear to be hardly able to make all parts of their cars work together at the same time.

There have been a number of CFRP suspension and rear wing breakages, indicating that the lessons about vibration modes and the temperature sensitivity of adhesives are not fully learnt. Two problems with these very stiff components are that the loads build up very quickly when forced to deflect, and they have almost no ability to absorb energy when impacted. It is all too easy to exceed the design loads in unpredicted circumstances.

The biggest technical issue of 2000 so far, is the discovery by the FIA that one or more teams were using a form of traction control last year. Up until now the FIA has always claimed it could detect whether traction control was being used, but a thorough audit of software over the winter revealed that something had been missed. The most direct approach to traction control is to measure the rear wheel speed and compare it to the front wheel speed to detect rear wheel spin. The computer can do this far quicker than the driver can detect wheel spin or oversteer, and it can back off the throttle before the driver responds. This is how road car systems work, and how Formula1 car systems were operating in 1993, before being banned.

The regulations state that the throttles (mechanical or drive-by-wire) must operate in a fixed (but not necessarily linear) relationship to the driver's input. Only during the application of the Pit Lane speed limiter, or for idle or anti-stall control, may they deviate from this. One problem was that some driver's were suspected of using the Pit Lane speed limiter button on the steering wheel to limit the engine during the start, and achieving a form of traction control.

Another method of modulating engine power without using the throttles is to modify the fuel injection and ignition timing settings. World Rally cars use this technique to reduce power when the driver lifts, retarding the ignition such that most of the combustion takes place outside the cylinder in the exhaust pipe, thus keeping the turbocharger spun up ready for instant throttle response. Formula1 regulations stipulate that only one fuel and ignition map relative to throttle and RPM, may be used. However, settings may be trimmed according to such parameters as rate of throttle application (in the same way as the accelerator pump fitted to carburettors is used to enrich the mixture when the throttle is opened fast) and intake air temperature and pressure. The problem discovered by the FIA was apparently based in this area. Intake air pressure is measured inside the airbox, which acts like a great big pitot-tube, as used on aircraft (and Formula1 cars) to measure airspeed. Intake air pressure thus gave a reasonable estimate of car speed, and was compared to an RPM measure somewhere on the engine or gearbox that could be used to calculate rear wheel speed, knowing the gear ratio. The ignition was then being retarded based on this somewhat rough estimate of wheel spin - voila, traction control!

Major automobile manufacturers and other sponsors are not in Formula1 to be accused or suspected of cheating. The FIA has the support of these players to try and stamp out, once and for all, any way traction control can be applied. The first thing to be imposed is a ban on Pit Lane speed limiters, which should spice up the racing due to the inevitable time penalties for infringement. Some drivers have complained that watching the speedometer while driving down the Pit Lane is dangerous, but I suspect the teams will dream up clever means of warning drivers. The biggest challenge facing both the FIA and the teams is to develop regulations that really do address the problem. Engine management systems need to be able to vary fuel and ignition to optimise combustion under all conditions, and a great deal of development has gone into tuning the fuel and ignition maps to make the engine power curves progressive and driveable. At which point does driveability become traction control? Curbing the freedom to tune and optimise the engine is seen by some as a regressive step, but it is the only way to limit the software writers' opportunity to give the driver too much assistance in controlling the car. Max Mosley has stated that he is determined to ensure Formula1 remains a sport, and stamping out traction control is an essential element of that intent.

The 2000 Formula1 season promises to be intensely competitive, with effectively two races taking place simultaneously. Provided Ferrari and Schumacher don't get so far ahead that McLaren and Hakkinen give up on their chances for the World Championship, the battle for the lead looks pretty even; sustaining development and maintaining reliability are the keys in this contest. Behind the red and silver cars, the battle for "best of the rest" is equally intense. BMW, Jaguar, Honda (with Renault and Toyota to come in a year or so) are not racing to see who comes third behind Fiat and Mercedes. The pressure to catch up with the leaders is going to get stronger, and success will come to those who work away steadily, without changing drivers, designers and partnerships too often. There are no shortcuts to success in Formula1 - if you don't believe me, ask Ferrari.