MARCH 13, 2001

Why Benetton is so off the pace

IN Formula 1 one is judged on one's last performance and there is never very much analysis beyond that.

IN Formula 1 one is judged on one's last performance and there is never very much analysis beyond that. But there are times when teams are forced to make political decisions which affect the speed of the cars and this appears to be what has happened this year with Benetton.

The performance of the team in Australia was undoubtedly a disappointment. The cars were not only slow but they were also very unreliable. The team put a brave face on the situation but they were much further behind the opposition than had been expected.

The team is in a curious situation in that it is still owned by the Benetton family but has been sold to Renault Sport. At the end of 2001 the team will be transformed into a Renault factory team. That process has already begun and from time to time one hears the Benetton people referring to the team as Renault Sport UK rather than Benetton. This also explains why no-one seems to have a reason as to why the cars are slow. The fact is that the Renault V10 is not good enough - but no-one involved is going to say that (at least not on the record). In addition to lacking horsepower, the engines are vibrating considerably and this has caused other reliability problems, such as broken exhausts.

The vibration problem is not really a surprise because F1 engineers have been looking at wide-angled V10 engines for some years and the conclusion has always been the same: while it is advantageous to have a wide-angled engine to lower the centre of gravity and better packaging for the engine, there are fundamental problems of vibration at certain vee angles which make the engines unreliable. Renault decided that this was a challenge that could be solved and so went for the 111-degree layout.

Both the lack of power and the vibrations have come about because the engine is really not ready to go racing yet. The intention was originally for Renault to spend the 2001 season running the units on the dynos at Renault Sport in Viry-Chatillon and in the back of test cars. This would have been the normal development cycle of the engine but circumstances forced Renault to accelerate the programme by an entire year which meant that the engines being produced now are really little more than early stage developments. The reason for this decision was the decision by the FIA to increase the testing bans in place to include most of August. This came in the summer of 2000 after a decision in January 2000 to ban all testing between the end of the season and December 31. Renault decided that with all the bans coming into force in 2001 there would not be enough track time available to do all the work needing to be done. The only option therefore was to push ahead and suffer the consequences in the early part of the season.

The fundamental factor in being competitive in F1 today is horsepower. A team can build a sensational chassis but without the right level of power it is never going to make much of an impact, except perhaps in occasional races where power is not so important or when it is raining. This means that until Renault squeezes some more horsepower out of the new engine the Benetton team is going to struggle.

Analysis of the maximum speeds recorded through the speed traps in Melbourne reveals that Jenson Button and Giancarlo Fisichella were amongst the slowest cars through all three speed traps. Only the two European Minardis were in the same league and the figures revealed that the Benettons were on average 12kph slower than the fastest cars. That may not sound much but when such a loss of speed is carried down the straights the loss of time is considerable. In terms of racing speeds while McLaren and Ferrari recorded laps in the 1m28s in Melbourne, the Benettons were only able to get into the 1m32s. When a team is so far down in horsepower terms, the only way to improve the speeds is to take off more wing and reduce the drag but this has the effect of making the cars less stable in the corners and more likely to go off the track. Things have been complicated somewhat by the fact that the team is using Michelin tires but this is not really significant given that the Michelins worked very well on the Williams-BMWs.

At the moment the damage being done to Renault's reputation is minimal as the team is still Benetton-badged. In fact a problematic 2001 will mean that in 2002 the team - by then in Renault colors - is going to look much-improved and that kind of image-management is useful in the F1 world which is driven more and more by the media's interpretation of what is happening rather than the reality of the situation.