SomersF1 China Debrief

By Matt Somerfield (@SomersF1)

Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article.

Ok, this is the first and hopefully not my last debrief for Missed Apex, for those that follow my work this is more of an irreverent look back at the technical goings on of the last GP than you may be used to.  And whilst I’m writing this one for the Chinese GP other work means I likely can’t commit to one after each GP - BOO! But if you like what me and the rest of Missed Apex crew are doing you can always show your support through Patreon - http://missedapexpodcast.com/contact/

Now that’s out of the way let’s get down to brass tacks - Round 2 of the championship is over and the question marks surrounding overtaking in Australia are starting to make a little more sense.  Afterall the Australian GP isn't representative, owing to the short DRS zones, limited camber and little running outside of a GP weekend given it’s a street circuit layout.  Furthermore, the teams are at the start of their curve, even more so given the technical regulation changes inflicted on them for 2017 and likely means they’re running sub-optimally at best.  In fact development throughout a season means that the car that ends the championship would almost certainly be a handful of seconds per lap quicker if they rocked up at Albert Park again.

One of the big concerns when the dust had settled on the Australian GP was that the glut of overtaking we’ve been used to over the last 5 or 6 years had diminished considerably with only 5, yes 5, on track passes completed during the Grand Prix.  Even with the aforementioned skew for the track it started to ring alarm bells for many and the drivers didn’t help matters when they insisted that the turbulence was more problematic when in the wake of another car.

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So, the Chinese GP became the real litmus test, a permanent circuit with its fair share of long DRS zones and more suitable racing surface.  The problem is the weather, but moreover the inability to use the medical helicopter, which conspired to curtail Friday’s Free Practice running, so much so that we can’t fully rely on the race as an accurate snapshot of where we are at.  “How so?” I hear you shout - Well, numerous reasons, the lack of tracktime meant that several teams who’d taken updates to China failed to use them, purely because they didn’t have the time to complete their test programmes and opted for a better the devil you know setup.  Furthermore, time during these sessions is usually spent honing setup - both mechanical and aerodynamic, with vMax of significant importance given that time on throttle can have an impact on both fuel and energy usage.  Teams will often give up outright top speed in favour of a more efficient use of energy, be it petrochemical or electrical and then set their wing levels to suit, with DRS clearly askew to this.

The other issue is setup for climatic conditions, teams may have set up with rain in mind, in fact Daniel Ricciardo actually suggested they’d opted to run a setup more in keeping with damp/wet conditions and having quickly chewed through his first set of Super Soft tyres changes were made to the front wing angle at his next stop to shift the balance.  Whilst on the topic Red Bull flattered to deceive in Shanghai given their use of super softs as they switched off the intermediate tyres that everyone but Carlos Sainz started on.  Props to Carlos here by the way, as he dared to do something different and had there not been those early VSC and safety car periods he might have been staring down the barrel of an even better result - although 7th isn’t to be sniffed at in a Toro Rosso at this point in the season. 

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Getting back to Red Bull the Aussie had managed to save a new set of Super Softs for the race whilst the young buck on the other side of the garage had three new sets of those boots given his early exit during qualifying. 

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As we can see this gave the Bull’s an edge over their rivals, especially for Verstappen who was able to use two of those new sets to complete his race, whilst Ricciardo switched to a used set of Super’s for his third stint having already switched positions much earlier in the race.  You might say “So why’s this so important?” Well, namely the performance offset - the super soft tyre is obviously quicker than the soft tyre, making up for some of the Bull’s performance deficit giving them a tangible traction gain off the corners and more specifically the exit of turn 13 when they needed to gap the Ferrari’s in the early stages.  We know that both RBR drivers have become adept at using their energy well too, partly due to the investment the team made last year when they reportedly connected their virtual test track / chassis dynamometer to their simulator, enabling the drivers to operate their car ‘in the loop’ via the sim whilst the chassis and powerunit is put through the same paces next door.

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Ferrari meanwhile put their stake in the ground during the VSC, pitting Sebastian, in order to put pressure on Mercedes and Hamilton to make a similar move.  It may have worked too had it not been for the safety car that followed that reshuffled the pack as everyone cycled through the pitlane and put Vettel behind his team mate.  Kimi struggled behind the Red Bull pair as they both squabbled for position too, although it was strange given the pace of the Ferrari that he should have so much trouble, especially given the length of the DRS zone. 

Again we must remember the tyre delta between the super and soft tyres but it’s also worth noting that Kimi was suffering with an issue deploying energy out of T12 all the way to T14 as it was later noted he’d been in the wrong power mode, reportedly having not toggled from an intermediate tyre energy map to the dry weather setup.  Afterall the wet, intermediate and dry weather tyres all have different circumferences and the engine/power/energy maps have to be different for each.[IMAGE] 140243_new

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Vettel was stuck behind the Finn for far too long but finally took matters into his own hands and shoved his way through at T6 without the need for DRS, although he’d set him up for several laps to do so with its assistance.  I’m actually surprised Ferrari didn’t ask their drivers to switch positions given that Vettel seemingly had more in hand and was being held up.

Hamilton’s race became a little detached from the rest of the field having managed the unfolding scenarios with his typical aplomb, however, Bottas failed to capitalize in the same way, dropping it under the safety car as he tried to put temperature in the tyres when weaving.  It’s a shame for the Finn as such a simple mistake meant he had to recover through the pack but from time-to-time we have to accept these drivers that we put on a pedestal are human afterall, he’ll learn from it and move on.

So, overtaking…  Yea I know I’ve gone off on a tangent, but hey I think you’ll agree it was for good reason, as I still don’t think we have an accurate gauge on how overtaking has been affected by the new regulations but hope we’ll have more answers in Bahrain.  However, what has become clear is that having an offset between the tyres can rescue the racing in some respects but also gives us an inaccurate narrative to follow, with Mercedes and Ferrari in a race of their own and Red Bull a little adrift but a considerable margin ahead of the rest of the midfield battle.

The other thing that has become clear, but could be skewed by the limited Free Practice running is that DRS isn’t as effective this year.  However, that’s a good thing as what it does is allow the drivers to cling onto one another and forces them to make passes at other points around the circuit, such as T6 where most of the passing happened yesterday.  I’m happy with this compromise as it forces the drivers to work for their pass, rather than DRS simply holding up a mirror to those suffering from tyre degradation and allowing too easy a pass.  I’d argue there is still an opportunity to improve things but it’ll take to establish what that is with the help of Ross Brawn’s technical working group. 

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Perhaps we can heed a piece of F1 history that got resigned to the trash bin rather quickly though, in 2009 the designers were allowed to house an actuator within the front wing (arrowed) in order that the driver be able adjust a flap by upto 6 degrees, twice per lap.  The double decked diffusers that populated the grid that season kind of neutralised its effect but the overtaking working group that had helped devise the 09 regulations had originally thought it might help drivers be able to maintain the gap between a trailing car and the lead one through the corners.  The logic is sound, adjusting the flap angle could change the cars aero balance enough to give the car a little more front end, of course we’d need to analyse how much this angle change should be and perhaps offer the driver a variable solution (ie adjustment via a rotary on the steering wheel for the degree’s they’d like to dial in).  Furthermore, it should act like DRS, ie only when the trailing car is within proximity of another car by an arbitrary time selected by race control ahead of the event, as in its last incarnation all drivers could use it, irrespective of position.

It’s easy to jump on a bandwagon and I’m certain there are ones out there disenfranchised by the lack of passing in the last few GP’s but let’s see what Bahrain offers up and be safe in the knowledge that the problem isn’t insurmountable, providing the right people and idea’s are able to flourish.


If you like what you’ve read here and don’t already you can follow me on Twitter - www.twitter.com/SomersF1 or even listen back to our last Tech Time podcast - http://missedapexpodcast.com/map/2017/4/3/missed-apex-f1-tech-time