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Posts filed under ‘Formula 1’

A Commentary on Formula 1’s
Regulatory Philosophy

August 27, 2014 by Matt

Ferrari F14T

So just because I haven't done my Formula 1 race reports since, oh, 2012 doesn't mean I haven't been following the sport.

Granted, it did get a bit boring last year when every team except Red Bull essentially gave up halfway through and allowed Sebastian Vettel and his RB9 to collect a stunning 9 consecutive wins through the final race of the season on his way to the championship. Still, so far, from a racing excitement standpoint, 2014 has been a banner year, with many riveting on-track battles and driver-vs-driver intrigue.

That said, despite the fact that the racing action has been very entertaining, for those of us who like to probe deeper and savor the more technical angle of the sport, the 2014 rules are more restrictive than ever, with some unintended results like the hideousness of the 2014 F1 cars shown in this post (from top: Ferrari F14T, Caterham CT05 and Lotus E22), the lower noses and higher bodywork around the front suspension area dictated by new impact protection regulations. And, true to form, the FIA's (F1's governing body) favorite way of solving a problem caused by over-regulation is to impose yet more rules: If you can believe it, there's been talk of mandating a specific taper to the nose cross-sections in order to improve the cars’ appearance. Who specified a required taper for F1 cars’ bodywork in, say, the mid-’80s? It’s yet another sign that the rules have gotten out of control.

Caterham CT05

I would be (mostly) fine with the regulatory oppressiveness if it only impacted external elements of the car like bodywork and aerodynamics. But the real tragedy is that mindset is crushing technical innovation under the cars’ skin. Once the pinnacle of automotive technology, the average hybrid family sedan is more sophisticated than an F1 car, what with variable valve timing, ABS, dual-clutch transmissions, traction control and other features banned from F1. This isn’t to take anything away from the execution of what’s allowed in the rulebook—what’s done is done to a staggering degree of perfection—but the tech behind it all peaked in the early ’90s. Sure, the FIA has introduced a hybrid 1.6l V6 turbocharged specification this year, but read the fine print and you’ll discover just how restrictive the rules are concerning everything from fuel flow and turbocharger orientation to cylinder bank angle and even the number of gearbox ratios. Formula 1 is for all intents and purposes a spec series, with a dozen or so manufacturers making what amount to nearly identical cars almost totally devoid of the kind of engineering creativity that we saw in past decades of F1. There’s a reason the period extending 20 years forward from the mid-’70s has been called F1’s golden age. The drivers were great and tamed their monstrously turbocharged mounts, but the variety of engine configurations on the grid on any given Sunday, the electronic sophistication that increased at a blistering rate—it was enough to satisfy those of us interested in more than just the mere “spectacle” of drivers going wheel-to-wheel around a circuit. The technical creativity on display fascinated us, made us dream. With fewer rules, F1 felt more…complete, fulfilling. Now? There’s precious little to get excited about under the cars’ bodywork.

2014 Lotus E22 F1 Formula 1 One

The solution? Fewer rules. Give the teams some basics and then let them go at it. Let them innovate from within; don’t impose “progress” from the outside. What about development costs? Wouldn’t they skyrocket? Not necessarily—give the teams a budget cap and apply the same diligence used in enforcing the current rulebook toward a strict interpretation of what’s allowed to be billed in the teams’ budgets. I think it can be done—but it won’t. F1 is a business, and there are far more paying fans that don’t give two licks about what makes the cars go, but just want to see an exciting race, than there are those of us who geek out on the technical side of the sport, and the at-times thrilling wheel-to-wheel action on the track this year will be taken as a vindication of the current regulatory path. Sadly, I think the kind of outside-the-box technical thinking of years past has been banished from F1 forever, and the sport is the poorer for it.

Image credits: f1technical.net, rssportscars.com, formula1.com

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New Ron Howard Film Chronicles
1976 Hunt-Lauda F1 Rivalry

April 12, 2013 by Matt

It’s difficult to overstate how much I’m looking forward to this film.

Ron Howard’s upcoming movie Rush depicts the action, tensions and interpersonal drama that characterized the epic 1976 Formula 1 season. Chiefly concerned with the rivalry between two top drivers—charismatic British playboy James Hunt and methodical, determined Austrian Niki Lauda, both supremely quick in their own ways—the film’s trailers (you can see the first here) have set the online automotive community ablaze with commentary and anticipation.

The director, of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind fame, is an avowed Formula 1 fan, so there’s hope for we internet F1 geeks that the gestalt of the sport will be convincingly translated to the big screen. A quick review of the trailers certainly promises a gripping, action-packed film true to the spirit of the 1976 season.

That said, I do have a couple of concerns:

  • Chris Hemsworth seems slightly miscast as Hunt. He may convey his affectations and joie de vivre, but his face has a kind of boyishness irreconcilable with that of the more grown-up looking, rakish Hunt. Casting Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda was a masterstroke, however; he seems to have the Austrian’s appearance and mannerisms nailed.
  • Biographical accuracy. I’m not so much concerned about technical precision—the filmmakers used a combination of CGI, replicas and vintage racers for the action scenes, and Apollo 13 is renown for its level of technical detail—but the personalities, themes, and events must be presented as they existed and happened from a historical standpoint. I would less concerned if Howard’s award-winning effort A Beautiful Mind hadn’t taken rather large liberties with very crucial elements of its subject’s life story. If the new film turns out to be “inspired by” rather than “based on,” (the latter implying a more faithful rendering), I’ll be very disappointed.

Rush hits theaters in the US on September 20, 2013.

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My Monaco Grand Prix, Part 2: 1994

January 9, 2013 by Matt

1994 Monaco F1 Grand Prix Commemorative Postcard

1994 Monaco F1 Grand Prix commemorative postcard.
Click the image to enlarge.

Perched in the grandstands overlooking Tabac and Louis Chiron corners, here are selected photos from our second trip to a Monaco Grand Prix qualifying session, this time in 1994. In contrast to the usual fanfare that attends an F1 race, this was a somewhat somber event, being as it was the first race after the death of three-time world champion Ayrton Senna.

Senna’s Williams teammate Damon Hill raced alone that weekend, and the first two grid positions were left empty in tribute to the fallen Brazilian champion and Roland Ratzenberger, a Simtek driver who experienced a fatal crash during qualifying at Imola. German Michael Schumacher in his Benetton-Ford, having a penchant for the tight, twisty circuit, was widely expected to win the race, especially given his dominance of the early part of the 1994 season.

As for my experience, it was much as you’d expect: The smell of race fuel, the clear blue of the Mediterranean just a few hundred feet away and the wails of exotic V8s, V10s and V12s reverberating off the high-rises all around… Heaven. Enjoy the photos!

1994 Monaco F1 GP Ticket Billet

Race ticket. Click the image to enlarge.

1994 Monaco F1 Grand Prix

Coming down the post-chicane straight toward Tabac corner.
Click the image to enlarge.

1994 Monaco F1 GP

Blasting away from Tabac toward Louis Chiron. Click the image to enlarge.

1994 Monaco F1 GP

Qualifying leaderboard. It was early in the session.
Click the image to enlarge.

1994 Monaco F1 GP

A Footwork leading a Ligier and a McLaren through Tabac. Click the image to enlarge.

1994 Monaco F1 GP

Future first-time world champion Michael Schumacher rounding Tabac in his Benetton. Click the image to enlarge.

1994 Monaco F1 GP

The bitter end: One of Team Lotus’ last races. Click the image to enlarge.

1994 Monaco F1 GP

Senna’s teammate Damon Hill soldiering on alone in the sole Williams
to race at Monaco that year. Click the image to enlarge.

1994 Monaco F1 GP

My driver: Gerhard Berger in the incomparably beautiful Ferrari 412T1.
Click the image to enlarge.

Want more? Here are some pictures from our earlier trip to the Monaco GP in 1987.

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Fantastic Documentary on F1’s Turbo Era

January 8, 2013 by Matt

Dovetailing nicely with the previous post, if you have an hour or so to spare, enjoy this clip. It’s part 1 of a 2-part documentary detailing what qualifies for some as the most technically fascinating period of Formula 1: the Turbo Era of the 1980s. It comprises a span of time, ending roughly with the banning of most electronic “driver aids” in 1994, when F1 technology was truly at the vanguard of automotive innovation. In some ways, the F1 Turbo Era is akin to the Apollo Era of spaceflight in that it stirred a sense of wonder with respect to its engineering achievements that really hasn’t been felt since. Sure, modern F1 tech is sophisticated in the sense that the execution is unparalleled and the engineers sweat the details, but in many ways an average sports car’s engine trumps its F1 racer’s counterpart, what with its variable valve timing, direct injection and advanced materials. At least for a little while, up until the early ’90s, engineers were given much more leeway, and in the process created absolute monsters of race cars that thrilled us and made us stand in awe of the men who could tame them around a circuit.

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My Monaco Grand Prix, Part 1: 1987

January 5, 2013 by Matt

Monaco F1 Formula 1 GP Grand Prix 1987 Williams Honda V6 Turbo Engine Motor

The dominant Williams FW11B and its turbocharged, 800+ hp Honda V6.
Click the image to enlarge.

I wish I’d been more into the F1 scene at the time, but I was only 8 years old, and thus the whole spectacle was little more than a collection of extremely noisy cars. It’s not that I wasn’t into automobiles—a white Countach poster proudly adorned my bedroom wall—but to me at that age the F1 race cars were a different animal altogether from the relatively “tame” Lambo.

Monaco F1 Formula 1 GP Grand Prix 1987 McLaren Marlboro

McLaren MP4/3 bodywork in the pits. Click the image to enlarge.

I borrowed these from my parents’ photo albums last weekend. Fortunately for us, my parents have always been into photography, and my dad in particular has always taken it upon himself to organize and catalog our photos. Consequently, we have an almost unbroken chronicle of our family history, from the early ’80s to the present day. Needless to say, I’m glad he decided to bring the camera along for our visit to the Monaco F1 circus in late May, 1987.

Monaco F1 Formula 1 GP Grand Prix 1987 West Zakspeed

A Zakspeed 871. Click the image to enlarge.

We actually got to stroll through the pits. We lived in France at the time, and attended the Trans World Radio church in downtown Monaco; I don’t know if our ability to get so close to the cars was thanks to our connections in town, or simply a byproduct of the more relaxed F1 atmosphere in that era, but regardless, it was amazing to see all the machinery so close.

Monaco F1 Formula 1 GP Grand Prix 1987 Anthony Noghes Corner

Coming ’round Anthony Noghés corner in qualifying. Click the image to enlarge.

Sadly we didn’t see the actual race. A friend of a friend had an apartment overlooking the harbor, though, so we were able to observe one of the qualifying sessions from a vantage point above the grid area.

Monaco F1 Formula 1 GP Grand Prix 1987

Eventual 1987 world champion Nelson Piquet in his Williams.

So many racing legends… I did gravitate toward the Williams cars at the time, and Mansell particularly, for some reason.

Monaco F1 Formula 1 GP Grand Prix 1987 Stefan Johansson McLaren TAG Riccardo Patrese Brabham BMW

Stefan Johansson in the McLaren leads the Brabham of Riccardo Patrese.

Want more? Here are some pictures from our subsequent trip to the Monaco Grand Prix in 1994.

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Choice Circuits: Hockenheim

November 17, 2012 by Matt

Hockenheim Hockenheimring F1 Formula 1 One Track Circuit Old Classic Full Pre-2002

Once known as the fastest F1 track, eclipsing even Monza in that regard, Hockenheim has been maimed, reduced to a shadow of its former self.

It happened in 2002. Once a 4.2-mile collection of flat-out straights connected by a series of brief chicanes and one “twiddly bit,” the race organizers finally succumbed to pressure from the various Formula 1 powers-that-be to make the circuit shorter, and thus easier on the cars and more spectator friendly. So the fabled Hockenheimring went from the layout shown at top, to this genericized “made to order” 2.8-mile aberration:

Hockenheim Hockenheimring F1 Formula 1 One Track Circuit New Post-2002 Redesign Herman Tilke

What am I on about? In truth, the redesign advocates did have a bit of a case. The long high-speed stretches were very difficult on engines and transmissions, and since the only real grandstands were clustered in the “stadium section” near the Südkurve, race fans really only caught a glimpse of the inter-car action as the cars made their way through that relatively small portion of the circuit.

That said, was the only solution to alter the course so radically? Allow me to indulge in a touch of Monday-morning quarterbacking when I say no, it wasn’t. Who’s to say additional grandstands and infrastructure couldn’t have been built to accommodate spectators at different locations around the track? And furthermore, F1 by its very nature is supposed to be a mechanically-demanding motorsport, and the intensity of the Hockenheim challenge pushed the designers to their uttermost limits in order to deliver the maximum amount of horsepower out of the engines, get it to the ground effectively and still be reliable. It’s arguable that the majority of the viewing public could care less, but for a F1 technology nerd like myself, the knowledge of what the engineers had to achieve to make an F1 car win at Hockenheim was exhilarating.

Hockenheim Hockenheimring F1 Formula 1 One Track Circuit Remains Destroyed Jim Clark Curve

The real tragedy, though, may not be simply the fact that Hockenheim was redesigned, but that the race organizers opted to destroy the unused portions of the classic circuit, ripping out the asphalt and reclaiming the area with foliage, as shown by the remains of the Jim Clark Curve above. It was an incredibly short-sighted move, eliminating the possibility that the traditional layout could be used for classic races, assuming that F1 would never again be in a place where the old circuit would be desirable, and to my mind perhaps demonstrating a hint of passive-aggressiveness on the part of the race organizers for having been made to redesign the track.

The old circuit holds particular appeal for me as it was the site of Ferrari’s first race win in almost 4 years when “my” driver Gerhard Berger triumphed in 1994. The Ferrari 412T of that year was one of the few remaining cars persisting with a V12 engine configuration when all their competitors had switched to lighter, more frugal V10s and V8s. This decision made the 412T for the most part uncompetitive except when it came to sheer engine power—an important advantage at a circuit like Hockenheim that prioritized brute force and top speed over apex-clipping nimbleness. So in a season filled with change (most drivers’ electronic aids were banned) and tragedy (Ayrton Senna’s tragic death at Imola just a few races before), Berger provided a morale-boosting victory at the German Grand Prix, a race I’ll never forget.

Watch and listen as BBC commentator and former F1 driver Martin Brundle provides a turn-by-turn analysis of Mika Hakkinen’s lap of the pre-’02 classic circuit:

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series discussing legendary and notable racing venues from around the globe. Read the other installments here:

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Kevin Thomas and His Homebuilt F1 Car

November 7, 2012 by Matt

Kevin Thomas Homebuilt F1 Formula 1 One Car BAR Lucky Strike Honda 2001

To clarify, that’s homebuilt, not homemade. Kevin Thomas isn’t constructing some kind of replica Formula 1 car from scratch; he’s assembling an actual F1 racer from actual F1 racer parts.

In his backyard.

As with many projects, it all started with an eBay purchase. A longtime F1 fan, Thomas was browsing the popular auction site one day when he stumbled across a listing for a pair of chassis constructed by the now-defunct British American Racing (BAR) team. On a whim, Thomas contacted the seller after the auction had ended and secured the foundation for his project.

Intended for the 2001 F1 season, the BAR chassis Thomas ended up with was relegated to testing duties, but has all the bells and whistles of the cars driven in anger by Jacques Villeneuve and Olivier Panis on circuits across the globe. Thomas has had considerable difficulty sourcing parts specifically for his chassis, so he’s had to cobble together subassemblies from other F1 cars when they come up for sale—a slow, painstaking process that requires more patience than I would have.

It also demands a decent amount of mechanical ability, or at least a willingness to learn. The car’s sidepods, for instance, are from a later Williams F1 car and adapted by Thomas to the BAR tub, and a contemporary Benetton racer lent certain suspension bits. As for the engine, Thomas plans to source a Formula Renault 3.5l V6 engine—much easier to come by than the BAR F1 car’s original 3.0 V10. The Renault engine’s output of “only” around 480 hp is less than two-thirds that of the engine the chassis was designed around, but more than enough to tax the abilities of 98% of amateur racers like Thomas, or you and me, for that matter.

It’s an amazingly ambitious project, and I wish Thomas the best of luck as he tinkers away in his backyard shed on his F1 race car.

3 Comments

Ever Dreamed Of Weaponized F1 Cars?

July 19, 2012 by Matt

Codemasters’ upcoming F1 Race Stars game may make your dream come true.

On sale in time for Christmas for the PS3, XBox and PC, F1 Race Stars offers a cartoonish, amped-up, arcade-like take on Formula 1, wherein the average fan will be able to control their driver of choice (if their choice is Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastien Vettel, Nico Rosberg, Romain Grosjean or Bruno Senna, that is), take advantage of powerups and lob a variety of weapons at their preferred “villain.” And honestly, what diehard F1 fan hasn’t, on occasion, just wanted a giant boot to appear out of nowhere and clobber whichever driver is leading their hero? I know I have.

In any case, if the gameplay mechanics are good and the driver and car balance is just right, F1 Race Stars looks like it could be a fun game. If nothing else, it would serve as a good introduction for my kids to the world of F1 personalities. Watching an actual F1 race with Daddy on any given Sunday, there’s the potential they would be slightly less bored out of their mind if they could identify one or more of the top drivers. I think I’ll give it a try.

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Car Designs Inspired by Formula 1

July 17, 2012 by Matt

Ferrari Enzo Ferrari Red

Huge, un-fendered wheels. A long, thin nose. Wings at both ends. A single-seat cockpit backed by a prominent intake snorkel. Bulbous side pods.

On paper, the ingredients of a typical Formula 1 racer don’t exactly sound like a recipe for aesthetic success. That said, the sport has always been an extremely high-profile showcase for an automaker’s technical prowess (or lack thereof), so it’s understandable some would attempt to cash in, as it were, on their team’s on-track achievements by incorporating F1 car styling details in their road cars.

Enzo Ferrari. With the 2002-2004 Enzo Ferrari (shown at top), the Modena automaker was perhaps the first to do so overtly. The design cues are obvious, from the side pod-suggesting rear fenders to the anteater-ish nose and prominent front-end aerodynamics. The car was conceived as its manufacturer’s F1 team was in the midst of an unrivaled success streak, notching five driver’s World Championships in as many years from 2000 to 2005, so it’s understandable they would seek to showcase their domination. Whether the car actually works aesthetically is another story, but it’s at least noteworthy.

Mercedes SLR McLaren Silver

Mercedes SLR McLaren. This one’s a bit more of a mishmash of influences. Still, the F1 connection is strong with the 2003-2008 SLR McLaren, as evidenced by the long, thin nose motif running down the hood and the quasi-winged valence. To all that, Mercedes added touches of their classic 300SL Gullwing racer along with then-current Merc themes like the double ovoid headlights. If the car’s styling looks ambiguous, there’s probably a reason it was replaced in short order by the much more single-minded SLS AMG in 2010.

Caparo T1 Orange

Caparo T1. No ambiguity here. The high-strung, 2008-present T1 is an unabashed homage to Formula 1 shapes and engineering. A 1,000-lb car with a 575-hp, 3.5l V8 nestled amidships, its power-to-weight ratio approaches that of an F1 racer as well. If the design gets points, they’ll undoubtedly come from the pre-teenage boy crowd, who spend their study hours drawing such shapes on their notebook paper. Stunning in the purity of its interpretation of an F1 look, but of questionable utility in the “real world.”

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