Tuesday, 31 March 2009
The new regulations this year promise to make it a historic season!
Well, what a superb start of the season we have just had last weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. The temporary Albert Park circuit in Melbourne is always pretty challenging, not just due to some of the difficult turns and chicanes but also because Melbourne has been the season opener for over a decade now, it offers teams the first chance to try out their new cars under actual racing conditions. In spite of all the winter testing, the teams can't really predict how their cars for the new season will perform under racing conditions. So that always catches out some teams (a.k.a Ferrari this year and last year) who are suddenly faced with a very steep learning curve.
On top of that, the huge changes in regulations brought about by the FIA for this season meant that the start of this season was one of the most highly anticipated ones in recent Formula 1 history! One of the new regulations is the change in car aerodynamics. In order to assist in overtaking, this season's cars have a narrower and higher rear wing, and lower and wider front wing, all of which reduces the downforce on the car meaning not only is the car bit more difficult to control, but it also means that the cars can follow each other very closely and try to overtake the one in front at the first possible chance. This new aerodynamic regulation means that not only the 2009 cars look a lot different from the 2008 cars, but the teams had to pretty much start from scratch in building these cars. So the front runners of last year need not be just as good this year due to the new regulations. Just look at McLaren's performance so far in the new car to see what I mean. Ok Lewis Hamilton did come third in Melbourne, but that was because so many cars that were in front of him did not finish the race due to several reasons, and most of those cars were faster than the McLaren-Mercedes driven by Hamilton.
Among other rule changes is the re-introduction of slick tyres and also the changes in tyre compounds, leaving the teams with only either super-soft tyres or the hard tyres to be used in dry weather conditions. The rule also states that both type of tyres have to be used at least once in the race. The main difference between them superficially is that the super-soft tyres, also known as option tyres, have a green strip on the two outer edges of the tyre. Whereas the hard tyres, also known as the prime tyres, do not have such green stripes. Performance wise, the option tyres last for a very short time, 7 or 8 laps maximum, but can give the cars a lot of grip and hence really good pace. With the prime tyres on, the cars may be a touch slower, but the prime tyres last for a really long time, may be upto 25 or 30 laps depending on weather conditions. So this provides the team a real dilemma, because if they use the options at the start of the race, then that will mean that they will have to have an early pit stop as the tyres will wear out quickly, but will probably get the cars off to a flying start. If they use the prime tyres to start off, then they will be left with the option tyres towards the end of the race, and if the tyres wear out quickly at that critical stage, the results could be disastrous!
One other major regulation change this year is the introduction of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). This is basically an extra piece of kit on the cars, that uses the enormous heat energy generated during braking, converts into kinetic energy, stores it in a battery and at the push of a button from the driver's cockpit can give the car a performance boost of 82 brake horsepower (bhp) for about 6.6 seconds per lap. So theoretically, it can come in very handy during overtaking and starting off the grid at the start of the race. But let's not forget that the extra equipment means extra weight, and for heavier drivers it means that they have less ballast weight to play with to balance the car. This is because by FIA regulations, Formula 1 cars must have a minimum weight of 605 kg, including the driver, and the teams do not want to exceed this weight significantly, as more weight means less pace. Also because these cars are rear heavy, due to the engine being at the back, the constructors use extra ballast weight in the front end of the car to make it more balanced, which results in better handling. Being a new technology, it will have some teething problems, which is probably one of the reasons why only five cars started the race in Melbourne with KERS installed namely, the two Ferraris, the two McLarens and the BMW of Nick Heidfeld. The other BMW driver Robert Kubica, being quite tall and heavy thought that the extra weight of the KERS system would bring him more disadvantages than advantages and so decided to go without it.
Last but not the least is the use of rear diffusers. Now this is part of the car aerodynamics, and is situated at the under-body of the car just below the rear wing. What this does is basically increases the downforce of the car, so the car sticks to the track giving it better grip and straight line speed and thus an overall performance advantage. The only cars that started the season with rear diffusers installed are the two Brawn-Mercedes cars, the two Toyotas and the two Williams cars. These cars showed a clear performance advantage over other cars in both pre-season testing and throughout the race weekend in Melbourne. That is why Ferrari, Red Bull Racing and Renault filed an official complaint to the FIA before the race in Melbourne saying that the rear diffusers are illegal. Although race stewards then decreed that they are perfectly legal, the teams then appealed against this decision, the hearing of which will be held in Paris after next weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix. Until then of course, whatever results the Brawns, the Toyotas and the Williams achieve are all provisional.
So that should be enough ramblings for now, and I am still hoping to write a report on the Australian Grand Prix within the next couple of days.