Sunday 13 March 2011

F1 2011 Season Preview: The more things change...

But two weeks from now the Australian Grand Prix, the first race of 2011, will be done and dusted. At that point the speculation on how the 2011 F1 year is to go will give way to actuality to a large extent, both in terms of who's hot and who's not competitiveness-wise, and how the 'new formula' in 2011 will pan out.

It may seem odd that after a 2010 season that was commonly accepted as a great one, F1 should immediately be indulging in fairly substantial regulation changes. Depending on who you speak to it's either unnecessary and potentially counter-productive tinkering, or a healthy desire to improve the show from 2010's high level.

Above film of Barcelona Testing 2011 courtesy of Sutton Images

The change that is thought to be by far the biggest has also been thrust upon F1 to an extent. Bridgestone have pulled out of the sport after 14 years' sterling service, and Pirelli return in their stead as the single tyre supplier.

Tyres therefore have been the talk of testing, with the Pirellis performing very differently to the Bridgestones. They're a little slower (around two seconds a lap new on), but the main change is in the wear rate. Whereas Bridgestones would run all day it seemed (especially the harder compounds), the wear rate of the Pirellis is such that lap times on them are dropping off by several seconds per lap after a handful of laps' use.

This is to some extent expected, given that Bridgstone's product benefitted from its accumulated experience of supplying F1 tyres, and Pirelli effectively is starting from base camp. The company was also given a remit to produce tyres less durable than the Bridgestones were, thus to create more variable and multi-stop races similar to that at Canada last year, probably the most diverting race of the season (however, given Pirelli's interesting record in producing F1 tyres when it was in the sport last time around you wonder the extent that the type of tyres it has produced is by accident or design).

In terms of what we'll be watching this year, multi-stop races will be the norm. Sebastian Vettel reckons there are likely to be three or even four tyre changes per race, though the director of motorsport at Pirelli, Paul Hembery, insists it will be no more than three. Further, the stints themselves will be characterised by careful tyre management with drivers having to run within themselves on pace, particularly in the early laps (Lewis Hamilton has commented that he'll need to 'drive like a granny' this year). And it seems there's not much that drivers can do beyond this, given that heat management of the tyres isn't the issue. Therefore, the likes of the famously-delicate-on-his-tyres Jenson Button won't necessarily be at an advantage.

Then there are other related issues with the top 10 on the grid having to start the race on tyres that they qualified on (and presumably on soft compounds), which may mean an early stop that will put them into traffic. As well as that there are the greater difficulties in using your tyre allocation throughout the weekend, given more sets will be needed on race day (and a further advantage for those who don't get into the top 10 of the grid is that they will save two sets of tyres for race day compared with the front runners).

And as if all this wasn't enough, Mark Hughes imparted a theory in this week's Autosport that pre-used tyres, that had been allowed to cool over a number of hours, may actually be more durable than new ones. Some times in testing by Fernando Alonso and Rubens Barrichello suggested this may be the case, and this may mean that Saturday morning practice will be given over to tyre preparation for race day.

All of the tyre issues hugely multiply the number of variables facing the competitors and potential for mixing up the order, which is not such good news for the front runners as Alonso has pointed out, and greatly increases the importance of sharp tactical calls from the pitwall.

Still, it remains to be seen how it all pans out, and F1 protagonists do have a tendency to declare that the end of the world is nigh when faced with a change. There are also some reasons to think their assessments are at the alarmist end of the scale: wear rates will likely be lower in the warmer and more rubbered-in circuits of a Grand Prix weekend than in testing, and as Sam Michael pointed out at the Williams launch, the Pirellis will develop (indeed, some development rubber will be available to F1 teams to test in the Friday practice sessions), drivers will adapt, and teams will learn how to the amend set-ups to help the lower the tyres' wear rate. In any case, we'll need the first couple of races under our belts to have a firmer idea of how it will all work in practice.

Another change this year is that KERS returns, after its cameo appearance in 2009. Without wishing to bore anyone, this is a 'green' form of technology, wherein waste heat energy from things like braking are re-used as an engine power boost.

Virtually all of the front runners will be using KERS, with the only refuseniks being the three newbies (mainly because of cost) and possibly Williams (due to reliability concerns). Because of this KERS probably won't have much of an impact on the racing itself, as virtually all cars will have the same boost on the straights, negating any relative advantage.

The new found popularity of KERS is partly related to the greater ease of packaging it with cars being heavier post the refuelling ban and with this year's standardisation of cars' weight distribution. However, the possibility of being beaten off the line by a slower KERS car, and then being stuck behind it for the rest of the afternoon given its straightline speed advantage (a frequent occurrence in 2009), has particularly concentrated minds.

Still, I take the view that it's good for F1 to show green credentials and to protect itself from environmental criticism, as this is an issue that isn't going to go away. Even in the brief appearance of KERS there is a positive story to tell, as according to Pat Symonds KERS had been given up on almost entirely by the automotive industry prior to 2009, but it's now very much back on their agenda due to the F1 development of the technology that year. Road car adverts mentioning KERS are now commonplace. Williams selling flywheel KERS technology to be used on buses, trains and the like is also a good news story.

A potentially bigger change, at least in terms of on-track action in 2011, is the movable rear wing (or the 'Drag Reduction System'). Herein, drivers on race day, if suitably close behind a rival, will be able to flatten out their rear wing to reduce drag and thus give them a straightline speed advantage over the car they're trying to pass, to a certain extent, for certain period of time, and at a certain point of the track (confusingly, they'll be able to use the system to their heart's content in practice and qualifying). The firm details are still a work in progress, and presumably will be variously tweaked until it provides suitable assistance in overtaking. The Sauber's system in action can be seen below.


This represents the latest, but by a stretch the most radical, attempt to promote overtaking in the sport (unfortunately, un-inventing downforce isn't an option). The movable rear wing strikes me as being rather artificial, and not in keeping with what F1 should be about. Nevertheless, if it ends what has been getting on for 20 years of us reasonably expecting cars to have virtually no chance of passing each other, barring an error or a massive pace advantage, and perhaps just as importantly avoids silly overtaking-fests like used to be the case in CART with the Hanford wing, I'll just about be able to tolerate them.

KERS and the movable rear wing have given rise to concerns from the drivers that they now have too much to do at the wheel, Barrichello even going do far as to say it risks accidents as the driver is distracted. Again, I suspect this fuss will die down, it surely can't be any worse for drivers than the era of manual gearshifts, when at tracks such as Monaco one had to drive with one hand only on the steering wheel most of the time? As David Coulthard commented on the recent BBC F1 preview, drivers would juggle three balls in the cockpit if it made them go faster.

There is good news in that last year's historically-strong driver's line up remains largely in place (now with no fewer than five world champions), and is only weakened for this year by Robert Kubica's injury-enforced absence, most probably for the whole season. Indeed, the winter was notable for its relative lack of driver market movement - had it not been for Kubica's injury there wouldn't have been any driver changes in the top five teams from last year.

Winston Churchill once said that Russia was: 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma'. It is tempting to see the interpretation of F1 testing times in the same way, wherein teams are all desperate to keep secrets regarding their performance and ideas from each other, as well as give a positive narrative to the media. Fuel levels and tyre compounds can vary lap times by anything up to nine seconds.

Red Bull - still ahead of the pack

But the word from testing is that Red Bull remain ahead of the pack, even with the various changes since last year, with Ferrari next up. No 2009-type reshuffling of the order it seems, though of last year's pace setters McLaren do appear to be struggling. The car is thought to be short both of grip and reliability, Martin Brundle going so far as to describe the MP4-26 as a 'mess' after watching it on track, and rather pessimistic noises emanating from the drivers. No one doubts McLaren will be back on the pace at some point, but how quickly they get on terms will dictate whether they can challenge for the titles this year.

Indeed, McLaren may run the risk of being usurped by even more of their rivals in the early races, with some of the midfield having seemingly made good progress. Mercedes, after initially appearing they were struggling to an even greater extent than McLaren, now sound a lot more bullish following a series of upgrades introduced for the final test in Barcelona. 

And Renault, Sauber, Toro Rosso and Williams have to varying degrees made forward steps, meaning heavy points and perhaps attrition-assisted podiums in the early rounds aren't out of the question for them. 

The chief design trend of the off-season is promoting uninterrupted airflow to the rear of the car and thus improve downforce, what with the double-diffuser being banned and the rules regarding the front of the car being rather restrictive.

The Toro Rosso's and Williams' solutions have both, in their own way, been highly innovative: Williams with a tiny gearbox and Toro Rosso with aggressively undercut sidepods, reminiscent of the Ferrari F92 double-floor. Both cars have drawn many admiring glances while out on track. Renault have also gone radical, with forward facing exhausts, to create a larger and faster exhaust airflow through the diffuser. More details on each can be found here.

But of course, right now nobody knows anything, and we won't begin to know until the end of the qualifying session at Melbourne, and then Sunday's race will indicate who manages their tyres best. And even from there things will ebb and flow for the next eight months. Strap yourself in for the 2011 season, it's going to be a good 'un.


  1. Good post, Graham.

    I'm not sure how much slower the Pirellis are compared to the Bridgestones, if at all. Remember cars are 20 kg heavier this year, and doble diffusers are gone, so there must be a lot to blame for that.

    The tyre wear really is an issue, but I don't expect it to change the way GPs go so radically as many people are suggesting this days. But we'll see for sure.

    For me, it's been one of the most entertaining and interesting pre-seasons that I remember, lots of new stuff and very different-looking cars. Looking forward to see how teams develop their cars, specially McLaren, who right now seem to need it badly.

    Agreed with your words about all the changes after a great 2010 season, let's hope they didn't break the toy trying to fix it.


  2. Thanks very much Khan, both for your comments and your nice words on the post!

    I, like you, suspect the tyre wear won't be quite as bad in the GPs as some are making out now. This is for the reasons I gave, including that F1 drivers seem to like complaining! I still expect at least a couple of stops per race though.

    I also agree that it's been a great off-season for design innovation, I think you probably have to go back to the early 90s for so many new, interesting solutions on show among the new F1 cars. Maybe Adrian Newey's approach is rubbing off on the rest of the design teams!

    Thanks again.