Friday, 8 July 2011

Silverstone Preview: Impressive surroundings, but a lot of hot air

Incessant showers. Must be the British summer time. Fast, challenging corners, and a surprisingly big and enthusiastic crowd for a Friday. Must be the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Track conditions were treacherous in both practice sessions
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Not for the first time in history foul weather and the British Grand Prix weekend came together today. Both practice sessions were run in wet conditions, turning both into, effectively, wet and intermediate tyre testing sessions. And the elements are expected to fine up for tomorrow and Sunday, meaning today's running offered few clues to who's hot and who's not this weekend. Felipe Massa topped the times in the second session, and while it was welcome to see him atop a final timesheet for the first time since before his near-fatal 2009 accident, it was essentially an exercise in setting a time latest on a drying track, and when many established front runners weren't out on track to take advantage at the same time.

The new Silverstone, with the new 'wing' paddock and pit complex, certainly looked in good nick (though there seems something rather parallel universe about Copse not being the first turn), to the point that not even Bernie could find much to complain about.

The pit lane, the entrance of which by passes the Abbey complex quite drastically, has added a dimension to the strategy considerations. It means that a pit stop could cost around only 15 seconds all in, thus additional pit stops will carry less of a down side than normal. Paul Hembery of Pirelli could well be right that 3 to 4 stops per car is what we should expect in Sunday's race (see this week's The Flying Lap episode, below), cue more tyre saving in tomorrow's qualifying. For similar reasons Charlie Whiting has commented that stop-go penalties, in lieu of drive-throughs, are likely to be the standard punishment in the race.

#28 The Flying Lap: Silverstone; Pirelli's Paul Hembery from Smibs TV on Vimeo.

The layout is pretty much as you were from last year, and similar in character to the layout even before that. Long, fast corners are plentiful at Silverstone, which delivers quick times right into the Red Bulls' hands, given their aerodynamic supremacy. They've won here in each of the last two seasons, and it's hard to envisage anyone else winning here this year. And as far as 2011 is concerned that means Sebastian Vettel. However, perhaps his team mate will get a bit closer to him than usual tomorrow and Sunday. Mark Webber looked confident throughout practice today in the perfidious conditions, and returning to the site of his famous triumph last season may have had a positive impact on him. We've been waiting all season for him to start giving Vettel something to really think about, and this weekend could be the time.

Sebastian Vettel remains the man to beat at Silverstone
Credit:  Alex Comerford / CC
One suspects that, barring strange things happening, Ferrari and McLaren will be fighting for crumbs fallen from the Red Bull table at Silverstone. It didn't help that neither were able to draw many conclusions of the effectiveness of their upgrades introduced here, given the streaming track today. A lot depends on this weekend for both teams, if they don't get nearer the Bulls they may both write the season off and concentrate on 2012.

The teams, or two teams at least, nevertheless found a way of creating some fun today off the track, with a good old fashioned technical dust up. All to do with off throttle blown diffusers, which were supposed to be banned for this race. From the early part of last season, using exhaust gases to blow air through the diffuser, and thus create downforce, began to spread through the grid. However, almost simultaneously, off throttle blowing, where air would be emitted from the exhaust even when the driver isn't pressing the throttle, was also introduced to give more consistent downforce levels. The FIA's plan A was to limit the off throttle openings of throttle to 10% (at 12,000rpm, sliding up to 20% at 18,000rpm) across the board, starting this weekend.

So far, so simple (ish). But there are two types of blowing, hot and cold. 'Hot' is when fuel is introduced to the air flow and hot exhaust air, producing more downforce, is pushed through the diffuser. This is practiced by Mercedes (and by extension by teams it supplies engines to, including McLaren), while Renault (who supply Red Bull, among others) practice 'cold' blowing instead. Between the Valencia round and this Mercedes successfully argued to the FIA that they needed to retain firing from four of their eight cylinders off throttle for reliability reasons (apparently demonstrating they'd been doing this since before the blown diffuser became fashionable). Then Renault, just before second free practice today, successfully lobbied the FIA to permit their teams a 50% throttle opening, again on reliability grounds (and also apparently demonstrating they'd been doing this since before the age of the blown diffuser), the FIA believing this was an equivalent advantage to the Mercedes concession given Mercedes blow hot and Renault cold. But this reckoned without McLaren and Ferrari (seemingly) not being happy and (reportedly) running 50% throttle openings off throttle in the subsequent practice session as a protest. Team principals Martin Whitmarsh and Christian Horner had an entertaining exchange in the subsequent press conference. We've not nearly heard the end of this.

No one comes out of this well particularly, especially not the FIA who have given the impression of drafting technical directives on the back of envelopes, and not thinking consequences all the way through. And it follows on quickly from a not too dissimilar misjudgment in their attempts to reinstate the Bahrain Grand Prix to the 2011 calendar.

And while I believe that off throttle blown diffusers do need to be stamped on, given they're a movable aerodynamic device frankly, barely up the evolutionary scale from Brabham's 1978 'fan car', this also demonstrates the tangled web weaved by fiddling with the interpretation of regulations mid-season. Especially in something as complicated as off throttle blown diffusers have become. All blown diffusers will be banned for 2012 in any case, and whatever we were doing before Silverstone it wasn't as bad as this is threatening to be.

It remains to be seen tomorrow and Sunday what the exhaust shake up does to the running order. But, spoiler alert, it's not likely to disrupt Seb or Red Bull. Not here anyway.

Practice times
Free Practice One highlights, courtesy of the BBC (UK users only)
Free Practice Two highlights, courtesy of the BBC (UK users only)

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