Saturday, 13 April 2013

Formula 1 2013: So You've Had The Intro...

The first corner of 2013
So, after a long wait, the Formula 1 season came back for a fortnight before disappearing off again for three weeks. If you don't actively keep up with F1 news, then there may have been many confusing things at these two races. Where are those white cars that always come last? Why is Lewis Hamilton now Mexican and Michael Schumacher now a mixed-race Senna fanatic? How come some of the cars don't have stepped noses like last year? And who are these new people I've never heard of? Fear not and settle down, for to make up for the lack of a season preview, I shall answer your bewildered questions now.

And Then There Were 22
Hispania Racing Team (HRT) were one of the three new teams that joined the sport in 2010 to make an 18-car grid into a 24-car grid. They started out with a mostly-grey livery that looked... true to their budget. Their drivers, Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok, had had so little opportunity to test the car that Chandhok's first ever drive in a Formula 1 car was actually the first qualifying session of the season! Later on that season, a season in which they either broke down or came last, the drivers seemed to be interchangeable, with ex-Super Aguri driver Sakon Yamamoto hopping into the car for the odd race here or there. When he had food poisoning at the Singapore GP, rather than letting Chandhok back in the car, they found a fourth bloke, Christian Klien, who nowadays drives for Aston Martin Racing in sports cars. The "F110" was almost slower than GP2 cars, let alone its F1 opponents...

In 2011 they at least looked the part, with a flashy new livery by Daniel Simon, he of Cosmic MotorsTron: Legacy and Captain America design fame. With Senna and Chandhok fleeing to Lotus-Renault and Caterham respectively, they had to find new drivers, and found Vitantonio Liuzzi - formerly of Force India - and Narain Karthikeyan, who brought with his Indian self some sponsorship from automotive giant Tata and... nobody else. In fact, the almost self-parodying livery had to fill space by pointing out where sponsors could go if they wanted. Few obliged. They were closer to the Marussia team, but still a laughing stock who generally either broke down or came last. In fact, their slowness the year before had brought back the 107% rule, which enforces a minimum lap time based on Pole Position's time. In the first race of the season, both cars failed to meet it. They managed it from then on, though. The only fun they could have was in blocking the front runners, something at which Karthikeyan showed particular aptitude. He gave up his seat to Daniel Ricciardo for the last 10 races minus his home Grand Prix.

After failing to qualify for the Australian Grand Prix again, 2012 actually saw them finally being competitive... with the other bottom teams. Should it be considered an achievement to qualify 20th? I'm not so sure. Still, it was progress for a team that was still so cash-strapped that I'm pretty sure they didn't ever have KERS equipped to their cars. Karthikeyan finally had a seat all to himself, as did Spanish veteran Pedro de la Rosa. They either came last, came second-to-last if Marussia (who also lacked KERS) had had a bad weekend, broke down or Karthikeyan crashed. At the Abu Dhabi race he broke down in front of Nico Rosberg, who crashed over the top of him and out of the race, while earlier on in Malaysia, he had held up Button (breaking his front wing) and Vettel, who got a puncture, retired from a competitive position and responded by calling the Indian an idiot and a cucumber. Seriously. I'm not quite sure what he meant to say, but he nevertheless had to apologise for his puzzling remark. HRT's highest finish last season was 15th place, at the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix. How many cars finished the race? Yup, 15.

By the end of the season their continued existence was in doubt, and sure enough, they went bankrupt and disbanded not long before 2013 testing began. When you're best-known for coming last, you don't tend to attract investors. De la Rosa became Ferrari's test driver, while Narain Karthikeyan took too long to get to the airport and held everyone up, before walking straight into a security barrier and then breaking down. Just kidding, he's now competing in something called Auto GP for a team called Zele. Sounds made up to me...

New Faces, Or Just New Clothes

Top Row (L to R): Max Chilton, Jules Bianchi, Giedo van der Garde, Charles Pic, Daniel Ricciardo, Jean-Eric Vergne.
Middle Row (L to R): Valtteri Bottas, Pastor Maldonado, Adrian Sutil, Paul di Resta, Esteban Gutierrez, The Hülk, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg.
Bottom Row (L to R): Romain Grosjean, Kimi Räikkönen, Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber, Jenson Button, Sergio Pérez.
There's been some reshuffling as usual this year. The high-profile move was of course Lewis Hamilton leaving McLaren to go to Mercedes-Benz's works team (formerly Brawn GP), thus doing the exact opposite of what Jenson Button did after 2009. After 13 years of McLaren he needed a change of scenery, and even being offered more money by the British team couldn't stop him. He's now racing with his best friend like they did 13 years ago, which is kind of sweet, actually. He also got a dog called Roscoe, to match his bitch call-- actually, let's not do that...

Also jumping ship is Nico Hülkenberg, who has made a somewhat sideways jump from Force India to Sauber. Last year Sauber were slightly ahead of Force India and bothering the really big dogs, but there's no guarantee that they'll always be doing that. To fill the void at Force India, Adrian "The Glassman" Sutil joins Paul di Resta, who has been told to not look so miserable all the time by his manager, as it will increase his chances of moving to a higher team. Really.

"The Hülk" replaces Kamui Kobayashi, who sadly couldn't find a race seat despite raising over £1,000,000 from fan support. He's now racing in the new World Endurance Championship for Ferrari's GTE team AF Corse (hopefully he won't cause an accident with an LMP1 car at Le Mans...), while Sergio Perez's move to McLaren meant that Sauber needed a Mexican, and they found one in Esteban Gutierrez, their young test driver from last year. And by young, I mean he's 21 years old. Why am I not an F1 driver???! :-(

Frenchman Charles Pic, who started his career at Marussia in 2012, jumped ships to Caterham, a team who narrowly beat Marussia in the Constructor's Championship at the final round in Brazil. He's joined at Caterham by rookie Giedo van der Garde, who is literally Dutch. Rumours of his car having wooden pedals cannot be confirmed. What Sky F1 can confirm is that he's not very good at Really Big Jenga. Their presence means that neither Vitaly Petrov nor Heikki Kovalainen are in the sport anymore, which is a shame as Petrov's presence had prompted the creation of a Russian Grand Prix which now might not have a Russian driver in it, and Kovalainen was actually pretty good. Alas, what Caterham need is sponsorship money, to avoid doing an HRT and get the resources to try and develop the car to the point where it might actually score points. A sad reality of modern Formula 1.

Marussia now have an all-new driver line-up as well. Max Chilton, who raced for their GP2 team last year, is paired up with Jules Bianchi, Ferrari's young test driver from last year, whom Ferrari managed to find a race seat to get him some racing experience. They have KERS this year, so they should be competitive... against Caterham.

Lastly, at Williams, Bruno Senna has been booted after being average all season, and is now racing for Aston Martin Racing's GTE team in the WEC. So at least there'll be one familiar face for him! He's been replaced by Valtteri Bottas, who is a Finnish person. Well, if you want to win, employ a Finn. Or Maldonado (who's stopped hitting things now). Or both! Another noteworthy change at Williams is that Claire Williams, daughter of Sir Frank, is now Deputy Team Principle. This is important to the media because she's a woman and that alone is interesting in F1. That's why Williams' new test driver, Susie Wolff, has had a whole documentary made about her by the BBC (also because she's British and that's important to the BBC too).

So, Let's Take A Look, At Yo Brand New Whip

I've already posted about all the new cars except the Williams FW35, which took its sweet time getting here.

Red Bull
Lotus (or do I mean LOLTUS???)
Force India
Toro Rosso
Caterham + Marussia

As for the FW35, it's not really a very competitive car. This time last year, Maldonado had fought Alonso for a top-5 finish... before crashing, and they'd got more points than they'd managed to get for the entirety of 2011. By round 5, they even had a race win under their belts for the first time since Brazil 2004. Fast forward to today and they're lacklustre at most, with a grand total of 0 points. The Chinese GP tomorrow will see them starting the race in 14th and 16th. Not good...

Oh, and it looks like this. A combination of last year's car, a Coanda exhaust and a slightly Ferrari-ish nose.

Click to embiggen

Who Nose Why Some Are Still Crooked...
The 2013 Best Nose Competition. Williams and Marussia couldn't make it. Caterham (middle-right) will probably lose
OK, so if you were following last year, you'll know that the term "stepped nose" was on the vomit-stained tongues of Formula 1 fans everywhere 14 months ago. The designers want to use a high front chassis (thereby getting more air under the car to control around and under the main part of the car and on to the diffuser), but they'd got to the point where a T-bone incident could see the nose intruding on the cabin of the car it hits, so the FIA enforced a lower nose height, creating a step from one height regulation to another. McLaren avoided the unsightly new nose by making the whole front chassis lower, but soon found that a higher nose is indeed better, and so it rose a wee bit as the season progressed.

The barrage of fan complaints got to the point where the FIA decided to make an optional workaround for 2013. So now, teams can include a "vanity panel", which goes over the top of the nose to give a smooth shape. It can't be structurally integral, and it shatters into tiny pieces on impact. Curiously, every team used it except for teams powered by a Renault engine, those being Red Bull (well, they've got a half-length panel to save weight), Lotus and Caterham, that latter of which's nose is still by far the ugliest. Rumours abound on the internet that McLaren and Ferrari have found a way to make the actual noses higher than the regulations allow underneath or inside the Vanity Panel. It doesn't seem to be any major advantage, though, as it's just one aero element. Still, it's interesting to see the amount of variety in the noses, considering how similar many other big bits are from car to car.

Get A Grip Already!

Clockwise from the orange one: Hard, Medium, Intermediate, Wet, Super-Soft, Soft.
Pirelli have noticed that the first half of last season was so exciting and unpredictable because nobody really understood the tyres enough to optimise the cars for them. That gave us 7 winners in 7 races, the most varied start to a Formula 1 season ever. Clearly they're shooting for 8 in 8, because they've fiddled with them yet again, making every dry compound a little bit softer, increasing the operating window (theoretically) but still retaining that "cliff" people talk about when they lose grip very suddenly (the tyres, that is). Unfortunately, in Australia this lead to Super Soft tyres that only lasted about 5 laps, which to be honest is unacceptable. Hopefully this won't be a trend...

If you're still getting to grips (baddum tshhh) with even the basics of the tyres, then don't worry, because it's actually very simple. OK, it's fairly simple.

There are two wet tyre compounds, Intermediates and full Wet rubber. Inters are for light rain or a drying track, and don't have as much tread as the full wets. Drivers occasionally have to cool them down on drying tracks by going off-line and finding some standing water for them to work in. Full wets are for when the rain is properly Welsh and Intermediates simply aren't up to the task anymore. Unlike dry compounds, you don't need to use both types in a race and can just use what's best for the conditions.

There are four dry tyre compounds, but only two are taken to a race, and Pirelli decides in advance which ones go where. The four compounds are Super Soft, Soft, Medium and Hard. The softer the compound, the grippier but the shorter-lasting. It's quite tortoise-and-hare. Last year the Hard compound had silver graphics, but they were so hard to see that they've been painted orange this year. It's compulsory in a dry race to use both dry compounds at least once. To avoid confusion, the two compounds are referred to by teams as Option and Prime, with Prime being the harder tyre. To work out which colour is the Option or Prime, either pay attention to the graphics just before the start of a session or spot the compound on one car and then look for a softer or harder compound on another one. The softer one is always the Option tyre.

Anything Else I Should Know?

Well, the pecking order is largely the same as it was this time last year, as the cars are evolutions of the 2012 cars. Except for McLaren. Their MP4-28 has pullrod front suspension, and when Ferrari did that last year they had an awful start to the season as they got used to the different setup, which is essentially the normal pushrod setup but upside down. It lowers the centre of gravity and theoretically behaves better over bumps, but is harder to adjust and seems to require some differences elsewhere. So far McLaren have had an awful start this year, which is both surprising and disappointing as it's generally believed among those in the know that last year's MP4-27 was the fastest car of 2012 (when it wasn't in the pits, at least). This year looks more like the start of 2009 for the Woking outfit, and we all hope they improve a bit faster than the Ferrari did, as Jenson Button doesn't seem to be able to outperform his car like Fernando Alonso did his F2012 early last year.

Speaking of Ferrari, they've had a year to acclimatise to an all-pullrod suspension system, and despite their woes, Fernando's flawless season coupled with his team mate's return to form in the second half meant they pipped McLaren to 2nd in the Constructor's Championship last year. Now they have a car that works, and are generally at the sharp end of things. With Massa no longer the out-of-form whipping boy, he's actually outqualified Alonso four times in the last five races, with the chain just being broken at China.

Red Bull are still near the front, but not borderline-invincible like they were in 2011. Still, with aero magician Adrian Newey still designing their cars, you can never rule them out.

Mercedes started very well last year, but lost big time in the development race and finished the season fending off Sauber. This year they've started very well again, so with Lewis Hamilton pushing them to stay at the front, we'll have to see how they do in that respect this year.

Williams have also been a bit poor so far, as I've already mentioned, although the team really believe in Valtteri Bottas, so if and when they get their shit together, they could pull a Sauber and occasionally surprise like last year. On Sauber, they haven't been on the same form as last year either. Their apparently-radical C32 needs harmonising as well, it seems. Esteban Gutierrez hasn't been overly impressive, but it's only his debut season. Force India are still a strong midfield team.

Lotus are ever-present at the top of the grid nowadays, particularly Kimi Räikkönen. His team mate Romain Grosjean has stopped hitting things, but is also in the middle of nowhere results-wise. The "Enstone Team" is once again in a position where if they can qualify high, they'll be a shoe-in for a podium finish. This is partly thanks to their Front-Rear Inter-Connected (FRIC) suspension system, which sends hydraulic fluid fore and aft to keep the ride height constant and level - thus retaining aero balance - in corners without making the car as stiff as a skateboard. It's a bit like the system in the McLaren MP4-12C road car that gives it that magic ride quality, except that the 12C's system is active and computer-controlled, whereas the F1 cars that use it (currently just Lotus and Mercedes) need to use passive systems that work on their own, independent of the driver, to conform with the rules. Still, you'd think McLaren would've adapted their own system for track use...

The key advantage of FRIC suspension is that it makes the cars kinder on tyres, which has certainly helped the two teams in the first two races. We'll have to see if it becomes widespread.

So that's pretty much it! Enjoy the Chinese Grand Prix tomorrow.


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