Saturday, April 11, 2009

Formula 1: Much ado about diffusers

Talk has been abuzz about the rear diffusers of Brawn, Toyota and Williams F1 design. I didn’t realize how such a small piece of design on the rear end of a Formula 1 frame could cause so much controversy. But isn’t racing supposed to be about brute torque and horsepower? Not so. A rear diffuser channels air under a Formula 1 car and when designed properly helps generate downforce (the force of air that keeps a Formula 1 car hugging the ground instead of flying- to put it simply) especially during cornering. In effect, an ingeniously designed rear diffuser maximizes a race car driver’s lap times in a blink of an eye per lap. Actually, that’s a tenth of a second per lap where in this premier sports racing event, milliseconds separate drivers. (Above: Toyota's rear diffuser design)

Technical analysts from Ferrari, BMW-Sauber and Renault ING reveal that Brawn Mercedes, Toyota and Williams Toyota have rear diffusers whose designs are beyond technical regulations giving it an aerodynamic advantage. The FIA, the world governing body regulating motorsports racing, is set to hear arguments from 8 teams this week prior to the Chinese Grand Prix on April 17th. If the FIA rules that Brawn, Toyota and Williams’ designs are legal, expect a few more races with either team in the podium as Ferrari, BMW and Renault play catch-up with 15 races to go. If the rear diffusers are ruled illegal in design, the upcoming event in Shanghai will be an exciting race to watch.

Stay tuned.

Monday, April 6, 2009

In Malaysia, it pours when it rains

In a race suspended by officials in lap 33 of 56 due to torrential rain in monsoon-plague Sepang, Jenson Button of Brawn GP won round 2 of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship, the Malaysian Grand Prix. Starting on pole position, the British driver looked to have given his spot to race challengers from Toyota and BMW in turn 1's melee but a slight drizzle which eventually turned into a downpour had everybody scrambling for extreme wet weather tires while others with intermediates allowing Button to regain the lead. Where were the powerhorses of last year this time? In the back of the grid, of course!

BIGGEST GAINER: Nick Heidfeld of BMW, 2nd place. Starting on P10, the German driver opted to race with a 1-stop strategy with a heavy fuel load, changing to intermediates soon thereafter when rain started, jumping the gun on race drivers running on extreme wets (heavily grooved tires good for wet weather racing but degrades fast when running on hot tracks). The tract today had some parts dry and some parts wet before the deluge so Heidfeld's choice of intermediate wet weather tires was a good call.

BIGGEST LOSER: Ferrari. After a disappointing entry into the Australian GP last week, the Scuderia team's misery continue to pile up. First with Felipe Massa's tactical error in qualifying yesterday relegating him to the back of the grid on race day. Then the flying Fin, Kimi Raikkonen, failing to defend his middle row placing with his underpowered Ferrari. After round 2, neither man nor team has scored points. Ouch!

MOST CONTROVERSIAL. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren Mercedes. After race stewards elevated his status to 3rd from 4th in last week's Australian GP following a controversial overtaking by Jarno Trulli of Toyota with the safety car on, new evidence surfaced that Lewis slowed down, upon the advise of his racing team, to let Trulli pass earning the ire of race stewards. Hamilton was stripped of his 3rd place finish and was rendered as Unclassified. Hmmm...

Round 3: April 19, Shanghai.

BBB's dominance in the Australian GP

Steve Slater, ESPN Starsports prolific sportswriter and self confessed Petrol Head, calls the recently concluded Australian Grand Prix as the dominance of the 3 Bs-- Button, Barrichello and Brawn. Brawn GP, formerly Honda but resurrected by former Ferrari Team Principal during Schumacher's reign Ross Brawn, dominated not only practice and qualifying sessions but race day itself despite Barrichello's stall on the starting grid. Much has been said and complained about the 'rear diffusers' of Brawn, Toyota and Williams as giving it an unfair advantage, but certainly the use of one such controversial design did not aid Rubens Barrichello's surge from the middle of the pack to 2nd place when his BGP 001 Mercedes-powered car collided with Nick Heidfeld's BMW racing with a torn diffuser at turn 1.

But if diffusers did not aid significantly in Brawn's superiority that day, could it have been the 2.4-liter V8 Mercedes engine? Not so. Other teams with the German engine did not do so well-- Force India and MacLaren itself. 2008 World Driver's Champion Lewis Hamilton has dowplayed his recent 3rd place finish as just lucky. Lucky indeed to be at the right place at the right time when Sebastian Vettel of Renault-powered Red Bull, running in 2nd place collided with Robert Kubica of BMW running in 3rd place, effectively taking them out of the race with just 3 laps to go.

Brawn's dominance is clearly in its design having spent a good six months ahead of schedule for testing and aerodynamic design when it was still named Honda.

With the Malaysian Grand Prix just days ahead, Ferrari looks to redeem itself after the most embarrassing season opener ever in the Italian outfit's 60 years in Formula One with both drivers failing to score a single point.

Sepang's long straights will prove to be another test for Brawn.