June 24, 2011

F1 Practice: Valencia 2011

So it was another dull practice session today, lots of cars just turning laps.  HWMNBN was fastest in P2, just ahead of Lewis Hamilton, Seb Vettel and Slappy Schumacher.  All four were separated by less than 6/10ths of a second, so it truly could be anybody on pole... if you put any stock in practice session times, which I don't.

However, this race will be the first with a new set of rules.  The FIA stepped down from on-high and decided that teams are no longer able to adjust electronic engine mapping between Quals and the race.  This actually makes sense.  Once Q1 begins and a car crosses the pit-out line, it is then considered to be in parc ferme condition and only the most minor changes can be made (wing settings, mostly).  After a car is eliminated from Quals (or makes it through Q3), the teams are basically unable to even touch the chassis.  Yet prior to this weekend, they could hook up a computer to the car and reprogram the Electronic Control Unit, basically telling the engine "hey, we want you to work this way now."  No longer.  There are pernicious rumors going around that this trick is one of the major reasons Red Bull has been so good in Quals: they had found a particularly hot combination of settings on their ECU.  It probably wouldn't last a full race distance without causing the engine to grenade, but it didn't have to: they could just change it to something more suitable for Sunday.  I don't know that I entirely believe it, yet it's awfully strange that their Renault engine outperforms RENAULT'S Renault engine.  Guess we'll find out on Saturday.

But that's not the only rule change coming down the pike, oh no.  Many teams have been doing some very clever things with their diffusers this season, directing their exhaust gases over it to get extra downforce.  Now, this seems counter-intuitive: you get the most powerful exhaust stream when you're accelerating, which is when you want it the least.  Conversely, when you're braking for a turn, you want more downforce, but you've probably got your foot off the throttle at that time, meaning less exhaust and therefore less downforce.  The engineering boffins have figured a way around this however, and now have a "constant flow" exhaust.  In effect, the same amount of exhaust is blown out the tailpipes, no matter how hard you're pressing the go-fast pedal.  If you've watched any races this season, you've surely noticed the flatulent sound that the Mercedes and McLaren make when they brake for a turn... that's from the constant flow exhaust kicking in.  At the beginning of the season, the FIA was fine with this, but they changed their mind a few races ago... effective at the next race (Silverstone), this technological trick is banned. 

As you can imagine, the teams are screaming bloody murder about these (mostly unprecedented) mid-season rules changes.  Particularly with the constant flow exhaust, their argument is that the removal of these things will make the cars much less balanced, and therefore less safe.  They have a point; F1 cars are remarkably sensitive to any changes in their aerodynamics.  While unlikely, it's not impossible that, say, the Red Bull chassis (for example) will become flat-out dangerous without this extra downforce.  Still the FIA is going ahead with it, and the teams much follow suit.  Please note that the Renault's forward-facing exhaust is not included in this... though if they're running the constant flow technology through it, that is.  The British GP might be even more interesting than normal.

This is going to be the first race where the hard tire will be the new medium compound rubber, which Pirelli has reformulated to last somewhat longer than it used to.  As we've seen in the past, however, the hard tire is still trending around 1.5 seconds slower than the softer rubber.  I suppose I really should use the phrasing that F1 uses to describe the tires: "Prime" for the harder tire and "Option" for the softer.  It might make it less confusing to... well, just about everyone.

Just like in Canada, there are two DRS activation zones, but only one detection zone.  The detection zone is, essentially, the bridge between Turns 9 and 10.  The activation zones are from just after Turn 11 to Turn 12, then from 14 to 17.  Once again, this means that someone can pass using DRS in the first stretch, then continue using the movable rear wing to create a bigger lead without fear of response.  I'm sure you're wondering just why they don't have two detection zones... as are we all.  Nobody knows for sure (and the FIA ain't tellin'), but the common wisdom appears to be that there's a problem on the FIA's end, either in the detection software or the actual computer.  Guys, here's an idea... spring for another computer, maybe a nice quad-core with more than a gigabyte of RAM.

Quals in the morning, see you then!

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