“B” is for Best
Jenson Button 2009 Grand Prix Driving Champion
In the Brazil Grand Prix, Brawn GP won the constructor’s trophy in its first year of racing, while Jensen Button won the drivers title. This is the fifth straight year where the driver’s title was decided in Brazil, that mecca of sport ready to host the 2014 world soccer cup and the 2016 summer Olympics. (You’ve won a free vacaction to a destination of your choice; you choose A. Chicago; or B. Rio de Janiero. Yeah right.)
We seldom delve into sports with the exception of the tragic-comic 2007 Tour de France which was a first class debacle. This year’s Formula 1 racing season is turning into another memorable sporting season; one that is turning this inbred racing world upside down.
Formula 1 is truly the sport of the very wealthy with unlimited budgets in excess of $400 million (Toyota has been the top spender at $418M) and teams of up to 700 employees. The cost, size, and status of formula 1 in Europe make the America’s Cup contenders look like poor man’s amateur hour. Formula 1 has also been dominated by a few teams, four of which (McLaren, Williams, Renault (formerly Benetton) and Ferrari) have won every world championship since 1984. One driver, Michael Schumacher, and Ferrari won an unprecedented five consecutive drivers’ championships and six consecutive constructors’ championships between 1999 and 2004, putting Ferrari into the same league of dominance as the Boston Celtics under Bill Russell. Schumacher with his endorsements was by far the highest paid athlete in all of sports at the time of his retirement in 2006.
Schumacher and his Ferrari in 2005
Formula 1 today races on 17 circuits consisting of streets and specially built tracks throughout the world. Today they race in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, North and South America. Their most famous circuit is probably Monte Carlo where they race through the city tunneling under hotels and along the ocean side with one U turn reverse on the same street. The cars are powered by tiny 2.4 liter V8 engines that reach 18,000 RPM produce 450 HP and propel the cars to 220 MPH. The cars are technological marvels of electronics, aerodynamics, and ever changing invention and regulation. Tires are equally important with Michelin and Bridgestone competing with equal passion for dominance. In 2009 Bridgestone exclusively supplies the tires, both soft and hard compound, and the cars are required to use each type at least once in each race. Each circuit is unique with some set up clockwise and others counter-clockwise. The cars must be reconfigured with fuel tanks moved to the opposite sides depending on the track. Race conditions and road surfaces also vary dramatically and formula 1 cars race through rain, wind, and heat. Only very extreme conditions will halt a race. These different conditions often find favor for cars that otherwise seldom see wins such as BMW or driver Glock in the rain.
1976 Elf Formula 1
The respect for Formula 1 innovations and technology is highlighted by a McLaren story. McLaren’s designer of the transmission and rear suspension got a call from legendary Jackie Stewart asking him to host and answer the questions of a mysterious visitor, who turned out to be the real world gadget inventor of MI6 (“M” of James Bond fame.) “M” wanted to know everything about the innovative rear car design. One innovation that didn’t survive was the 1976 Elf 6 wheel car considered by some to be the ugliest racing car ever built. Another attempt pitted four cylinder engines against the 8 and 12 cylinder engines used at the time.
The most talked about innovation of 2009 was the addition of a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) 55 pound flywheel to the transmission. The flywheel stores kinetic energy during braking which can be released by the driver during acceleration. The KERS is of no value to the cars at the critical start of the race and the actual value of its addition seems to have gotten lost amid the surprise victories of the Brawn team.
Britain’s Lewis Hamilton 2007 Second Place and 2008 Formula 1 Driving Champion
Honda, tired of losing, hired the retired technical director of Benetton and Ferrari, Britisher Ross Brawn to head a new racing team for the 2008 season. Honda still finished the season 9th out of 11 teams. For the 2009 reason, Brawn developed a completely new chassis but when Honda sales turned down, a Honda family member returned to take the helm of the company and announced that Formula 1 racing would be dropped. Honda sold the team to Brawn for $1 but stopped production of the race engines as well. Brawn turned to Mercedes who supplies engines for other teams, and to Virgin and other sponsors to enter the 2009 season as Brawn GP with British Jenson Button and former Ferrari driver Brazilian Rubens Barrichello as drivers. Brawn barely finished modifying his new chassis for the Mercedes engines before start of qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix. Brawn GP qualified 1 and 2 and finished the race 1 and 2, setting the race world on its ear. Brawn GP and Button went on to win 6 out of the first 7 races of the season.
Britisher Ross Brawn and his revolutionary Brawn GP car leading the field
The other surprise team this year has been Red Bull (Renault engine) whose driver Sebastian Vettel is in second place in the drivers championship going into the last race and it appears Red Bull has now sown up second place in the constructors competition. Ferrari particularly has been beset by inexplicable lapses and problems. Brazilian driver Filipe Massa received insufficient fuel on his final pit stop and lost several positions nursing his Ferrari to the finish in one race. Another big 4 car lost a wheel on the track. Massa crashed his Ferrari while qualifying in Hungary and is out for the season. With one race remaining legendary Ferrari had won one race, Belgium.
Why is this huge change happening? There are suspicions and accusations, particular surrounding the innovative double diffuser which other teams tried to disallow, in this highly competitive world. In fact the issue of the double diffuser (a subtle rear undercarriage change that is crucial to the aerodynamics, and small changes can have a big impact on down force – and therefore grip and speed, actually ended up in court with Ferrari taking the lead in opposing the innovation. The court ruled that the double diffuser conformed to Formula 1 rules on April 15. This decision left other teams playing technical catch up for the rest of the season as they added double diffusers to their cars. This flap is reminiscent of the controversy over the Kiwi’s secret twin keel on their America’s Cup contender.
But the most significant difference seems to come down to one principal difference which made all the difference in Italy: The Brawn cars are lighter and therefore have greater fuel efficiency and produce less tire wear. This difference was highlighted in the race at Monza in Italy where the two Brawn cars qualified in the third row. Their fuel efficiency and tire life allowed them to pit much later than the leading teams (Hamilton driving for McLaren Mercedes led most of the race from the poll start) and the Brawns were able to finish the race with only a single pit stop where Hamilton had to stop twice. Formula 1 pits stops require only 8-9 seconds for fuel, tire change, and adjustments and the cars can be back racing with only a loss of less than 30 seconds. This second pit stop meant that Hamilton emerged third after the two Brawns. Hamilton pushed hard and had closed to less than 4 seconds with one lap remaining when he spun out and did not finish. The Brawns won by eliminating that extra pit stop, a revolutionary advantage so long as they can qualify in one of the first few rows at the start of the race.
Formula 1 is constantly changing the rules with the result that Schumacher still holds course records 3 years after his retirement. A big change was requiring the actual race car including fuel and tires to be used in qualifying. The teams can’t even change the down forces. This change was needed to stop the manufacturers from creating expensive, lightweight, qualifying cars never intended for an entire race. The problem with this change was highlighted in Brazil where qualifying was held in heavy rain while the race was expected to be conducted on dry roads. McLaren set up Hamilton’s car for dry roads and he qualified near the back of the field. Still Hamilton finished the race third after six cars crashed or broke down in the race. Barrichello, who won the poll position in qualifying, finished eighth. Next year they plan on eliminating refueling entirely during the race which means all cars must be able to carry enough fuel to qualify and complete the entire race, a huge change. The most revolutionary proposal for next year would limit team expenditure to 50 million Euro a huge reduction over current expenditures.
Finally, next year will see the first US entry into Formula 1 with a Charlotte North Carolina based racing team. The Dukes of Hazard this team is not we hope. Also next year will see the return of Lotus to Formula 1.