Pat Symonds on the unexpected
IN FORMULA 1 WE CRAVE THE UNEXPECTED
Predictability is a double-edged sword. It is something we desire in our everyday lives, yet that comfort zone is anathema to anything that brings excitement into our ordered lives. And nowhere is this more obvious than in sport. Many attributes make professional sport the huge draw that it is to the general population. These include elements of hero worship as we applaud the apparent superhuman skills of elite athletes and sportsman, and the sense of belonging that allegiance to a team brings to the individual whether directly involved or participating by association. Above all, the element that makes sport so popular and defines its success is unpredictability. We have had many periods when race outcomes have been too predictable. This is nothing new. Remember McLaren’s domination in 1998 and Ferrari’s long run of success in the Schumacher era? More recently Red Bull have dominated, leading to four titles for Seb Vettel and, of course, Mercedes had a similar run in the past few years.
Now it can be argued that even during the periods of domination the actual winner was not always obvious, with Webber sometimes able to beat Vettel and Rosberg matching Hamilton from time to time. It was very different in 1988 as Senna took the championship with eight wins to Prost’s seven, and the competition was intense. Equally, you can apply all sorts of statistics to either reinforce or dismiss theories of domination, but actually it is the perception of certainty that causes the damage irrespective of the reality.
It’s logical that parity of performance will lead to fewer predictable outcomes and that parity of performance, unless artificial handicaps are applied, is best achieved through rule stability. In general, history would support this theory although in F1 it is rare for regulations to remain stable for long enough for us to draw concrete conclusions. Even so, the FIA has been monitoring power-unit performance since the start of this season through inspection of data from the torque sensors carried by every car on their gearboxinput shafts. It had been concerned about the apparent dominance of the Mercedes power unit in 2014 and 2015 and as part of a package of power unit reforms wanted assurances of near parity by 2017.
Power-unit manufacturers are reluctant to have meritocracy artificially manipulated and believe parity of performance occurs naturally through evolution. The FIA, by its own account, has made these measurements and declared that the top three power units are now within acceptable tolerances regarding power. Of course there is more to a successful race engine than power, but for now it is satisfied that the criteria have been met. Christian Horner has openly doubted the results, but while the full analysis will not be made public, the performance deficit he perceives his power unit to have may lie in more subtle areas than pure power.
While maturity may or may not have led to parity of performance in the powertrain, we have enjoyed a much closer battle in the overall competition this year, at least at the front of the field. Surely this flies in the face of any theories of parity through stability. It is true that the gains made by Ferrari and Renault in both the internal combustion engine efficiency and the management of
energy recovery and deployment have moved their teams and their customers closer to the gold standard set by Mercedes, but this is not enough to explain the fabulous season we are experiencing.
To understand this, look at the difficulty of getting the 2017 cars into their respective sweet spots.The change of regulations should have favoured bigger teams who were able, last year, to devote more resource to their 2017 concepts while maintaining the relentless development needed to chase their 2016 positions. At testing in Barcelona it appeared that Ferrari had stolen the upper hand, but there will always be questions over testing performance and, indeed, on Friday in Melbourne, Mercedes continued their dominance. On the day, Ferrari complained that they had lost the balance they had enjoyed at Barcelona, but on Saturday got the cars working and were extremely strong. In China we saw Mercedes falter and Ferrari emerge dominant. And so the season has progressed with the battle swinging one way and then another. In general, if circumstances are taken into account such as Hamilton’s potential to reach Q3 in Monaco were it not for Vandoorne’s accident, then the deviations have been relatively small.
But why are the deviations there at all? We have got used to predictability being the norm and now we hear complaints about not finding the right setup week after week. To many this may seem strange, given the amount of simulation available, and certainly, were it down to old-fashioned setup parameters such as springs, roll-bars and ride heights, it would indeed be surprising. But this is not really where modern F1 setups emanate from.
True these parameters can offer some comfort to the driver and aid his ability to extract the maximum from the car, but they will not, in the extreme, give the kind of grip that is needed to produce competitive lap times. Instead, this comes from two separate areas: aerodynamics and tyre temperature. It is the latter that is still the holy grail. The new generation of Pirelli tyres have achieved the objectives set for them, but all tyres fundamentally rely on being in the right temperature operating window and the required values for the new generation of tyres are subtly different to those of 2016.
With the teams unable to perform tests directly on the tyres, they need to build up a dossier of empirical evidence in order to drill into the subtlety of the data. It appears that Ferrari, as well as having a good basic car, have been able to do this more successfully than any other. Maybe this is just reward for the effort expended in testing last season. Mercedes, on the other hand, are finding it difficult to understand the amalgam of compound, track temperature and track surface characteristics which form the path to success. Ultimately they will, but, until then, long may unpredictability rule.
WE HAVE GOT USED TO PREDICTABILITY BEING THE NORM AND NOW WE HEAR COMPLAINTS ABOUT NOT FINDING THE RIGHT SETUP WEEK AFTER WEEK
Mercedes’ dominance in 2014 and 2015 prompted the FIA to monitor power units to try to promote parity
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Ferrari and Mercedes are doing well this year, seemingly taking it in turns to find the cars’ setup ‘sweet spot’