Without their own magic aids, Seb’s rivals are up the creek without a paddle
TH INK ABOUT YOUR STEERING WHEEL. Imagine if you had some sort of magic paddle, maybe mounted high on the right-hand side, something long that you could manipulate gently – tickle, even – with your right index finger. Now think about what you’d like it to do. That’s the precise thought process going through the minds of everyone in Formula One who isn’t Sebastian Vettel or a select group of Ferrari engineers.
Let me explain. Vettel has always been very secretive about his steering wheel. Last year, he had a titanium finger grip fitted to his clutch paddle that gave him a better feel for the clutch bite point. It worked. Seb got some cracking starts that helped him win races. He and his Ferrari mechanics went to extraordinary lengths to keep it hidden, storing it in a special box in the garage and making sure it was covered with an umbrella on the grid. After Vettel smashed up his Ferrari against Lance Stroll’s Williams on the slow-down lap of the Malaysian Grand Prix, the German even took his steering wheel with him back to the pits rather than leave it with his stricken car, as he was supposed to. Eventually all the other teams found out his secret, but it was a nice advantage to have while it lasted.
Now it seems he’s at it again, this time with the magic paddle. But what does it do? Engage the caterpillar drive? Drop oil out the back, Bond-style? Snap a selfie? It could serve any number of purposes, but closer inspection confirms it’s not an on/off switch: the paddle is attached to a little cylindrical sensor so that Vettel can operate it in a gradual way. That immediately narrows down the kinds of things it could change. It can’t be anything aerodynamic, like moving a wing angle to give more or less downforce depending on what kind of corner you’re in, because that would be illegal. Moveable aerodynamic devices are a no-no.
So if it’s not aerodynamic it must be mechanical. Suspension? A graduated switch to support one side of the car in a certain corner, or to raise the nose or drop the rear for better feel? Surely not: that kind of thing is pre-programmed into the suspension systems – why burden the driver with extra workload?
No, it has to be something Sebastian wants complete control over, not something that is pre-programmed by engineers. Could it be trying to fix something? Vettel’s problem with the car earlier this season was that it was lazy on braking and turn-in, something Kimi Räikkönen could live with, but which worked against Vettel’s driving style. He likes the car to be spot-on precise under braking and razor-sharp when turning into the corner, and when the car doesn’t give him confidence in either, the lap time ebbs away. So could it be some kind of electronic brake assist, or power steering adjustment? The magic paddle is only on Sebastian’s car, not on Kimi’s, so it must be something to cure that lazy brake/turn-in problem, right?
Then again, it could be exhaust blowing. Those with good memories will recall how Vettel’s Red Bull cars mastered the concept of off-throttle exhaust blowing: engine maps that kept the Renault unit revving enough to produce exhaust gas that was blown through or over the diffuser to produce mid-corner downforce, even when the driver was off the throttle. All very clever and very effective at the time, before it was prohibited.
Teams are very tightly restricted on such engine maps these days and the exhaust pipe is regulated in terms of where it can be located and at what angle it can be pointed, but you can’t unlearn what you already know, and Renault has designed its exhaust pipe and rear wing specifically to mimic the beneficial effect of pumping high-velocity exhaust under the rear wing to make it work harder. Ferrari has denied rumours that the paddle acts as some kind of gradual engine-map change, with the goal of altering settings mid-corner to keep the exhaust blowing even when off throttle. So if it’s not that, our best guess is either a clever diff adjust or a manual battery power boost through the MGU-K: the ‘Motor/ Generator Unit – Kinetic’ that’s linked to the engine’s crankshaft.
Whatever, one strength of this year’s Ferrari is that it’s remarkably quick in a straight line – faster than the Mercedes; something that hasn’t been the case in recent years. Lewis Hamilton recently described it as ‘very strange’ how the Ferrari is quickest in all conditions, temperatures and on all kinds of circuit, whereas Mercedes is struggling. It’s not strange, Lewis, it’s the magic paddle. Problem is, you’re no nearer to figuring out what the hell it does than the rest of us.
‘What does Sebastian’s magic paddle do? Engage the caterpillar drive? Drop oil out the back, Bond-style? Snap a selfie?’