Friday, 6 June 2014

Preview: Oh Canada

The final corner of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montréal, home to the Grand Prix of Canada, is a tricky right-left chicane. To get through there on a fast lap you have to be as deft as a cat on a shelf full of china, because opposite the pits, right on the racing line, is a concrete wall cheerily emblazoned with the words Bienvenue au Québec. In 1999, Michael Schumacher led for half the race before he fumbled the chicane, drifted wide and smashed into the concrete wall, climbing from the crumpled remains of his Ferrari with a face as scarlet as his overalls - thankfully hidden by his helmet. Damon Hill (World Champion 1996) had already retired after hitting the very same wall, and Jacques Villeneuve (World Champion 1997) followed him not too long after, so ever since then the Quebec wall has been known as the Wall of Champions.

That little story tells you everything you need to know about the upcoming Canadian Grand Prix. Even the best can be caught out by the circuit on the Île Notre Dame: the odds are there will be crashes, safety cars, flying carbon fibre and general mayhem. And no wonder:

Fundamentally, this is a fast track where the cars break 300km/h in multiple places. That means wings are pared back for top speed and minimal downforce. Normally that would allow you to soften the suspension to make the car more forgiving, except that the need to stay nimble through the chicanes and around the hairpin rule that out in Canada. For the drivers, the cars are left feeling nervous, highly strung - and the barriers are never far away. In most places, the space between the ribbons of Armco is only as wide as a tennis court. High speeds, edgy cars and hovering barriers - what do you think is going to happen?

Just for extra variety - and once again, I'm indebted to Martin Brundle and his book Working The Wheel for pointing this out - the ideal setup on this track actually requires a little understeer to keep the rear wheels planted so you can get on the power early. That means - for once - the, lesser drivers can keep up with the big fish, who can't leave them behind like they usually do (or if they do, it's because they're over-driving like crazy - see "hovering barriers" above). There's every chance that when someone else has an accident, you'll just be in it. Now throw in a dash of the downright bizarre like hitting a groundhog (although that seems to have dropped off in the last couple of decades), and the World Sports Car race in 1990 that produced only genuine case I know of of a car sucking up a manhole cover*, and you have the recipe for a truly unique race.

Although, come to think of it, we saw this all the time.

Just in the nick of time, then, for Renault's round of new engine upgrades. Renault's overheating problems in preseason testing meant for the first few races they had to devote 100% of their resources to getting some reliability - with, it must be admitted, spectacular success. Compare Daniel Ricciardo's regular podium finishes to his inability to even complete a an outlap in January, and you see just how far the crew at Viry-Châtillon have come.

The downside is that hasn't left much time to chase kilowatts and drivability, and as I said drivability is huge in Montréal. The driver who can get on the power first, wins, and the Renault's nasty habit of kicking the car sideways as the turbo spools up is about the worst trait the engine could have, either robbing the car of traction at the exit of each corner or - even worse - robbing Vettel and Ricciardo of confidence, so their throttle application becomes ginger, hesitant.

Remi Taffin, Renault's man at the track, says:
“The long straights demand maximum power for a high percentage of the lap, therefore stressing the [internal combustion engine] hugely. I expect we’ll see speeds in excess of 330kph as we did in Barcelona so we will rely on the MGU-K [kinetic energy harvesting unit] and MGU-H [heat energy harvesting unit] to boost both top speed and acceleration. With very few corners energy recovery via the MGU-K will however be pretty difficult as the cars do not slow frequently over the lap. As a result the emphasis will be on the MGU-H to recover energy through the exhaust gases - we’ll need as much energy as we can as we’ll be right on the limit with the fuel consumption here.”

No, I have no idea how the MGU-H works: I keep imagining a miniaturised cyberpunk boiler, complete with tiny engineers heating their soup on the steam pipes, but it's probably much cooler and more interesting than that. Renault Sport employs people much smarter than me, and the Red Bull otherwise seems like a damn fine chassis, so if Renault can keep up their current rate of progress I predict they'll win a race before the year is out - Hungary maybe, or Abu Dhabi after the sun goes down and the temperatures drop.

Lastly, I have to give credit where it's due - Vettel is taking this season amazingly well. No, I know nobody in Australia wants to hear that, but it must be said. We haven't seen any of that boyish Backpfeifengesicht and its beaming smile like we used to, but that's no surprise. He's losing and he's not happy about it, and - come on - why should he be happy about it? The success of the last four years is pretty easy to get used to, but now he's being shown up by his "junior" teammate, he's finding the car doesn't like him, and even if they don't admit it, every single journalist out there sees the whole situation as karma. Maybe he's let off some steam in the German press, but in the Anglosphere I haven't heard a whisper of complaint. Given how much frustration there must be under that helmet, and I have to respect that.

But I also have to admit - and not just because I called it weeks ago - the schadenfreude of finding out he's been studying Ricciardo's data is delicious.

* Yes, I know Mythbusters supposedly busted this one, but the IndyCar they tested it with has a regulation flat bottom. Those Group C monsters had venturi tunnels which, combined with their phenomenal top speeds, must have produced some truly staggering levels of downforce. Adam, Jamie, I have four words for you - re-visit with ground effects!

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

So That Was May...

...the golden month of motorsport. And what a May it was.

I know the Indy 500 doesn't get much respect over here, but it should. As I've pointed out before, I've been for a ride in an oval-track racer, and from that perspective the broadcast looks... intense. Even a lumbering stock car corners so hard that if you dropped your pen it would stick to the window, and as the man said, here the cor wheighs hef as much and the tah-ers are twahce as waahde. This article has some actual figures if you're interested - for the rest of us, let's just say the G-force on your head is like lifting a shopping bag full of four 2L milk bottles with your neck - 800 times in two hours. No wonder they fit a sissy pad to brace against.

Now watch how hard these guys were racing at the end of two hours.

A good race and a good win for Ryan Hunter-Reay, even though with just a couple of engines and a only single chassis allowed, it does seem a little pointless. I hope one day the series is rich enough to go more open-formula again. A huge part of the appeal in the old days was the series regulars matching it with oddballs entering just this one race, cars developed and engineered on the fly. Porsche got interested back before it all went to hell; so did Ferrari. If they ditched the control chassis for a more laissez-faire approach, would we see other great racing dynasties come? A McLaren IndyCar, perhaps... (they've already got the Honda engines)? And what about the rising superpowers China, India and Brazil? Would we ever see a Dongfeng overtake an Agrale to chase down the leading Tata? Or would the Americans commit seppuku before they'd let that happen? I don't know, but I'll say again what I wish someone had said to Tony George twenty years ago: Indy can be a great race, or an American race, but not both.

The other kinda shame is that a week later they weren't racing at Milwaukee, but Belle Isle in Detroit, sharing the bill with the NASCAR-backed United Sportscar Series. A sign of the times: the Indy-Milwaukee double-header used to be an important beat in the season's rhythm, but NASCAR has cash and there's none to be made at the cramped, outdated Milwaukee Mile, which can't pack in enough customers to cover costs.


Congrats also to Nico Rosberg, Prince of Monaco for another year - but really, are we that surprised? He did grow up there. His dad Keke was World Champion himself once, moved to Monaco and left behind his native Finland so completely that Nico doesn't even speak Finnish, hence his official listing as German. But Nico spent his childhood on those streets, so I'm not too surprised that he beat Lewis. If they had a race on the streets of Stevenage, the result would probably have been different. Or maybe not - Nico's precise "classic" driving style did him better service than Lewis' roughly-hewn mastery.

Pic not from this year, I just couldn't waste an opportunity to post it.

But I'm still backing Lewis for the championship. Monaco is an aberration, after all, so Nico's win doesn't necessarily herald a comeback. And - once again - all we heard from Lewis was nonstop whining, pointing to plenty of extra brainpower inside his helmet that Nico didn't have. It's just a shame that Lewis doesn't find a more worthy outlet for it...

Then there was Nico Hülkenberg's moment of the race - hell, the moment of his career, overtaking Kevin Magnussen through Portier. I've been watching and studying Formula 1 for nearly a decade now but I don't think I've even heard of anyone passing at Portier before (this is the corner that ruined Ayrton Senna's perfect race in '88, let's not forget). His boss, Indian bling king Vijay Mallya, hailed it, "one of the best overtaking moves of this season," and even though the season is less than half over I bet it'll stay that way. Let's watch it again:

Seriously, can we get a .gif of that? I want it on permanent loop for every time someone bellyaches the old days were better.


Lastly, this May reminded me over and over again of the only man alive who's won both Monaco and Indianapolis, the Colombian bruiser Juan Pablo Montoya.

Pictured above.

His 2000 Indy 500 win is better detailed by Motorsport Retro, who recently published a good piece about it. It's a seedy story full of politics, because IndyCar at the time was in the middle of the long war between Tony George and the CART barons. The end result was, even though he was a 500 winner: “My face is not on the trophy. That won’t change.”

What a shame.

His Monaco win in 2003 was a happier story, but a much harder fight. Late in the race Kimi Räikkönen and Michael Schumacher had caught up and were stuck behind his Williams in a long snake the journos cutely named "Monty's Python". The reason why was less funny - his engine was on the verge of exploding.
Then in the last six laps Juan Pablo was on the radio saying, "There’s no fucking power, no fucking power." They said, "Yeah, we know. We’ve got some temperature problems; we’re decreasing the revs." A few laps later Montoya is under enormous pressure: Kimi Räikkönen is all over him. Juan Pablo says, "If you don’t give me some more fucking revs, I’m going to stick it in the fucking wall." This was typical Juan Pablo. He meant it: he was driving the wheels off that car. So they agreed that they would give him a burst of power through the tunnel to protect him down to the chicane. Meanwhile the temperatures are still climbing and everyone is sweating in the pits. This thing is about to let go at any point. But somehow everything held together and we won the race.

The car arrived in parc fermé and there were puddles of water under it. Everyone in Williams knew it was the same problem that had happened at the previous race. There was a realisation within the team that we were within an ace of throwing away a win at Monaco. – Jim Wright, Williams: In Their Own Words
There's progress there, in a way. Monaco doesn't put much airflow over the radiators so it's a hot race for engines, and the BMW engine that year cranked out about 670 kW, plus or minus. The dinky little V8's last year weren't an awful lot further behind, but had no reliability problems whatsoever. Amazing what a decade of R&D can do. So let's not rib Renault too much for their overheating problems, they'll be back - and they'll be bringing Daniel Ricciardo with them.