Friday, August 11, 2017

Lewis vs Bottas: the hidden war

During the Hungarian grand prix Lewis Hamilton yielded 3rd place back to Valtteri Bottas after promising to do so if he could not make up positions. Bottas was running in 3rd but Lewis closed on him and seemed faster and asked to be let by. The way we see it, it was unprofessional from the Mercedes team to make him have to give back the position. Even if he promised. He is the team points leader and the team owes him one for the headrest snafu in Azerbaijan.

Their cars can no longer finish a race 20 to 30 seconds ahead of the pack. They're no longer fighting each other for the title. Ferrari is in the mix, and at the right tracks like Hungary so is Red Bull. If the team really believes it's giving each driver an equal chance at the championship it's instead forcing them to fight with one arm tied behind their back. Compared to Vettel who has his whole team and teammate pledged to support his title bid Mercedes simply looks amateurish.

Had Verstappen overtaken Lewis Hamilton while Bottas was going by, it would have been a major embarrassment.

There are a few telling reasons why Lewis himself was compelled to cede the position back besides his inability to pass Raikkonen. He was probably well scolded behind closed door after last year's final race, Valterri Bottas' longtime billionaire supporter Antti Aarnio-Wihuri might really be splurging on the team and might have an equality clause for his sponsored driver. You have probably noticed the "Wihuri" patch that used to adorn the Williams uniforms is now proudly but inconspicuously displayed on the right arm of the Mercedes uniforms and both drivers' helmets. Bottas is an F1 team's prototypical driver: Fast, and connected in high places. Lewis' last teammate with similar circumstances was Fernando Alonso. Bottas is also Lewis' boss' personal project. If Bottas makes it, Toto Wolf will also be regarded as someone with an eye for great talent.

Just as Lewis was Ron Dennis' find, and made sure to give him equal footing against Alonso, Lewis shouldn't be surprised if in the second half of the season, Toto develops a penchant for Bottas.

From the team's point of view, now that Bottas is used to the car he can be a threat to Ferrari. But the true wisdom is that if Bottas was truly a better driver than Hamilton we would have seen it in the first 5 races. Pre season testing should have been plenty for him to adapt to the car.

What's the indication of who truly is the better driver when a new driver moves to a new team?

When Lewis moved to Mercedes in 2013, against Nico Rosberg who had been there for 3 years before him, it was clear who the new team leader was. Lewis outclassed Rosberg, even when he got borred midway through the season.

When Vettel moved to ferrari he had his way with Raikkonen. When Alonso went to Ferrari he had Massa in check. Pretty much no matter who is already in a team, so long as the incoming driver has had preaseason testing, he will get the hang of the car if he is the better driver.

It's not at the midway point that the team should start changing strategy to allow the secondary driver to fight for the title because he has worked himself into the hunt.

So barring catastrophic failures, in the first 4 to 5 races the better driver in the team is usually the leader in points. In Mercedes' case Lewis is the de facto and de jure #1. He is the proven winner.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The "meh" Grand Prix

The Hungarian Grand Prix showed some of the worst aspects of Formula 1 racing. It summed up everyone's complaint about the sport. It was so devoid of any meaningful racing action that one of the podium hostesses inadvertently stole the show.

The race was mostly such a procession that the broadcasters' focus was on the leading cars. Among the top 5 cars there wasn't a single genuine pass. Given their pace and the tight nature of the track, the leading cars couldn't get enough of a run to make clean passes on their teammates. And given their lofty positions no one wanted to make a daring move for fear of damaging their tires or worst their car.

The drivers all blamed the track, but it's rather the F1 honchos, since they decide the car design parameters. F2 had a very entertaining session at this same track.

When you compare the action here to Indycar, or even the F2 race earlier in the day, F1 was rather boring, predictable, and lacking in any taut racing.

On average Lewis Hamilton was the fastest man on track. In a normal racing environment Raikkonen would have passed Vettel, then Lewis would have made quick work of Bottas, Vettel, and then battled it out with Raikkonen for the win.

So why can't F1 cars overtake each other on this track And have a hard time at most other tracks? This track is even so short that even the DRS gimmick doesn't give pursuing cars enough time to make a pass.

Formula 1 cars' reliance on aerodynamics to make speed and downforce is their long standing problem. Compared to Formula1 cars,  the F2 cars that raced earlier or even Indycars and Super Formula machines rely more on mechanical grip for handling and speed. Meaning the design of the chassis, suspension geometry, tire, weight distribution, ride height all are used to keep the car holding onto the road. There is still aero involved, in F2, Indy and Super Formula, but it's less of a factor compared to F1, and vice versa.

Aero grip is advanced, near space age technology. The higher the speeds the better it works. It really provides quite a show on acceleration and fast sweepers. Its development cost is stratospheric, it has limited real world application, and as witnessed in Hungary, it requires undisturbed air and does not allow for much close racing in confined quarters.

Mechanical grip is closer to real world road car technology, its development cost are more manageable, it allows for close racing as you see in Indy and F2. It is considered a step down from aero grip development and the cars tend to look unsophisticated compared to F1 machinery.

In my opinion if an Indycar were to be fitted with either the Mercedes or Ferrari engines used in Hungary, the same tires and with a competent driver, it would have over taken the leading pack and easily kept the lead by making quick work of lapped traffic. The reason so, is because it would be able to draw close to cars, since its body work makes do with more mechanical grip than aero grip.

If cars with higher mechanical grip than aero would provide more racing action, why doesn't F1 scrap their current rules book and adopt a whole new concept frame? The answer is one of exclusivity, and control.

F1 has been very lucrative for the established teams. Over the years they have amassed nearly unsurmountable knowledge about aerodynamics as it applies to racing vehicles. This knowledge alone is golden. It sets the established teams apart from any new entrant. No matter how much a new entrant is willing to spend to be competitive, or the caliber of the firm they choose to subcontract design work to, overcoming the challenge of years of aero knowledge is a task measured in hundreds of millions. In the case of a savvy new entrant like Haas, the aero curve defficiency makes them dependent on an established team. In the effort to keep themselves as the players in the sport for as long as possible, the F1 establishment will simply not budge to move the sport's chassis design language from a aero dependent grip to a mechanical grip dependent platform. The sport is lucrative, exclusive and the big players want to stay in charge of it. End of story.

As a side effect this has also ensured that only a small crop of heavily backed drivers can truly contend for a driving seat in Formula1. All lower formulas (Indylights, F2, FV8 3.5, etc) and all other types of racing, have mechanical grip dependent or dominant chassis. When drivers graduate from there, unless they were heavily sponsored to have used a team's simulator and test drive the latest F1 cars regularly, they will struggle to adapt, and F1 teams simply won't hire drivers who do not test drive regularly.

Formula1 can be made racier with more passing. However the desire to maintain a solid grip on the sport and only attract well heeled newcomers (drivers and teams) to add to the pot has kept the sport from truly being as entertaining as it can be.