This week's Grapevine brings you
information fresh from the paddock on:
- That Safety Thing
- Driver Aids & Engine Mappings
- Ferrari Expand its Press Office to Meet Demands
- Picked from the Bunch
That Safety Thing
With two "incidents" in short succession, the Safety looks set to rear its ugly head again.
Barrichello touching Coulthard in the pits at Imola has served to illustrate how close to the edge drivers are in the pit-lane; accordingly, the FIA have decided against banning pit-lane speed limiters, after all. Indeed, they are looking at further ways to improve the safety of the pit lane. Itís too early to know if anything will come of it, but initial suggestions have included:
- a new, lower speed limit;
- extra lines across the pits, indicating when a car has "priority" over others leaving their pit; and
- penalties for straying into other teams pit areas.
More serious, however, is Zonta's little escapade on the last day of the Silverstone test. Having inconsiderately dropped it's front right wheel, the BAR became a projectile, bouncing off the top of the tyre wall at Stowe, and over the catch-fence behind it. The impact zone was a standard no-go area - proving the circuit's designers were absolutely right not to place a Grandstand there. On a typical race day, these red-zones really are a no-go area, typically patrolled by a couple of marshals, who punt straying fans back into the Grandstands when races start. However, the fact of a car landing off the circuit is causing a lot of consternation in all the wrong places.
As the sport has grown, the appeal has drawn fans from all walks of life, the average man in the street is as entertained by spectacular accidents, as good passing manoeuvres. Ratings after the Belgian Grand Prix in 1998, where almost the entire field was wrecked in a first lap accident, shot up, and it was not a coincidence.
Whilst some still see real "life and death" risks as acceptable, particularly for the drivers, who are paid substantially more than their risk-taking predecessors, it is no longer considered acceptable for racing to bring about the death of anyone involved - particularly the spectators.
In the wake of Zonta's car landing outside the track, there is a backlash of concern, focussing on minimising the dangers to spectators. Until this time, talk on changing the circuits has been avoided, with the focus being on how to model "worst case" accidents, looking to establish accident dynamics to discover where wings, wheels, or even cars could end up in the crowd. Given realistic scenarios, it then becomes easier to plan for accidents, and avoiding "collateral damage" can be better managed. But with the recent example of the low flying BAR, few would be surprised to see something radical happening, and soon.
Driver Aids & Engine Mappings
The latest generation of Formula One car is, nominally, far less complicated than it's active-ride predecessor of the early 90s.
When the FIA concluded that active ride was making cars both too fast to be safe, and so sophisticated that the driver's skills were eclipsed, they banned it, along with traction control and ABS. At that time, sequential gearboxes were not banned, partly because all the teams considered them a "good thing" for protecting the engine (drivers missing gears and over-revving is not a good thing for delicate racing breeds), and partly due to pressure from the "big four." These teams held a technological advantage over their rivals in all areas, and were not prepared to see the FIA erode every aspect of their every area, so this was something of a sop.
However, with the FIA working to put control back in the hands of the drivers, rather than the cars, sequential gearboxes as much as anything are being highlighted as an example of technology taking control away from the man behind the wheel.
Currently all the teams have a "fly-by-wire" throttle: it is wired to a computer, which provides a linear mapping between the pedal position, and the engine's acceleration, depending on the current gear, current revs, and whether or not the gearbox is changing gear.
During a gear change, the driver touches the paddle, which causes a chain reaction. The clutch is engaged, neutral is selected, the clutch is disengaged, then the throttle "blips" the engine to match the projected speed for the new gear. The clutch is re-engaged, the gear selected, the clutch disengaged, and the driver is now in the new gear, without so much as lifting off the throttle. Or brake.
As things stand, the sequential gearbox is clearly taking a lot away from the driver. Looking back a generation, Mansell was famed for never missing a gear, or over-revving the engine; Senna knew the limit of his engine and took the car right to it, and Prost also knew the longevity of his gearbox, so making it to the end of races where others would not.
However, despite repeated calls for the return of manual gear shifting, it is a non-trivial event, requiring a complete redesign of the clutch, gearbox, engine and transmission, in order to withstand the increased strain of drivers changing up or down at less than optimal moments, or without getting the engine revs "just so" - not to mention the problems drivers would face in putting 800bhp through the modern, grooved rear tyres, which would also need significant development, in order to take the additional wear and tear from wheel-spin on every gear change.
In the wake of Mosley's crusade against hi-tech, many asked why the fly-by-wire throttle is still there; and the answer is, the gearbox. The sequential gearbox relies upon it to operate, and the impact in terms of cost, reliability, and reaction time for a return to manual is simply prohibitive.
Ferrari Expand its Press Office to Meet Demands
In some ways, the remarkable popularity of Grand Prix racing is becoming a problem. The media interest is massive. You only have to offer Bernie Ecclestone publicity in exchange for a media pass, and his lack of interest is huge! You begin to realise that Formula One motor racing is getting all the publicity it can handle - thank you very much.
At each Grand Prix, for instance, there are between 300 and 400 regular Grand Prix correspondents, around 100 TV and radio reporters, and 250 photographers. They are all intensely interested in the top teams, and very interested in everyone else. Imagine, therefore, being the media manager at McLaren or Ferrari, and having 400 reporters gathered around your door, and 250 photographers wanting to stand in your garage...
At Ferrari, racing team media relations used to be handled by just one man, Claudio Berro. Amazingly mild-mannered, Claudio seems permanently plugged into the telephone, yet he has time for everyone. This, perhaps, is part of the juggling trick which is media relations. He admits: "The main problem is to check all communications with the press, to avoid giving too much away. In a way, it's different for us at Ferrari, because in a way, we have to keep a lid on communication."
Claudio's department, however, is on the brink of considerable expansion. Having been a one-man band when it comes to Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, his department is becoming a lot larger. In the past, he has enjoyed the part-time contrbution of Stefania Bocchi, who has helped to distribute press releases and organise press meetings on circuit, while Michael Schumacher has always had his own press liaison officer.
Now Claudio has not only Stefania to help him, but Fillipo Marai to organise the press motorhome (which goes to all the European races), and two new press officers. Jane Parisi de Lima looks after Rubens Barrichello, and Bernd Fisa looks after Michael Schumacher.
But on top of that comes a new press department, due to open at the end of this month. The racing press department moves into the GT road car press office, headed by Tim Watson. Also joining the team is Luca Coliani who runs the Ferrari's new internet group. Included in this is the new Ferrari World Club, the official link between Ferrari and its supporters. Coliani will have all the latest video and audio equipment, will conduct interviews with major team personalities and send them digitally over the internet. In a couple of months, there will also be a media internet agency, putting out information in both Italian and English.
Once the new press office is up and running, the 20 (and sometimes many more) media requests that Claudio handles every day will be logged on computer. They will try to answer those requests within 24 hours. Last year, they organised more than 800 interviews, and requests this year already stand at over 200.
Picked from the Bunch
The second part of the Schumacher Bros interview on Fox Sports Net will be aired during their coverage of the British GP this weekend, starting at 10:00am accros the USA. Jurnalist Peter Windsor will be talking to Ralf and Michael about how difficult is it to not share team secrets, their exercise training routines and whether the two race each other in certain situations.
Despite leaving Silverstone early, the BAR technical team are pretty sure of the cause of Zonta's suspension failure. Procedures for checking newly manufactured components are being thoroughly checked.
Jordan came off a difficult week in Silverstone with mixed results. Whilst Heinz-Harald Frentzen generally had a good week, Jarno Trulli struggled with a new gearbox. The team are looking to solve their gearbox problems ahead of the race... and anticipate a difficult Friday session if their development team haven't put it all together in time.
BMW delivered their new engine to Williams for evaluation at the end of the week. Testing shows that the problem Jenson Button suffered at Imola should have been solved, though more miles are required in race circumstances to be sure.
Silly Season 2001 continues, with rumours of Johnny Herbert departing from Jaguar, to make way for test driver Luciano Burti.
Allegedly, Honda is unsatisfied with BARs failure to perform on a par with Jordan, despite running their customer engine. This has led to rumours circulating that Jordan could be offered a chance to run customer units alongside BAR from 2001.
Despite the Easter fears, the British Grand Prix is reportedly sold out. "Since the 2000 season kicked off, ticket sales for the home round of the world championship have been unprecedented," said Silverstone circuit director Roger Etcell. "With the success of Ferrari, the return of Jaguar and the promise of Jenson Button, British F1 fans have been quick to secure a seat at what is sure to be a thrilling spectacle."