ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 24 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Gentlemen, Start
your Engines!

  by Will Gray, England

Following the Monaco GP's confusing restarts, Will Gray explains the procedures and habits of starting, and restarting F1 races

The recent Monaco Grand Prix had to cope with two re-starts, and this is not uncommon in Formula One. Memories echo back to the final race of the championship two years ago, when Michael Schumacher sat on the front row of the grid and waved his arms to indicate he had stalled. In that one unusual mistake, he virtually threw away all hope he had of claiming the World Championship, and proved that starts and re-starts are crucial.

The start of the Australian GP this yearA team will go through a very controlled procedure in the hours before the race. Each car has its own set of engineers and mechanics, led by the car's race engineer, and every person on this team will have a specific pre-race job to do - for instance checking tyre pressures, setting the engine maps, or filling the car with the precisely planned levels of fuel for the chosen strategy. It is essential that every area is covered, and to ensure this, the car's race engineer will have a checklist much the same as a pilot uses before he taxis his plane down the runway and takes off.

The pit lane opens half an hour before the start of the race, and cars are free to go for an out-in lap run (without passing over the start line), or line up to take their place on the grid. This is particularly important for a driver having to start in the spare car (or T-Car as it is known), because he will be able to see if there are any handling or comfort problems with it, and return to the pits to get them fixed.

The cars will tend to assemble on the grid soon after the pit lane opens. The drivers will get out, and the mechanics and some of the engineers will jump over the pit wall and flock around their car to go through more of the pre-race procedure. This is the most exposed a Formula One car can get, and one where secrets can be uncovered. That is why the chief engineers of all the teams can be spotted walking up and down the grid searching not only for clues of different teams' set ups for the race (mainly aerodynamic levels), but for design innovations that they may copy in the future.

The grid is a busy place, full of media, celebrities, and grid girls - not an easy place to stay focussed on the job in hand. With the cluttered environment, however, teams are now going to great lengths to keep their cars covered up. At the end of last season, Ferrari covered their barge-boards from prying eyes, and now we see full front and rear wing covers, along with specially designed fabric engine covers.

The grid takes its placeThese engine tents serve two purposes: The first is to hide the car's internals (leading to mechanics working undercover, or having to work blind), and the second, is to keep the engine cool (the tents are made of a reflective material). Cooling is important on the grid, as more often than not a Grand Prix is run in sweltering and sometimes very humid conditions.

To prevent the cars from overheating, the teams will attach fans to the front of the sidepods to blow air through the radiators, and use dry ice to make this airflow as cool as possible. To prevent the drivers from overheating, teams will shade them with parasol umbrellas, and drivers will leave their helmets off and stay out of the car for as long as possible before the start. Despite the heat, the tyres still need to be warmed more for them to reach near-race temperature, and this is done using heated covers wrapped around each wheel.

Fifteen minutes before the race start time the pits will close, and if any car is not out by then, it must start from the pit lane. With ten minutes to go, everybody except drivers, officials and team technical staff must leave the grid. Five minutes later, the red lights on the starting gantry come on, and one set of lights goes out per minute, during which time the mechanics make final preparations to the cars and remove the tyre warmers. With one minute to go, the engines must be started, team members must leave the grid by the time there is only fifteen seconds remaining, and the cars set off on their parade lap when the final light goes out.

Once all the cars are lined up on the grid, and the safety car (which follows the cars around on the parade lap) is in position behind them, the well-known start sequence is begun. A driver may abort the start if he stalls his car, as a stationary car in the madness of the start will clearly cause a danger to the other drivers. By waving his arms, he can signal to the officials, and they will put on the amber flashing lights to alert all drivers. A race may also be stopped by an incident that is too bad to enable the safety car to simply come out to lead the field around the danger.

Schumacher stalls at Japan, 1998A simple stall will just mean a five minute wait, the offending driver will be sent to the back of the grid, and to prevent the teams having to alter their fuel strategies too much, the race length will be reduced by one lap. Immediately after the flashing ambers, the drivers will kill their engines, and the team will be allowed back onto the grid. They will repeat the same procedure as explained before (the dry ice, the tyre warmers, and so on) but are not allowed to fill the car up with more fuel.

The delay is mostly a problem for the drivers, as their pre-race mental preparation is thrown out of sync, and they will sometimes have to go for a 'comfort break' to remove some of the litres of water they take on to prevent dehydration during the race. This led to the bizarre situation of an orderly queue of famous racing drivers outside a Monte Carlo portaloo this year, whilst at Silverstone in the past, drivers would dive into the nearest public conveniences for their delayed-race relief!

With five minutes to go, the start procedure leads into another parade lap, and the re-start.

As for accident-related delays at the start of the race (which tend to be longer due to the time required to clear up) the rules are quite clear. If the race has to be stopped after less than two laps, it is re-started as if it were the original race. That means any overtaking within the first two laps will be null and void, any drivers who were sent to the back or started from the pit lane can re-take their original grid spot, and any drivers whose cars were damaged in the accident can restart in their original spot in the spare car. All these occurred in the recent Monaco Grand Prix.

Mika Hakkinen was a big loser after his overtaking move into fourth spot past Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the hairpin was ruled out - he couldn't do it in the next start, so was stuck behind the Jordan driver for the rest of the race. Alex Wurz was lucky, as his stall had seen him at the back of the grid, but he happily climbed back into his grid position for the second re-start. As for T-Car users, Pedro De La Rosa missed out because he was already using his T-Car after crashing his race-car in the warm up, and several other teams who could not get their cars set up quickly enough had to start from the pit lane.

So the start of a race is a tense time, and everyone (except the celebrities taking in the grid atmosphere!) have to keep their cool - including the cars. The FIA define the starting procedure, and all the teams have their own preparations planned in minute detail - the half-hour before the start is all about team management.

Will Gray© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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