ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 9

  Technical Preview Australian Grand Prix

by Will Gray, England

When the teams arrive in Melbourne for the first race of the season, the erroneous times in testing will be blown away with the true facts. A good performance in pre-season testing may impress the sponsors, but it is Australia where we will see the first signs of who is hot and who is not.

Because of the tyre war, this winter has seen perhaps the most irrelevant testing times since Bridgestone entered the fray in 1997. Both the Japanese company and French manufacturer Michelin have been busy testing tyre compound after tyre compound as their battle heats up and the lap times drop.

After working with the teams in winter testing, both manufacturers have finally chosen their tyres for Melbourne, and it is now up to the teams to extract the best out of their rubber by matching the car to its tyres. It will be very much a situation of rapid development for every team during the weekend as they learn how the tyres affect the set-up of the car.

Pre-season testing cannot tell the team what set-up to use in Australia because the circuits and temperatures the teams test on over the winter are a world away from those they will encounter in Melbourne. In fact, apart from the development of new tyres, pre-season testing is effectively just a means of putting mileage on the engine and ensuring the systems on the car - such as the gearbox, cooling systems, and braking systems - are all working correctly.

However, the testing will also give the team all the data they need to input the handling characteristics of the new car into their simulation packages back at base, and come up with an initial set-up plan for Melbourne. It is that, along with information on aerodynamic settings from the wind tunnel, that the team will base their initial set-up plans on when they arrive in Melbourne.

This year, however, will be particularly interesting as the influence of the tyres will be a relative unknown for the teams. That means the set-up of the cars is likely to develop drastically from the teams original plans, and could see some cars take to the track in the early sessions with less than perfectly handling cars.

Just to make life even more difficult for the teams, the track in Melbourne also changes dramatically throughout the Grand Prix weekend. Although it may not look like one, Albert Park is basically a road circuit. Throughout the rest of the year, normal everyday traffic passes over the track, and this creates a greasy and oily surface.

When the teams arrive it is very "green" (slippery) but during the weekend the grip increases as the rubber goes down from the F1 and the support race cars. It even continues to improve during the qualifying session, and that provides even more of a challenge to the race engineer because the car's balance and therefore set-up requirements keep changing minute by minute.

That could see teams struggling in qualifying at one of the rounds of the Grand Prix calendar for which the session is most important. It is very difficult to overtake at the Albert Park circuit so qualifying position is of utmost importance for any team. For that reason, and with reliability a definite issue in the first race of the season we should find the cars heading out early in the session as the teams will want to get one in the bag in case anything goes wrong.

The circuit requires pretty much maximum downforce, so the big changes in front and rear wing regulations that dramatically reduce their aerodynamic effect could hit the teams hard. They will all be running close to their maximum wing settings, and for the ones who have got it right, their hard work in the wind tunnel over the pre-season will help them jump up the grid. This in itself may be a big factor in changing the established order of the midfield runners.

For the race, the slippery surface means that softer tyres, which are stickier and offer more grip than hard compound tyres, are the norm at the circuit. This year, now that Bridgestone and Michelin are up against each other, super-soft tyres will return - and with that comes extra tyre wear.

The teams could be staring controversy in the face because there is the possibility that grooves will wear down to slicks during the race, and with more rubber in contact with the track surface, this could prove an advantage. This is clearly in breach of the rules, and if it does happen, the races could be decided in the courtroom under protest.

In terms of reliability, it is engines and fragile under-developed gearboxes that could do most harm to teams' aspirations at the Australian Grand Prix. The track is at sea level, and this means that the air is 'thicker' and the ram-air effect on the engine is more significant. With this comes more power, and with the engine working harder than ever, there are risks that it could fail.

Both Ferrari and McLaren have suffered early teething problems with their new machines - particularly McLaren's gearbox. But although their new challengers may be fragile in Melbourne, it is difficult to see anyone other than the top two rising to the technical challenge and giving Bridgestone their first one-up on Michelin.

Will Gray© 2007
Send comments to: Terms & Conditions