ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 19 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Technical Preview:
Austrian Grand Prix

Click here for a track map of the A1-Ring by Will Gray, England

Described by many drivers as the most boring circuit on the Grand Prix calendar, the A1-Ring in Austria still presents plenty of engineering challenges. But perhaps this year the biggest challenge will for the teams will be moving their once-raced traction control systems onto the next level.

The controversial systems made their Grand Prix return at the last race, in Spain, after being legalised because they could not be policed out of existence. But many teams had such problems getting to grips with the complicated electronics that many actually gave up and turned the systems off. Even McLaren admitted defeat and on his last-gasp qualifying attempt Mika Hakkinen ran without traction control and gained a front row grid spot.

It brought into question the overall usefulness of the systems, but it is clear that in preventing wheelspin their job is more important in race-length tyre wear reduction than reducing sector times on a single flying lap. However, in Barcelona many teams were not running their systems to full specification for fear that the chanced of system failure were so great that it was not worth the risk for the amount it would actually gain.

Unusual or unexplained retirements were plentiful and the question of whether traction control was to blame could not always be answered. Ralf Schumacher's sudden spin into the gravel was one such incident, as was Mika Hakkinen's clutch failure, which prevented his almost certain victory and could not be analysed because in trying to get his car to the end of the final lap he totally destroyed it.

Launch control also caused controversy, with some teams such as Jaguar, whose driver Eddie Irvine gained six places with a perfect start, excelling in it and others, such as McLaren and Jordan, who each had a driver stop on the grid with a malfunctioning system, failing miserably. Indeed, it appeared that, traction control, far from being an outstanding success was, for some teams, a total disaster.

There were many unanswered questions after Barcelona and secrecy prevails in that particularly sensitive area of engineering as the teams head for Austria hoping that those questions have now been solved. But two weeks is not a long time in car development and although almost all the teams tested last week, the three-day tests will have given precious little time to gain the much needed stability in the systems. Austria could well see teams turning away from traction control once again.

But the nature of the Austrian circuit is such that the new systems will be of more importance than they were in their debut race. Firstly, the A1-Ring circuit is one which, with six sub-100 mph (160 km/h) corners, will be helped by the increased low-end traction that traction control can offer and that will allow teams with a good system to come into their own.

But it is the notorious weather associated with the Austrian circuit which could cause the teams even more problems and see them faced with a difficult dilemma. With a good circuit surface the traction between the track and the now extra-sticky tyres which have been developed through the tyre war is good enough to limit wheelspin leaving the new systems with little advantage to gain. But the worst situation for traction is when the track is wet. And in Austria that is not an unusual situation.

If it does rain, the teams will be left with an even more difficult decision of how far to go in trusting their new systems, and some may be tempted by the increased gain available to take a calculated risk. That could particularly be the case with the Michelin runners who are expected to suffer if the rain does fall.

The French tyre manufacturer openly admits that development of their wet tyres has been slow and that they are behind Bridgestone in that area of performance. Pierre Dupasquier, Michelin's motorsport manager, knows that their wet solution is limiting the overall package and although they have been working hard on that area, rivals Bridgestone are still expected to be ahead if the weather turns.

With overtaking a distinct possibility in three areas, grid position may not be as essential as it often is, and although Ferrari and McLaren remain the expected top-two, Williams now has an extremely good dry package, especially here because Michelin already tested at the A1-Ring last year. But a wet day could leave them struggling and may pave the way for a Jordan success, providing the Silverstone-based team have sorted out their electronics problems.

The circuit is also important for the engine manufacturers and speeds around the Austrian circuit could reveal who is on top of their game and who is lagging behind. The A1-Ring is a demanding circuit on engines because out of the 17 circuits on the Grand Prix calendar it is the one which has the biggest percentage of the lap with cars at full-throttle. That means that the engines will be working harder than ever and there will be the greatest risk of engine failure - particularly if the gremlins are still nesting in the teams' traction control systems.

Will Gray© 2007
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