ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 3

The Grapevine
Rumours and speculation in the F1 world

  by The F1 Rumors Team

This week's Grapevine brings you
information fresh from the paddock on:

  • Quicker by design
  • Reynard talks the talk
  • Picked from the Bunch

Quicker by design

The day of the virtual car, and the virtual race, is almost here, as modern modelling techniques allow teams to run races without touching anything other than mouse and keyboard.

All the major players in Formula One have been working hard at modelling not only their race cars, but the components and dynamics of tracks and races, in their search for a competitive edge. Indeed, the software involved is now so sophisticated, that putting together a computer-controlled car to outpace the human driven equivalent is entirely possible. Unlike humans, a computer does not develop any set 'style', so it can always adopt the most appropriate technique for each corner, optimising speed around all parts of the circuit.

These days, before any car heads to a circuit, a computer simulation is run to establish what is likely to be the optimal setup for that track. The simulation cannot be entirely correct, as some things are unknown until the car has put in some laps for real: surface grip levels change according to weather, and the rubber laid down by other cars; surface lumps and bumps form and reform; lines get repainted, and so on. Sending the drivers out to gather telemetry resolves most of the unknowns, and a new simulation can be run to refine the setups.

The 'big four' have been able to tie their design systems into the analysis systems for a number of years, evolving continuously to bring more and more complexity to the simulation. Included in the simulation, because drivers are not perfect automatons, or perfect driving machines, are effects that emulate the styles of the drivers - their preferred braking points, lines and carry in speeds, acceleration points and power slide tendencies (Jean Alesi). More information, in fact, than a computer would require to drive a real car itself!

In recent years, there have been more and more instances of drivers performing relatively badly in qualifying, before dramatically finding significant speed for the race. Allegations of cheating normally result, but more often, the extra speed is due to a computer being leveraged to work out where the driver went wrong setting up the car...

It must seem ironic to the mechanics working on the car, that computers can be programmed to understand not only the best starting point for setting up the car; but also how to tune it to a specific driver's style. And then, take data gathered over the race weekend, and tell the one of the best drivers in the world how they really want their car set up.

Reynard talks the talk

With the season still three months away, and the first cars only just out of the box, some teams are already talking about their chances for the season ahead, and making predictions of winning, despite the dominance of the leading duo.

Last year saw what has to be considered the closest season of modern times: performance between front and back of the pack was, as many predicted it should be with stability of the rules, the closest ever. Overtaking on track, as opposed to in the pits, was up for the third year in a row. We even saw passes for the lead the did not involve pit-stops.

However, despite the general closing of gaps, the 'best of the rest' were simply fighting for the scraps that McLaren and Ferrari dropped, as they dominated completely. For 2001, both teams' new challengers are evolutions of the dominant cars from 2000, and none of the chasing teams believes they have closed the gap with the leaders enough to challenge directly.

Adrian Reynard, however, talking of the season ahead with BAR, believes that a win is possible, as he thinks that on some circuits, their car should be competitive against Ferrari and McLaren. Indeed, he has the team targeting Williams' third place in the championship as a realistic goal for the season ahead – clearly predicting a season-long performance that is at least on a par with the Grove outfit.

It is worth looking back on Williams 2000 season at this point, and considering that the debutante Jenson Button and new BMW engine were both a surprise to the paddock: most first year engines are supposed to be underpowered and prone to breaking down – similarly young hot-shot drivers. However, despite a few retirements, the team looked solid for third place all year. Their chassis was arguably one of the best on the track – many even pointing out that with their horsepower deficit, it could be better than Ferrari or McLaren's. And feedback from the test team indicates the new engine is a good step forward.

On a different note, whilst Jordan struggled in 2000, they are expected to do better things in 2001. The EJ10 was a big step forward from its predecessor, leaving the team struggling with reliability problems, which were never really resolved. Having lost momentum to the competition, some key projects intended to drive development through 2000 were diverted to the new project, the EJ11. Accordingly, with Honda engines on board, Jordan are largely expected to return to the fray against Williams.

Back at the factory, eyebrows raised at Reynard's announcement. The workers, as a whole, are sceptical about the wisdom of making statements like this: they recall all too well the 1999 season, where the paddock laughed long and hard after claims they would win their first race… However, after the repeated power struggles at the top, little that takes place at board level is taken seriously on the shop floor these days; judging by the feedback of his workforce, Reynard's statement still looks suspiciously like hot air.

That said, Jacques Villeneuve is a talent, Olivier Panis has potential, the design team is talented and Honda is a force to reckon with. If the BAR has wings, it will fly, winning more than once. And if not, Reynard will be eating his words. Again.

Picked from the Bunch

  • Enrique Bernoldi has been linked with the Minardi team, following Prost's signing of Mazzacane. The Italian outfit still aims to make the Melbourne grid, and the youngster brings a good budget with him...

  • Jean Todt is determined to ensure a top line deal when renewing his contract with Ferrari – or make them pay another way. He has letters of intent from both Renault and Jaguar to play with if the Italian marque is not prepared to pay top dollar to retain his services.

  • Michael Schumacher is not expected to exercise a clause in his Ferrari contract, which permits him to leave the team early if he brings home consecutive World Drivers' Championships before the contract expires in 2002. Cynics are speculating details were leaked to provide the German with leverage for maintaining the services of Jean Todt beyond the end of this year – with the threat to follow him if he moves.

  • Bridgestone are committed to a strong year in 2001, as legal problems in the USA are likely to prove a distraction. With tyres the most performance critical component of the modern car, they have established an aggressive development program to stay ahead of Michelin...

  • Honda's new engine, the RA001, has picked up criticism from the mechanics – for being awkward to work with. But the improved reliability and performance compared to the last unit has left them happier overall.

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    "The Grapevine" is prepared exclusively for Atlas F1 by The F1 Rumors team