Whose Formula One car is it anyway?

By Ubaid Parkar, 14 December 2013
© AP Photo/Rob Griffith

Michael Schumacher has left an indelible mark on Formula One despite ending his illustrious career with some of its sheen wiped off during his comeback period with Mercedes.

But his ill-fated stint with the German manufacturer bore at least one benefit, although it wasn't the seven-time world champion who delivered it. Instead, he left his successors a platform on which to build upon.

"My role is certainly in it and so is a part of my signature, as it has been in the last two years' car," Schumacher had said referring to his role in the development of the F1 W04 late last year. "It was not in the first year's car in 2010 - you were given what was there - but after that we certainly developed as a team to get closer to what we want to have.

"It'll be interesting to see 2013 and the car," he appeared to pontificate.

With that car, Mercedes won three races during the 2013 season and secured second place in the constructors' championship, culminating into a big jump in performance for the Brackley-based outfit which had just a solitary victory and finished no higher than fourth in the standings in the preceding three years. It even emerged as a title contender, at least for its drivers, before the Sebastian Vettel-juggernaut flattened all hopes.

Now, most of Schumacher's signature – or perhaps even all of it - will be erased when the next season begins.

© AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Although Lewis Hamilton performed respectably well during his maiden season with Mercedes, notching up five podiums and a victory, the Briton actually struggled with the car. Rapidly degrading tyres aside, the 2008 world champion just couldn't put his best foot forward – somewhat literally.

Having spent six seasons at McLaren, where he characteristically pedalled aggressively on Carbone Industrie brake discs, Hamilton's Achilles Heel at Mercedes proved to be the Brembos that he raced with for the first time in Formula One. His driving was therefore admittedly bereft of confidence as the familiar lack of feel and stability was deficient.

It's one of the reasons why Hamilton has been devoting "a lot" towards the development of the 2014 car.

"I have been working with the team for the year so you give them every bit of feedback you have," he says elucidating that he has been involved in several meetings to discuss the direction of the development. "Things that I want on it, things that I need as a driver.

"The engineers come up with all these great ideas but it's not always that easy for them to see it from a driver's point of view. They say 'I can give you all this power in second gear.' And I am like, 'No. All that power in second gear, I want it in third gear.'"

While he had struggled massively during the 2009 season, particularly in the first half with a pitiable McLaren, Hamilton pegged his maiden campaign with Mercedes as one of the hardest.

© AP Photo/Mark Baker

"I really felt all year that I have been driving someone else's car," he laughs dryly. "In previous years, it was my car… I was driving my car. I felt comfortable in it."

Engineers will be out to cradle Hamilton in the cockpit next season, carrying out the bulk of the work by scouring through the new technical regulations to determine those few tenths, but the driver will remain a key link to the process as well.

"In common with most teams, we have regular reviews with our drivers and understand - with the car we're racing now - what's strong, what's weak, what needs to be improved and that gets translated by the engineers into the designs that we have for next year," says Ross Brawn, who will leave Mercedes and his post of team principal at the end of the year.

"Obviously these days we have a lot of data, we have a lot analysis, we have a lot of simulation, a lot of modelling and that also contributes as well, but the driver is still a vital part of that process and we work closely with Nico (Rosberg) and Lewis to understand where they see our strengths and weaknesses – perhaps more importantly, our weaknesses - and that contributes and that's part of the process in designing and developing a new car," he explains.

The asset that Mercedes now has is that it has two established drivers who have understood the structure and mechanism of the engineering demands within the team, which will be deciphered during the development phase itself. The testing sessions will then afford time to refine the final product. The other top-four leading teams, in contrast, will field changes to its line-ups.

© WRI2/Sauber

In a team like Sauber, lower on the rungs of financial power and often faced with an unstable line-up year after year, the approach adapted is different.

"I don't think there's much of a difference there,” answers Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn when asked if the driver influence in the development of the C33 varied significantly. "Because what you can get from a driver is feedback on things you put on the car. But you can guide a driver a lot there. And there, of course, the experience then makes a difference.

"So, it's more important to ask the right questions rather than just wait for the driver to give you the right feedback," she explains.

At Ferrari, with Felipe Massa gone and Kimi Raikkonen arriving as a replacement, it won't be as smooth as it will be at Mercedes but the crux of development remains the same nevertheless.

"From the team perspective we are trying to learn more and more how the new racing will develop next year, with all the systems, with all the constraints that we have in terms of regulations," says Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali. "And of course we need to work together with the drivers because at the end of the day they are the ones that have to perform in the car."

Changes are afoot at Red Bull too as Vettel will partner Daniel Ricciardo, promoted from sister team Toro Rosso. Understandably, the exchange of information about the Aussie's preferences will be relatively stress-free and although Ricciardo's rookie status in the championship-winning team may place him in the back seat, it doesn't mean that Vettel will be simply gifted another competitive car.

© AP Photo/Luca Bruno

He would have to work for it; comprehend and advance the vision that design guru Adrian Newey has on his drawing board as he has done in the past four years, without any exceptions.

For instance, during the Chinese Grand Prix in 2012, Vettel had opted to revert to an earlier form of the car's rear-end package as he couldn't adjust to the handling characteristics of the latest version that was introduced at Shanghai. But teammate Mark Webber elected to persist with it, and Newey consequently turned his attention to what the Australian had to convey over the weekend. Such was the magnitude of the situation that Vettel failed to make it into Q3 during qualifying, started 11th and finished fifth. Webber qualified sixth and finished P4.

But it has been Vettel who has headed the Red Bull assault all these years while his teammate failed to consistently match his pace through the course of a weekend. Part of it had to do with Vettel mastering the sensitive Pirelli tyres, which the Australian ate up all too quickly, punishing him for his aggressive driving style.

Another aspect that separated the Red Bull duo was that Vettel had adapted to the exhaust-blown downforce generated by the RB9 better than Webber. Much better. Towards the end of the 2013 season, though, Webber progressively grasped the style as well, but not as well, clinching four podiums in his last five races, two of which were from pole position.

VETTEL'S RED BULL TO BE TAKEN BY THE HORNS

© AP Photo/Tim Hales

Interestingly, the new regulations intend to eradicate exhaust-inclined aerodynamics, an area where Red Bull has been the sleekest of all. By having a single exhaust positioned behind the rear axle line, the gases exiting won't contribute in creating downforce as much as it has in the last three years.

The gains that Red Bull extracted from blowing exhausts was at its finest in 2011; a season where Vettel dominated and Webber stumbled. It was a similar story this season as well.

But when exhaust limits were introduced in 2012, it was Webber who got the upper hand over his teammate. After the first nine races that year, Webber had two wins against Vettel's solitary victory and was ahead in the drivers' championship by 16 points, before Red Bull fashioned solutions to overcome the exhaust restrictions.

Also, Webber made it no secret that he has struggled in the Pirelli era. After all he was a title contender in 2010 when F1 raced on the rock-hard Bridgestones. Next year, though, Pirelli will opt for a conservative path and that - along with the exhaust clampdown - could just expose a chink in Vettel's armour.

But the exhausts are not the only changes next season; new rules stipulate downsizing the engine to 1.6-litre V6s although boosted by not one but two energy recovery systems. This vast power unit has forced an increase in the width of the car, while at the front the nose tapers in an ungainly style.

Continuity in driver line-ups lead to the car being evolved on the basis of their feedback and are fortuitously designed around their reactions, and with Webber switching to endurance racing, it’s easy to conclude that Ricciardo would be effectively pulling Vettel's wagon. Except that the cars will be no longer be evolutions of its predecessors.

"The drivers are pretty limited in what they can contribute at the moment because it's a voyage of discovery for all of us," admits Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. "It's going to be a very different type of racing next year with the introduction of these power units and new regulations.

"Obviously we've had to measure the drivers carefully, especially the width of their derrieres so they can fit in to the car," he smiled. "We’ve got a new driver next year as well, so their contribution is limited at the moment but that will inevitably gear up over the coming weeks and months."

Clearly, there is much work to be done. And at Red Bull, it gets even more complicated for its drivers.

© AP Photo/Luca Bruno

"If it was down to Adrian they would both need to lose about 15 kilos between now and Melbourne next year but I think that's fairly unlikely," Horner quipped during the Indian GP weekend.

It came as little surprise then that Vettel, after he won his eighth straight race of the season in Austin, blurted over the radio urging his team to "remember these days... there's no guarantee they will last" in what could have been a hint that his dominant days were numbered.

And if prophecies about Mercedes' engine supremacy in 2014 unfold into reality, then Hamilton can claim to be triumphant in a car that he could call his own. Or Rosberg for that matter. Don't count him out.




 

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