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Fuelled to the Finish (**Updated)

March 11, 2010
A funny thing happened during during the 2009 Japanese Grand Prix at the wonderful Suzuka circuit.
Just before his first stop, Rubens Barrichello was following Kimi Raikkonen and gaining some ground, when he contacted race engineer Jock Clear on the team radio and asked “…do I try to pass him?” Clear responded only a moment later with “…don’t bother, we’ll just get him in the pits…” and it irritated me greatly, because as a viewer, I felt robbed of a potential battle. It was obvious too that Barrichello wasn’t even attempting a move – he was simply sitting tight to the gearbox of Raikkonen and it annoyed the hell out of me.
To such a degree in fact that I heartily rejoiced when the FIA banned race refuelling from this season onwards. Bar the necessary tyre stops, drivers will now be on a straight run to the flag from the lights and for the most part, that can be a good thing.

 

The 1992 and 1993 seasons had been years of utter dominance by the Williams team, with easy titles for Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost – both secured very early in the season. When refuelling was reintroduced into Formula 1 to “spice up the show” following an 11-year ban on safety grounds, it in one foul swoop reduced what little overtaking there was and transferred it to the pitlane and while it is wonderful to see the pitlane mechanics work feverishly and do their level best, I was dismayed to see that it became the entire focus of each Grand Prix, thereby making the rest of the event seemingly irrelevant. Overtaking on track became a secondary concern as long as your pitting strategy was quicker.
Some fans saw this was the case and were irritated and may have even been turned off by it; others loved the strategy side that had been introduced – but when Clear uttered those words to Barrichello, it was the first time that it clearly stated in a broadcast and everyone heard it.

Some fans will lament the loss of strategy, but strategic thinking will most certainly still exist in Formula 1, as tyres and car set-up take on a whole new significance. Beforehand, a driver set his car to cope with (amongst other things) the differing weight distribution between the first lap and the one-third distance, which essentially cast a vaguely similar car weight throughout a stint. In other words, what car set-up worked after the start would still be somewhat relevant at about 60-75 miles, when everyone inevitably piled in to the pitlane. Now a driver and team will need to calculate the difference in the car between the start of the race and its weight at 190 miles (the approximate length of a Grand Prix).
Tyres will have to be chosen carefully as different car weights will affect tyres in different ways and a drivers that are tough on tyres during the early laps may have to make extra stops to compensate for excessive tyre wear or simply be more prudent when he drives. Some drivers may even factor higher tyre wear into their strategies in a different manner, by deliberately being more aggressive and taking advantage of much shorter stops for faster tyres, although such a strategy would indeed be a risky one.
While things may not change a large amount this season from Bridgestone’s point of view, whatever company that enters the Formula 1 fray as sole tyre supplier from 2011 may choose (be told) to create a series of tyre constructions to fit these particular strategic frames.
A fine aerodynamic balance will also be extra important – a balance that suits a heavy car at the start of a race may be completely undrivable by the end of the event; whereas a car that is good in a ‘light mode’ may potentially fall backwards during the early stages when a car is extremely heavy.

This may also kick the engine manufacturer’s into gear too. An engine that is kinder with fuel consumption whilst still maintaining optimum speed and lower revs might drive the engine manufacturer’s into reconfiguring their designs and changing how they view power technology. With a rumoured new formula being introduced for 2013, the engine builder’s may be looking at this regulation closely as it could potentially define what comes next in Formula 1 and motor racing circles. A simple little rule to help bring back on track overtaking could be the catalyst to change how designers and engine manufacturer’s think of the sort forever.
As it stands, conservation sells and rules that drive companies to garner more mileage from engines while maintaining optimum speeds may well be the future – not because it’s good for the environment, but because it sells and right now, “green sells cars.”

For the record, Barrichello could not get by Raikkonen during the stops. His inability to jump the Finn put him behind the slower Nico Rosberg and Nick Heidfeld, which resulted in a seventh place finish – only one place ahead of Championship rival and team mate Jenson Button – while Raikkonen took fourth place. Button did not secure the title until the next race in Brazil, but it was here that Barrichello finally lost it.
Next year Barrichello, like everyone else, has no choice – if he wants that next position, he has to take it on the track… just like everyone else.

From → F1

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