It’s the actual race weekends that have us all on the edge of our seat, but it’s the development race that will play the biggest part in deciding who will come out on top of the 2011 season. I’m no engineer so I will not go into the nitty gritty of parts/packages/aero and the engineering genious behind them, instead I want to focus on the design filosophies and the potential it gives for car improvement over the course of a season.
Looking at the cars on the grid for the 2011 season we can see that the teams can be divided into two schools of thought (I may not be an engineer but I fear here my political science background rears its ugly head 😉 )who have taken a very different approach moving from 2010 to 2011: Revolution or Evolution. While the loss of the double diffuser, the ban on F-Ducts and the (re)introduction of gizmos like KERS and DRS had a significant impact, the rule changes for this year did not necessarily prompt a complete design overhaul for the teams as they will in 2013, yet some have gone quite far in their quest for those elusive extra tenths of laptime. Of last year’s top 4 constructors, they are divided equally in the revolution/evolution camp.
I do not claim that one or the other choice is necessarily better, as in both schools of thought we see success stories as well as failures. What is key is that the revolution approach gives you more opportunity to improve over the course of the year and get to the front in the development race, whereas more evolutionary designs will find it harder to find new areas to improve upon as the season progresses and the performance gains are likely to be more marginal. This is offset ofcourse by the increased risk that a revolutionary approach might not pay off in the end. Revolution for the sake of revolution will not get a team anywhere either.
Let’s take a look at those constructers that chose to evolve last year’s car into a 2011 contender.
1. Evolution: Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, Sauber, Force India, Virgin, HRT
a. Red Bull: With the RB6 being by far the most competitive car in 2010 once the reliability issues that dogged its first few races had been solved, it makes perfect sense for Red Bull to go down the path of evolution rather than revolution to create the RB7. They ended last season with the strongest package, and they started the new season with quite a significant lead over the competition. Never change a winning team. As said by chief designer and F1 guru Adrian Newey, the RB7 is actually a continued evolution from the RB5 onwards, and clearly this philosophy is working for the team. The team found clever workarounds the new rule changes, pioneering a new exhaust system to cope with the loss of the double diffuser which half the paddock are now despeately trying to copy. While Newey’s uncompromising stance on KERS (remember Red Bull did not run it in ’09 and Newey is known to be quite averse to KERS in itself) has caused them some trouble in the early races and may very well show to be their Achilles Heel this year, it is clear the car is competitive enough to win races even without their KERS system fully working. Nevertheless getting on top of KERS will be crucial for the team to stay ahead, as their rivals have arguably better systems and as we have seen in Malaysia where Webber got absolutely mugged into turn one and in China where Vettel went from pole to p3 after Turn 1, KERS is key on many of the tracks with a long run up to the first corner.
If Red Bull get on top of their KERS – as it seems they did in Turkey- it will again be very hard to beat them this year. While their engineers will surely find ways to further improve the RB7, they are already maximizing a lot of their package’s performance that it will be harder to find new areas where significant lap time wil be gained compared to teams chosing a revolutionary approach, as those have less experience with the car but thus also much more room for improvement. Key is whether they can catch up quick enough and whether their revolutionary design is sound.
b. Ferrari: While it made sense for Red Bull to evolve from the WCC winning RB6 to RB7, Ferrari’s conservative approach to the new F150th Italia raised more eyebrows, especially considering Ferrari’s off-season claims of going for an agressive approach. While Red Bull evolved an already better car but also managed to slap on new ideas (exhaust – keeping flexi wing despite tougher regulations) he Ferrari has nothing of note the paddock may want to copy, and it seemed a very conservative evolution of last year’s car. I fear that it is this risk averse philosophy will come back to bite the team in the ass, as it has already done in the first few races where their performance was far below expectations. It is one thing to be the top dog and evolve your winning car into next year, it’s another thing to take the 2nd or 3rd best car and hope that a simple evolution will bring you on par with those ahead. Ferrari’s risk aversion has cost them over the past years. It was a risk averse strategy that gifted Vettel the WDC that was Alonso’s for the taking in Abu Dhabi, and it is risk averse engineering that has seen them start on the backfoot again this year. While claiming to have learned lessons from last year’s Abu Dhabi debacle, the first few races have again seen a very conservative Ferrari race strategy. To anyone’s surprise the Ferraris have been the first of the top teams to burn through a set of options in Q1 in all races to date while arguably a decent run on primes should put them comfortably in the top 17.
The Schumi golden years did not come by being conservative and playing the numbers game, it was Schumi’s agressive driving, Ross Brawn and Jean Todt’s agressive strategies and Rory Byrne’s agressive designs that got them where they were. The trauma of Abu Dhabi seems to have scared them down the conservative road even more. Ferrari needs to liberate itself before Montezemolo should even think about ‘liberating’ Italy of Berlusconi and fulfill his political ambitions. However seeing that the pressure piled up on the team from HQ is likely what prompts this conservative approach, perhaps it’s not too early for Montezemelo to piss off into the cesspool of Italian politics and let Ferrari be Ferrari. In tyrannical regimes everyone becomes afraid of his own shadow, afraid to take risks, afraid to accept responsibilities and this ultimately leads to a pretty rude awakening.
c. Mercedes, Sauber, Force India, Virgin, HRT
For fear of writing a full blown book on this subject, I’ll refrain from detailed analysis on every team and just briefly discuss the above mentioned cars. In the case of Virgin and HRT their evolutionary approach is just due to a lack of funds where they are basically happy to have a car on the grid, period. Force India and Sauber were widely expected to be back of the midfield after preseason testing, yet they are in fact at the front of the pack after the first few races, so clearly their evolutionary approach has payed dividends. It must however also be reminded looking at their early performance that it is no coincidence these two teams also have by far the strongest driver lineups of the midfield which plays a major part in the teams’ good showing so far. A solid and experienced Sutil backed up by very impressing rookie Di Resta with Hulkenberg waiting in the wings is nothing to sneeze at, and neither is the exciting combination of Perez and Kobayashi in the Sauber. These are all guys that can drag that car to places higher up on the grid than where it really belongs. Both teams are fairly limited when it comes to resources they can throw at car development, so it will be hard for them to stay in the strong midfield position throughout the season. Mercedes is a bit of a dark horse in this race, while still searching for maximum potential out of the car, Nico Rosberg is on top of his game right now and the car does show flashes of genuine pace to worry the front runners. The major obstacle for this team seems to be cooling, so if they don’t get on top of that they will continue to struggle in the hotter races.
stay tuned for part 2: Revolution coming soon