As we turn to Page 1 on our 2009 calendars, it seems like as good a metaphor as any to consider what looms just a couple short months away...
Every race - whether MotoGP, Formula 1, or any other series with standing starts in particular - features an experience more harrowing than most people probably realize: Lap One, Turn One.
Let’s start with what riders and racers call the “rhythm”. This is, simply, the “melody” of a lap around each circuit; the “song” in the racer’s mind that his vehicle makes as the engine note rises and falls between corners and gear changes. The rising drone of the straights is broken up by the racers’ need to brake for corners. How high the engine’s pitch reaches is somewhat pre-determined by the racer’s exit from the previous corner and his bravery and trust in his vehicle to apply the brakes as late as possible for the ensuing one.
These events are, in turn, established by a myriad of mechanical adjustments, more or less, agreed upon by the communications between the racer and his team’s engineers and mechanics, and the racer’s subsequent trust in how it feels to him to dance with the limits of adhesion. In so doing, during practice before a race, the racer wants this melody and rhythm to be both fast and yet comfortable enough to reproduce lap after lap. If he reaches for too aggressive a rhythm, he and his machine will not be able to reliably maintain the melody, or worse, they will crash. Similarly, backing too far off his rhythm may take the racer out of his comfort zone, where mistakes can be just as costly.
Professional racers have a keen sense of the passage of small increments of time and this gives them great sensitivity to adjustments in their rhythm. They spend the practice sessions in advance of a race trying to meet the balance of speed and comfort with their desired rhythm for a given racetrack, and then hoping their mechanics can help their machines arrive at the quickest achievable – yet durable - tempo. As this develops over the weekend, a racer hopes to advance this rhythm enough that it becomes a competitive, or even dominating, “pace” for the race.
Focusing on MotoGP starts, the riders temporarily lose all the momentum of that preparation. From a standing start, there is no drive off of the final corner; there is no top speed to achieve before applying the brakes. Rather, it is a drag race where reaction time, launch technique, and ability to execute, set the tone for how quickly the rider can accelerate through the gears. Beyond that, the variables of the gear ratios themselves, the quality of the engine’s power delivery, and even the rider’s mass, all affect his bike’s ability to reach the highest possible speed before being drastically reduced to approach the first turn for the first time.
This grasp of the brakes is known as a “brake point”, which each rider will have established for himself in the practice sessions. This initial brake point, however, has no relation to anything else the rider has done, or will do, the entire weekend. The distance between the final turn and the Start/Finish Line, creates an inverse relationship with the approach speed for the inaugural corner. The closer the Start Grid is to Turn One, the slower the approach speed, and the later that initial brake point. Further influence on terminal speed comes from one’s qualifying grid position; the further back on the grid, the slightly longer one spends in the drag race while also achieving a slightly higher speed and requiring a slightly earlier brake point than those in front of him. The racers don’t get to practice an approach to the first turn from their starting position, but even if they could, they wouldn’t be able to consistently reproduce the same results.
So, after the rush of the start, each racer arrives at that artificially late, single-use brake point, traveling at an unfamiliar speed, relying on… cold tires. Cold tires are lower in air pressure than what the rider will have gotten used to in practice, so his feel for the bike’s relationship with the ground will be significantly diminished. In addition, cold tires do not adhere to the track as well, further clouding any attempt to estimate a proper brake point, entry speed, and lean angle. As a bonus, at the other end of the brake lines are cold pads and discs, which also don’t perform as well. This year's first corner will be a cause for fairly severe uncertainty, since more than half the field have been forced to change tire brands.
Finally, as if taking part in a highly improvisational prelude to the main melody weren’t disorienting enough, there are the subject rider’s competitors. Each rider will have potentially manipulated the myriad details of power delivery, gearing, tires, and suspension differently, so their place at the end of the drag race is not guaranteed in the least. This group drag race will arrive at the end of the Front Straight (which is sometimes not even straight) into some variety of a funneling action where more space is required than is available. A late-braker may be trapped behind an early-apexer with a superior power-to-ground machine at his disposal. In addition, each rider has a unique view of the ideal approach to, and ideal line through, this corner. Most intimidating of all, each rider features a different optimism-to-prudence quotient, so significant mayhem just seems imminent.
If I were a racetrack designer, I would try to mitigate this as much as possible. I would place the Start/Finish line comparatively close to Turn One. My Turn One would feature a relatively wide opening and a decreasing radius that rewards multiple lines through the corner rather than a reckless abandon on the brakes and short apex. I would also be sure to space my Turn Two at a distance that allows for further opportunities to vary one’s line, depending on the situation. Since I am not a paid circuit architect, we must all collectively hold our breath every time we see the start of a road race, and this year in particular.
For those who want to practice this experience from the safety of your home during the cold, dark Winter months, check out my Tourist Trophy recommendation from last year… and feel free to suggest these perspectives to your friends who don’t quite grasp the complexities and difficulties of GP racing.