Motorcyclists Primer for the new F1 season

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Rusty Bucket USA
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Motorcyclists Primer for the new F1 season

Post by Rusty Bucket USA »

Formula One and Costs: How much are they saving?
In theory, racing is equal parts man and machine: 50% the skill and bravery of the driver or rider, and 50% the performance of the car or motorcycle (or even horse). Reality, of course, steps in to constantly rearrange that relationship and keep the momentary balance shrouded in mystery.

A vehicle traveling in a straight line is much more about the vehicle and much less about the driver. The first thing that increases the value of the driver: turns. The second thing further adding importance to the driver: slowing down for the turns. The more a driver or rider can make his vehicle perform beyond its limits of adhesion to the track, the higher his representation as a percentage of the package.

Naturally, the pursuit of those building and working on the cars and bikes is to elevate the available performance of the vehicle, making it easier for the pilot to be the fastest among his competitors. It is this aspect of the sport of racing that typically elevates costs most severely. Building fast machines requires great resources in development, equipment, and personnel.

At the far end of the expenditure scale, Formula One has long been the technological pinnacle of motorsports. For many years, F1 was limited only by the available manipulations of physics in the pursuit of displaying a spectacular excess of speed. These highly unstable, and often unreliable machines, required considerable bravery to manage - never mind win. And they have always been incredibly expensive; such is the price of technological advancement.

As developments in engine output, chassis design, and aerodynamics pushed the speeds higher, two concerns began to arise: 1). A law of diminishing returns for gains in speed, and 2). The decrease in importance of the driver. As these became evident, the sanctioning body, with driver, team, and spectator safety as priorities, began stepping in to trim back the gains in speed. Limiting engine size and performance and limiting aerodynamic “ground effects” had been the main fronts until relatively recently. At the end of the turbo era, the all-conquering Honda powerplant was rumored to be delivering 1000 bhp from its 1500cc V-8 engine with exotic boutique fuels and tenuously transmitted through rudimentary traction-control systems.

Then the rules were changed to eliminate turbocharging and standardize the fuel, but the engines were allowed to get bigger again. Later, as speeds and costs continued to escalate, smaller engine and cylinder limits went back on the downward trend every few years, and wide grooves were mandated into the tires. At the same time, however, wildly fluctuating rules regarding aerodynamics drove the manufacturers to research methods for making speed through the unnatural means of reducing the need to slow down for corners. This research became an exotically expensive marriage of artists, fabricators, physicists, and wind tunnels.

In the recent years, “cost saving” is the main reason the governing body cites to further control the design of the cars. A tire manufacturer was booted out, under the pretense that costs would go down, a speed war between tire companies would cease, and the competitive advantages of development work with a tire brand would be eliminated. Then, engines had to last for more than one race weekend. Subsequently, an “engine design freeze” was enacted to take effect at the same time a standardized Electronics Control Unit (ECU) was introduced. The spec-ECU was instituted to limit engine speed (Cosworth motors were capable of 20,000 RPM at their end of the 2006 season) and eliminate the teams’ ability to cheat a traction-control ban.

As the 2009 season looms, another drastic change in the aerodynamics rules is set to take effect, with the engine and electronics rules largely unchanged. At least one major team has cancelled their plans to race, citing cost saving as their reason for departure, even though they spent much of the ’08 season developing the new car for ’09.

Examining each of these issues individually:

First, the loss of Michelin probably has substantially reduced the cost of one of the least-expensive aspects of this form of racing. The claimed reduction in speeds – or halting the annual falling of lap records – from a standardized set of tire compounds that would no longer be designed for extreme grip lasted for about a year, as the constructors sought aerodynamic ways to maintain speed in corners and limit drag on straightaways. Thus the need for newly draconian limits on downforce for ’09.

Second, extending engine life was to limit the cost of constantly replacing these highly strung engines dancing on the limits of structural integrity. That seems simple enough. This, in concert with a rev-limit, was to reduce the pursuit of extremely expensive parts that had to be light enough to turn 20,000 times per minute, but also channel explosions re-approaching the 1000 bhp barrier. The engines are sealed and tracked by the governing body, and replacing an engine carries a significant penalty. Naturally, the shift in engineering went towards durable performance and did not actually trigger a reduction in the cost of manufacturing parts or employee payroll.

Third, the prime objectives of the spec-ECU were to limit engine speeds and eliminate surreptitious traction control methods. While limiting RPM would theoretically reduce the need for exotic engine internals, ECU programmers are still necessary, even with boundaries placed on them. Also, with traction-control – and equally importantly, engine braking and clutch-slipping controls to keep the car straight under heavy braking – banned, comes an increased risk of crashes, which typically cost a lot of money to repair. The resultant reality revealed a shift in the work of those tasked with programming the ECU. The new paradigm is to develop “fuel maps” which the driver can select with additional controls on his steering wheel. More than simply leaning out or enriching the fuel mixture, these can be pre-designed adjustments to fuel flow, spark advance, and valve timing that can radically alter the engine’s torque curve and sensitivity to throttle travel as often as the driver selects a gear change, if necessary. Though skirting the technical ban on traction control, this sort of development is expensive in terms of man-hours and testing. Failure to spend in this area guarantees a loss in competitiveness.

Fourth, the “frozen” engine is a measure intended to throttle back development expenditures in the continuous pursuit of more powerful engines. Every specification of a manufacturer’s engine is submitted to the governing body so that for the life of the “freeze” compact, when motors are rebuilt and replaced, only pre-agreed upon and approved parts are used. There was an exception built into the rule where the manufacturers could submit new parts to the governing body and request to supplant previously agreed upon parts for the sake of “improved durability”. Curiously, after a year’s time, Renault-powered cars were moving backward through the field, and were found to be the only team holding to the spirit of the rule. The other teams, in pursuing “more durable” parts for their engines also managed to find ways to improve performance within these fixed specifications. Renault did not, and so this past off-season were granted the chance to introduce a new engine more in line with the advancements made by the other makers. As should be obvious, this sort of development is not exactly a reduction in engineering costs, either.

Fifth, the current proposals coming from governing body leadership include a drastic increase in the number of specified parts, including engines, transmissions, suspension parts, and more. While these would, in fact, reduce long-term development costs, they also effectively eliminate any incentives for the engineering pursuits of advancing the technologies, and so the manufacturers wouldn’t have a motivation for any kind of expenditures that are not inherently proprietary and able to be incorporated into a commercial product of their own.

Strangely enough, amidst the governing body’s suggestions and threats to reduce costs for the sake of the sport, has also come a remarkable mandate for inexplicable profligacy known as the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS). This, as yet, unspecific charge on the constructors has already cost far into 7 figures in any of the better known currencies, not including some damage from fires and electrical shock injuries. There is no clarity in what these systems are to do for the racecars, nor how a team would benefit from the eccentric cost of developing one that may be superior. The constructors are not sure what, exactly, these systems need to do, but they have been told they must spend liberally to develop them while awaiting further instructions. If such a thing were truly necessary, one would think this would be the first thing Formula One leadership would have standardized in order to limit financial hemorrhaging.

As Jeremy Burgess famously suggested several years ago, F1 had advanced to the point that the car was (at least) 80% of the package and the driver merely 20%, and contrasted this with motorcycles representing an inverted relationship with their operators. While the desire of racing car or motorcycle manufacturers, from an engineering perspective, is to increase the percentage of the “equipment” side of the ratio, and advance the potential of its driver or rider, it still must integrate with an operator in order to compete. In theory, a prototype series with unlimited resources available to the manufacturers would develop a machine that wouldn’t need a pilot. Since there would be a very limited audience for such a sport, financial resources are indeed limited and subject to economic forces.

But one thing is clear: every time a rule or set of rules changes, more money is required to adapt to the new rules in the purchase of new engineering manpower, parts development, and performance testing. The longer the rules stay fixed, the longer the parts last, the less extreme the price for improvement, and the more reasonably priced the option for producing additional parts for customer teams - thus expanding the number of entrants. How this relatively obvious axiom escapes Formula One leadership defies explanation and begs countless inquires into motives.
The internal combustion engine was not put on wheels just to rest the horses.

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Re: Motorcyclists Primer for the new F1 season

Post by chakraist »

Probably interesting to note that the currently all-conquering Brawn GP car has no provision for KERS and is the only car to not have this provision. I think their pace is real, as well.

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Re: Motorcyclists Primer for the new F1 season

Post by Alexandru »

Its funny that Honda pulls out because they could not justify their investment for an uncompetitive car, and its immediately fastest first time out as a Brawn.

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