Musing #51: The philosophical difference between Formula 1 and Formula E


Compared to last year and the year before, I have decided to change tack and throw Formula E in to the mix this year. While the renders were shared in January, Formula E physically unveiled its Gen2 car at the Geneva Motor Show earlier today. I find it to be an attractive design, specifically as it is something that Formula 1 is unlikely to mimic anytime soon; unless its American owner, Liberty Media, manages to miraculously convince the teams that the show is more important than the performance.

This brings me to the point of why Formula E finds it favourable to adopt such a radically different design compared to Formula 1, marketing reasons aside. I cannot profess to be an aerodynamicist but over two decades of following motorsports has led me to be more appreciative of its technical aspects. Also, it feels satisfying to be able to tap in to my years of studying physics and engineering, and leverage it to satisfy the curiosity of a random commenter on the Internet.

Formula 1 is considered to be the epitome of motorsports and rightly so. It is all about harnessing the ultimate performance from the machine and achieving the ultimate lap time, much of which is accomplished by being fast through the turns. Hence, F1 cars are set up to have the highest possible downforce so that the turns can be taken as fast as possible while ensuring that the high drag that comes with it doesn't impact the straightline speed as much.

Unfortunately, most of the downforce in modern F1 cars is generated using aerodynamic structures and appendages which leaves a significant disturbed air flow for the car following behind. A consequence of this approach is the poor racing that we see in F1 these days. The much-maligned Drag Reduction System (DRS) overcomes this specific obstacle for the following car, though it seems the wider cars and even more intricate aerodynamic structures have rendered it less powerful (and thankfully so).

On the contrary, Formula E being a spec chassis series, isn't focused on ultimate performance. The philosophy here is to accelerate quickly out of the corners using the instant torque from the electric motors, reach the top speed as quickly as possible down the straights and then coast for the remainder of the straights, before breaking hard while already cornering to aid the charging of batteries using the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). The power absorbed by drag increases with the cube of speed increase, so less drag results in less energy expense over a lap, while ensuring higher top speeds along the straights. The less disturbed air of a low drag/downforce setup certainly helps the following car but a side benefit of this, coupled with the low-grip, all-weather Michelin tyres, and instant torque is that the cars are incredibly difficult to handle around the corners due to which we see a lot more driver errors in Formula E compared to F1's cornering on rails.

I hope Season 5 of Formula E brings in better uninterrupted racing, made possible by having a single car complete the race. However, I hope that some strategic element of a pit-stop is retained, e.g., allowing for quick, short recharges for additional power at the expense of lost time. Formula 1 and E aside, 2018 is looking to be another cracking year for motorsports with a competitive MotoGP field littered with manufacturers and the the new low-downforce IndyCar.

Musing #25: F1 2017 Preview


I can't believe it's been over a year since I had last contemplated the state of Formula 1. Much has changed since then, at least as far as ownership is concerned. Unfortunately, it seems Bernie's legacy will live on for some time, at least through 2017, even as Brawn seems to be presenting a more pragmatic view of the future of F1. Another shock that came through late last season was the retirement of Rosberg, but I am glad to have my wish of a new F1 champion fulfilled prior to it.

A year back, I had expressed concerns for the 2017 rules and true to form, F1 managed to pin the cow with the blindfold on, just not where it's intended. Hence, we might be getting cars that will end up being the fastest around most race tracks but might end up ruining the show. The 2017 rules were in the least intended to "make the cars beautiful again" but that can't be deemed to be a resounding success. Force India managed to still give rise to an ugly duckling (or platypus) while McLaren seems to have picked up the inspiration for their colours from backmarkers of yesteryears (Virgin, Arrows). In a way, it should suit them since that is most likely where they will end up this season.

Quite dreadfully, Mercedes seems to have picked up from where they left last season. However, Ferrari posted impressive lap times on harder tyres which offers some hope of a duel with Mercedes, though no one knows for certain what each team is up to. The Red Bull looked deceivingly simple at the first test, so one must assume (or hope) that Newey has something up his sleeve. Whatever be the pecking order, it doesn't seem that the general pattern will be any different from what we have already seen in the V6 era. If it ends up being a bore fest, at least now it will end sooner now with the faster lap times.

I am still looking forward to the new season as any change is worth the attention, at least initially. It might sound a bit cynical to expect the drivers to work harder to earn their money this season but it is more so with the expectation of seeing drivers make mistakes and throw up surprises. Lance Stroll has already indicated that things are not going to be easy with his multiple spins in the first test and while his raw talent seems to be far from Verstappen's level, there is an expectation that even the best will not be invincible. Clutching at straws we may be, but all will be revealed when the lights go out on March 26th.

Musing #22: F1 2016 (prior to season finale) in graphs

My opinion of Formula 1's 2016 season remains pretty much the same 9 months later and has in fact been reinforced by the on-track action. 2016 has again been a two-horse race or rather "two jockeys on one horse" race as the other "horse" in the race has miserably failed to prance. Even as the driver's title stands on a cliffhanger, the inevitably of it falling in Mercedes' hands is not enticing to say the least. The title fight going to the last race does not justify the largely boring on-track action throughout the season. Races like Brazil don’t happen too often and even then Pirelli’s rubbish wet weather tyres nearly managed to spoil the show. Having grown up in awe of Senna’s and Schumacher’s driving prowess and personalities, I think Verstappen’s drive has given me a reason to get behind someone since the vacuum left behind by Schumacher. Few great personalities have arisen in F1 since then and I have filled the void by devoting greater allegiance to Rossi as MotoGP has become the motorsport to beat.

Coming back to F1, this time I have decided to present the 2016 season in graphs based on public available statistics from f1.com and f1fanatic.co.uk, both of which are great resources for any F1 fan. The statistics can be said to mostly favour Rosberg because all things considered, he has been the consistent one. Keeping Hamilton’s engine gremlins aside, he still qualified outside the front row on few instances, something that Rosberg hasn’t done all season. Also, the fluffing of the starts can’t be put down to the car alone, so Hamilton must take his fair share of the blame even as his race pace has been better on most occasions. Having said so, even Rosberg has been untouchable once he’s in the race lead, so one can draw one’s own conclusions. Perhaps, having a new champion might be a welcome change going in to a new F1 era in 2017. I have always been on the “more power, mechanical grip and less downforce” camp, so the 2017 rules are not far reaching as far as I am concerned. But I guess anything will do to disrupt the status quo.

While all the other websites will judiciously update the stats following this Sunday's race, I am going to let this one be as it stands to put forth the perspective going in to the season finale, irrespective of who wins it all.

Qualification: (Click on the images for an enlarged view)



Race: (Click on the images for an enlarged view)



                                 

Musing #8: The state of Formula 1


The 2016 season of F1 is officially under way with its first test day and it would be atypical of me to not have an opinion on something that I have been following for well over 2 decades now. It is always exciting to watch the cars run for the first time but I do so with much trepidation these days. With the rules remaining largely stable and the engine token system still in place, it is difficult to imagine Mercedes not leading the way once again when push comes to shove. More worrisome is the indecision over the 2017 rules which indicates that the sport is now stuck in no man’s land. Late decisions always favour the teams with deeper pockets and that is likely to be the case in 2017, irrespective of the extent of changes. Thus, a lot will change and then nothing will change.

The larger question today is whether F1 is still relevant today as a spectacle. F1 is the epitome of technological development in cars and the efficiency of the present V6 engine (thermal efficiency exceeding 45%) along with the associated recovery systems MGU-K and MGU-H that make up the power unit is simply astounding. That cannot in anyway be a regressive step as some would like to portray. Neither is the common argument of “domination is boring” be a valid excuse for I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the domination of Schumacher in the early part of the millennium. Domination borne out of ingenuousness has been a common trait of F1 and that is what makes the sport what it is.

If it is not the machine, then it must be the man. To this point, I am inclined to agree quite a bit. One would accuse me of looking at the past with rose tinted glasses, but there was something gladiatorial about watching Senna and Schumacher compete on the race track, even though their tactics might have been questionable at times. The skill as well as physical exertion that a sport comprises of was on display all the time. Perhaps, seeing a driver jump out and dance instead of pant has taken some shine off the bellicose aspect of the sport. Also, the level of skills required to compete have come to question with the relative success of a 17-year old (however talented) and the prevalence of paid drivers. Hamilton, for all his successes on the track gives the impression of being someone who is driving to win rather than being driven to win like Senna and Schumacher. A case in point is his performance in the latter part of 2015. To that end, Vettel and Alonso seem to be cast in the same mould as the champions from the past, unfortunately bogged down by uncompetitive machinery for the most part. All this makes the classification of F1 as a sport a little hard to digest.

One may still classify F1 as entertainment but for the fact that DRS seems to have killed off the most exciting aspect of any race - overtaking. With slipstreaming and late braking being not quite called in to play, yet another differentiating aspect of the driver has been buried deep under. The sport is now at the mercy of weather to roll the die and thereby guard the viewer from a sleep fest. The age old adage of “keeping it simple” seems to have been lost on Bernie, Todt and other people that matter. Senna had rightly attributed his best races to a time when there was parity in the machinery and absence of politics. While F1 can never devoid itself of these aspects, it just needs to do an introspection and highlight aspects that would further differentiate man from the machine. A good point to start would of course be to punish drivers for even the slightest of mistakes without the slightest compromise in safety for they are professionals after all. Track design has simply made that difficult to achieve. Another aspect would be to simplify aspects of the car that have no bearing on real life car design. One can appreciate the mechanical aspects of car design but aerodynamics seems to have gone crazy, as illustrated by the ridiculously complex front wings. A return to simpler, mechanically driven car design is very much the need of the hour.

Perhaps, the aspect that matters the most is appreciating the intelligence and dedication of the fans. One has to only look at MotoGP for a motorsport that is particularly engaging. Colourful characters who express themselves on the track as well as off it fills you up with nostalgia. Also, it chooses for the most part, to visit countries that actually understand and follow the sport. One doesn’t need to look beyond the F1 calendar to understand where the sport is once again going wrong. Nowadays, I can't even get the Codemaster F1 games to excite me anymore as it brings a feeling of déjà vu with it every year, contrary to the countless hours I spent modding and playing Grand Prix 4. Perhaps there is still a silver lining to all this that no one knows about yet. For me, I will keep following F1 and hope to be able to keep my eyes wide open come March 20.


Image Courtesy and copyright: Reuters