Imagine you’re at a club race meeting – maybe one run by the 750MC, promoters of what must be pretty much the cheapest proper motor racing in the UK. If you live in the UK and haven’t been to one, you could do worse than try it out. You’ll be treated to eight to ten events, with practice/qualifying run in the morning and the races in the afternoon.
It’s a great opportunity to wander round and look under the bonnets of sports cars and saloons, or see what’s going on round the back end of the single seaters. And what you won’t see, is a lack of activity, because competitors are allowed to change things.
This is especially relevant on the cars designed for racing, and here I’m going to focus on Formula 4, which isn’t really related that closely to Formula 1, and my own experience while racing in it. I was driving a 20 year-old FF2000 car at the time, which was reasonably competetive agianst some of the home-grown machinery and it was certainly great fun for the money. Not cheap, but great fun.
Generally, I would test on the Friday before an event, which meant I had up to four hours running, and as there were no new parts to evaluate, the test was mainly about getting used to the circuit and finding a preferred set-up. This meant that usually on qualifying/race day, we didn’t need to spend time making adjustments, but we could if we wanted.
I’ve seen people with their gearboxes in pieces between qualifying and race, changing ratios, and quite frankly, it’s not a tricky job. Springs were changed, dampers adjusted, but more often than not, it was the roll bar that we’d adjust. How much of this can you do on a modern F1 car? None of it. Well that’s not strictly true of course, you can do it, and do it easily – you’re just not allowed to. From what I gather, this is mainly in the spirit of cost saving, but I’ve never worked out how exactly.
Walk round the back of a modern F1 garage and you’ll find the stores department. Tons (literally) of stuff. Complete engines and gearboxes obviously, but more interestingly boxes and boxes of gear ratios, dampers, roll-bars and springs. The sort of things that at a club meeting we’d be fiddling with all the time. At a Grand Prix, you have to tell the FIA which gear ratios you are using within a fixed time of FP2 finishing – a couple of hours or so, I can’t remember. And this I just do not understand. Forget the fact that Mercedes probably want to run a longer top gear in qualifying than in the race to make the most of the double DRS, or that Red Bull want to do the same because, well, they just do. What about rain?
We all know that the top speed (or Vmax, if DC is reading) of racing cars is affected by rain, so who wouldn’t want to be able to change ratios if it’s pouring with, or looks like it might, rain? And it’s the same with suspension, as there’s less grip, you’d think about softenening the suspension – either the springs or the bars when it’s damp. And it’s this kind of mixture that used to make wet/dry races so interesting . Some drivers would opt for a soft suspension setting but run slicks on a damp track, whereas others would stay hard and run intermediates as a compromise. The kind of variables that has been re-introduced this season with Pirelli’s 2012 compounds.
And it’s perhaps in the area of tyre management that teams would benefit most by allowing changes after parc fermé. Lotus for example have great tyre management in the race, but can’t generate enough heat in the tyres for a single lap in Qualifying. At present, the only variable they have after 2pm on a Saturday is tyre pressure (and the front wing flap but that’s more of a front/rear aero balance tool). And yet, they have all the equipment, the people and the time to change things between qualifying and the race.
Parc fermé implies to me that no work at all is allowed on the car. That’s certainly the case after the race when the cars are all put into a place where the team is not allowed and the FIA check them over. That makes sense. But after qualifying, the teams are going to need to do things: refuel, add oil, change tyres etc. And clean the car, which is where it all goes wrong.
It goes wrong because the FIA will let you clean a spring, or a clutch, or the inside of a brake duct, or anything really. And to do that you have to take the car apart. Teams generally have a list of “exceptions” that they will ask the FIA for permission to do to the car between Qualifying and Race. The ones I saw were at least three pages long and it certainly wasn’t unusual to see the rear of the car completely removed in our garage and then re-assembled before the 18:30 curfew. That’s hardly “no work at all is allowed on the car”.
So to repeat, teams have a variety of parts at the races, and they are taking similar parts out of the car, but they have to refit the same ones. Why? Surely it makes sense to allow them to change springs and bars, gearbox ratios even? This is supposed to be the pinnacle of motorsport but you can’t do the same things as a weekend hobby race who is his own mechanic and brings the car on a trailer? I suspect the reason is that teams might be tempted to make qualifying springs or ratios out of a lighter material that won’t last the race, but that should be controlled by the RRA or a cost cap.
So please, nice people at the FIA, can we go back to allowing teams to change simple but vital settings when they want? Don’t just ban everything because it’s (maybe) difficult to police (and here I have to say I would be very surprised if there has never been an “accidental” instance of suspension being reassembled on a Saturday afternoon with perhaps one less camber shim than came out). And while we’re at it, can we get rid of the daft ideas that A) Q3 cars have to start on their qualifying tyres, and B) both compounds have to be used in a race. Or does anyone really think that’s a good idea?
Wonder why anyone would want to alter their suspension? Why not check out our “Science of F1″ article on the very subject?