F1 teams are populated by hundreds of people. But a single person – or technical feature – can make or break the effort.
That’s how they ascended the Down Under podium, then, after Sunday’s Australian GP: the first guy to have crossed the finishing line had one world title to his name; the second oke had two; and the third fella had three – Raikkonen, Alonso and Vettel.
Add Hamilton to the mix, and we’re looking at the strongest quartet of leading drivers since Senna, Prost, Piquet and Mansell in the late ’80s.
That’s not to forget the name of a certain Young Turk (oops! Nico and his countrymen won’t like that) who’d been outdoing the Old Turk (some call him the Old Skurk) over the last three years.
And while we’re talking Germans: Sutil had a storming start to the Oz GP and won Driver of the Day accolades from many pundits, yet his eventual winning margin of only three seconds over team-mate Paul di Resta put the German’s drive into perspective. Force India’s F1 returnee stole a lot of thunder during his two stints in the lead, but paid the penalty once he ran his last dozen laps on the ultra-fast degrading super-softs.
Di Resta certainly is no slouch, in any case, having beaten the King of Young Turks – aka Seb “Ich bin Deutsch, but I have an English sense of humour” Vettel – to the F3 Euroseries title in 2006, when they raced together for ASM. This should give you an idea of how good yet another Young Turk, erm, German – called Nico Hulkenberg – must be, after he outshone Di Resta last year, at Force India.
So, not a bad F1 field at all, not even having mentioned two rising stars by the names of Jules Bianchi and Valtteri Bottas.
Have I forgotten anyone?
Oh yes, Button and Perez. They’re lurking in the shadows – albeit the shadows of their own car; the MP4-28 is a dog.
That’s a good question. I’m not sure McLaren knows the answer, either. If it knew, it would stop telling us that it “has to understand the car first” – which, in essence, is the brutal truth. The team seem to have no cookin’ clue at the moment, which, again, is a vastly different dilemma from the one it faced in 2011 when I visited Woking to drive the MP4-12C, precisely a week before the opening Grand Prix in Melbourne.
Now, at the time, the Macca – the one with those ugly U-shaped side-pods, remember? – had similarly been off the pace during winter testing, which spelt bad news for Hamilton and Button. Woking then replaced the radical pre-season “fan tail” exhausts with a more conventional system, literally on the day before the cars were about to be flown out to Oz.
The excitement, the air of expectancy in the engineering bay, was palpable. The team had no time left for testing, of course, but believed the system would up the MP4-26’s lap times by a second per lap.
And so it proved: Hamilton qualified second and finished second.
That in stark contrast to 2009, when the MP4-24 was a good two seconds off the pace during winter testing and the Macca remained a slow coach, until Hamilton’s win in Hungary – the first for a KERS equipped F1 car – in the second half of the season.
This year similarly started with a two second deficit, and – at the moment – prospects for the MP4-28 look as bleak as it did for the MP4-24.
So, what’s wrong with Woking? A terrible car in 2009, a bad pre-season car in 2011, a car that could have won the title for Hamilton last year if it wasn’t so utterly unreliable, all those early 2012 pit stop woes, and now another dud – whilst Hamilton has jumped ship to Mercedes and master engineer plus technical director Paddy Lowe is also Benz bound, it seems, at the end of 2013 . . .
Well, here’s some food for thought. And it kicks off with another grandee team that started out, just last year, by being two seconds per lap off the pace: Ferrari.
Maranello’s F2012, see, had been the first F1 car in a decade to carry pull-rod front suspension, the last one prior to that having been 2001’s Minardi, preceded by the Arrows A21 of 2000 – the latter having been designed by one Mike Coughlan (whom we’ll reference again, at the end of this story).
Point is, that both teams tried pull-rod fronts for a year only, before switching back to push-rods.
Now, the current yen for pull-rod started after Adrian Newey had equipped the rear of the 2009 Red Bull with said suspension architecture. And whoa! Red Bull immediately made an impact. The race for pull-rod rear suspension – with all its air-flow advantages, especially regarding exhaust gas and diffuser efficiency – was on.
Last year, Ferrari took the thinking a step further and introduced pull-rod at the front, as well. With the suspension arm running from the top of the wheel upright, straight into the bottom of the chassis (or the lower stomach of the nose cone), instead of running from the bottom of the upright to the top of the chassis, pull-rod holds the advantage of (1) being able to mount the torsion bar and damper lower in the nose, thus lowering the car’s centre of gravity; and (2) affording better air flow through front suspension parts, to the underbody of the car and onwards, to the diffuser.
However, these advantages are off-set by upper wishbones having to transmit more load, some of which would previously have been shared by the push-rod. This necessitates more strengthening higher up in the chassis, and therefore more weight, negating some of the centre-of-gravity advantages of pull-rod’s lower placed internals.
Pull-rod is also more difficult to set up, resulting in time lost, and it yields a narrower sweet spot for set-up. The latter not only have an impact on ride and therefore handling and traction, but also on the ability to find the performance windows in which Pirelli’s extremely temperature sensitive tyres will be switched on.
These difficulties, amongst many, kept Ferrari scratching their heads for a long time, last year – except in cold conditions, and especially on wet tracks. Alonso took both his poles on a wet track (Britain and Germany) and memorably won in the Malaysian rain.
Now, this year’s MP4-28, McLaren also opted for pull-rod fronts (as well as rears, of course). And last weekend, in Oz, Button, at one point, also suddenly found extra speed in the wet, after the car has performed dismally in the dry.
Granted, that the Macca’s problem is undoubtedly a lot more complex than front suspension architecture only; just like the MP4-27, the MP4-28 still runs an extremely stiff front end and soft rear end, lifting the inside front wheel on corner entry, producing understeer in the dry, etcetera.
But hey, I’m just pointing certain things out. Your guess is as good as mine, which is as good as Woking’s, it seems.
Well, he designed the pull-rod front suspended Arrows A21 with Eghbal Hammidy, then reverted to push-rod on the A22, then moved to McLaren in 2002, then engaged in espionage contratemps with Ferrari’s Nigel Stepney and got fired for it in 2007. Coughlan made his big-time return to F1 when he was appointed as Williams’s chief designer in 2011.
At the end of that year, Sam Michael, in turn, left Williams for McLaren after he had overseen the Grove team’s steady decline into the bottom half of the grid, over the previous half a decade.
And guess which two grandee teams are now struggling in F1?
That’s right. The ones overseen by Mike Coughlan and Sam Michael.
Which begs the question: are they pulling the wool over somebody’s eyes? Or are they just pushing too far, too soon?