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What are teams up to in F1 winter break?

Feature Image Credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas Press Release

There’s no rest for the wicked in Formula 1, and although there’s no on track action right now due to the winter “shutdown” teams are working tirelessly behind the scenes in anticipation of 2018.

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As always, F1 is a race against time over winter break to prepare the car, iron out the kinks of last season, and find those extra performance bonuses in time for testing. Testing begins on the 26th of February at the Circuit de Catalunya, while the first race of the season is the Australian Grand Prix on March 25th.

For the 2018 season the main regulations regarding the cars have remained relatively stable, following the overall of the aerodynamics in 2017. This means unlike last season where teams were forced into a radical redesign, there shouldn’t be a huge amount of redesign on the car. Sans one aspect of the car.

Following the tragic death of Jules Bianchi in 2015 following a head injury he sustained while racing, head protection for the drivers has been a priority for the FIA in the forthcoming years. Several devices had been trained by a number of teams over the last few seasons, the most successful of which seemed to be the “halo” head device. The teams were told in the summer of the 2017 season, that from 2018 onwards the halo would be a standard component on each car.

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The halo is a carbon fibre-wrapped titanium “bull bar” around the cockpit and drivers head, aiming at deflecting debris away from a persons head. This sort of protection will hopefully protect drivers from head injuries, like the life threatening injuries Felipe Massa received in Hungary in 2009.

One of the main issues that has come from the introduction of the halo is the components weight, which reputedly will weigh up to 14kg. This weight will have to be integrated into the car for the season. Putting even more pressure on drivers to stay lean for the 2018 season. Nico Hulkenberg, who is one of the tallest drivers on the grid, has already confirmed Renault have asked him to lose weight for the season ahead.

Driver diets have been brought into scrutiny more and more over the last few years after some extreme cases. At the start of the 2014 season, with the new V6 engines, Jean Eric Vergne was hospitalised in Australia following health problems related to the diet he was on. While last season to keep the Mercedes light when it was slightly overweight, Hamilton raced several races without his drinks bottle in the car.

If the halo device is to become standard on cars, it is in the teams interest to make sure they integrate the added weight into the weight of the car, and not to take it from the drivers weight.

Of course having the halo on the car has presented teams with a challenge, as the halo has a fundamental effect on the car’s aerodynamics. As well as aero the halo also will cause some headaches for the teams in terms of the structural demands it makes on the monocoque. Many teams up and down the paddock have complained it would likely be a struggle to integrate the halo onto their 2018 cars in time for testing in February.

So what exactly are the big three teams working on right now to make sure they stay ahead of the pack for 2018, and in the hunt for the championship fight?

Mercedes, unsurprisingly, are the team currently on everyone’s lips having secured the drivers and constructors’ championships for the fourth time in a row as a team in 2017. However, it’s not all smooth sailing for the silver arrows this winter break.

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While the teams W08 car scored them a double in the championship, it was considered to be a “diva” by many within the team. The car was inconsistent at times, especially during the beginning of the season. And finding the perfect set up proved challenging for Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas on occasions. Indeed Hamilton said that the car had some “fundamental flaws.”

2017 was not a case of the Mercedes winning through sheer domination as they had done in the years previous, but more a case of reliability and power from their engines winning out. If Ferrari and Red Bull had more power in their engines, and a better reliability record, then the Mercedes team would have been punished a lot more than they were. The team will be looking to address the fundamental flaws for the W09, to make sure they don’t make the same mistakes again. The question is if the team will go for a radical approach to fixing their problems, which they might be.

There have been odd little clues and mentioning’s here and there that the Mercedes had gone down a different development route to everyone with the 2017 car. And it is this development rout that could ultimately could have cost the team their championships. For 2018 it looks like the team will be angling more towards the high rake aero on the cars favoured by Red Bull and Ferrari, as well as pretty much every other team on the grid too.

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In laymen’s terms the high rake aero concept tends to deliver a more driver friendly downforce level across a range of set ups, ride heights, and tyre choices as well. This means that a car with high rake aero will be able to fine tune itself for optimum set up at more tracks throughout the season. This is of course at a cost, as a high rake aero set up does not provide the most peak downforce you can get out of a car.

Ferrari and Red Bull have felt high rake aero was the way to go, to make sure their car was competitive at various tracks, and this has prompted one other big change in terms of development. Both Red Bull and Ferrari have copied the others ideas and integrated them to their own cars. This ability to adapt aero designs and parts between Ferrari and Red Bull could end up costing Mercedes.

Both teams will be constantly looking to gain more performance and lap time from the high rake concept, which in turn pushes the other along in their development of better aero. Mercedes have realised they could well be left behind in terms of development, unless they join the others on the high rake aerodynamics route.

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The team are also said to be looking at the wheel base of the car too, with an aim of shortening it slightly. The W08 was the longest car in the field in 2017, and as a result it was overweight for much of the first part of the season. The car had to be put on a diet, but even then it took the team a long time to get the car down to the optimum weight. If Mercedes are truly interested in ironing out their fundamental flaws in their car, expect the W09 to be at the optimum weight already.

Ferrari will be looking to carry on their impressive resurgence in 2017, and even go one step better and win a major championship for the first time in a decade. The team however will need to focus on their reliability and in season development for that to happen.

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For the first half of the 2017 season Ferrari mounted an impressive bid for the championship that left Mercedes faltering. Following a dominant 1-2 finish in Monaco for the Scuderia, many thought that this move signalled the end of the Mercedes control of the championship.

However once Mercedes tamed their car, the challenge became a little harder for the Ferrari team. And after summer break their championship bid fell to pieces in three races. A crash in Singapore, followed by reliability issues in Malaysia and Japan ultimately cost the team the drivers championship.

Ferrari confirmed the appointment of Maria Mendoza to aid the Scuderia’s under-fire quality control department. Reliability remains a key area for Ferrari to improve in in 2018 if they wish to be in the hunt for championships. It’s not the only area they have to work on though.

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While Red Bull enjoyed a resurgence last season following a slow start to 2017, and Mercedes started to fine tune their “diva” to get the best results, Ferrari seemed to lose out heavily in the development wars. Towards the end of the season the fight seemed to very much be between Red Bull and Mercedes with Ferrari occasionally making an appearance. If the team are truly serious about challenging for a title in 2018, they need to work on their in season development a lot more.

The Ferrari team still have plenty of room for improvement around their car design. Rumours are the new Ferrari will be around 6cm longer than its predecessor, heading towards the design Mercedes had for their 2017 car. The team also offered an insight into an area of development on their aero for this season, when they trialled a ‘Red Bull-style’ diffuser in practice at the final race in Abu Dhabi in 2017 and the subsequent test.

Red Bull meanwhile are facing the prospect of a battle before the season has even started with the FIA regarding their suspension. Following several complaints, likely prompted by the other teams, the FIA are getting tough on suspension systems which optimise aerodynamics and tyre performance rather than suspend the car.

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One of the teams that benefits most from this duel uses for suspension is Red Bull. The team have found a huge advantage by being able to vary the rising rates of their front suspensions on their car. This results in giving the car a near perfect balance. Which in turn, results in the car getting the best from it’s aero package in each corner without having to compromise the car as a result. This means no matter what type of corner it is, the days of engineers having to compromise between low speed and high-speed balance are gone.

While the system is very clever the FIA’s Charlie Whiting, likely at the behest of the other teams on the grid without this suspension, is cracking down with more technical directives. Whiting has decided that teams need to come to him and prove everything they have around the suspension satisfies the rules. And that it’s primary purpose is to suspend, rather than optimise aero and tyre performance.

In theory this sounds like a good idea to potentially curb Red Bull and their suspension, but in reality it’s very hard to police since much of the suspension’s work is done out on track. That’s not going to stop the FIA from investigating though.

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The other big area Red Bull will be pushing for improvement from is their Renault engine. The team suffered a string of reliability failures last year for both themselves and their junior team Toro Rosso that culminated in Helmut Marko, the head of the red Bull Young Driver’s program, visibly arguing in the paddock with Cyril Abiteboul, the manager of the Renault team over the situation. The team know if they want to win championships, they need the engine to be reliable and not down on power like it currently is. But with the Renault-Red Bull partnership due to end for 2019 there are rumours surfacing already that the Bulls could be managing an engine deal with Porsche or even Aston Martin.

The team have tried to address their issue of slow starts to the season, like the one they suffered in 2017, by bringing the start date for designing their car forward, but only time will tell if this has helped them or not.
And what of the rest of the teams on the grid? How are they preparing for the season ahead.

Unsurprisingly many eyes are trailed on the McLaren team, who after three torrid years of Honda power engines, have finally switched to Renault engines for the 2018 season. The team are expecting big things having repeatedly argued that their chassis was one of the best on the grid in 2017.

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They don’t seemed phased at all by the late timing of their announcement to switch to Renault engines, which occurred two weeks later than the team had initially planned for. This might not sound like a huge amount of time. But in F1 terms this can be huge, especially as many teams build their car around the power unit to optimise the performance of the engine. And as Renault proved in 2016, it’s not as easy as just shoehorning another engine into the back of your car and hoping for the best. You really do need to work to optimise the car and engine package.

Renault may have engine issues to deal with, but they also have their works team to improve as well, with 2018 marking the teams third full season returning to the sport as a factory team. With so much investment going into the team, it’s time for results and points to start appearing. Especially if the team want to continue on the path to be fighting for a championship by 2020. The team are focusing on challenging for podiums this season, with a car that can maintain a single lap competitiveness over race stint lengths without eating up it tyres. An issue they suffered with badly last season.

However, if Renault and McLaren want to battle within the top four teams, that will mean taking on the underestimated dark horse of Formula 1. Force India. The team have impressed the last two seasons by securing back to back fourth places in the championship, running on a fraction of the budget of the teams around them. And this season looks to be no different with the team having likely not rested during the winter break. Their main issue this season will be controlling their drivers, Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon. The two had a somewhat tumultuous relationship last season after coming together in several races. With Ocon even going as far as to tweet Perez had tried to kill him. The team lost valuable points during the clashes. And with the smallest of margins perhaps being the difference between 4th and 5th in the Constructors championship and millions of pounds of prize money as well. The team will want to keep their drivers under control.

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They won’t be the only team looking to improve their placing in the championship standings. After a very disappointing 2017 season, Williams are looking to make significant alterations to their car. More so than many of the other teams on the grid. Some of the changes are likely to be substantial, with technical boss Paddy Lowe confirming “there will be quite a few areas where we will be changing philosophy.”

For Haas their main aim during with winter break will be improving the overall performance of their car, in particular their breaks. Since they came into the sport two seasons ago the Haas has been struggling with their breaks leading to many complaints from their drivers. If the team want to be taken seriously as a credible threat in Formula 1 they need to work on this key aspect of the car, as well as the overall performance of the car. The team may be feeling a little left out in the cold by Ferrari following the team seemingly backing Sauber now as their “B” team instead of Haas. Where Sauber’s deal leaves Haas in terms of Ferrari’s pecking order is yet to be seen.

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Sauber have had one of the bigger shake ups of the lower down teams on the grid following their announcement that they will partner with Alfa Romeo, effectively making them a Ferrari “B” team. The benefits for them is a current Ferrari engine in their car, as well as the loan of Ferrari protege Charles Leclerc as one of their drivers for this season.

By far though the team facing the most scrutiny this winter break will be the Toro Rosso team after they switched to the Honda power unit for this season. Toro Rosso have claimed they are on schedule for winter break so far and that Honda is working hard as well. But the problem with Honda is that we’ve heard this positivity before when they were working with McLaren. And we all know how that ended up for them. The proof of if they can deliver for the team will be delivered – or not – on February 26 and beyond.

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So while the halo may be bringing some immediate visual contrast to 2017, the general design of the 2018 cars will be a matter of evolution. As Mercedes cheif technical officer James Allison put it: “The new challenge of refining your current weapon will be the same for everyone.”

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