With less than two months before Formula One revs back into action at the season-opening grand prix in Melbourne, FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting explains the rationale behind this year’s sweeping regulation changes and assesses their impact on the racing spectacle.
Amid growing concerns about the safety implications of such drastic change, most notably the introduction of Kinetic Energy Recovery Devices (KERS), Whiting explains why the risks are necessary and reveals what is being done to prevent any problems occurring.
What was the idea behind all the changes we ll see this year in this area?
CW: This was all a result of the work done by the Overtaking Working Group, as it was called, made up of the technical directors of Renault, Ferrari and McLaren, plus myself. After a lot of research, we came up with a package that gave a following car less disturbance and would make overtaking less difficult.
The key element of this is, first of all, a neutral section of the front wing (the middle half metre of this device is a prescribed section). The incidence of that profile and its position relative to the reference plane are carefully prescribed. It s the most critical part. The front wing is wider and there are no turning vanes or bargeboards: the area where you can put them has been severely restricted, because there s only room for very small devices.
Also, the diffuser has been made smaller, and the rear wing is higher but narrower. I can t go into the specifics of why these things were done, but we arrived at this package by five sessions of wind tunnel work. It s been carefully thought through. Now, we ll have to wait and see how it works on the track.
What has been the loss in terms of downforce of these measures?
CW: The target figure was 50% less. But, as ever with these things, one never knows how much the engineers have managed to claw back.
Have some unexpected devices already appeared on the new cars?
CW: You know, we write the rules to enable the teams to design cars as close as possible to the technical spec. They ve been working in areas they hadn t previously been trying to work in, so there s not much we can do about that. I m confident we ve achieved a fairly significant reduction in downforce, but that s not the critical thing: the critical thing is the effects. As long as we have the effects, we should be okay.
Presumably, these effects have to be considered in conjunction with the slick tyres…
CW: Yes. An increase in mechanical grip and a decrease in aero grip were what we wanted. We should achieve 6 to 8% more mechanical grip with slick tyres, but it ll clearly depend on the compound because Bridgestone will provide a range of tyres -4 different ones to be exact. They are still developing these, so we don t know exactly how it s going to work out.
Is it true to say that Bridgestone is working on a bigger gap between the available compounds at each race?
CW: Yes. This year, once again, each driver will have to use two different types of slick tyres during the race. We wanted to have a bigger difference between them. Sometimes, in 2008, this gap was a matter of one or two tenths. We thought it would be better if it was bigger. The Bridgestone engineers are working on that.
There seems to have been some talk during the winter tests about this difference being massiveâ€¦
CW: What happens in winter testing is probably not indicative of what will happen in the warmer conditions of the first four races. It s something we ll have to look at, as we certainly don t want too big a difference between the two types of tyres available at each race. This said, I think it would be to everyone s benefit if there were a slightly bigger gap.
What would be this ideal gap?
CW: My personal opinion is at least half-a-second. But it s only a personal opinion. Sometimes, in 2008, the difference between the two types of tyres was negligible wasn t it? One couldn t see the difference between the two, really.
A lot of teams seem just about ready to use their KERS system now. Is it worrying?
CW: The reason for KERS is very clear. We want to showcase technology. I think F1 using this sort of system will help manufacturers. Obviously, Formula 1 is going to be doing something to speed up the development pace on road cars. The other thing, obviously, is overtaking. For a driver to be able to use the extra horsepower at his disposal for overtaking has, I think, the potential to improve racing and that s what we re hoping for.
Team are using very different solutions in this area. Is it healthy for Formula 1 to have so many dissimilar ideas for a new technical challenge?
CW: Difficult to say. Presumably the teams involved have done things for their own good reasons. Obviously, the best solution will emerge, eventually. This is what always happens when we have something new. All the teams have significant simulation tools at their disposal. They ve used these the best way they can to find and arrive at the best technology. There s no clear leader as we speak but one will emerge, I m sure.
Also, I think KERS will add significant interest to Formula 1. It s going to be very interesting to see how the drivers deploy it, because the rules state that the release of the power has to be under the complete control of the driver – that s the important part.
Some people have raised some concerns about safety with KERS. What has been done, as far as the FIA is concerned, to make sure the system won t cause any problems?
CW: “Through the Technical Working Group, we set up a KERS Safety Working Group chaired by BMW. Theyâ€˜ve met quite a few times and they ve come up with a long list of suggestions, parts of which have already become regulations, and some of which will form the basis of a comprehensive document we ll circulate to all circuits and tracks hosting a grand prix.
The teams are taking this very responsibly for their own safety, of course. They re also looking at how the marshals will respond to broken-down cars. There will be things like the KERS status warning light that will be on all cars. Marshals are going to be educated by the documentation we ll provide.
Also, the systems themselves should be safe. If there s a risk, it should be clear to a marshal who walks up to the car. He should approach the vehicle, look at the KERS status light and, if it is in the wrong state, he shouldn t touch the car. Also, people working on the track are being briefed about how to pick up parts, which will be clearly identified by colour coding. If they potentially contain high voltage, they have to know how to move them. They will also wear gloves, which are good for a thousand volts.
What about safety in the design of the KERS components and their integration in the cars?
CW: The teams are coming up with this themselves. All the electronics experts are talking to one another and coming up with various ways to make sure they don t get into any kind of difficulties.
There s also some king of uncertainty recently about the number of engines the teams will be able to use over the seasonâ€¦
CW: It s eight engines for the whole year. A driver will only incur a penalty if he uses a ninth engine. So the teams can use the engines as they like. There s no three consecutive race rule because there doesn t seem to be a need for it any longer. The engines will not have to do three complete events now.
In the past, as you know, the two-race engine was used only on Saturdays and Sundays. Now, for 17 races, the eight engines will have to do the three days of each grand prix. What the teams will do is to have a Friday engine that ll probably do the first four races or something of that nature. They ll then take the engine out and use another one for Saturday and Sunday. All we ve got to do, – it ll be extra work – is to make sure that these engines remain sealed and are untouched.
So, once you ve started the event with one engine, you will be able to change it whenever?
In terms of performance gains, can you say what has been allowed for the teams, especially for Renault?
CW: As you know, I can t really give you confidential information. But we gave all the teams the opportunity to submit a list of things they would like to change in order to achieve engine parity, because there seemed to be some disparity between engine performance, which was not intended. Then, with Honda s withdrawal they appeared to be the ones down on power the engine manufacturers agreed among themselves that they would not seek any engine parity changes, and they would allow Renault to do something. It s what I would describe as a minor upgrade. It s a one-off thing; it s not an on-going thing. Now, teams have submitted their list; we ve agreed to it and that s the end of it until 2012.
SAFETY CAR RULES
It was difficult to follow some races in 2008 because of the safety car rules. Will you change them this year?
CW: Yes. The rule introduced in 2007 was a bad one, and we ve gone back to the 2006 regulations. The only difference is we intend to implement a minimum time back to the pits. When we deploy the safety car, the message will go to all the cars, which will then have a “safety carâ€ mode on their ECUs. As soon as that message gets to the car, it ll know where it is on the circuit, and it ll calculate a minimum time for the driver to get back to the pits. The driver will have to respect this and the information will be displayed on his dashboard.
If you remember, the reason we closed the pit entry was to remove the incentive for the driver to come back to his pit quickly. That s gone now, as you won t be able to reach the pits any quicker than your dashboard display allows you to.
PRIVATE TESTING AND USE OF WIND TUNNELS
What other measures have been taken recently in order to reduce costs?
CW: What we ve done, as far as regulations are concerned, is to slash the maximum amount of testing from 30 000 to 15 000 kilometres. Moreover, there will be no in-season testing. That means no testing between seven days before the first race and 31st December of the same year. So no testing whatsoever except for eight days of aero testing in a straight line.
This might be a big problem for young drivers who want to get into F1. They won t be able to get any kind of trainingâ€¦
CW: There s provision for a few days of young driver training as well.
Finally, there s a big cut in wind tunnel testingâ€¦
CW: That s right. No more than forty hours per week for each team.
Why was this measure taken and what does it imply?
CW: This is simply because some teams were running twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with three shifts -including model makers- and all that sort of thing. Quite clearly, it s very hard for a team that hasn t got that kind of resources to keep up. Forty hours a week seems to be something everybody can cope with.
Will you be able to check that nobody uses a sub-contractor to do extra work in a private facility?
CW: We re obviously looking into all those things: if it emerged that anyone had been doing something underhand, they would be in very serious trouble. Also, we re putting measures into place in order to make sure that people don t have any incentive to do so.