Friday, April 11, 2008

F1 CIRCUITS AND DRIVERS :: Why do drivers love certain tracks and loathe some others

You probably have often heard / read Formula 1 drivers saying that they love this track or that. While they don’t normally confess they hate certain tracks, it’s true that they wouldn’t mind not going to certain circuits on the Formula 1 calendar. Some of the tracks that belong to the first group are: Suzuka (Japan), Spa-Francorchamps (Belgium), Monaco (Monte Carlo), Monza (Italy), Istanbul Park (Turkey) and the likes. Circuits like the Hungaroring (Hungary), Albert Park (Australia), well, the F1 drivers won’t miss them too much should they be lopped off the calendar. I was wondering about the factors that determine whether a certain circuit is going to go into a driver’s heart, or not. Here’s what I found out.

Drivers like to push their body to the limits. So naturally, their mind likes circuits that push their body to the limits. Circuits that push the body to the limits should have fast flowing corners like the Eau Rouge, Blanchimont & Pouhon in Spa – Francorchamps, the Becketts complex in Silverstone (UK), Curva Parabolica in Monza etc. If we see the telemetry data of the F1 cars in these corners, we can come to know that in these corners where the drivers are travelling at speeds of over 150 kph, they are subjected to huge g-forces. It’s a different matter altogether that if the same corners are taken in a road car for example, the effect wouldn’t be so drastic – such is the capability of the Formula 1 cars. Those huge forces are what the drivers crave for. They just enjoy the experience of it. Ask Lewis Hamilton and he’ll tell you that it’s to go through the legendary Eau-Rouge corner, it’s like going thro’ a vertical wall! In this particular corner, the drivers experience up to 5g - not in the longitudinal direction, not in the lateral direction but in a vertical direction! That’s right. A force equal to five times the gravitational pull (5 times 9.81 m/s/s) compresses them down into the seat of their F1 car!

The sort of corners that the drivers least like is the slow 1st gear and 2nd gear stuff. And the 1st and 2nd gear corners are what that make up most if not the whole Hungaroring circuit. Little wonder they tend to dismiss this circuit as Mickey mouse! They also dislike braking from huge speeds to about 70 – 100 kph for negotiating U-turns or chicanes. And this is what is there in Hockenheim, Germany. Hockenheim was once an absolutely awesome track with smooth, flowing and wonderfully fast corners. The track layout was changed for the worse in the year 2002 to improve overtaking. Yes, there’s another important point to be made. Designing a track is a compromise. On the one hand, the drivers want a challenging layout that has lots of high speed corners. On the other hand, the spectators - and the drivers too - want more overtaking on the track than in the pit lane. These two are contradicting requirements. Let me tell you why.

If you had read the article, F1 TECHNOLOGY :: AERODYNAMICS, Parts 1 &2, you would know very clearly that the aerodynamic components need as much air as possible flowing over them (or thro’ them) to do their intended work of producing down force. When a driver is following another car into a corner, say, the Pouhon which is taken at about 260 or so kph on the entry, he (the driver who’s following) loses the front down force because of the fact that the followed car’s rear wings create an up-wash. This up-wash starves the following car’s front wing of air that consequently robs it off down force. This down force is what’s necessary for the front end of the car to bite into the track and turn in quickly into the corner. Imagine that some speed breaker in the form of, say, a chicane is placed just before the Pouhon corner. Let us assume that just after negotiating the chicane the cars are doing about 50kph. If the entry into the Pouhon corner comes just 30 meters or so after the exit of the chicane, the cars will be doing about, say, 80 kph. At 80 kph, as you probably already know, mechanical grip is more important than the aerodynamic grip. This will mean that a car can closely follow another car without worrying about the up-wash and the consequent lack of down force. But, the drivers would absolutely hate this to be done (remember they don’t want Mickey mouse corners!). At the same time, more overtaking will be there making this a spectator and TV audience friendly track. That is why I said that designing tracks is a compromise.

Excuse me for wandering slightly away from the intended purpose of this article, which is to discuss the factors that make certain circuits special in the drivers’ view. So, this is where the article ends. BTW, what’s the circuit I like most? It’s Spa – Francorchamps and the Istanbul Park. I’ve done many virtual laps at Spa but I’ve not had the pleasure of lapping the Turkey track till now. Hope my brother reads this article (or this line atleast!) and promptly gets me a PS3 so that I can drive the first triple-apex corner in my life in F1 2007!

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