Monday, May 31, 2010

Spontaneous symmetry breaking in F1

Team-mates crashing into each other; team-management revealing a hitherto covert favouritism for one of their drivers; and a Grand Prix winner who appears indifferent to the rituals of victory, nurturing a belief that he was tricked by his team-mate: yes, Sunday's Turkish Grand Prix was a proper race.

Both Red Bull and McLaren purport to provide their drivers with equality of opportunity, but this intra-team driver symmetry will always be broken under racing conditions, for equality of outcome is neither possible, nor desirable. In the case of the Turkish Grand Prix, the root cause of the symmetry-breaking was the 2010 sporting regulations, which prohibit refuelling during a race. As Mark Hughes explains, filling up with 10kg less fuel gives a lap-time benefit of around 0.33s. From the evidence of Sunday's race, the top teams are therefore trimming their fuel loads to the absolute minimum, and giving themselves very little margin for error.

Hence, fuel consumption was an issue for both Red Bull and McLaren. It was this fact which created the opportunity for a momentary performance disparity between Webber and Vettel, and a similar disparity between Hamilton and Button a few laps later.

Whilst Hamilton and Webber fought tooth-and-nail in the first stint, Vettel and Button were able to watch from a convenient distance, staying within range, but conserving their brakes and fuel. Thus, when Mark Webber was forced to turn his engine settings down at mid-race, Sebastian Vettel was able to continue running his at a higher level for three vital laps, taking 0.3 secs out of Webber on two consecutive laps, and then using his superior power to catch Webber's slipstream on the run to Turn 12.

It is possible that there was no team favouritism here, for Vettel may genuinely have been able to conserve his fuel in the first part of the race, and the power discrepancy between the drivers at this point may be attributable to the differing circumstances they faced in the race. However, there can be no doubt that the ensuing accident was caused by Sebastian Vettel. Webber was perfectly within his rights to squeeze his team-mate onto the dirty part of the track, and Vettel was perfectly within his rights to go for the gap. At this point, however, team-principal Christian Horner could reportedly be seen mouthing "Move! move!" on the pitwall. Given that Webber was squeezing Vettel, rather than vice-versa, this can only be interpreted as an expostulation directed towards Webber.

Horner's bias became rather more overt after the race, when he argued that the principal cause of the accident had been the fact that [Webber] hadn't given Vettel sufficient room. Both Horner and Helmut Marko, (Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz's representative within the team), voiced the opinion afterwards that Vettel needed to pass Webber at this stage, otherwise Hamilton would have passed Vettel. Although Vettel himself had only another lap available at the higher engine setting, it seems that the Red Bull team-management believed that he offered them their best chance of victory on this occasion.

Circumstances, then, have conspired to expose and amplify the Red Bull team's underlying favouritism towards Sebastian Vettel. It is difficult to imagine that Mark Webber will wish to remain with the team in these circumstances, hence the individual who suffers most from the collision between the Red Bull cars may ultimately be Felipe Massa...

Meanwhile, over at McLaren, Lewis Hamilton may feel that he can no longer trust his team-mate. In this respect, there was an interesting tell-tale conversation between Hamilton, Button and Webber, caught by the TV cameras, just before the post-race podium ceremony. Webber briefly recounted his accident with Vettel, and when Hamilton responded that "Yeah, he did the same to me," Button jumped to the conclusion that Lewis was referring to their own intra-team battle. "All they told me was..." Button immediately began to protest, before Hamilton interjected "No, no, no," and explained that he was complaining about Vettel's behaviour when Lewis attempted to overtake the Red Bull. This exchange suggests that Button felt he had done something about which Lewis could be expected to complain, and duly had his defence prepared.

So what was the problem? Well, Button it seems had been saving fuel from lap 20, and while Lewis took the fight to the Red Bulls, thereby triggering the very collision which put the McLarens first and second, Jenson had been able to sit back, watching it unfold, ready to pounce. After the Red Bulls had taken themselves out, McLaren told both drivers to save fuel, and according to Chief Engineer Tim Goss, set a 1m31s lap-time target for both of them. It's possible that Lewis interpreted this to be an instruction that the McLaren drivers should stop racing, and coast to the finish. If so, then it's equally clear that Button didn't share this interpretation. In fact, Jenson also claimed afterwards that he had not received a target lap-time instruction from the team.

When Jenson overtook Lewis, he came from a long way back, and didn't even need to use the full benefit of Lewis's slipstream as he zoomed down the outside. It's difficult to reach a conclusion other than that Button had a higher engine setting at this moment in time. Jenson presumably thought that he was entitled to do this by virtue of the fact that he had been saving fuel from an earlier point in the race. Lewis, therefore, was "surprised" to see Jenson come past him, and clearly thought that Button had tried to trick him out of victory.

Perhaps McLaren will be able to smooth over this mis-understanding in the days to come, and one duly expects some form of words to be issued to that effect. Nevertheless, in Lewis's mind, it's likely that an irreversible switch has been thrown. For both Red Bull and McLaren in 2010, things will never be the same again.


F1 jocker12 said...

very true... excellent analysis...
if vettels move can be explained by "pressure" (inside the team and from hamilton), I don't understand why button did that...

Sa Toya said...

Great read! I don't think the Mclaren issue is a BIG deal. Lewis even said Jenson's the best team mate he's ever had.

After the scandals Mclaren has been through I doubt they have covert team orders...but who's to say.

Red Bull clearly have ans issue. I believe Lewis was only surprised because he thought Jenson was in save fuel mode BUT Jenson clearly saved a fair bit in his cruise behind Lewis, Sebastian and Mark.

If I was a racer I'd have done the same as Jenson. There's nothing wrong with a bit of a tussle as long as it's done fairly...Lewis also pointed that out.

Just my thoughts. I genuinely don't think Mclaren ned to smooth anything over. All's fair in love and war and it was a clean, fair fight.

Redbull have issues. What's up with Horner totally blaming Mark. Looks like Seb's the favourite.

Patrick said...

Excellent article - but it does beg an intriguing question as to why the difference in engine maps was so great? It's almost as though they only had two mappings - 'performance' and 'economy' and the gap between them is so great that even with modern F1 cars it's still possible for drivers to just breeze past other cars on different mappings. If it's that easy, why on earth did Alonso spend so much time stuck behind Vitaly Petrov? Still, much more interesting than 'push to pass' - almost back to the days of turbo-boost adjustment in the mid-80s....

Like you, I wouldn't be surprised to see Webber in a Renault or a Ferrari next year. If I were him I'd be pretty furious at a team attempting to blame me for having my team mate drive me off the road.