Saturday, October 31, 2009

Yas and the plastic population

By day, the translucent raiment of Yas Hotel resembles gossamer film, draped over hedgerows on a dewy morning; by night, it mimics the violet bioluminescence of deep-sea cnidarians.

Snetterton, it definitely isn't. In fact, in terms of cultural distance, it might be impossible to devise a facility further from Snetterton than Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina facility.

The drivers, however, seem to like the circuit. Lewis Hamilton, in fact, gave it the thumbs-up on the basis that "it's really smooth, the kerbs are nice and in the right places." What more could one want of a racing circuit?

Meanwhile, Ron Dennis has made his first appearance at a Grand Prix since his enforced exile from Formula 1 in the wake of the lie-gate controversy. Coincidentally, this is also the first Grand Prix since the end of Max Mosley's tenure as FIA President. Coincidentally, McLaren Automotive, the road-car division of the McLaren Group, which Ron Dennis has been heading-up this year, have just launched the McLaren MP4-12C. Their new vehicle will be powered, not by a Mercedes engine, but by a McLaren engine. Coincidentally, it is believed that Mercedes will be leaving McLaren at the end of 2011, and buying a 75% shareholding in Team Brawn. Coincidentally, the initial investment in Team Brawn will be made by Aabar, an Abu Dhabi company affiliated to Daimler-Benz, thereby avoiding the exclusive ownership terms in the current Mercedes contract with McLaren.

Thus, whilst there is much talk of whether Jenson Button is really considering the possibility of leaving Team Brawn to join McLaren next year, Anthony Hamilton will surely have noted the direction in which the engine-supply wind is now blowing, and will perhaps be thinking of a move in the opposite direction, at the appropriate time. In this context, it is also interesting to note that Rubens Barrichello recently confirmed on Brazilian TV that his initial 2009 contract with Team Brawn only covered the first four races. One might recall that during the fallout from lie-gate, there was a suggestion that McLaren were in breach of contract to Lewis Hamilton. Barrichello's admission seems to substantiate the view that Anthony Hamilton really could have transferred Lewis into Team Brawn at the time, and perhaps helps to further explain why Ron Dennis was compelled to fall on his sword.

The McLaren MP4-12C, incidentally, has an interesting one-piece carbon 'monocell' construction (pictured on the left here). It's certainly not a monocoque, for there is essentially just half a shell here, so perhaps it would be most appropriate to refer to it as a plastron chassis, lacking as it does a carapace (the dorsal part of the shell in arthropods).

The other great political cause celebre entertaining minds at the Yas Marina circuit is the perpetual state of limbo into which the British Grand Prix seems to have fallen. Intriguingly, the Business Secretary, and Prince of Darkness himself, Lord Mandelson phoned Bernie Ecclestone this week to stress the importance of the British Grand Prix to the UK.

Lord Mandelson doesn't strike one as the sort of person to contact Bernie Ecclestone lightly. In strategic terms, the Business Secretary would either want to have no part whatsoever in the negotiations over the British Grand Prix, or if he did decide to get involved, he would surely do so only in the belief that Ecclestone could be encouraged to come to a settlement with Silverstone. If Lord Mandelson got involved without having any form of traction, he would leave himself vulnerable to appearing impotent.

Whilst Mandy encouraged Bernie to retain the British Grand Prix, Bernie reassured Mandy that he was doing everything possible. Only a shot across the bows at this stage, then, but a full confrontation between Mandelson and Ecclestone would truly be the political equivalent of Alien vs Predator...

Nigel Mansell, love, and pronouns

[After Williams signed Alain Prost for 1993, and declined to meet Nigel Mansell's contract demands, Mansell] raved to the tabloids about how unfair it all was, but received rather less sympathy from the English specialist press, whom he had thoroughly alienated in an interview with L'Equipe, in which he described us as 'corrupt' for our unwillingness to rank him with Senna or Prost. Given that Mansell's relationship with the subtleties of the English language was never an easy one, it may be that this was not the adjective he had intended to use; whatever, the damage was done. (Nigel Roebuck, Chasing the Title, p247).

The story of Nigel Mansell is essentially half of a love story. Fail to understand this, and it is impossible to understand Mansell and his Formula 1 career.

Nigel met Rosanne when he was 17 years old, stopping his Mini at the roadside to offer her a lift to Solihull Technical College. They married in 1974, and have been together ever since. Rosanne sold her own road-car to help Nigel buy his first Formula Ford racing car, and, as Simon Taylor recalls in the December issue of Motorsport Magazine, the transition to Formula 3 not only saw Nigel working night-shifts as an office cleaner, and Rosanne working overtime as a British Gas demonstrator, but ultimately required the young couple to sell their own home, raising a paltry £6,000 in the process.

Despite the lack of finance, and a couple of potentially serious accidents in the lower formulae, Mansell's self-belief and courage caught the eye of Lotus boss Colin Chapman, and he gained a precarious foothold in Formula 1. The significance of Rosanne's contribution to his career was aptly characterised by Paul Kimmage in early 2006: "She was there in 1980 when he made his F1 debut for Lotus. She was there in 1985 when he won his first grand prix for Williams at Brands Hatch. She was there in 1986 when he lost the world championship when a rear tyre exploded in Australia. She was there in 1989 when he won on his debut for Ferrari. She was there in 1992 when he was finally crowned champion for Williams. She was there in 1993 when he was IndyCar champion. She was there in 1995 when he drove his last race. For 35 years, she was there."

The story of Nigel and Rosanne Mansell is ultimately a story of sacrifice and devotion, and Mansell's career in Formula 1 is a gripping tale of battles fought against adversity, spectacular overtaking manoeuvres, and ultimately the wresting of the World Championship. Yet despite all this, Mansell's relationship with the specialist press had degenerated into mutual vitriol by the early 1990s.

Nigel's self-belief was matched only by his persecution complex, a strong cultural meme in the Birmingham and Black Country area. Mansell bristled with aggression and paranoia at any criticism he received in print, and his attitude towards the specialist press often led them to deliberately understate his achievements; something of a vicious circle.

To understand Mansell's behaviour, however, one needs to understand not only his egotism and persecution complex, but to comprehend that his antagonism towards the press was also a conjugal reflex response to the presence of an external threat. Nigel and Rosanne, almost as a holistic entity, had made enormous sacrifices to realise their dreams, and any criticism in the press was perceived by Mansell as an attempt to undermine this achievement.

Simon Taylor comments that "When referring to himself, [Mansell] mixes his pronouns, as he always did...: 'When I look back I say to myself, with what we were up against, we were so lucky and fortunate that we accomplished what we did'."

This, however, is to underestimate Mansell. There is no misunderstanding of pronouns in Mansell's words. There were occasions during his racing years when Mansell used 'we' to refer to himself and his team, but at all times it referred to Nigel and Rosanne. As a case in point, consider how Mansell recalls the announcement of his first retirement, at the British Grand Prix in 1990: "It was a genuine decision. Rosanne and I had talked it through before Silverstone, and we'd decided we were being manipulated."

We were being manipulated.

Nigel supported Rosanne as she fought cancer in 2004, and Paul Kimmage's interview concludes with the following Mills and Boonesque lines:

He glances across at Rosanne for confirmation. She shrugs and smiles.

"You know that you’re my hero, don’t you, for all that you’ve been through," he whispers tenderly.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Analysing Formula 1

It's well-known that the greatest number of Grand Prix winners in a single season is eleven, a number attained during the epic and tragic 1982 season. Did you know, however, that the second greatest number of winners in a single season is nine, from the 1975 season?

In fact, in the history of Formula 1, only six seasons have featured eight or more winners, and all but one of those occurred between 1975 and 1985, (the subsequent exception being 2003). On the basis of this fact alone, one might argue that the years between 1975 and 1985 define the most competitive era in the sport's history. It also begs all sorts of questions about the conditions which led to such a competitive environment, and why they have so rarely pertained since.

These facts are gleaned from Roger Smith's colourful 2008 tome on the statistics of Formula 1, which is now available in paperback. It's well worth a purchase, for this was clearly a labour of love for Smith. Of particular interest is the book's concluding chapter, where Smith expounds the results of a rating system which enables all the champion drivers to be ranked, irrespective of the eras in which they raced.

The basic performance indicator chosen by Smith is a driver's strike rate, the number of Grand Prix victories as a fraction of races contested. After ranking the drivers by strike rate, Smith then attempts to adjust the ranking to compensate for the superiority of the equipment at a driver's disposal, and the strength of the driving competition he faced. Sadly, Smith doesn't 'show his working' here, but he does explain that the superiority of a driver's equipment in any particular year can be estimated by factors such as: the absolute share of wins achieved by the driver's team; the number of 1-2s; the number of victories by the driver's team-mate; and the share of wins relative to the second most successful team that year. How Smith disentangles the strength of the driving competition from the strength of the equipment available to the competition is unclear, but the upshot is a rating system which places Fangio first, Clark second, and Schumacher third.

A first objection is that it's difficult to argue with Smith's reasoning without being able to see his detailed calculations. In addition, however, there is a serious omission which underlies Smith's ratings system, and it is an error which is committed by every published attempt to rank the all-time greats. It is the failure to adjust for the size of the competitive pool, and the fact that the pool has been steadily growing in size since the inception of the Formula 1 World Championship.

In the 1950s and 1960s, only a relatively small number of people were competing in single-seater motorsport, and there were only a small number of formulae. The number competing at all levels of the sport has increased massively from the 1970s and 1980s onwards. Developing hand-in-hand with this has been the proliferation of the different junior formulae, all arranged in a pyramidal structure, filtering out the best drivers at each stage (in theory!), and feeding them towards the world of Formula 1, located at the tip of the pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is the immensely competitive world of kart racing, into which thousands of children across the world every year, are now inducted at an early age, to begin learning the craft of racing driver.

As a general principle of performance statistics, all other things being equal, the best person from a large competitive pool is likely to be better than the best person from a small competitive pool. Aphoristically, it's easy to be a big fish in a small pond, and the best drivers of the 1950s and 1960s were essentially just that. The Fangios and the Clarks were the tips of very small pyramids, whilst the Sennas, Schumachers and Hamiltons are the tips of very large pyramids.

As a comparison, consider American single-seater racing. This is a much smaller competitive pool than the hierarchy of single-seater formulae in the rest of the world, which feeds into Grand Prix racing. Thus, it is easy for a driver such as Al Unser Jnr or Michael Andretti to look devastating in Indycar racing, but to fail badly when they attempt the transition to Grand Prix racing. The best Formula 1 drivers of the 1950s and 1960s are comparable to the best drivers in American single-seater racing. It's quite possible that the best driver ever could have raced in American single-seater racing, and it's still quite possible that Fangio or Clark was actually the best driver the world has ever seen, but on the basis of statistics alone, adjustment for the different sizes of the competitive pools mitigates against this conclusion.

The best drivers in the world effectively lie in the tail-end of the distribution of driver talent, and as a general statistical rule, unless you take very large sample sizes, you're unlikely to be sampling from the tail-end of a distribution. For example, if the frequency of great drivers (those in the tail-end of the talent distribution) is 1-in-100,000, then at a time when there are only, say, 100 drivers in the world, the chance that one of them will be a great driver will only be 1-in-1,000. Hence, it's highly unlikely (but not impossible), that the best driver the world has ever seen was part of the small sample of Grand Prix drivers found in the 1950s and 1960s.

All of which is maybe a way of saying that statistics alone cannot be used to support or refute the subjective appreciation of drivers, made by observers in the same era to which the drivers belong.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Are racing cars arthropods?

If a zoologist were forced to classify racing cars in biological terms, he might well be inclined to conclude that they match the body plan of those animals called arthropods. This so-called 'phylum' of the animal kingdom includes the insects and the crustaceans.

Arthropods are defined by the fact that they possess the following characteristics: an external skeleton ('exoskeleton'), which protects the more vulnerable organs within; bilateral mirror symmetry; a segmented body plan; and jointed attachments called appendages, which provide functions such as locomotion.
In racing cars, the monocoque, whether it is a modern carbonfibre shell, or a metal space-frame construction, plays the role of an exoskeleton, protecting the vulnerable parts within; most racing cars possess bilateral symmetry, with minor exceptions such as asymmetric radiator layouts, and the suspension 'stagger' used by Indycars on oval circuits; most racing cars have a segmented body plan, front-to-rear, with various bulkheads separating the modules; and the suspension and wheels on a racing car play the role of the appendages on an arthropod.

Arthropods, like all animals, possess a metabolism, in the sense that they burn a source of chemical potential energy, which has ultimately been created by photosynthesis in plants, in order to perform useful work. In so doing, they create waste heat, which has to be radiated to the environment. Similarly, a racing car equipped with an internal combustion engine, burns a source of chemical potential energy, which has ultimately been created by photosynthesis in plants, in order to perform useful work, and in so doing creates waste heat, which has to be radiated to the environment.

The analogy would be complete if the 'active-ride' technology, seen in Formula 1 in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had been permitted to develop to the point where racing cars became fully autonomous. The feedback loops involving sensors, computer control units, and actuators, would ultimately have allowed racing cars to drive around circuits on their own. As it is, racing cars play host to parasitic organisms belonging to the phylum of the chordates. These parasitic organisms provide the sensing, decision-making, and control inputs in a racing car. Such individual chordates possess various names, but are mostly called Mika.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A champion's drive?

Smoother than Roger Moore in his prime, and with the surgical precision of Professor Sid Watkins in-theatre, Jenson Button scythed through the field to win the Formula 1 World Championship on Sunday.

This was a fabulously exciting race, and reminded one that a Grand Prix conducted in dry weather conditions can still be exciting if the track favours a low-downforce set-up, and if a number of the faster cars start the race behind a number of the slower cars. Formula 1 racing has always been cerebral, but there was a time when the cerebral was entwined with the visceral, and the opening laps of the Brazilian Grand Prix were a reminder of those days.

In fact, many of the drivers almost appeared to have 'gone feral' in the opening laps, and the first incident occurred on the run down to turn 4 when Mark Webber veered across to block Raikkonen, and Kimi's front-wing was crumpled against the rear wheel of the Red Bull. Mark's move was later than a winning goal in extra-time at Old Trafford, and as such was an almost carbon-copy of the move Michael Schumacher pulled on Juan-Pablo Montoya on the first lap in 2002. Kimi almost got his fingers burnt here, but whilst Montoya's post-race criticism of Schumacher was vociferous, Kimi merely filed the incident away for future reference.

A minute or so later, as Raikkonen departed the pits with a new nosecone attached, he must have been at least somewhat startled to find Kovalainen's McLaren veering into his path like a V-bomber, its trailing proboscis offering the tantalising prospect of some air-to-air refuelling. The moment was brief, however, and after driving through the consequent conflagration, Kimi was left to reflect once more upon how close he had come to getting his fingers burnt.

The other major incident of note on the first lap occurred as an indirect result of the Webber/Raikkonen accident. As Kimi slowed through turn 4, Sutil's Force India had to get off the power momentarily, and Trulli opportunistically attempted to run around the outside of the Force India in turn 5. Sutil, however, ran the Toyota out wide, forcing Trulli over the kerbs, where he lost control and punted Sutil amidships, spitting the Force India into the infield and the Toyota into the wall. As the Force India hurtled over the grass, Fernando Alonso appeared to be strangely oblivious to its trajectory, and clobbered it as it returned to the track in the middle of Ferra Dura.

Trulli immediately remonstrated with Sutil by the trackside, and after the race accused the German of deliberately driving him off the road. Perhaps, however, this was something of an over-reaction, and one might recall that Robert Kubica's potentially fatal crash at Montreal in 2007 was also caused when he tried to run around the outside of a driver who didn't know that he was there. That driver was Jarno Trulli.

All of this mayhem eliminated four cars which would otherwise, most probably, have finished ahead of Jenson Button. Along with the retirement of Nico Rosberg, this was actually the primary reason that Jenson was able to seal the World Championship on Sunday. His overtaking moves were ballsy and brilliant, but they were executed to pass four rookie drivers (Grosjean, Nakajima, Kobayashi and Buemi). To put Jenson's drive into perspective, it's also worth noting that two of the established drivers who qualified behind him (Hamilton and Vettel), both finished ahead of him. In the case of Vettel, his Red Bull simply had superior pace to the Brawn, and in Hamilton's case his natural elan was combined with a superior one-stop strategy.

So, whilst it is indeed time to pay tribute to Jenson's triumph, with some irony it is actually Sebastien Vettel's team-mate, Mark Webber, to whom Jenson Button should owe the greatest thanks this week.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Maurice Hamilton meets Richard Dawkins

Cows can be modified to grow vast and ungainly udders, and these continue to yield copious quantities of milk indefinitely, long after the normal weaning period of a calf...And of course, the same would be true of dairy humans, if anyone wanted to try. All too many surgeons large sums of money to implant silicone...Does anyone doubt that, given enough generations, the same deformity could be achieved by selective breeding, after the manner of Friesian cows? (Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, p39).

Jacques [Villeneuve] was always a bit of a renegade - I'd say an odd character. He was a very appealing character but in many ways quite child-like. If he fancied a girl, he'd ask Ann Bradshaw [Williams Press Officer] to go out and chat her up for him. (Patrick Head, speaking to Maurice Hamilton in Williams, p296.)

Like most people, I've spent the past few weeks concurrently reading the latest books by Richard Dawkins and Maurice Hamilton. Both are absolute gems.

Dawkins's latest book is a fabulous exposition of the concepts and evidence to support evolution by natural selection. It's a gripping and eclectic work, whose range extends from embryology to plate tectonics, to artificial breeding. Did you know, for example, that cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and broccoli, have all been bred by horticulturalists from a single plant, the wild cabbage, over just a few centuries?

One of the big themes of Dawkins's book is the manner in which evolution yields modification over long periods of time, whilst retaining unmistakeable traces of what was in place at the outset. Such a description is also apposite for the history of the Williams Formula One team. As erstwhile Williams engineer John Russell points out, "Bernie Ecclestone once said that Frank and Patrick run the best grocery store in the business...It's no longer a grocer's shop; it's a supermarket,...but if you go behind the scenes the grocer's shop is still there."

In fact, in the early months of 1983, as a member of the nascent Williams Grand Prix supporters' club, I was one of the lucky few invited to visit the Williams factory at Station Road in Didcot. I remember being escorted around the factory by someone called Sheridan [Thynne], and being slightly underwhelmed to discover that it consisted of a small number of partitioned bays inside an industrial unit. As designer Neil Oatley recalls in Maurice Hamilton's book, the original Station Road factory was only about the size of two tennis courts.

Hamilton has sourced and written perhaps the best book ever on the Williams Formula One team. It has a somewhat unusual format in that it largely consists of personal recollections from the dramatis personae associated with Williams over the last four decades, but this plurality of subjective perspectives weaves into a fascinating and cohesive sporting and engineering history. In particular, the perspicacity of Patrick Head and Adrian Newey radiates from the page like a pair of Cobalt-60 sources.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Funeral Games Grand Prix

Whilst the first Grand Prix motor race was held at Le Mans in 1906, the first de facto Grand Prix was actually the chariot race at the Funeral Games, held in honour of Patroclus, ca. 580 BC. Surprisingly, therefore, the first Grand Prix journalist was Homer, who published his race report in the Illiad 23.

Although the games were organised by Achilles (a chariot dealer from South Athens who had made good), the entry list for the first Grand Prix was disappointingly small, consisting of only five charioteers: Eumelus, Diomedes, Antilochus, Menelaus, and Meriones.

As the race approached its pivotal point. Eumelus was leading from Diomedes, but Diomedes was gaining ground, and making full use of what appeared to be an ancient Greek version of KERS. "Diomedes' stallions...seemed ever like to mount upon Eumelus' car, and with their breath his back waxed warm and his broad shoulders, for right over him did they lean their heads as they flew along."

Then, just as Diomedes was about to duck out of the slipstream and take the lead, he committed an error of concentration, lost his whip, and dropped behind as his horsepower plummeted. Eumelus now looked to be heading for a certain victory, but in chariot racing anything can happen, and usually does.

Without warning Eumelus' chariot suffered an axle failure, with disastrous consequences: "The mares swerved to this side and that of the course, and the pole was swung to the earth; and Eumelus himself was hurled from out the car beside the wheel, and from his elbows and his mouth and nose the skin was stripped, and his forehead above his brows was bruised; and both his eyes were filled with tears and the flow of his voice was checked."

As Eumelus licked his wounds, Diomedes raced to victory, and the crowd's attention switched to the battle for second. Menelaus was leading Antilochus, but the latter refused to accept defeat:

"Then quickly did Antilochus, staunch in fight, espy a narrow place in the hollow road. A rift there was in the ground, where the water, swollen by winter rains, had broken away a part of the road and had hollowed all the place. There drave Menelaus in hope that none other might drive abreast of him. But Antilochus turned aside his single-hooved horses, and drave on outside the track, and followed after him, a little at one side...the mares of [Menelaus] gave back, for of his own will he forbare to urge them, lest haply the single-hooved horses should clash together in the track, and overturn the well-plaited cars, and themselves be hurled in the dust in their eager haste for victory. Then fair-haired Menelaus chid Antilochus, and said: 'Antilochus, than thou is none other of mortals more malicious. Go, and perdition take thee, since falsely did we Achaeans deem thee wise. Howbeit even so shalt thou not bear off the prize without an oath'."

As the chariots crossed the finishing line, Diomedes was first, Antilochus second and Menelaus third. The result was then cast into doubt, however, when Menelaus lodged a protest with the organisers over Antilochus' driving. Summoned by the stewards, Antilochus was asked to demonstrate his innocence by swearing an oath to Zeus. Fearful of being on the receiving end of a thunderbolt which would prohibit his further participation in chariot racing, Antilochus accepted responsibility, but was permitted to retain his second place finish. Diomedes, for his part, was almost forgotten in the controversy, but as the winner he duly received a slave woman and a cauldron as his prize.

So, whilst the cauldrons are now made of Waterford crystal, it seems that little else has changed.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bobsleighs humped by lawnmowers

Before his untimely death canonised him, Senna's realism was commonly called ruthlessness by everyone in the sport. To a certain extent it was: when he figured out that he would become champion if Prost could be removed from the track, he accomplished this by driving into Prost, thereby removing himself as well, but with the championship in the bag. He engineered the impact straight after doing the sums in his head, thus setting a bad precedent. Such behaviour brought formula one close to being a demolition derby, but it was a natural consequence of a team's readiness to back up its top man, even if his conscience-free behaviour was at the expense of its second man. More recently, tighter rules have made the deliberate shunt harder to pull off, but as with the professional foul in football, the spirit of the thing is hard to quench. (Clive James, The Guardian, 14th May 2002).

Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix was, by common consent, about as exciting as watching Astroturf grow. In fact, the curious placing of such synthetic turf beyond the kerbing at a number of Suzuka's corners transformed several small mistakes into several very large shunts, much like Lewis Hamilton's last-lap accident at Monza. Perhaps, then, Mr Ecclestone's next plan will be to introduce Astroturf at the apexes of the corners.

Such carnage is hardly a substitute for genuine racing, but as Clive James pointed out some years ago, "rarely does [Formula One] provide a thrilling spectacle. Apart from the occasional shunt, it mainly shows you a procession. But to the fan, the questions are endless, convoluted and enthralling."

It was James, of course, who unforgettably described Murray Walker as sounding, even in his calmest moments, like a man with his trousers on fire. Observing the World Championship finale at Estoril in 1984, James also noted that "the cars all look like a bobsleigh being humped by a lawnmower." It was an observation which sadly failed to appear in Autocourse 1984's Technical Analysis.

1984 did, however, possess the virtue of a Grand Prix calendar determined by the location of the great circuits, rather than one inspired by Marco Polo's travel itinerary. It was also a year free from deliberate shunts (?), but as James remarks, "the spirit of the thing is hard to quench."

There is currently a vacancy at the University of West England, Bristol, for a Senior Lecturer in Motorsport and Mechanical Engineering. Given the growing list of refugees from Formula One, the competition for this post may be stiff indeed.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The radiation dose to Formula One

Frequent business flyers, such as the team members and media representatives who fly to every Grand Prix in the Formula One World Championship, are subjected to a radiation dose which can exceed that received by workers in the nuclear industry. In fact, "estimates of potential exposures of aircrew and frequent travellers, validated by on-board measurements carried out by carriers in the United States, Canada and Europe, indicate that these groups sometimes receive exposures above the limits for the general public, and should be categorized as occupationally exposed." (Lawrence Townsend 2001, Radiation exposures of aircrew in high altitude flight, Journal of Radiological Protection, Vol. 21 pp5-8).

This dose to frequent flyers comes ultimately from galactic cosmic rays, 90% of which are high-energy protons, and 10% of which are alpha particles. These high-energy particles collide with the nuclei of atoms in the atmosphere, creating secondary particles. The dominant contribution to the radiation dose received by frequent flyers comes from the neutrons created in such reactions.

The dose varies with the 11-year solar cycle, and increases with latitude and altitude. Nevertheless, an estimate can be made of the dose to the Formula One community by taking some ballpark figures. Before launching into the calculation, it should be noted that radiation dose is estimated in units called Sieverts (Sv). The milli-sievert (mSv) is a thousandth of a Sievert, and the micro-sievert (μSv) is a millionth of a Sievert.

To estimate the average annual dose, we need to know the average dose-rate per hour, and the number of hours flown per year. Townsend reports that at typical commercial jet altitudes (30,000-40,000 ft), the dose-rate is 5-10 micro-sievert per hour. The US National Commission for Radiological Protection (NCRP) has produced a report in which this dose-rate is taken to be 20 micro-sievert per hour (NCRP Commentary No 12), but let us take 10 micro-sievert per hour as a more conservative figure.

In terms of the number of hours flown, there are 10 long-haul destinations on next year's 19-race Formula One calendar (Bahrain, Australia, Malaysia, China, Canada, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Abu Dhabi, and Brazil). Taking round figures again, each one of these races involves a 10-hour flight each way (neglecting the fact that the Formula One community will fly direct from Singapore to Japan). That's approximately 200 flying hours to and from the long-haul races alone. Let's be conservative and neglect the additional flying hours to the European races. The total annual dose is still:

10 micro-sievert per hour * 200 = 2,000 μSv = 2 mSv.

Thus, over a 25-year career in Formula One, the cumulative dose will be 50 mSv. Now, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) estimate that the risk of acquiring a fatal cancer from radiation exposure is per 5% per Sievert. That means that for a cumulative dose of 50 mSv = 0.05 Sv, the risk is only 0.25%. The background level of fatal cancer in the population is about 25%, so an individual pursuing a 25-year career in Formula One will experience only a one-in-a-hundred increase in the pre-existing risk of acquiring a fatal cancer.

However, there are a large number of people who fly to every Grand Prix, so we can also work out the collective dose. If we assume that there is a core of 1,000 people who fly to every race, then if the cumulative dose per person over a 25-year career is 0.05 Sv, the collective dose will be:

0.05 Sv * 1,000 = 50 Sv.

With the risk of a fatal cancer being 5% per Sievert, this entails that 2.5 people amongst the Formula One community can be expected to acquire a fatal cancer due to their exposure to cosmic radiation.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Dartington Hall

Devon sometimes seems like a region of unfulfilled geography; it is en route landspace, a zone to be traversed by holidaymakers going to and from Cornwall. Whilst inheriting some of the holiday lustre of its big brother, it is diminished by the fact that it is simply not the pointy bit at the end of the country.
Nevertheless, Devon has spectacular charms. Travelling by train, at Teignmouth one passes between garishly-hued sandstone cliffs, and the slate-grey expanse of the sea, stretching out towards horizon-hogging supertankers. Winding inland, the hillsides and valleys seem to be saturated with trees, luxuriantly limbed and leafed even in early Autumn.

Dartington Hall itself offers a tranquil escape from the hectic mundanity of life. The gardens are exorbitantly decked with a profuse variety of trees both tall and broad, vantaged by stairs and paths and outposts and green terraces, stimulating the eye from every angle.

All of which made the cancellation of the 17:27 from Totnes something of a comedown. Another train, it seems, had broken down, (tricky thing, this diesel technology), and as a consequence the train which goes from Paddington to Penzance, and back again, had been turned around at the next station up the line. A £20 taxi ride was therefore necessary to catch the 17:40 from Newton Abbot. Once aboard, an astonishingly generous (and monied) colleague sweet-talked the ticketman into two first-class upgrades for the cost of one. That'll be just the hundred pounds or so then.

And what do you get for your hundred pound first-class seat? You get a table, with an electric socket, and... (wait for it) a complimentary copy of The Times.