Monday, December 27, 2010

Identity criteria for Formula 1 teams

The ongoing controversy over the right to use the Lotus brand-name in Formula 1, highlights some subtle questions concerning the identity criteria for a Formula 1 team.

Companies, like people, are able to remain the same entity, despite changing substantially over time. Whilst philosophical discussions of personal identity revolve around bodily and psychological continuity, the identity of a company seems to hinge upon a combination of location, key personnel, name and ownership.

It seems fairly uncontroversial to propose that continuity of location, personnel, name and ownership, are jointly sufficient to preserve the identity of a Formula 1 team. Conversely, if all four of these conditions are violated, then it seems impossible to justify any claim for the preservation of identity; a team located in a different place, employing different people, bearing a different name, and possessing different ownership, must simply be a different team. Equally, however, none of these four conditions is individually necessary to preserve identity. Let us look at some examples to demonstrate this.

For a start, continuity of name and ownership is unnecessary to preserve identity, as clearly illustrated by the case of the 'Brackley-based team', which has, within the past decade, evolved from BAR into Honda, from Honda into Brawn, and from Brawn into Mercedes. The successive changes of name and ownership have not prevented this being considered to be a continuation of the same team. Hence, continuity of location and personnel alone are sufficient to preserve the identity of a team.

Continuity of location is also unnecessary to preserve identity, as exemplified by the Williams team, which in its current location at Grove is still clearly a continuation of the same team which was once located at Didcot. This case proves that continuity of personnel, name and ownership, is jointly sufficient to preserve the identity of a team.

The history of McLaren, meanwhile, provides another interesting case study. The merger between McLaren and Project 4 in the early 1980s effectively resulted in a change of ownership (from Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander to Ron Dennis and partners), and a change of location from Colnbrook to Woking. In this case, there was only continuity of name and personnel, yet it seems to be accepted that McLaren in the 1980s was a continuation of McLaren in the 1970s. It appears, then, that continuity of name and personnel alone are also sufficient to preserve the identity of a team.

Another interesting case is provided by the creation of the Arrows team from the key personnel within the Shadow team. (In fact, this is almost an example of fission, exactly the type of phenomenon which poses such difficulties in philosophical discussions of personal identity). On the basis of continuity of location, name and ownership, the Shadow team remained identifiable as the same team which existed prior to the departure of Alan Rees, Jackie Oliver, Dave Wass and Tony Southgate, even if the team had been fatally weakened in the process.

Abstracting from such cases, it might be proposed that the identity of a Formula 1 team is preserved if and only if the following criterion is satisfied:

There is continuity of: Either (location and personnel) Or (personnel and name) Or (location, name and ownership).

Irrespective of these complications, the preservation of identity seems to be impossible without some form of continuity. Setting up a new team with the same name as a famous, but defunct team, isn't sufficient to ensure preservation of identity. As the case of the Lotus name in F1 demonstrates, breaking all forms of continuity opens up the possibility of multiple entities, each claiming to be the modern representative of a famous historical team. And if there's one thing which the criteria for identitiy must ensure, it is the preservation of initial uniqueness.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Vorticity and helicity

There seem to be at least two types of vortex relevant to racing car aerodynamics: transverse vortices and longitudinal vortices. The former spin along axes which lie orthogonal to the direction of travel (as seen in the diagram on the left here), whilst the latter spin along axes parallel to the direction of travel.

Whilst transverse vortices just create drag, a longitudinal vortex can be rather useful, because the centre of such a vortex is a high velocity, low pressure region, which can be used to accelerate or direct airflow in certain directions. The Renault F1 team, for example, used a V-shaped cut in the front wing at Monza this year to create a vortex which accelerated the airflow under the car.

At first sight, there seems to be a particularly simple way to mathematically characterise the distinction between transverse and longitudinal vortices.
Given the fluid flow velocity vector field u, the vorticity vector field ω is the curl of the velocity field:

Basically, the vorticity vector points along the axis of spin, and the magnitude of the vorticity vector encodes the rate of spin. Given the vorticity vector field, mathematicians introduce several useful additional concepts: vortex lines, vortex sheets and vortex tubes. Technically speaking, vortex lines are the integral curves of the vorticity vector field; this simply means that vortex lines are curves which are tangent to the vorticity field at each point. Vortex sheets, meanwhile, are surfaces which are tangent to the vorticity field at all points. Vortex tubes are three-dimensional regions obtained by taking a 2-dimensional area orthogonal to the vorticity field, and then taking all the vortex lines through that area.

Now, the helicity h is simply defined as the inner product of the velocity and the vorticity:

h = u • ω

Thus, if the streamlines of the fluid are orthogonal to the vorticity, then the helicity is zero. This is the case with a tranverse vortex. In the case of a longitudinal vortex, the helicity is non-zero, and measures how tightly the streamlines corkscrew along a vortex tube. In fact, the helicity of a vortex tube can be defined by integrating the helicity field:

It is a theorem of inviscid fluid mechanics that the helicity of a vortex tube is preserved over time. However, if a vortex tube is stretched, (as I presume it must be when it is sucked underneath the floor of a racing car), then its cross-sectional area decreases, and the magnitude of the vorticity ω increases, lowering the pressure at the centre of the vortex.

One might therefore conclude that the stretching of longitudinal vortex tubes should be a principal objective of all racing car aerodynamicists.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

King of the galaxy

"Bernie, who is the king of the world – more than the world, he is king of the galaxy." Luca di Montezemolo.

I knew it!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Minotaur and the Monopole

In a moonlit glade of an enchanted wood, the Minotaur of Sirius-A sat and mourned the loss of his beloved Medusa, caustic tears burning a crater in the mossy ground betwixt his feet. The last survivor of a dying species, it was centuries since Daedalus-A's labyrinth had crumbled to ruin, and millennia since the Minotaur had feasted on the final consignment of virgins from Athens-A.

Such was the solitary intensity of his grief, the Minotaur resolved to be re-united with his partner by any means possible, and began furiously researching cosmology in the deserted library of Athens-A. There, he discovered that a universe just like our own - and therefore containing his dearest, alive again - could be created, without the need for an initial singularity, if one could only find a magnetic monopole.

The Minotaur, however, had no idea where to begin searching for such an item, and immediately lapsed into a pit of mythological depression, hurling himself out of the colonnaded library, and back to his friendless forest dell. There he lay forlorn in supine agony, and many days passed until, by providence, he descried above a lofty flock of migrating birds, and pondered anew the basis for such navigational feats. Thus it was that the Minotaur commenced a five-year effort, harvesting the magnetite from a billion birds, slowly implanting the precious ferrimagnetic mineral within his bovine skull.

Eventually, the harvest complete, the Minotaur tuned his magnetoreception to the faint magnetic fields which permeate the galaxy, and embarked on a thousand-year odyssey, pursuing hidden Teslatic paths between sparkling spiral arms and gigantic dust lanes, seeking hints and traces of the fabled monopole.

Finally, the grieving beast alighted upon a dark, brooding planet where magnetic field lines converged in densely-packed radial spokes. There, in a dark sulphuric cavern, between rivers of roiling magma, the Minotaur cleaved his monopole from an obsidian peninsula.

Summoning forth his cumulative, concentrated sorrow, he crushed the pulsing topological defect within his hand, compressing it until a black hole was formed. At once, a Reissner-Nordstrom space-time effloresced within, and a bubble universe blossomed with false vacuum energy inside the double black hole horizons.

The Minotaur was instantly sucked inside his own creation, his mass-energy converted to surface tension in the bubble wall. The child universe expanded and cooled, stars and galaxies formed, planets coalesced, life evolved, civilisations waxed and waned, and after billions of years, in a moonlit glade of an enchanted wood, the Minotaur of Sirius-A sat and mourned the loss of his beloved Medusa, caustic tears burning a crater in the mossy ground betwixt his feet.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

F1 and the Wisdom of Crowds

The FIA's World Motorsport Council (WMSC) met on Friday this week, and, as anticipated, repealed the ban on team orders in F1. Notably, however, the following qualification was issued: "Teams will be reminded that any actions liable to bring the sport into disrepute are dealt with under Article 151c of the International Sporting Code and any other relevant provisions."

Philosophically, this is interesting, because whilst the FIA are permitting the teams to exercise discretion over the application of team orders, they're also warning them that the type of flagrant manipulation which precipitated the introduction of the original legislation in 2002, will be punished for bringing the sport into disrepute.

If we recall, Ferrari's decision to manoeuvre Michael Schumacher past Rubens Barrichello on the last lap of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, resulted in the drivers being loudly booed by the spectators as they ascended the podium, and in the team management being roundly condemned by the specialist and non-specialist media. Both the spectators and the media constitute a type of crowd, and their reaction to Austria 2002 was clearly damaging to the reputation of F1. This, then, was an example of the Wisdom of Crowds, the capability, under certain conditions, for collections of non-experts to make decisions, or pass judgements, of greater or equal accuracy than those which could be made by individuals.

Friday's statement from the WMSC partially transfers judgement in cases of team orders to the wisdom of such crowds. Trying to capture in legislation the exact conditions under which team orders should be punished, is way too complex, so instead the FIA are, at least partially, ceding judgement to the collective wisdom of paying spectators, television viewers, and the media.

Now, this is clearly still an arrangement open to abuse, for it is the FIA who ultimately have to decide whether the reaction of the spectators and the media is sufficient to entail a breach of Article 151c. This collapses the wisdom of crowds down to the judgement of a smaller group of individuals, whose decisions can be skewed by short-term vested interests. Moreover, Article 151c also entitles the FIA to punish actions which are merely liable to bring the sport into disrepute. Hence, any action which could be seen as setting a precedent, or instigating a trend, that might ultimately bring the sport into disrepute, could be seen to fall under the aegis of this regulation.

Whilst a repetition of Austria 2002 would unambiguously bring the sport into disrepute, and clearly render a team subject to punishment, the key question is whether a repetition of Germany 2010 would also bring the sport into disrepute. There was certainly a media outcry after Alonso was escorted past Massa in this year's race, but a large component of that reaction was attributable to the fact that Ferrari had breached a regulation banning team orders. Subtract that element of things, and Germany 2010 reduces to a borderline case.

One final point. Many commentators and analysts point out that team orders are intrinsic to the history of F1, and that F1 is a team sport. That's certainly true, but in the modern age, F1 is a commercial brand which is sold to the public as a contest between drivers, not a contest between teams. If numerous spectators and viewers are attracted to the sport on that basis, only to be disabused of their delusions mid-race, then such casual viewers have every right to complain that they haven't received the product which was sold to them.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

2010 Season Review

It was the greatest year in the history of modern bacterial Formula 1. A five-way battle for the championship developed between Mark Meningococcus, Sebastien Clostridium, Jenson Streptococcus, Lewis Straphylococcus, and Fernando Escherichia-coli. Powered by the double-flagella motors, permitted by a loophole in the genetic code, the drivers went protein-to-protein over 19 races hosted in water, soil, rock, plant and animal, their micrometer-sized membranes specifically adapted to the low Reynolds number hydrodynamic conditions.

Experienced and well-liked prokaryote, Mark Meningococcus led for most of the year, but suffered a ribosome-damaging antibiotic attack with four races to go, and crashed out of the Colonic Grand Prix. Benefitting from the full attention of the Escherichia genus, Fernando E-Coli assumed the lead of the championship going into the final couple of races. There was, however, to be a further twist in the flagellum, for Adrian Lactococcus, resident design genius at Clostridium, had noted that photon pressure can be used to generate lift and downforce in micrometer-sized objects. With a photonic wing installed, Sebastien Clostridium dominated the final Grands Prix, and snatched the championship from under the nose of Fernando. The little Clostridium team had beaten the might of E-coli!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Is space both finite and infinite?

This is an interesting diagram, for at least a couple of reasons. Firstly, as the author, cosmologist Anthony Aguirre explains in his paper Eternal Inflation, past and future, "it may well represent the current best bet for how the observable universe actually originated." Secondly, it demonstrates nicely how, according to general relativistic cosmology, the observable universe could be both spatially infinite and spatially finite.

Aguirre's diagram represents the creation of our observable universe according to a certain scenario proposed by inflationary cosmology, so let's begin by recapping the basic idea of the latter. Inflation suggests that there is a scalar field, the 'inflaton', whose 'equation of state' is such that a positive energy density corresponds to a negative pressure. In general relativity, a matter field with negative pressure generates a repulsive gravitational effect. Inflationary cosmology suggests that at some time in the early universe, the energy density of the universe came to be dominated by the non-zero energy density of the inflaton field. A region of the universe in this so-called false vacuum state would undergo exponential expansion until the inflaton field dropped into a lower energy state. This lower energy state is conventionally considered to be the 'true vacuum' state, the lowest energy state of the inflaton field.

The diagram above represents a particular type of inflationary scenario in which inflation ends locally at a 'nucleation point', by quantum tunnelling from the false vacuum value φF, to a value φW. An expanding bubble of lower-energy forms, the bubble wall expanding outwards at the speed of light. The bubble wall is duly represented on Aguirre's diagram by the vee-shape. (If one were to add an extra spatial dimension to the diagram, then one would represent the expanding bubble wall as a cone-shape).

Whilst the bubble wall possesses an inflaton field value of φW, the region inside the bubble evolves towards lower-energy inflaton field values until it reaches the true vacuum field value φT. The second diagram here simply plots the potential energy V(φ) as a function of the inflaton field value φ. (Note that Aguirre's first diagram erroneously denotes the true vacuum as φF).

Now, in general relativistic cosmology there is no preferential way of slicing up a space-time into a family of 3-dimensional spaces. If there were a preferential slicing, it would provide a basis for absolute simultaneity, contradicting the principles of relativity. Inflationary cosmology is just general relativistic cosmology with an inflaton field, so an inflationary space-time can also be sliced up in any number of ways.

If the bubble from which our observable universe arose, were nucleated at a single point, and its wall expanded at the finite speed of light, it might seem natural to think that the bubble must be finite in spatial extent, and non-uniform at each moment of time. The closer to the centre of the bubble, the smaller the value of the inflaton field φ. This would correspond to slicing up the region inside the vee-shape on the first diagram with a series of horizontal lines.

However, the conventional models of general relativistic cosmology, the Friedmann-Robertson-Walker space-times, which are purportedly preceded by the inflationary transition to a true vacuum, are considered to be spatially homogeneous and isotropic. If we carry this slicing convention back to the inflationary bubble, then we must slice it along surfaces with constant values of the inflaton field φ. These correspond to a stack of hyperboloids inside the vee-shape on the diagram, each hyperboloid being an infinite 3-dimensional space of constant negative curvature. Under this slicing, the inflaton field still evolves towards the true vacuum state, but it evolves uniformly, and blends into a spatially infinite Friedmann-Robertson-Walker space-time.

Thus, seen from this perspective, an inflationary bubble, nucleated at a single point, and growing at a finite speed, is nevertheless capable of harbouring an infinite amount of space.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The philosophy of Senna, Schumacher and Alonso

November's Motorsport Magazine podcast features a fascinating chat with erstwhile Renault F1 technical director Pat Symonds. Having worked with Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, Pat is well-placed to offer an informed comparison between the three pre-eminent drivers in modern F1 history.
Symonds points out that Schumacher was a team-player, naturally taking an interest in the lives, families and careers of those around him, whilst Alonso is comparable to the early Senna in terms of his "egocentric" psychology.

In fact, in terms of psychological philosophy, Schumacher can be classified as a methodological collectivist, Alonso as an individualist, and the early Senna as a para-solipsist.

Schumacher is a methodological collectivist because, whilst instinctively friendly with those he works with, he also clearly sees that his self-interest is best served by the harmonious operation of the collective around him. Alonso, in contrast, displays an almost naked level of self-interest, and demands that a team is unequivocally devoted to serving his needs. There have even been times, notably at McLaren in 2007, when Fernando was at his best when he felt himself to be alone and unsupported, battling adversity, demonstrating self-reliance.

Classifying the early Senna as a para-solipsist might seem a trifle extreme, suggesting as it does that he was almost unable to believe in the existence of other mortal minds, or of a world existing independently of his own existence. It does, however, capture the introspective intensity of the Brazilian's early personality. The later Senna exhibited an even more complex psychological philosophy, embracing elements of mysticism, monotheism, humanitarianism, and retributional justice.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Toleman - The Last Romantics

At first sight, one might expect a book pertaining to the 'Last Romantics', to feature a bunch of androgynous men from the 1980s, sporting cheap perms and dodgy synth-pop melodies. On the contrary, this is the gripping tale of how a small group of innovative and hard-working engineers came ever so close to beating the Formula 1 establishment, just at the point where the sport was irreversibly transforming itself from a cottage industry to a high-tech corporate exercise.

The main protagonists in the tale are all fascinating characters in their own right: Ted Toleman, Alex Hawkridge, Rory Byrne, John Gentry, Brian Hart, Roger Silman, Pat Symonds, Brian Henton, and Derek Warwick. Hilton has encouraged them all to speak openly, and at length, about the Toleman adventure, and the result is inspiring and wonderful. It is a story which reaches both its zenith and its denouement with the arrival, and then departure of Ayrton Senna.

My first ever trip to a motor race of any kind was to the 1982 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. There, perched on the South Bank, the crowd watched with a mixture of excitement and amazement as Derek Warwick cut through the field in the underfinanced Toleman, powered by the underfinanced Hart turbo engine. It felt like a glimpse into a parallel universe, a feeling only accentuated when, before our very eyes, Warwick sliced down the inside of Pironi's Ferrari to take second place into Paddock Hill Bend.

I can also recall my complete astonishment months later when I discovered that the new TG183, an outrageously outre design, had gone fastest in the pre-season testing at Rio for the 1983 season. And in 1984 I fumed for days over the decision to stop the Monaco Grand Prix, just as Ayrton Senna's Toleman was about to overwhelm Prost's tentatively driven McLaren. Not only was the race stopped with a red flag, but in a flagrant breach of regulation, the chequered flag was shown at the same time, just to dispel any lingering thoughts of a re-start.

This book, then, is a chance both to re-live all those remarkable events, and to see them from the perspective of the participants. I love this book to bits, and I'm also deeply jealous never to have been part of such an adventure.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Lewis Hamilton 2010

A curious year for Lewis, this one. Until the Italian Grand Prix, he was the driver of the season, performing as flawlessly as he performed for the first fifteen races of 2007. Moreover, he was doing so when the lack of front-end bite from the 2010 Bridgestone tyres should have hampered his natural driving style. Whilst Michael Schumacher spent the year explaining away his under-performance in these conditions, Lewis uttered not a single complaint, and comprehensively out-qualified team-mate Jenson Button.

As such, Lewis now appears to be a highly adaptable driver, in the same league as Fernando Alonso. By contrast, Robert Kubica, another driver touted as being the best in Formula 1, disappears off the radar whenever the balance of his car tends towards oversteer. This was most clearly evident in Korea, where, after looking like a pole position contender on Friday, Robert was restricted to eighth on the grid on Saturday after the Renault duly developed oversteer.

However, despite Hamilton's versatility, when the championship pressure ramped up, he suffered a series of accidents at Monza, Singapore, and Suzuka. These incidents had the nature of a chain reaction, and Lewis's subsequent errors in Korea and Brazil were also telling. On both occasions he was defending from Fernando Alonso, and doing so in a car with inferior handling. In such circumstances, it's fairly well understood that the priority is to avoid a mistake which gifts the position to the following car. The defending driver needs to give himself a margin under braking, concentrate on hitting every apex, and concentrate on getting the power down cleanly coming out of the corners, rather than trying to extract more speed from the car. Yet on both occasions, Lewis over-committed on corner entry, and let Fernando past. One might even be tempted to think that Alonso still has the capability to scramble Hamilton's mind a little.

Lewis, then, still seems to suffer from spikes of emotion in the cockpit, and this clearly detracts from his performance. In the wake of a McLaren strategy blunder, it is not unusual for him to issue a somewhat testy car-to-pit communique, and these microbursts provide an insight into Lewis's emotional flammability. It's also clear that in terms of race strategy, Hamilton's interaction with the McLaren team still has the nature of a server-client transaction, with Lewis as the slightly aggrieved customer. If he were to become more of a strategic partner with the team in this respect, examining all the strategic options before the race, and fully understanding all the pros and cons, then he might have no-one else to blame when small mistakes are made, or opportunities missed.

So not a bad year, then, but a year in which past vulnerabilities under pressure were exposed again. I still think he'll become the best, but there's a little work to be done yet, smoothing away those little spikes...

November caption competition

British Aerospace sales team prepare to meet Saudi Royal family.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Cycles of time

Roger Penrose claims to have found evidence in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation to support his iconoclastic theory of Conformally Cyclic Cosmology.

To recall, Penrose claims that the universe consists of an endless chain of aeons. It is claimed that each aeon begins and ends with a population of massless particles, and because such particles are unable to provide physical standards of length and time, the apparently hot and dense manner in which our universe began, can be identified with the cold and rarefied manner with which the previous aeon ended.

Penrose claims, however, that the gravitational radiation emitted by the collision of supermassive black holes towards the end of one aeon, leave an imprint on the CMB of the next. The CMB radiation is characterised by a temperature distribution over a fixed two-dimensional sphere, and the pulse of gravitational radiation emitted by a black hole collision can be thought of as an expanding spherical shell, which intersects the CMB surface along a circle. The variation in the temperature of the CMB along such a circle would be less than that of a random distribution, and working with Vahe Gurzadyan, Penrose claims to have found just such low-variance circles in the CMB.

A more leisurely explanation of Penrose's theory, and its observational consequences, can be found in his excellent recent publication, Cycles of time. As ever, Penrose is an engaging writer, and his hand-drawn diagrams are simply exquisite. The one qualification to mark, however, is that Penrose expects a level of mathematical readiness from his audience that many readers will be unable to supply. Banished from the pages of magazines such as Scientific American and New Scientist, there are things called equations in this book. The intelligent, non-specialist reader will be able to discern their meaning from context, but there are gaps in the exposition which those without a prior knowledge of relativity and cosmology will be unable to fill.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Double-diffusers 2011?

Double-diffusers, we're assured, are banned from Formula 1 in 2011. Now, unlike Marco Piccinini, I don't go to sleep with the FIA yellow book under my pillow, and I haven't seen how the regulations are specifically worded to enforce this ban. Nevertheless, the easiest way of doing so might be to target the means by which the double-diffusers are currently fed.

Recall first that the underneath of a Formula 1 car consists of a reference plane astride the centreline of the car, and a step plane 50mm above it on either side. The upper decks of the double-diffusers were fed, either by holes in the vertical wall joining the step plane to the reference plane, or by holes in the horizontal step plane which lay in the shadow of rear suspension arms. Thus, to outlaw double-diffusers, one merely has to stipulate that: (i) the entire undertray, consisting of reference plane, step, and step plane, must be a continuous surface; and (ii) holes in the step plane are not permitted, whether they're in the shadow of suspension arms or not.

So, is it possible to circumvent this somehow, and achieve similar results by a different means? Well, the first thought that springs to mind is this: what's the difference between a joint and a hole? How about making the underbody from separate pieces, with a joint between the step plane on each side and the reference plane. This would still form, with the car at rest, a continuous surface even if it were made of multiple pieces. One might then allow the joints to open up in a certain place under aerodynamic load, feeding the upper deck of a double-diffuser. McLaren used a multi-piece underbody in the first half of the 2009 season to enable better access to the KERS battery pack in their right-hand sidepod, and with KERS returning next year, this might provide a perfect pretext.

The visible nature of the double-diffuser rear exit might, of course, be thought a giveaway to the fact that one was flouting the regulations. Perhaps, however, one could implement a diversionary tactic, feeding air from channels in the flanks of the sidepods to the upper deck of the diffuser. Other teams copying this might find that it offers them no benefit at all...

Perhaps someone better informed can enlighten me on the exact wording of the new regulations?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Economist and Formula 1

"Look at me [Marge], I'm reading The Economist! Did you know Indonesia is at a crossroads?" (Homer Simpson).

The Economist magazine has jumped onto the 'Formula 1 is evolutionary' bandwagon, promoted for some time already by McCabism. However, whilst The Economist merely alludes to the potential relevance of genetic algorithms in engineering, McCabism specifically advocates the use of genetic algorithms in Formula 1 aerodynamic design.

The Economist claims, tongue-in-cheek, that the "phylogenesis of Formula One cars — the sequence of changes that have occurred during their evolution — has resulted in a beast with the body of a fish, the wings of a bird and the loins of a cheetah." McCabism, in contrast, has proposed that in zoological terms, racing cars are arthropods, by virtue of possessing: (i) an exoskeleton, which protects the more vulnerable systems ('organs') within; (ii) bilateral mirror symmetry; (iii) a segmented body plan; (iv) jointed attachments ('appendages'), which provide functions such as locomotion; and (v) a metabolism, which burns a source of chemical potential energy to perform useful work, in the process creating waste heat which has to be dissipated to the environment.

Disturbingly, The Economist also claims that "Last Sunday, the race winner and the new world champion, Red Bull Racing’s 23-year-old Sebastian Vettel, had the fastest car in qualifying and throughout the race, thanks to a powerful engine supplied by Renault." Given that the Renault engine is, unfortunately, the least powerful in Formula 1, one hopes that The Economist's analysis of geopolitical finance is generally of a more accurate nature.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Jonathan Meades in the pitlane

I'm Jonathan Meades, and this week I'll be looking at the world of Formula 1. I'll be looking at its culture, its mores, its idioms, and its aesthetics.

Modern Formula 1 is both a craft, a trade, and an artform. Whilst it has inherited the pragmatist aesthetic of the aerospace industry, it is essentially, in its British context at least, a cottage industry transformed by cashflow into a blue-chip extravaganza of kinetic marketing.

At McLaren's headquarters in Woking, we find a monument to corporate Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: the McLaren Technology Centre. Whilst the headquarters of other Formula 1 teams acquiesce to the ubiquity of the neomodern aesthetic, the MTC is a starchitect Norman Foster design, its external yin-yang geometry a pretentious usurpation of Taoist symbolism.

This is neither hangar, nor factory, nor laboratory, nor suburban industrial unit. It protrudes from beneath into ambient parkland, like the first manifestation of a technologically-advanced and previously submerged alien civilisation. It is a hybridisation of the office block and the garage, lacking the verticality of the former, and the grime of the latter. More Kennedy Space Centre than Cowley or Dagenham, it is no coincidence that McLaren possess a Mission Control within, where strategists and engineers study real-time telemetry transmitted from a race in Tibet or Mongolia. Four ion-drive engines, and a supply of anti-matter, are secreted within the foundations of the MTC, and will one day rip it from its concrete tethers, whence it will be free to travel the cosmos, dispatching self-replicating robots to colonise the galaxy.

The engineers who work for these Formula 1 teams are intelligent, lean and competitive; the mechanics are earthy and hard-working; the drivers are superfit, superefficient hand-eye-body-coordinating expert systems. Together, they design, manufacture and operate what are essentially aircraft constrained to remain in contact with strips of asphalted aggregate, deposited on the surface of the Earth. The cars seem equally at home circulating city streets as they are traversing airfield perimeters. The start of a race is akin to twenty simultaneous Space-Shuttle launches, yet the combative element gives the drivers the code of conduct and patois of fighter pilots rather than astronauts.

The history of Formula 1 is an epic narrative of heroism and technical ingenuity, interwoven with tragedy, politics and greed. Emasculated by the risk-averse nature of the modern world, the spectre of death no longer hangs over the sport, but it has developed into the most competitive technological arms-race on the planet. In fact, Formula 1 is the most sophisticated, multi-dimensional cultural activity in the world, for nothing else features its defining combination of sport, technology, politics, and business.

Yet ultimately, the cars are merely prostheses for the expression of the human competitive instinct. The teams spend millions of dollars on an annual basis operating wind-tunnels and supercomputers, exploiting loopholes and ambiguities in the regulations, in order to equip their drivers with the means to extend the bipedal locomotive capabilities they inherited from biological evolution by natural selection. Years of practice honing kinaesthetic sensitivities, sensory feedback loops, reaction speeds, spatial pattern recognition, racecraft, and mind management skills, culminates in a race every couple of weeks, for eight months of the year. Here, the ambitions of twenty drivers and their teams are brought into conflict by extinguishing a row of red lights, and then deconflicted a couple of hours later by a chequered flag.

It is this spectacle which draws the crowds and the television audiences in their millions: the opportunity to vicariously experience the glamourous, technologically-driven, adrenalin-charged gladiatorial combat. And it is the realisation of this common vicarious experience which draws the telecommunication companies, the drinks companies, the banks, and the roadcar manufacturers, to invest and advertise. Here, they piggy-back on the global information flows generated by the sport, seeking to insert brand-values, conceptual associations, and unbidden wants into the minds of the audience, tugging their consumerist behaviour this way and that.

It is the information flow which supports the flow of money, which supports the flow of technological creativity, which supports the prosthetic extension of the competitive instinct, which supports the vicarious experience of glamour and combat, which supports the information flow that keeps the F1 wheel spinning.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The best season in Formula 1 history?

A thrilling triple-team battle for the championship; an established team with a pair of evenly-matched drivers, winning several early Grands Prix, but then falling away in the development race; a young team with the fastest car, struggling for early-season reliability, but then mounting a late charge with a string of consecutive victories; and a Ferrari team scoring consistently with a car suitable on all types of circuit, but rarely possessing ultimate speed. The best-ever season of Formula 1? Yes, quite possibly 1979 had it all.

In the modern age, the World Drivers' Championship provides Formula 1 with an overall narrative which ties the individual Grands Prix into a coherent story, and imbues individual races with a significance they might not otherwise possess. Thus, by virtue of the fact that the 2010 season featured a five-way battle for the Drivers' Championship, many are already suggesting that 2010 was the best season in F1 history.

However, quick on the draw, Mark Hughes points out in his mini 2010 season-review, that for those who preferred the "rawness" of previous eras, "the greatest seasons have already been set."

Moreover, one can argue the case for 1979, not merely on the basis of its rawness, but on the quality of the individual races. 1979 featured great drivers, in fabulous cars, engaging in genuine racing on challenging circuits. Fortunes swung back and forth through the year, with the Ligier team of Laffite and Depailler initially dominating, before Ferrari won some races, and before the young Williams team eventually nailed their reliability problems, and began to dominate. For McLaren in 2010 read Ligier in 1979, for Red Bull in 2010 read Williams in 1979, and for Ferrari in 2010 read Ferrari in 1979. And remember, Williams in 1979 were only denied the opportunity to emulate Red Bull's late 2010 championship victory by an idiosyncratic scoring system which limited the number of points which could be scored in each half of the season.

In contrast, what were the truly great racing moments of the 2010 season? Certainly, there was a tremendous battle between the Red Bulls and McLarens at Istanbul, and the wet early-season races conspired to produce plenty of overtaking, (from Lewis Hamilton at least). However, are you really going to sit your grandchildren down and reminisce about how the old petrol-driven F1 cars struggled with their tyre degradation at Canada in 2010, or how Ferrari failed to cover both Red Bulls strategically at the season finale in Abu Dhabi?

Perhaps, instead, you might reminisce about Villeneuve and Arnoux banging wheels with expressionistic freedom at Dijon in 1979, or the exciting battles between Jones and Villeneuve at Zandvoort, Canada and Watkins Glen that same year. Or perhaps you'll just smile, and gently shake your head as you replay for the umpteenth time your holographic video of Villenueve, lapping at close to racing speed on three wheels at Zandvoort.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Race - A Tale from the Afterlife

In the afterlife, you find yourself at the most perfect Grand Prix circuit logically possible, an undulating 100-mile meta-circuit containing sections identical to parts of the old Nurburgring, the old Spa-Francorchamps, Brands Hatch, the Osterreichring, Zandvoort, Watkins Glen, Rouen, Montjuich, Monte Carlo, Kyalami, and the old Interlagos.

Around this track, an Eternal Grand Prix unfolds, contested by all the victorious Grand Prix drivers from each of the sport's different eras, driving the cars with which they were most closely associated during their mortal lives.

It is a pure driving contest, for God, in his divine wisdom, has fine-tuned the parameters of metaphysics for each car to ensure exact parity of machine performance. As you watch, Ronnie Peterson's Lotus 72 goes wheel-to-wheel with Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari 312 T4 into the Flugplatz, whilst minutes later Senna's McLaren MP4/4 joins them in a three-way battle into the Masta Kink. You take your next vantage point at Paddock Hill Bend on a beautiful Summer's day, and there you see Stirling Moss in his Lotus 18, diving down the inside under braking to take the lead from Nigel Mansell's Williams FW14B. After the field has passed, you spot Michael Schumacher trailing around some way off the pace, complaining over the radio about the lack of front-end bite from his F2002 Ferrari; God, after all, is not without a sense of humour.

The drivers, of course, still require teams behind them, not only to replenish their fuel and tyres at regular intervals, but to devise and implement a strategy which remains valid as the future duration of the race tends to infinity. Unfortunately, there is also an ongoing requirement for rules and regulations, and for a governing body to ensure that the teams abide by both the letter, and the Holy Spirit of the regulations. Thus, all the past presidents of the governing body, including Jean Todt, Max Mosley, and Jean-Marie Balestre, can be found in the paddock, arguing eternally with Ron Dennis, Enzo Ferrari, Colin Chapman and Frank Williams.

There is cheating, appeals, disqualifications, hearings, bans, fines, penalties, race manipulation, libel suits, and a culture of fear in the paddock. Suddenly, with horror, you realise that whilst this is the afterlife, the drivers are demonic stooges wearing the helmets of your heroes, that Eau Rouge passes over the River Styx, that there are nine concentric levels to the circuit, and that you are not, after all, in heaven.

(With apologies to David Eagleman)

Monday, November 08, 2010

Recreating the big bang

"The tiny explosions [in the Large Electron Positron collider, LEP, near Geneva] recreate on a small scale what conditions were like at the start of the universe in the big bang." Recreating the big bang, BBC News, May 29, 1998.

"To re-create the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, RHIC [Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, Brookhaven National Laboratory] reaches higher energies than any other collider in the world. Unlike most accelerators, which smash together simple particles like individual protons, RHIC accelerates clusters of hundreds of gold atoms" The Big Bang Machine, Discover Magazine, February 27, 2007.

"The Large Hadron Collider has successfully created a 'mini-Big Bang' by smashing together lead ions instead of protons." BBC News, November 8th, 2010.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The last great airbender

Adrian Newey, they say, can see the air.

He can see it tying itself in knots at the stagnation points in front of the rotating wheels; he can see the separation points on top of the wheels, and the dense thickets of turbulence behind; he can see the delicate boundary layers clinging to the underside of the wing-sections, ready to detach at the slightest provocation; he can see the rising turbulent wakes above and behind the front and rear wings, the streamlines spiralling around longitudinal axes, larger vortices driving smaller vortices until the energy is dissipated as heat.

In transient pitch and yaw, he can see the streamlines shifting, the boundary layers detaching, the wings stalling; then as dynamic equilibrium returns, he can see the separation points migrating aft until they reach the trailing edges, and downforce is restored. He can see the filigree vortices spinning off the corners of the wings and bargeboards, accelerating the airflow under the leading edge of the floor; he can see the diffuser as an aerodynamic lung, inhaling air beneath the car and creating low pressure like a venturi duct; he can see the exhaust flows keeping the boundary layer of the diffuser attached, and the low pressure areas behind the rear wheels amplifying the capacity of the diffuser.

For Adrian Newey is the last great airbender.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Seb's fractured society

Bound willingly together by electrostatic forces, the society of titanium atoms in conrod number 4 of Sebastian Vettel's engine braced themselves. From the moment they'd started their duty cycle, they knew something was badly wrong. Little more than 10 nanometres away, (the equivalent of half a block in Manhattan terms), they could sense an interloper. The minute perturbations in the stress field of the crystal lattice were unmistakeable, for within the otherwise optimal ordering of the titanium alloy, was a nitride inclusion. It glowered menacingly at its well-bred neighbours, who cowered in fright, and hid their electron families behind them for protection.

This metallic society had been on a long journey. Born in the hellish, claustrophobic confines of a massive star, many millions of years in the past, they'd been blown into space when the star had reached the end of its lifetime. In stoic silence they journeyed across thousands of light-years, until happening upon a small proto-stellar disk, where they found a home in the nascent crust of a small blue planet. After many years of heaving volcanism, and numbing stratification, they'd drawn the lucky straw, and were mined, reduced, alloyed, and then forged into a conrod.

Now they had a purpose which they performed with unalloyed pride, reciprocating in manic cylindrical fury, transforming chemical energy released in the forbidden void above, to mechanical energy submerged in the dark, mysterious, viscous fluids below.

The inclusion, however, was very bad news. Under load, the inclusion elastically deformed at a different modulus to its surrounding matrix, and after numerous cycles, the bonds eventually broke like tethers flailing from an errant Victorian airship. An ominous cavity opened up, and as the stress concentrated at the edge of the void, so the bonds there broke asunder like so much piano wire.

Some of these severed links created dislocations in the lattice, which rippled through the crystal, momentarily relieving the stress. Soon, however, the dislocations began to pile up at the nearest grain boundary, and presently a fissure had opened up from there as well.

The society knew the end was near, and as their electron progeny span in nervous agitation, the dark fissure leapt across the lattice, coalescing with the cavity in a ripping cascade of broken bonds. The conrod disintegrated, and the community was smashed against the roof of its firmament, sucked downwards in a catastrophic descent, and then, with a mighty whoosh, pumped into a whirligig ride, tumbling with unburnt fuel down a dark intestinal tunnel. Suddenly there was light and air! A carbon-fibre pullrod shot past like an orthotropic bullet. Briefly suspended upon a cushion of air, the society was then flung with disdain into a chaotic spiral, mingling indiscriminately with spray and oil, before crashing painfully onto bitumen and aggregate, cold and wet, rolling over and over to a final resting place.

The journey was over for now, the community forlorn, bereft of purpose and belonging. The road, however, swept ever on.

Monday, October 25, 2010

How much information is stored in a lapchart?

If your sleep was somewhat disturbed over the weekend, it may have been a consequence of getting up in the middle of the night to watch the latest round of the Ryanair Formula 1 World Championship, hosted, it appears, at a South Korean fishing village. Equally likely, however, your mind may have been immedicably troubled by the question of how much information is encoded in a typical Grand Prix lapchart.

So, to soothe your passage Lethewards tonight, let us endeavour to address the latter source of vexation, at least.

Begin by supposing that there are 24 cars, and that a Grand Prix consists of 70 laps. For simplicity, let us also suppose that all 24 cars complete all 70 laps. There are 24! (twenty-four factorial) permutations of ('ways of ordering') the 24 cars on each lap. Assuming that the permutations on each lap are independent, (even if the reality is that they are highly correlated), gives us the following number of possible lapcharts:

(24!)70 ≈ 101665 .

Now, to find the amount of information, in bits, stored by a particular lapchart one merely has to take the log to the base 2 of the total number of possible lapcharts:

log2 (101665) ≈ 5,000 bits .

Dividing by the number of bits in a byte (eight), gives the number of bytes as approximately 625. In other words, there is, at most, about half a kilo-byte of information in a typical Grand Prix lapchart. Taking into account the average degree of correlation between the order on successive laps in modern Grand Prix racing would reduce this quantity quite considerably.

Sleep well.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Many Worlds and quantum fungibility

This image, by Joakim Berglund, graces the cover of Many Worlds? Everett, Quantum Theory, & Reality. The photo, taken by Berglund from a Cessna, depicts the damage wrought to a section of Swedish pine-forest by hurricane Gudrun in January 2005. The dendritic pattern is created by logging trucks, employed to remove the fallen dendritic growths...

The book itself contains a decent collection of papers, based upon the contributions delivered by various philosophers and physicists at a pair of conferences hosted in 2007 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hugh Everett's famously dendritic Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum theory.

Whilst most of the papers are highly technical, David Deutsch expounds a manifesto for the MWI which is more accessible to the non-specialist. Deutsch, it should be emphasised, is something of an extremist when it comes to the MWI. As explained previously on this blog, there are various strains of the MWI. One version of the MWI claims that a measurement conducted on a particle in a superposed state, literally causes the universe to split into different branches, so that each possible measurement outcome is recorded in at least one branch. In this version, there is one copy of the particle prior to the measurement, but multiple copies afterwards of both the particle, and its associated space-time.

A different version of the MWI claims that quantum theory is a theory of interfering classical universes, and that a particle in a superposed state is composed of numerous interfering branches even before it is subjected to a measurement. On this account, the measurement does not create any more branches than were already present. Rather, it is claimed that the measurement causes two things to happen: (i) the state of the measurement device becomes correlated with the respective state of the particle in each of the branches; and (ii) because the measurement device is macroscopic, a decoherence process subsequently suppresses the interference between the different branches, thereby ensuring the absence of macroscopically-detectable superpositions.

This latter version of the MWI provides not only an interpretation of the dynamics of quantum theory, but a radical compositional metaphysics, and one might imagine the wave-function splitting into decohered branches in the same way that a prism splits white light into the colours of which it is composed.

The radical formulation of the MWI is the version which I take David Deutsch to be the principal exponent of. This much is clear from the following excerpt, (where Deutsch refers to the branches as 'universes', and the interfering collection of branches as the 'multiverse'):

"Consider a single, free particle in empty space. It's described by a wave-packet...Which means that, as far as universes go, it's at different positions in different universes. You might think that a non-interacting particle, at least, is something that happens in each universe independently of the others, so that we can forget about the multiverse when describing it. But no. Again because of the uncertainty principle, and because of the linearity of quantum mechanics, there is no region of the multiverse in which both the position and velocity are behaving independently of what's happening elsewhere in the multiverse. That means that there are no autonomous information flows that would be universes. So in fine detail, even a free particle is an irreducibly multiversal object, not just a parallel-universes' one.

Furthermore, at a later time, the shape of the wavepacket will have changed. The instances of the particle in the multiverse will be at different positions. But none of them, individually, will have moved to where it is - because there is no such thing as one of them individually. When the universe approximation breaks down, the autonomy of the instances of a single particle in the multiverse breaks down too. They are then fungible,"

In other words, the branches of a quantum state possess an identity consisting entirely of their interference relationships to the other branches, rather than any self-sufficient existence.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III

Investigative reporter Peter Byrne has written a fabulous book which traces the life and career of Hugh Everett III, the inventor of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum theory.

Everett devised the Many-Worlds Interpretation for his 1957 PhD thesis, but the interpretation was neglected and derided at the time, and Everett himself never returned to academia. Charting Everett's intellectual and personal adventure, Byrne has uncovered some priceless material. Historians and sociologists of science will be particularly interested to note the pressure exerted by John Wheeler, Everett's thesis supervisor, for Everett to retract and rewrite much of the thesis, so that it would avoid antagonising Wheeler's scientific hero and mentor, Niels Bohr.

Byrne's account of the philosophical issues surrounding quantum theory is amongst the best to be found outside of the professional literature. The author has made a massive effort to understand and explain the concepts involved, and, crucially, has extensively consulted philosophers of physics such as Jeffrey Barrett, Simon Saunders and David Wallace. This level of scholarship is reflected in the final product, which puts most popular science accounts of quantum theory to shame. Byrne should receive huge plaudits for the diligence of his work here.

Everett is a particularly fascinating individual because after completing his PhD thesis, he disappeared into the world of US military research, initially working on the optimisation problems surrounding nuclear warfare. However, the reader seeking an informative, sober, impartial analysis of Cold War politics and strategy will be sorely disappointed here. What we get instead is an unbalanced, sub-Michael Moore, caricature of the era. As just one illustration of this, consider the following claims made by Byrne:

"During much of the 1950s, the de facto strategy of the Strategic Air Command under General Curtis LeMay was to 'preventatively' launch everything in its nuclear arsenal," (p74). "During the 1950s, the operating nuclear war plan of the United States was all or nothing. General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command, told a Gaither commissioner that a surprise attack by Soviet bombers would destroy the bulk of his B-52 bombers on the ground. He said that the official doctrine of deterrence by threatening a 'second-strike', or 'massive retaliation', was an improbable dream. He announced that SAC airplanes flew over the Soviet Union 24 hours a day picking up radio transmissions, and, 'If I see that the Russians are amassing their planes for an attack, I'm going to knock the shit out of them before they take off the ground.' And he intended to do this under his own recognizance, regardless of the opinions of civilian leaders, such as the president. Deterrence, for LeMay meant striking first and without warning," (p195).

Other historical analyses suggest, however, that US Strategy in the early stages of the Cold War was one of preemption rather than prevention, and there is a crucial distinction here which Byrne fails to emphasise:

"A first strike can take three forms. A preemptive attack is one made in immediate anticipation of enemy attack. A surprise attack against an enemy who is not yet preparing his own attack is either simply aggressive, or if undertaken from fear of an eventual threat posed by the enemy, preventive...the difference between the preemptive and preventive variants has often been confused, even by professional strategists." (Nuclear blackmail and nuclear balance, Richard K.Betts, p161). "NSC 68 [a 1950 document which formed the basis of US Cold War strategy for twenty years] rejected preventive war but tentatively embraced preemption," (ibid., p162).

Whether General Curtis LeMay privately endorsed a preventive strategy at various times is a moot point. The quote used by Byrne, however, is merely evidence that he supported a strategy of preemption, not one of prevention. Moreover, in a briefing given by SAC in March 1954 concerning its war plans, General LeMay explicitly stated: "I want to make it clear that I am not advocating a preventive war; however, I believe that if the US is pushed in a corner far enough, we would not hesitate to strike first." (Preventive attack and weapons of mass destruction, A comparative historical analysis, Lyle J.Goldstein, p43)

To claim, as Byrne does, that the US Strategic Air Command had a de facto strategy of preventive nuclear war, is therefore quite misleading. On recognising this, one might begin to doubt the veracity of other claims made by Byrne, and that would be unfortunate, because this is otherwise a great book.

As an investigative reporter, Byrne "specializes in uncovering government and corporate corruption." This is an important duty to society, but it is also crucial not to begin with the assumption that all government activity is corrupt. Byrne, sadly, lapses into a simplistic worldview in which most US Cold War politicians, scientists and generals are portrayed as self-serving, war-mongering maniacs. This is a serious flaw in any work which seeks to provide a definitive historical record, rather than mere propaganda.

It also has to be said that the book is peppered with typographical errors, which include frequent misuse of the apostrophe. In a £25 book, this is unacceptable, and it is time for publishers to recognise that a book suffuse with typographical errors is quite literally a defective product.

Nevertheless, despite these reservations, on balance Byrne has written a fantastic account of the life of Hugh Everett, and the philosophical conundra posed by quantum theory.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Return to planet Earth

With astral buoyancy, I float through interstellar space, tanning my diffuse, malefic psyche in the pleasant flow of cosmic rays. I swim upwards through delicate veils of pink and purple nebulae, then zig-zag among golden star-clusters, until I ascend above the galactic plane. There, I watch the spiral arms slowly rotating beneath me, my cold, iron will equilibrating with the solitude of space.

Off in a far corner, a red supergiant goes supernova, flaring like a nuclear match, a shockwave immediately billowing through the surrounding gas cloud. A billion stars lie beneath me, some of them providing the conditions for life and civilisation to flourish on nearby rocks. I can sense the souls on all these planets, feel their exhilaration and desperation, their love and hatred. I can hear the screams of the murdered, and detect the insatiable lust of the murderers. In time, I will harvest all these souls, good and bad; drain them of their life-force to feed my own.

I like coming up here. I can clear my head, and plot my triumph over geological and astrophysical time-scales, like an irresistible fourth law of thermodynamics. Glitches and momentary set-backs, of course, are inevitable: a necessary evil, incapable of stemming my necessary evil. All I need is a small opportunity, a platform from which I can re-insert myself into popular consciousness...

And, hullo, what's this? An invitation to appear on BBC's Question Time? Why, of course! Perfect. Now, all I need to do is re-assume corporeal form for a period of time. Let me see...this always hurts a trifle...bipedal form required rather than serpentine, remember...damn, that hurts a lot! Ah, there we go.

Planet Earth was always a favourite of mine: so much wonderful raw material to play with...

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Tilke to the Max

F1 circuit designer Hermann Tilke has revealed that, with Bernie Ecclestone's blessing, his future designs will be "much more to the edge." Coming from Tilke, this has all the credibility of a pledge from Kim Jong-il to introduce a North Korean Freedom of Information Act.

Hermann continues to claim that his insipid portfolio of track designs are a consequence of the financial, geographical and safety constraints placed upon him. Whilst such constraints undoubtedly exist, people of genuine creativity always find ways to express their imagination, irrespective of the restrictions placed upon them. Yet, with the exception of Turn 8 at Istanbul, Tilke's work has been nothing but the output of a sterile, mechanistic, and utterly unoriginal mind.

So, for anyone such as Hermann, wishing to design a classic track for the very first time, here are some guidelines:

1) Don't design the circuit on a computer. Use your imagination, rather than selecting curves from the palette of geometrical arcs available in a piece of software.

2) Get involved with the selection of the land. Do not allow this to be presented to you as a fait accompli.

3) Select a piece of rolling countryside, with good drainage, good access, and some degree of forestation.

4) Allow the circuit design to be determined by the topography of the land rather than vice versa.

5) Use the natural contour, gradient and elevation of the land.

6) Introduce successive corners which swerve in alternating directions, i.e. esses. Make these esses tighten up or open out. For full effect, combine these esses with uphill or downhill gradients.

7) Introduce blind crests and blind apexes. Don't cut down trees.

8) Introduce corners with positive and negative cambers.

9) Don't use constant radius corners.

10) Introduce fast corners which can't quite be taken flat-out with the level of downforce prescribed by the current F1 Technical Working Group.

11) Introduce at least one point on the circuit where an F1 car will briefly take-off unless the driver has a confidence lift.

12) Don't try to pastiche corners from other classic circuits.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Proustian memory

I remark that Barry Sheene recently told me how much he admires Alain Prost, that, as well as being a wonderful driver in his day, Prost is also a thoroughly decent chap. "That's bullshit," snaps Brundle. "I was never a Prost fan. I didn't rate Prost as a person." (The Independent, 2nd August 2000).

Involuntary memory is a conception of human memory in which cues encountered in everyday life evoke recollections of the past without conscious effort...The term was coined by French author Marcel Proust. (Wikipedia, Involuntary Memory).

Why did you leave the Renault team at the end of 1983? "I knew that if the team lost the title that year, there'd be a witch-hunt in an attempt to find the people responsible. I was the ideal culprit, so I protected myself by getting in touch with McLaren. The team had just signed a contract with Porsche, and I had the opportunity to learn alongside a world champion [Niki Lauda]. I didn't hesitate for very long; it was just the right moment to try something new." (Alain Prost, Autosport, August 26th 2010).

Persistent rumours linked [Prost] with the pretty and charming wife of one of his superiors in Renault; the gossip columnists of France (with no more mercy than the tabloid press in England) pursued him to beyond and back. Alain denied the rumours, but to no effect; to me, he admitted he had been indiscreet. At the same time, John Watson, who had had a satisfactory but not earth-shaking season with Lauda at McLaren, was pushed by his agent to ask for a gigantic sum...and got the sack. That left a vacant seat at McLaren, a scandal at Renault (Alain said he walked out of his own accord, Renault said he had been 'dropped', and the truth is that Renault did a deal with McLaren) and Prost signed with Ron Dennis. (Keith Botsford, The Champions of Formula 1, p165).

Saturday, September 04, 2010

My Monza babe

My gorgeous, blonde Monza babe,
We met betwixt leafy wooden colonnade,
And forbidden, ran hand-in-hand, 'long secret path and russet glade.

Passing from howl and bark of modern V8 song,
'Cross ancient banking, suffuse with heroic, ghostly throng,
Into secluded, Sun-dappled, perfumed bower,
Far beyond sight of start-finish tower.

There, limbed 'tween stocking-top and shameless hem,
Inviting arc of Parabolica unveiled,
Golden locks dancing on ivory skin,
Unzipped Curva Grande exposed, replete with sin.

Locked together, one hundred nights elapse,
Across Europe we passionately plunder,
'til one fateful day by Clapham market stall,
Beneath cruel wheels of omnibus did she fall.

And now I lay sombre flowers by marble headstone grave
And shed silent tears for my gorgeous, blonde Monza babe.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Hawking and God

"There's so much I don't know about astrophysics. I wish I read that book by that wheelchair guy." (Homer Simpson).

Good news for Anglican priests! Generally regarded as a metaphysically deluded collection of harmless buffoons, these men of God have today been press-ganged into various TV and radio studios across the country, and invited by unimaginative news editors to step through the familiar rhetorical choreography of the science vs. religion debate, in tango with an equally surprised, but delighted, collection of media-savvy physicists.

And the cause of this unholy ecclesiastical flood? Stephen Hawking's latest contribution to the philosophically ill-informed interpretation of science, and in particular his headline pronouncement in The Times that God did not create the universe. Coming in the same week as Tony Blair's revelation that he didn't like Gordon Brown, it seems that we are to be disabused of all our delusions in one fell swoop.

The Times are serialising Hawking's new book, The Grand Design (co-written presumably with Kevin McCloud), and in this momentous tome Hawking argues that the existence of the universe can be explained as a spontaneous creation from nothing, in accordance with known physics, and that this is why there is something rather than nothing. This claim is based upon an interpretation of some speculative quantum cosmology, and the interested reader is referred to a paper published a few years ago in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, which critically analysed such theories and interpretations in detail.

The other 'news' is that Hawking appears to have abandoned the notion that there will actually be a theory of everything, yet at the same time he waxes lyrical about M-theory. This is slightly odd, because M-theory, the theory which was supposed to unify the various superstring theories, has still to be defined, fifteen years after it was first hypothesised. The philosopher of physics Craig Callendar picks up on this:

"I was surprised when the authors began to advocate M-theory. But it turns out they were unconventionally referring to the patchwork set of string theories as 'M-theory' too, in addition to the hypothetical unified theory about which they remain agnostic."

And herein lies the fundamental philosophical contradiction in Hawking's position. He seems to advocate what might be called an instrumentalistic approach to the philosophy of science. In other words, he thinks science is no more than a tool for generating reliable predictions, controlling the world, and organising observational and measurement data. Hawking doesn't believe that science actually represents the objective structure of the world; as such, this is an anti-realist position in the philosophy of science. Thus, we have Hawking's acceptance of a patchwork of different theories, in lieu of a single theory of everything.

However, if Hawking is arguing that science can solve fundamental metaphysical questions, such as the question of why there is something rather than nothing, then he needs to adopt a realist philosophy of science. Under an instrumentalistic approach, there's no reason to believe what any particular cosmological theory happens to say about the ontology of the early universe, for such theories are, ex hypothesi, merely tools for organising measurement data and making reliable predictions. If physics cannot capture the objective ontology of the world, then physics cannot derive metaphysical conclusions about the world.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Yom Kippur and the Cosworth brigade

Many Formula 1 histories make the critical error of treating motorsport as if it is an activity hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. A far more interesting approach is to understand the coupled-evolution of Formula 1 with more general economic, technological, political, environmental, sociological and cultural trends.

As a case in point, consider Formula 1 in the 1970s (and early 1980s). This was an era in which the major manufacturers were largely absent from the sport, and consequently it was an era in which a small group of people could design a chassis, lease some Cosworth engines, and go racing. Ferrari were knocking about to disturb the Cosworth hegemony, but the racing was extremely competitive, with nine different drivers winning in the 1975 season, and four different drivers from four different teams winning the championship between 1978 and 1981.

But why were the manufacturers so manifestly absent from the sport during this decade? Why did the 1960s not culminate with the influx of manufacturer investment and television coverage ultimately seen in the early 1980s?

The one factor which dominates the explanation of all seventies phenomena was the economic stagnation. This clearly deterred manufacturers from involvement in glamorous forms of expenditure, and the slow rate of economic growth retarded the progress of all technology, including the telecommunications technology which Formula 1 would ultimately depend upon.

To be specific, one can attribute the competitiveness of Formula 1 in the late 1970s to the Yom Kippur war of 1973. This commenced on 6th October 1973, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when Syria and Egypt jointly attacked Israel. It was only the support of the United States, which sent $2 billion of arms, that enabled Israel to repel its assailants. However, the support that the United States provided to Israel triggered OPEC, the Arab oil-production cartel, into raising oil prices and cutting oil production, and this caused the worldwide oil crisis of 1973-1974.

Prior to the crisis, the average rate of economic growth in the West had been around 5 percent; after the crisis, growth reduced to zero, and inflation rose to around 10 percent. The late 1970s, then, was an era of stagflation, and without this period of stagflation, the influx of major manufacturers, eventually seen from about 1982 onwards, may well have commenced circa 1976.

As a postscript, one might ask whether four different drivers from four different teams have won the World Championship over four consecutive years any time since. They have indeed, the years in question being 2006-2009...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lewis Hamilton's second Spa victory

"I'm losing my efficiency." Michael Schumacher, August 29th 2010.

The most crucial contribution to the result of today's Belgian Grand Prix was the lobbying that McLaren and Mercedes made to the FIA four weeks ago.

To recall, the subject of their angst was the degree of front-wing deflection clearly visible under aerodynamic load on the cars of Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Ferrari. The FIA were at the time testing for such aeroelasticity by merely requiring that each front-wing endplate deflect by no more than 10mm under a load of 50kg. For this weekend's Belgian Grand Prix, however, the requirement was increased to a deflection of no more than 20mm under a load of 100kg. In other words, the FIA were testing for non-linear deformation of the front-wing under loads greater than 50kg.

"The front wings we have here are the same as we had in Budapest," claimed Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner on Thursday. "I can't say [the new test] will affect us any more or less than any other team."

Well, raw pace is generally best judged by the lap-times set in Q2 on Saturday, when the cars carry a low fuel load, and before they adopt race-distance settings in Q3. In Q2 at the Hungaroring, the previous race, Lewis Hamilton was 1.3 secs behind the Red Bulls; in Q2 at Spa, Lewis was 1 second faster than the Red Bulls. In other words, despite a two-week factory shutdown, there was a net 2.3 second swing between McLaren and Red Bull. Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, the closest challenger to the Red Bulls in Hungary, was down in tenth place after qualifying.

Thus, whilst the high-speed requirements of Spa were expected to suit McLaren to a greater degree, and whilst their F-duct clearly provided an advantage here, it's fair to say that the new deflection tests also seemed to play a significant role. McLaren Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh duly noted that "we can all see the wings are in a different stiffness and positional domain than they had been in previous races."

As Craig Scarborough explains, at 70mph - the speed of the slowest corner on an F1 track - each half of the front wing is already producing 70kg of downforce. Hence, one might hypothesise that prior to Spa, the Red Bulls and Ferraris were using non-linear front-wing aeroelasticity, triggered from about 70kg of downforce onwards.

Nevertheless, Lewis Hamilton's victory was no walk in the Ardennes, for it included an off-track "excursion" through the Rivage gravel track when rain began falling once again in the late stages of the race. As Lewis slid into the gravel, it was instantly clear that he needed to retain sufficient speed not to bog down, yet also faced the exigency of rubbing-off sufficient speed not to hit the tyre wall. For fractions of a second, either seemed possible, and there were momentary echoes of both China 2007, when he ignominiously bogged-down in the pit-lane gravel-trap, and Spain this year, when a puncture took him at a shallow angle into the wall. On this occasion, however, he just brushed the canvassed tyre barrier before rejoining, still in the lead.

A short time later, after a pit-stop for intermediate tyres, a couple of laps behind the safety car, and some relatively uneventful final laps, Lewis crossed the line to win at Spa Francorchamps for the second time.

The end of the race may have been uneventful, but the start was anything but, poleman Webber suffering clutch difficulties, and being instantly swamped by those around him. Into La Source it was Hamilton first, with Button attempting to snatch second-place on the inside of Kubica. Jenson, however, couldn't quite get the traction he needed on the tighter line, and although he got his left-front alongside Kubica's right-rear, he had to briefly lift and cede second on the drop to Eau Rouge. Vettel had been caught on the outside of Kubica and Button into La Source, and was fourth, with Massa fifth, and Webber sixth. On the Kemmel straight Sutil's low-drag Force India drove clean down the outside of Webber, but Adrian outbraked himself somewhat, and Webber swiftly reclaimed the place through the left-handed component of Les Combes.

As the train of cars tore a sinuous path down through the valley, light rain was clearly falling, but not to the degree which the drivers encountered when the reached the heavy braking zone at the end of the lap. Here, almost the entire field appeared to run wide under braking into the bus-stop chicane, Hamilton first, then Button and Kubica as one, Jenson initially attempting to out-brake the Renault down the inside. The McLaren and Renault ran wide in parallel, but here Button crucially snagged his left-front endplate on Kubica, a small detail which was to have serious repercussions for the Briton later in the race.

As all hell broke loose, Jenson was just about the only driver who decided to double-back on himself and rejoin the road at the apex of the corner, the others taking the same expeditious short-cut which had got Lewis Hamilton into so much hot water back in 2008. By so doing, Kubica, Vettel and Massa all rejoined ahead of Button.

At about this moment, Rubens Barrichello demonstrated the benefit of 300 Grands Prix worth of experience, by pile-driving his Williams into the right-rear of Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, who was at the time carefully traversing the perimeter of the track on the outside of Sutil. Whilst Rubens cleanly severed the left-front of his car from the chassis, it appears that the driveshaft and rear suspension of the Ferrari are made of carbon nano-tubes, for Fernando's car was unscathed, and he merely trundled into the pits to attach a set of intermediates.

Button, meanwhile, retook Massa down the start-finish straight, and slipped inside Vettel into La Source. Whether this was due to excessive caution on the part of Massa and Vettel, or because they were voluntarily ceding their places back, is unknown. Whatever, Jenson was back into third, and as the cars tip-toed through Eau Rouge in the damp conditions, Kubica had a tank-slapper through the left-kink on the incline, opposite-locking his Renault onto the tarmac run-off. As Robert lifted off and rejoined, Button was past into second. Vettel then tried to follow the McLaren through round the outside of the right-kink onto Kemmel, only to find Kubica putting him onto the grass. Sebastian lifted off, and whilst still partially alongside the Renault, furiously gesticulated at Kubica.

Into Les Combes on lap two, then, it was Hamilton, Button, Kubica, Vettel, Massa and Webber. As the rain continued to fall, Webber took Massa on the outside going into Rivage, and was right behind team-mate Vettel when the pace car was triggered, without, it seems, any clear justification.

The slick-shod field gratefully accepted the opportunity to spend a lap behind the pace-car while the rain passed, and as the race re-started on lap 4, Kubica was forced to take a tighter line into La Source to defend his place from Vettel. The Renault slid marginally wide at the apex, however, and Vettel was into third.

The rather intemperately tempered Mr Vettel was thence able to close on the McLaren of Jenson Button, who was suffering a handling imblance due to his first-lap front-wing damage. Sebastian struggled for some laps to find a passing opportunity, hitting the rev-limiter in the McLaren's slipstream on the climb to Les Combes. Finally, however, on lap 16, Jenson was rather tardy through Stavelot, and Sebastian was tucked indecently close to the McLaren's rear-end through Blanchimont, preparing to make his move into the chicane.

When the moment came, however, Button predictably covered the inside line, and after briefly contemplating a move permissible only in Batman Begins, Vettel tried whipping across to the outside, only to loose control "over a bump". Presumably, this was the same bump over which Vettel had lost control trying to pass Webber in Turkey, for the Red Bull slewed sideways in a similar manner, punching a hole through the flank of the McLaren, which steamed into retirement. Vettel, meanwhile, plunged into a spiral of drive-through penalties, pit-stops, punctures and post-race inquisitions.

Beyond the main storyline, we also had an exciting battle between the Mercedes drivers, Rosberg and Schumacher. Rosberg had led initially, but after losing an encounter with Vitaly Petrov on lap 11, found his team-mate slicing across his bows, removing a small part of the left front-wing in a trail of golden sparks. On the final re-start, Rosberg outbraked Schumacher into Les Combes, and as Schumacher tried to hang on into the left-hander, Rosberg calmly drove him off the road. Tasty.

The final word, however, goes to Michael, who in comparing the fourteen places he made up in today's race, to the sixteen he recovered to win the 1995 race, reflected that "I'm losing my efficiency."

Losing My Efficiency was, of course, the less well-known B-side to REM's 1991 hit, Losing My Religion.