Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Lewis Hamilton and downforce

"I believe that our start to the season has been mostly encouraging. Our race pace in Bahrain looked respectable – we had the fastest car for much of the second half of the race." (Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren F1 Team Principal).

"The Red Bull is ridiculously faster than anyone else's car. It's insane. The downforce they had on their car last year was at some points just about double what we had. They have both got the fastest car by quite a big step. They should be quite a lot further ahead in general." (Lewis Hamilton, McLaren F1 driver).

Here's an interesting development. Contrary to the optimistic noises being made after raceday in Bahrain, McLaren F1 driver Lewis Hamilton has suggested that Red Bull are way ahead of the field this year. He claims that Red Bull had "double" the downforce of McLaren at times last year, and that even Ferrari are a good half-second behind the Red Bull pace this year.

These claims, however, don't really bear up to analysis. For example, the peak downforce of an F1 car is about 1200kg, and an extra 5% of downforce (60kg) will be rewarded with a half-second improvement in lap-time. Even allowing for the fact that McLaren were initially more than two seconds off the pace of the Red Bull in 2009, and even allowing for the fact that lap-time improvement will not be a linear function of downforce, Red Bull would not have had double the downforce of the McLaren at any stage last year. If nothing else, that would amount to an extra 1200kg in terms of peak downforce, (i.e. over a tonne!).

Secondly, the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel only out-qualified the Ferrari of Massa by 0.1s in Bahrain. In the race, Vettel pulled away from the Ferraris at the rate of about 0.3s a lap on the soft tyres, but was then pegged back on the harder tyres. It's difficult to see where an advantage of 0.5s a lap comes from.

Hamilton must know that his statement about the respective downforce levels of the McLaren and Red Bull is strictly inaccurate, so what lies behind this hyperbole? It's always possible that this was just an off-the-cuff series of comments, but coming a matter of weeks after relieving his own father of management responsibilities, it may be that Hamilton is making a foray into Formula One full-spectrum warfare. In other words, Hamilton's statement may have been designed to achieve some political effect, both inside and outside the team.

For a start, McLaren, in Hamilton's judgement, may simply be needing a rocket up the backside. In addition, Red Bull's engine supplier, Renault, appear to be on the verge of receiving permission from the governing body to effectively improve the performance of their engine, and the FIA have also just closed a loophole in the diffuser regulations which McLaren, amongst others, were exploiting. Thus, Lewis may feel it necessary to exaggerate the scale of Red Bull's technical advantage in order to elicit more favourable subsequent treatment from the governing body.

It'll be interesting to see if Lewis came make the transition to a full-scale political operative, in the style patented by Herr Schumacher...

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