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.