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September 28, 2008

F1: Singapore Grand Prix

Good start to the race, fairly clean. Most drivers were using the harder tires. Kimi Raikkonen started setting fast laps within the first 10 laps which was sooner than has been usual.

The race was uneventful until Nelson Piquet’s crash which brought the Safety Car (SC) out, and closing the pits to refueling. The rules stipulate that when the pits are closed cars may not be refueled. If they are refueled, the driver will be assessed a 10 second stop-and-go penalty, which means he will have to come back to the pits and then remain stationary for 10 seconds. In effect, the penalty is more like 25 seconds when accounting for pit entrance/exit time (depending on the track and pitlane layout).

The intent of the rule is to prevent a mass dash for the pits when there is a SC period. But the effect is that it ruins race strategies and artificially shuffles the order of the field. Furthermore, when the SC period occurs during a fuel window (lap 17-ish today) then some drivers are about to run out of fuel, so they have to pit and incur the penalty. Then they have to pit again to serve the penalty, and if this happens to multiple drivers as it did today, has it really cut down the pitlane traffic that much?

This rule does not work well and should be eliminated or changed.

Felipe Massa’s electronic “lollipop” gave him the green light before the fuel hose was removed causing him to leave and rip the hose off the machine. Good thing for the back up hose as Kimi Raikkonen was stacked behind him in the pits and could not have otherwise been refueled. Massa had to stop at the end of the pitlane, losing a lot of time before his crew could come and remove the hose. That effectively ended his race.

To make matters worse, as we’ve seen before, his speed is fragile. By that I mean he is very fast, as evidenced in the first part of the race when he led with a sizeable gap. But once things don’t go well he begins to compound his mistakes and loses pace. Here we saw him start missing chicanes, struggling to pass backmarkers (admittedly this track is not easy to pass on) and then he spun and hit the water barrier.

Adding to the team’s disappointment, Raikkonen launched over a chicane and crashed into the wall so neither car scored any points. McLaren took over the constructor championship lead with Lewis Hamilton’s 3rd place finish.

The way the Ferrari team is performing is not the way of a championship winning team. I will be very surprised if they take the driver’s title this year, though they have a better shot at the constructor’s title.

Renault, on the other hand, have no hope of either title but they showed everyone today how it’s supposed to be done with Fernando Alonso winning from 15th position due to a little bit of luck, good strategy, and a car that seems to be well-suited to this track.

The venue is absolutely fantastic. It looks like something straight out of a movie or video game. The track needs a few revisions to make the racing better such as lower curbing, wider chicanes, shorter configuration, better pit entrance, and smoother pavement in a few spots. Also the marshals in Singapore need better training. One was knocked down by the front wheel while frantically rolling away Rubens Barrichello’s Honda. But overall F1 nailed it. This is a great preview of things to come.

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September 27, 2008

F1: Singapore Qualifying

Neat new circuit. I like the “kart barrier system” of linked barriers that are often found at kart tracks. Unfortunately Giancarlo Fisichella did not get a hot lap as he experienced impact with said barriers pretty much as soon as he left the pits.

This track looks really neat but is a little too slow with an average speed around 110 mph. Because it’s so narrow, there probably won’t be much passing unless it rains.

It looks like the main issues for tomorrow’s race will be weather which will dictate tire choices, as well as visibility due to it also being a night race, brake temperatures (lots of corners), tight chicanes, and the pit entrance which requires cars entering to essentially stay on the racing line and block the cars behind, which will be running at high speed.

But the biggest question to me is the turn 10 chicanes. It looks to me that because it is so narrow there, as well as there being so much run off room (relatively) we’re going to see people going off there while attempting to race side-by-side. That would just lay the ground work for more Spa Francorchamps-like penalties. Let’s hope not.

Lewis Hamilton was lucky to make it into Q1 as he was 10th in Q2 because he waited too long to go out, overdrove by locking his tires frequently, and then ran into some traffic. The harder compound tires don’t seem to suit the McLarens as well as the Ferraris under those conditions. Also, Kimi Raikkonen seems to have a narrow operating window with his setups – maybe the front tires aren’t gripping quickly enough.

Felipe Massa is on pole by 0.6 s, Hamilton second, and followed by Raikkonen. Let’s hope for an exciting race tomorrow with lots of overtaking. No idea what fuel strategy anyone is running.

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September 15, 2008

The 24 Hours of LeMons

A team from Pratt & Miller (of Chevy Corvette / 24 Hours of LeMans fame) has won the 24 Hours of LeMons in Toledo, Ohio over the weekend. The chariot of choice was an old Toyota Supra, suitably modified.

Congratulations to Rob Cooper and the team. Rob was my college roommate and kart racing teammate, and it's nice to see him continue winning.


September 14, 2008

F1: Italian Grand Prix

It was raining hard enough at the start of the race that the safety car was used to pace the field with a rolling start instead of the usual standing start. Sebastian Bourdais had to start from the pitlane due to the engine stalling while on the grid, giving up his well earned 5th place position. Teammate Sebastian Vettel started from pole. The field made a clean, cautious start – visibility was virtually nil. Everyone was on full rain tires.

One new(-ish) feature was the use of flashing yellow caution lights in some areas in addition to flags.

Gradually the track began to dry somewhat. Lewis Hamilton went from 14th to 8th within about 20 laps. His McLaren was well set up for the conditions. The Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa have not done well in the wet this season, it appears they’re not as well suited to some tire specs as the McLarens are. It is rumored they operate better with softer compounds and/or higher temperatures. So even though there is technically no “tire war” there is a rivalry among the teams to get Bridgestone to develop tires more suited to their individual chassis.

Hamilton appeared to be on a one stop strategy, a common tactic when starting from back in the pack. After his first stop he came out with clear track and was well positioned to challenge for the win, particularly since Massa, on a two stop strategy, came out behind a long queue of traffic.

While there was the continued threat of rain, toward the final third of the race the track definitely began to dry. Fernando Alonso was the first to switch to intermediate tires and immediately began to improve his lap times. Other drivers followed.

This is where luck plays a big factor. The longer a driver’s stint (or the fewer his planned stops) the less flexibility he has in changing tires without additional time cost if the weather conditions change. There’s simply less flexibility.

Hamilton was caught out by this. If the track had continued to stay wet he would’ve been in a good position at the end. Instead, he had to stop to make an additional stop to change to intermediates as well.

During a subsequent tussle Mark Webber and Hamilton banged wheels resulting in Webber missing the first chicane and using the escape road. He was able to continue.

David Coulthard seems unable to get through a race without making contact with other cars. It’s not always his fault but he’s been involved in more than his fair share of incidents. Today’s collision with a Williams in the Parabolica just added to that tally.

To make matters worse Massa and Hamilton were not far behind the incident and Massa ran over some of the debris.

In the end Vettel won his first grand prix in style. There are striking similarities between his rise to F1 and that of Michael Schumacher (young German blitzes the F1 world and starts winning in cars that no one thought could win). Hopefully this is the first of many wins for him.

Massa finished 6th and Hamilton 7th so Hamilton retains his championship lead by one point. Kimi Raikkonen finished a distant 9th, unable to score points. He did, however, score the fastest lap of the race (on the last lap no less), but that was too little too late. He’s done that regularly this season, and a contributing factor is probably his poor qualifying positions cause him not to have clear track until the late stages of the races, the fuel load is low, tires scrubbed, and the track nicely broken in – exactly how he should perform in qualifying to avoid low starting positions.

The podium consisted entirely of first time winners in 2008 as Vettel was followed home by Heikki Kovalainen and Robert Kubica. And who’d have thought Gerhard Berger would ever be on an F1 podium again after retiring as a driver? He was there to collect Scuderia Toro Rosso’s constructor’s trophy.

It was a fantastic result that few could’ve expected. Next season Vettel will be in the Red Bull “senior” team and should go very well.

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September 13, 2008

The Future of Motorsport Part 2

First and foremost racing exists to entertain participants and spectators. If it doesn’t do this it doesn’t exist.

How racing fits into the bigger picture, beyond entertainment, is that it should serve three roles. The first is to create consumer interest in advanced technology, which creates demand and markets. Secondly, it should spur technical innovation that has relevance to the larger issues of energy and transportation. Finally, it should encourage education in math and science and help develop future generations of innovators. All the while it must position itself as environmentally sustainable, not just with image but with actions.

Where racing is headed seems fairly clear. Electricity is definitely going to be the automotive energy source of the future. That means in the future there will be electric racing at many levels. It’s simply a matter of time.

Next, many existing race tracks were built in places that are far from population centers. Examples of these include permanent tracks like Road America, Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca, Mosport, and Road Atlanta. There is a tremendous environmental impact when tens of thousands of people travel to rural or far away destinations to attend races. Conversely, it is not suitable to have those same tracks in densely populated areas due to community opposition to noise and emissions. Racing has to come to the people while being able to accommodate community concerns.

Thirdly, with a limitless variety of recreational opportunities now available to the public, racing has to deliver more value to maintain and grow its base. The trend is moving from spectator to participant. People don’t just want to watch racing on TV. They want to be able to experience it in rich media on their terms as well as have the choice of actually racing. The sport will attract more drivers if it provides the arena for them to race in.

In the end, it always comes back to fundamentals. For motorsport that means establishing stable rules, attracting a large audience, and (most importantly) providing good, close racing on the track.

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Flexible Stampings

This is a brilliant concept. Flex tooling that can make different parts from the same die. It's another tool available to manufacturers for reducing costs and lead times. This looks promising and I hope it makes its way to the automotive market soon.

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F1: Italian Grand Prix Qualifying

It was a very wet day at Monza at the start of qualifying. Every driver got on track immediately to minimize the risk of being caught out if the rain were to intensify during the session, or there was a red flag or safety car situation. There’s little doubt that wet conditions typically result in unusual starting grid positions.

Often this is a result of car set up. One of the challenges for the teams is that the rules require the rear wing position used for qualifying to also be used in the race. So if the conditions change by race day, the teams and drivers are stuck with those settings.

Not only is the rear wing a major factor in overall downforce levels, but it greatly affects the aero balance of the car. The level of downforce dictates to a large extent the level of suspension stiffness needed to help control the attitude of the car. At a place like Monza (the fastest track on the calendar) a stiff ride height seems crucial, but at the same time rain will require compliance in order to improve mechanical grip in the turns. The curbing also requires compliance to help the cars ride over them.

Effectively the further ahead the settings have to be decided, the more of a role luck will play. It might (or not) spice up the action but it is artificial and arbitrary.

Another tidbit of interest mentioned by the crew of SpeedTV is that some drivers now use a heated helmet visor that reduces fogging in moist conditions. Hopefully they’ll talk more about it during tomorrow’s race.

During Q2 Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, and Robert Kubica all spun but none suffered any damage. Hamilton was the first (and perhaps only) driver to switch to intermediate tires from full wets and promptly came back in. It was too rainy for those tires.

Both he and Raikkonen missed the window of opportunity to advance to Q3 when they were unable to post faster times toward the end of the session as the rain intensified. As a result, they ended up 15th and 14th respectively. A bad day for those two.

Felipe Massa and Heikki Kovalainen were able to advance. Massa took the 6th starting spot while Kovalainen will start 2nd. But the big news was that Sebastian Vettel took his first pole position. He’s also the youngest driver to do so, at the age of 21 years and 70-some days. Great stuff.

The Toro Rosso cars, and Red Bull teams in general, have been doing very well with Mark Webber 3rd (Red Bull), and Sebastian Bourdais 5th in the other Toro Rosso. David Coulthard, driving in his final Italian Grand Prix was a distant 13th.

Tomorrow’s race will be decided in large part by set ups already on the cars. It’s going to be a lottery and the outcome is probably going to surprise.

Amazingly no one crashed in qualifying. There were several spins but overall the drivers did an amazing job.

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September 8, 2008

The Future of Motorsport Part 1

Racing is now a huge global sport encompassing many forms of constantly evolving competition. Where it is headed in the future is anybody’s guess but it will undoubtedly change dramatically over the coming decades, just as it has since its inception. That is its very nature, to continually innovate.

To hypothesize about where it is headed, we must first understand what it is. Racing is a captivating elixir of business, sport and entertainment, and engineering.

The business side has become increasingly professional. What started out as recreational rivalry among wealthy gentlemen has grown to become the domain of highly paid professional drivers and teams funded by multinational corporations. The gentlemanly element is still present in amateur areas of the sport, but the top level of the sport is now completely dominated by professionals who are paid to build exposure and recognition for their sponsors.

That is done largely through the entertainment value that racing provides for its audience. Spectators want to see great competition, fast cars, and recognizable drivers. It’s also important that the action is fair and the rules clear and easy to understand. There are many opportunities to deliver the “product” or entertainment, not just with live audiences and television but also with many types of new media.

Lastly, the engineering and innovation exists to enhance the business and entertainment sides of the sport. It shouldn’t be done for its own sake because that simply leads to costs spiraling out of control. Once the commercial benefits received are exceeded by the cost of competing, there is no longer a favorable return on investment. If the ROI is not favorable, sponsors withdraw and the series is emaciated or collapses. At worst it is destructive. At best it is unstable and cyclical. The only useful innovation is that which has relevance to society in the larger scheme of things, not purely for racing purposes.

These three items form the basis of the sport. All of them must be addressed adequately in order to maintain a healthy, professional racing series. In the next post I’ll discuss how I see racing evolving in the future.

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September 7, 2008

F1: Belgian Grand Prix


The big surprise in Q1 was Sebastian Bourdais going to P1 in a Toro Rosso – faster than anyone else. Didn’t notice which tire compound he was running. In Q2 Heikki Kovalainen (soft tire) was fastest followed by Lewis Hamilton (hard tire) and Kimi Raikkonen (soft). The Toro Rossos were still 7th and 8th I believe.

In Q3 it was Hamilton on pole followed by Felipe Massa, Kovalainen, and Raikkonen, the usual four suspects from McLaren and Ferrari. Though Raikkonen still seems to be struggling somewhat with qualifying.


This one will probably go down as a classic. It was a damp start but the rest of the 4-plus mile track was dry. Hamilton and Massa made good starts. Kovalainen’s was dreadful. Raikkonen rocketed around Massa at the first turn (La Source hairpin) and used the run off area to get around. It looked like perhaps a planned move. There’s a bunch of room out there and the grip is probably pretty good. Then Raikkonen edged Massa to the grass on the long straight after Eau Rouge as he took second place.

Fernando Alonso was up to 4th and Nelson Piquet gained about 6 spots. Jarno Trulli was spun around by Bourdais. Shortly after the start Bourdais was up to 5th!

At the start of the second lap Hamilton spun at La Source and Raikkonen was able to pass him on the straight after Eau Rouge and began to pull away. This was the Kimi we are used to seeing. His lead increased to as much as 6 seconds through the course of the race.

A lot of people were probably wondering if either Ferrari engine was going to let go in light of their recent engine failures. The first round of pit stops saw Hamilton stop first. He was held up by traffic (including his own teammate) for several laps.

But after the second pit stops, Hamilton seemed to have made up a lot of ground on Raikkonen. Massa was 3rd much of the race, and then Piquet stuffed it into the tires on his own bringing out a local yellow. Bourdais ran as high as 2nd before pitting. Sebastian Vettel did well too, running as high as 4th. The Toro Rosso team has shown tremendous pace recently.

Anyway, with just a few laps to go rain started to fall and Hamilton tried to pass Raikkonen at the Bus Stop chicane. Raikkonen defended vigorously and Hamilton ended up straightlining the chicane and passing, something that is against the rules. He then backed off to allow Raikkonen to retake the position. Then at the very next turn (La Source) he managed to go around the outside of Raikkonen, and the two made light contact.

It was nose to tail all the way down the straight to Les Combes with Hamilton closely followed by Raikkonen. Both went off and used the run off several corners later (Pouhon?) when they came upon Kaz Nakajima coming back ON the track from his own off track excursion. Hamilton went far left off the track to avoid him, while Raikkonen went less left to do the same, and regained the lead.

But not long after he spun and Hamilton went by. I think there were two lead changes in that section alone. Unfortunately, Raikkonen then hit a wall and ended his day. It was a fantastic and chaotic battle enhanced by rain and changing conditions.

Hamilton won the race, followed by Massa and Nick Heidfeld in third for BMW. BMW made a great call putting Heidfeld on intermediate tires for the rain and he went from something like 7th to 3rd in the space of a lap or two. Outstanding.

Unfortunately, and make no mistake I am a Raikkonen and Ferrari fan, long after the podium ceremony was over the stewards decided to strip Hamilton of his win and demote him to third place by way of a 25 second penalty for his first pass on Raikkonen in the chicane, the one he gave back. This handed the victory to Massa, and second place to Heidfeld.

I don’t see any justification for it and I think it is another case of manipulation of the championship so that we’ll have a closer season finale, and there is the ever present specter of Ferrari favoritism. That’s not sport. Hamilton won it fair and square, and McLaren has rightfully appealed the decision.

The other aspect that makes the championship less exciting is the point system itself. There’s only a 25% difference between first and second place (10 vs 8 points). With the old system there was a 67% difference (10 vs 6 points). What the old system rewarded was winning. The new system makes it possible for the points leader to “cruise” (relatively speaking) for points finishing second or third. It rewards consistency more than winning.

In either case though, it seems there are consistent late-season FIA legal shenanigans to manipulate the championship and take it to the last race. After last season’s ending it would be a shame to have a repeat of such silly things when the on-track action is so good.

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