Friday, September 17, 2010

F1 Mid-2010-Season Primer

Formula 1
For someone in the unlikely situation of being new to watching motorsports but having access to the Speed Channel, Formula 1 is an appealing starting point. The cars are fast and exotic, the competition is close, the tracks are in interesting places all over the world, and the coverage is extensive, informative, and entertaining. Regardless, it may still be difficult to have an immediate grasp on everything that is going on, particularly mid-season. The Formula 1 website is a fantastic source for detailed information (particularly about the rules and various technical aspects of the sport). There are a few unique, and important, characteristics of Formula 1 that will come up during a regular broadcast, such as:

Team structure - This season there are 12 teams (or "constructors"), and each team is comprised of two drivers. The teams are called constructors because they do in fact design and build their own cars (but not the engines). There are no "customer cars" allowed this season, so one team cannot buy cars or parts (with the exception of the engine) from other teams. The engines are tightly regulated this season, and only a handful of engine manufacturers are available for use by the constructors: Cosworth, Ferrari, Mercedes, and Renault. Both the constructor's and engine manufacturer's names are usually used to identify the teams, such as "Red Bull Renault" or "McLaren Mercedes."

The two championships in contention -  Each driver is racing against all of the other drivers in an effort to finish in the best position possible. For each race, the winning driver gets 25 points, 2nd place gets 18 points, etc. down to 10th place which gets 1 point. Cars finishing behind 10th get no points (complete details here). Additionally, each team is awarded the sum of the points scored by their two drivers. At the end of the 19-race season, the driver with the most points is crowed Drivers' World Champion, and the team with the most points is crowned Constructors' World Champion. Both championships are thought to hold equal weight and importance.

Qualifying format - The starting order for each race is determined by a three-stage qualifying system. All 24 cars have 20 minutes to set the fastest lap possible. The cars may qualify at any point during the 20 minutes, and the cars do not necessarily get the track to themselves. Following the first session (called "Q1"), the six slowest cars are set at the six worst starting positions. After a short break, the remaining 18 cars then have 15 minutes to again set the fastest lap possible. The times from Q1 are disregarded and these 18 cars must re-qualify. Following the second session ("Q2"), the eight slowest cars are set at the next-eight-worst starting positions. After a short break, the remaining 10 cars then have a final 10 minute session ("Q3") to again re-set their fastest lap to determine the top 10 starting positions.

Team orders - There are a number of circumstances during which a team would find it advantageous to have their drivers finish in a particular order. By mid-season it can become clear to a team that one of their drivers has a better chance to win the Drivers' World Championship than the other, and the team may want to provide that driver with the best chance for success, for example. The sporting regulations state that teams are not allowed to orchestrate in any way the finishing position of their two drivers relative to each other, but there have been many instances where this has almost certainly been the case. One case was during the Hungarian Grand Prix, Ferrari's Felipe Massa was told over the radio that his fellow Ferrari driver, Fernando Alonso, was "faster," and Felipe was asked "do you understand that message?" Shortly thereafter, Massa's Ferrari slowed significantly coming out of a corner, allowing Alonso to dart by. Massa had no further trouble during the race.

F-Ducts - The McLaren Mercedes team developed a system to direct air from the front of the car through a duct in the dorsal section to the rear wing. When this duct is activated (by the driver's hand or knee), the airflow stalls the rear wing, drastically reducing both its downforce and drag, causing a large increase in top speed down the straights at no downforce penalty in the corners. Other teams are just starting to develop their own versions of this system, but the cars are so aerodynamically sensitive that any change requires extensive research and development to be effective.

Corner names - Most Formula 1 tracks have names for each of their corners. Many corners are named after notable racing drivers, but some are named more arbitrarily. Turns 6 and 7 of Monza, the track used for the Italian Grand Prix, are called the "Lesmos," which can cause some confusion during the broadcast.

There are also a few things to note about the broadcast and coverage itself:

The cameras are not controlled by the commentators - Where the cameras are placed along any given track and on any given car, as well as which camera shot is used at any given point, is controlled by FOM, the singular Formula 1 rights manager. The Speed Channel commentators are therefore forced to call the race as it is presented to them. Normally this is seamless, although on occasion the commentators are interested in a particular pass or battle that is not shown for as long as they would like. Overall the camera work is excellent, and the commentators are able to provide a constant stream of information relating to the standings, the current strategies, the various pieces of technology on the cars, layman's translations of radio broadcasts, etc. One downside to the extent of the coverage and commentary is that missing something said by one of the commentators is undoubtedly missing something important, interesting, and entertaining. Socializing during the broadcast is not watching the race.

The three main commentators are off-site - Bob Varsha, Steve Matchett, and David Hobbs call each race from a studio in North Carolina, in real-time. Will Buxton is on-site at each race, although he gets significantly less air time than the other three. Will Buxton is new to the broadcast team for this season, and he is a replacement for Peter Windsor who had been a close friend of the other commentators. Buxton has useful access to drivers in-person although he frequently injects his opinions into his reports, and those opinions are not always objective or even factually accurate.

The pre-race show and post-race interviews are must-watch events - For 30 minutes before the race, the commentators will discuss in great detail various technologies and strategies employed by the teams, review important storylines, and show relevant highlights from earlier in the weekend (practice and qualifying) or the season. The show is dense with information while being entertaining and exciting. Following the race, there is extensive discussion about the repercussions of the results on the two championships, and the official driver interviews provide fascinating insight into how each of the top three finishers saw the race.

While the above is by no means comprehensive, with any luck a new viewer will have an idea of the volume of entertainment and information they will experience watching a Formula 1 Grand Prix.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Let's Get Physical

I am occasionally scoffed at when I suggest that race drivers need to be in good physical shape. Most people can at least believe that pro drivers are in good condition, but not that it’s explicitly necessary for them to do what they do. I have struggled in the past to convey how, exactly, driving is in fact physical. I’m going to give it another shot here. Part of the difficulty is that race driving (like most sports) is a pretty unique activity; it’s not much like anything you’re likely to have done before, and driving a race car is extremely different from driving a “regular” car.

So, let’s play an imagination game:

For round one of our game, imagine trying to open a combination lock; a round one with a dial like you would find on a gym locker. Let’s even assume you know the combination. Certainly it isn’t physically challenging, although it does take some precision and you need to be able to see what you’re doing. Easy.

For round two, imagine the lock isn’t on a locker, but it’s chained to a 45lb plate like you would use to lift weights at the gym. Let’s make it interesting by saying you have to wear this contraption as a necklace like Flavor Flav turned into a gym rat, and you have to remain standing. Now that you’re trying to support the weight while you’re working the lock, it becomes more physically challenging. Turning the dial just right is harder when you’re also exerting yourself, but as long as you can hold up 45lbs or so for a minute you should be ok, right?

Now let’s make it really interesting. The good news is for round three you’re sitting down, the bad news is you’re sitting on a roller coaster; think of the most intense roller coaster you have actually been on, only very slightly modified to allow you to reach the lock-chain-weight combo that’s now in your lap (although still around your neck). Imagine trying to unlock the lock while the roller coaster is going. Now we’re talking about a real challenge: keeping the thing in your lap at all is pretty tough, but trying to spin that little dial to just the right numbers (without smacking yourself in the face with the weight) you can imagine is hard. Your head is being jostled around, the lock itself is all over the place, and that weight gets pretty unwieldy in that corkscrew section. I’m willing to bet, though, that if you could keep the thing in your hands you could unlock the lock once (or a few times) without really getting tired. Tough? Sure. Tiring? Probably not.

Round four. Something has malfunctioned on the roller coaster. This isn’t the usual car-gets-stuck-upside-down malfunction though; this is the ride-doesn’t-stop-at-the-end-and-just-keeps-going malfunction. You’re not in much danger (as long as you don’t hurt yourself with that weight), but you’re not getting off any time soon. Say the thing goes for an hour; some “ride engineers” are there, the Channel 4 helicopter is circling, but you’re stuck on the darn thing. Worry about keeping your lunch down later; how is it coming with that lock? Imagine if you got more points every time you unlocked, then re-locked the lock. How many times could you do it? How long could you hold the thing in your lap while your roller coaster just kept going? A few times, probably, but you can imagine how it gets pretty difficult pretty quickly.

Race drivers don’t need to unlock combination locks chained to weights, and they’re not on roller coasters. They are, however, being thrown around in their seats while trying with their hands and feet to do things that simultaneously require both strength and precision, sometimes for hours at a time. If you have never done it before it’s tough to imagine that turning the wheel and pressing the pedals could be tough; the car you drive to work has power steering and power brakes, and most of the time it doesn’t really matter how much you turn or press them as long as you’re close. Race cars (and fast go-karts) require strength to turn the wheel and press the pedals; hard to believe but it’s actually physically difficult. To go fast, you have to do those things exactly the right amount at exactly the right time. It’s difficult and challenging in the same way that round four of our imaginary game is difficult and challenging.

I highly recommend that anyone who is curious about it to go to a decent go-kart track and give it a shot. Don’t bother with the slow stuff, head to a place that requires helmets and neck braces, like F1 Boston. It’s a ton of fun, and I promise you’ll learn something.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I love what you do for me, Toyota

Details of the firestorm Toyota finds itself in have been screaming in from every angle at a dizzying pace. What began as a floor mat recall has exploded and now encompasses computers that pin the throttle, computers that spin the steering wheel, insufficient brakes, scams by the media, scams by customers, congressional hearings, and Saturday Night Live spoofs. has one of the most comprehensive collections of articles on the subject, which is why most of the links (and the image) are theirs.

As a Ford enthusiast, I admit to initially reacting with a smirk. I have been generally aware of my automotive surroundings for 15 or so years, and those 15 years have not been kind to Ford. I'm happy to see this happening to someone (anyone) else, and it brings me even more joy to see it happening to a foreign company.

Unfortunately, I can't gloat at Toyota's misfortune. Not because of any pity I may have for them, but because of the endless stream of misinformation and deception that I think ultimately helps Toyota more than it hurts. I should have seen this coming, of course, as all the same songs were played when Ford (and GM and Chrysler) was in the crosshairs: the overblown reports of the recalls (recalls happen all the time), the congressional hearings (where the cluelessness of our congressmen and women was embarrassingly apparent), the suspicious media replications of problems. The customer scam angle is at least relatively new, but serves the same purpose.

In my opinion, these things don't help. Much of what I think is wrong with cars and the auto industry revolves around the lack of accurate information. Consumers make mis- or un-informed purchasing decisions, then drive their cars without sufficient knowledge of how to do it safely or efficiently. Feeding more mis-information into the fire certainly won't fix the problem. Giving a false reason for a real problem makes it all-too-easy to dismiss both.

If someone passes up a Toyota in favor of a Ford, I would much rather it be because they found that one of Ford's vehicles was better-suited for their purpose than any of Toyota's, or that they preferred not to send thousands of dollars overseas. While I'm happy to hear that membership in the Toyota Is Always Better Club is dwindling, it's unfortunate that the reasons for it are just as hollow as those that The Club was founded on to begin with.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

US F1: Just The Facts, Ma'am

Ken Anderson has spoken to Autosport about the current status of the US F1 team.

Mr. Anderson confirmed that the team will not participate in the 2010 season, and has requested that the FIA defer their entry until 2011. The team is intact, with the exception of previously-contracted driver Jose Maria Lopez and some temporary staff members, and is optimistic that the FIA will quickly grant their request. A sponsorship deal fell through in mid-January and without it the team was simply unable to commit to racing, however most of the preparations to do so were in place. The interview is worth reading as it clears up much of the blather that has been careening around this week.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

US F1: Good News and Bad News

Following a day of rampant speculation, there is good news and bad news about the fledgling US F1 team.

First, a little background:
Formula 1 isn't open to all comers. There are a limited number of available spots on the grid, set by the sport's governing body, the FIA. Even a fully-funded, ready-to-run team can't simply show up and race. Several teams from 2009 withdrew from the sport and the FIA further expanded the total number of available spots, making room for four all-new teams. Out of the many prospective teams that applied for those spots, the US F1 team was one of those selected to join Formula 1. The FIA's decision was intended to strengthen the sport both by including a US-based team, but also by filling the grid with teams that displayed both possible competitiveness and longevity.

The bad news, summarized effectively by AutoSport, is the US F1 team will almost certainly not be ready for the season-opening race at Bahrain. The team has formally asked the FIA to defer their entry until 2011. This unprecedented move has a measure of plausibility, as the FIA is aware that some presence in the US is beneficial to the sport, however obviously if the team was ready to go it would not have made this request.

The good news is in spite of rampant media coverage to the contrary, the team has not completely disbanded, nor has it lost the services of partner Chad Hurley (founder of YouTube). In fact, the team has offered the FIA a seven-figure bond to help secure their grid spot for 2011, so it would seem that time (and/or time management) is the only resource they are lacking.

Should the FIA not grant the request, the US F1 team has not ruled out the possibility of joining the F1 season at the fourth event in Barcelona. Normally missing any races is grounds for disqualification from the season, however the FIA had previously granted several of the new teams a three-race grace period. A far-less-likely emergency fall-back plan could possibly include some presence in Bahrain, however that possibility is slight indeed.

The US F1 team quickly built a large fanbase, and we're all hopeful that the operation continues to make progress and will show signs of success sooner rather than later. In the meantime, we'll have to wait for further word from Mr. Anderson or Mr. Windsor.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Vin Diesel, Eat Your Heart Out

Fluid MotorUnion has developed an exhaust system for the Lamborghini Gallardo that bumps the horsepower up 30 and the torque 25 by using CFD to optimize back pressure, flow, and system weight.

And it shoots blue flames when you punch it.

I agree completely with Jalopnik when they say this is what Lamborhinis are supposed to be.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lotus F1

The degree to which the new Lotus F1 team is related to The Lotus F1 team is subject to opinion, but one thing is for sure: the color's right. The Lotus Racing Official Fan Site has more.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Cars for a Grand

The popularity of near-junk car racing has enjoyed a recent surge, although finding a suitable car can be a challenge. Cars for a Grand is here to help, offering a searchable database of cars for sale at $1000 and under. The cars are of various makes, models, vintages, and conditions, but they're all cheap and on the market, the site a great starting point in the hunt for the next 24 Hours of LeMons or Chump Car World Series winner, or even a base for that hillclimb or drag car you've been thinking about building.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Fix Your Mirrors

"Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear" is a helpful warning, but what about the objects that aren't "in mirror"?

Almost all cars have blind spots of some kind, including yours. The trick is to use your mirrors to minimize them as much as possible, and chances are good that you're not doing a very good job. Here's a quick quiz:

Question 1: Is the side or rear of your car visible to you in your door-mounted rear-view mirrors, from your normal driving position?
A. Yes
B. No

A large number of people, likely including you, will answer (A). If that's the case, you probably have a larger-than-necessary blind spot.

For years my door mirrors were angled so I could see along the sides of my car. My thinking was if I could see all the way down the side of the car, there couldn't possibly be anything next to the car that I didn't see. The problem is this tactic leaves a blind spot just behind the front doors. Cars next to mine would be visible while they were approaching from behind, but would drop out of sight as they passed the range of the mirrors but before they entered my peripheral vision.

The flaw in the logic is the location of the blind spot itself, and is revealed when we use the proper names for the mirrors:

The rectangular thing in the middle of your windshield is your rear-view mirror. It is meant for you to see things in the rear, as in behind, your car. That includes directly behind, as well as off-to-the-side-and-behind. Cars can get pretty far up next to you before they drop out of range of this mirror.

The things mounted on your doors are your side-view mirrors. They are meant for you to see things to the sides of your car, not to the rear. Your rear-view mirror is taking care of that already. Your side-view mirrors should be aimed so that you can just start to see the front of a car as you are just about to lose sight of the back of that car in your rear-view mirror. Read that again:

Your side-view mirrors should be aimed so that you can just start to see the front of a car as you are just about to lose sight of the back of that car in your rear-view mirror.

If you're in a go-fast mood, your side-view mirrors should be aimed so that you lose sight of the front of a car just after you pick up the back of that car in your rear-view mirror.

If you can clearly see most of any one car in more than one mirror at the same time, you probably have them aimed incorrectly. Car and Driver has a somewhat helpful illustrated guide to get you going. PLEASE check it out, then go fix your mirrors.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Prius = Cool

Wait, what?

Speed:Sport:Life has taken a few minutes out of their usual pompous arrogance to produce a frighteningly lucid explanation of why "Prius" = "cool." I expected to be angry, or to be able to argue with them. I can't.

Some choice quotes:

"If you asked Prius owners why they made the choice to buy their car, I imagine you would hear a lot about the environment, sustainability, reducing dependence on foreign oil, blah blah blah. That's all crap. I know that's all crap because the Honda Insight is rusting on dealer lots as we speak."

"If you buy an Insight, you'll have to explain why you didn't buy a Prius. People will ask you if you own a Zune. If you buy a Civic Hybrid, then some self-righteous woman in cat-eye glasses will stop you in the university parking lot and tell you that your sports car is killing the environment."

"Don't bother to "think different" here. Put an iPod and an iPad in your Prius and relax, knowing that you are just as unique as everyone else in your social group."

And finally, "The Lexus HS250h is a Prius with a trunk. Don't buy one. Nobody's buying one. Toyota is learning the hard way what Honda, Ford, and GM already know. "Hybrid" is a pretty meaningless badge. It's the "Prius" one that counts."

I don't normally agree with the SSL guys, but in this case, I have no choice. The idea that people are buying the Prius to save the world, to use less oil, to save on gas money, or even because it's better than other options is absurd. People are buying the Prius because it's the car they want, and it's the car they want because it's the car "cool," "hip," "eco-conscious," and "::insert other flattering adjective here::" people want.

There are a lot of good reasons why Toyota isn't doing well lately, but on occasion it's definitely better to be lucky than good.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Icon CJ3B: Nasty. Old School. Jeep.

Icon CJ3B

ICON is a Los Angeles-based automotive company founded on the idea of revisiting classic off-road vehicles. Having tackled Toyota's FJ, ICON has now turned its attention to the Jeep CJ. Per Autoblog's article:

  • $80k
  • 24.5 inches (as in more than two feet!) of suspension travel at each wheel
  • Dana 44s
  • 45 degree approach and departure angles
  • GM Ecotec 2.4
  • Did you see that photo?
Autoblog has the details, but you won't need them to know this thing is awesome.