x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: The men and their machines

The amount of work that goes into putting one of these beasts - and their drivers - on to the Yas Marina Circuit each year is something the casual observer cannot conceive.

Jenson Button's McLaren shows its complex internal design while sitting in the team garage before the Bahrain Grand Prix this year. Mark Thompson / Getty Images
Jenson Button's McLaren shows its complex internal design while sitting in the team garage before the Bahrain Grand Prix this year. Mark Thompson / Getty Images

F1 cars don't drive themselves, you know. The amount of work that goes into putting one of these beasts - and their drivers - on to the Yas Marina Circuit each year is something the casual observer cannot conceive. Neil Vorano provides an instant course on the workings of GP.

To a casual observer watching shiny cars go around the Yas Marina Circuit this weekend, Formula One might be an exciting, albeit noisy diversion.

The concept is simple enough: a driver has to be faster than his competitors and finish first to win. Just press the accelerator and off you go, it seems. Job done.

But learning the details and nuances of motorsport's highest echelon reveals much more than just speed.

This is a sport where each team spends hundreds of millions of dollars developing cutting-edge technology that has more in common with jet fighter planes than it does with the car you drive to work each day.

The level of secrecy guarding the technology also approaches a military level, without the use of deadly force, of course.

It's a sport where success depends not only on a fast driver, but on the mechanics, designers and strategy makers back in the pits.

If you are a casual fan, here are a few facts about the cars and drivers that will help you to appreciate the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix a little more, hopefully opening your eyes to its stratospheric levels of competition and technology.

At least, you'll sound a lot smarter around the office water cooler.

Aerodynamics

Each year a new car is developed to minimise air resistance and maximise downforce, with lessons learned from the previous seasons.

Intense work is carried out using computer design and simulation, wind tunnels and actual track testing before a car is signed off. The chassis and body parts are made entirely of carbon fibre, which is stronger than steel but weighs much less.

The aerodynamics assist the car in sticking to the ground - an effect called downforce. With huge wings at the front and rear, the downforce created at high speeds can be as much as six times the weight of the car, meaning that, theoretically at least, an F1 car can drive upside down in a tunnel at speed.

But these wings that help to keep a car on the track also create drag, limiting top-end speed. It's a tricky balance for designers but that downforce makes it possible to go much, much faster in the corners.

This year, you will hear talk of drivers using their DRS to pass. The drag-reduction system can only be used in certain parts of the track by a trailing car if it is within one second of the car in front. The system is electronically limited.

When available and activated by the driver, it opens a flap on the rear wing to lower its immense drag, giving the car a bit more speed.

Also this year the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile - or Fia, the regulatory association for F1 - has ordered that the nose of the car be lowered to 550 millimetres above the ground, which is why most of the cars on the grid have an odd-looking stepped front end.

It's not about aerodynamics - in a crash, the lower nose is further away from another car's cockpit - but it created challenges for designers to work around.

Brakes

Ever notice that F1 drivers have thick necks? They have to, to deal with the incredible G-forces they experience in a race, and one of the toughest forces comes from how quickly the cars can slow down.

It's not apparent watching on television, but as fast as the cars are they are even more amazing at braking.

Modern F1 racers use brakes made of carbon-ceramic materials that can bring a car travelling at 320kph to a full stop in just four seconds, creating more than 5G for the driver and making it very difficult to keep his head up.

During a race, the brakes can reach temperatures of more than 1,000°C. At the end of the long straights under heavy braking they glow red from the heat. To help keep them cool, the cars have ducts to direct air over them.

Engine and Gearbox

For this year, all cars on the F1 grid must have 2.4-litre V8 engines. That sounds like a small motor, but they develop more than 800 horsepower, about three or four times that of your average road car. And don't forget, F1 cars are half the weight of a road car.

Again, builders are very secretive when it comes to the output of their engines. In the pit garages during a race, teams will cordon off an area with walls to house their engines and post a guard at the door to keep out prying eyes.

To develop this power, the crankshaft can reach speeds of 18,000rpm; that means the pistons move up and down in the cylinders 300 times a second, creating forces of more than 8,000G on the moving parts.

With such immense stresses, the engines must be designed with very tight tolerances and high-end materials such as titanium, especially since Fia has placed a limit on teams of just eight engines for a season of 20 races.

The power from the engines goes through an eight-speed gearbox. The driver changes gear by pulling paddles behind the steering wheel, much the same as a motorcycle gearbox.

Tyres

Every tyre for every team is supplied by one maker: Pirelli. You would think that would mean that tyres would not be an issue, but that would be wrong.

The tyres are the same but how each car is built and drives means the tyre wear is different from team to team. And some drivers are smoother and their driving style is easier on the rubber, meaning they can go longer before pit stops.

With fuel fill-ups banned this year, the only reason to go into the pit is to change tyres.

When tyres wear they lose grip, which means the driver's pace falls. This has been a deciding factor in many races this year.

Some teams will choose to go into the pit twice in the race, but that could change to three depending on how their tyres fare. Some teams simply opt on a three-stop strategy to begin with. Changing all four tyres on a car takes about four seconds.

Pirelli supplies five different tyres to the teams: two are grooved for rain and wet weather, but for regular racing the tyres are slick, meaning they have no grooves, and range from very soft (option) to hard (prime) compounds, which are all visually differentiated with coloured stripes on the sides.

Softer tyres have more grip but do not last as long as hard tyres.

For Saturday's qualifying and Sunday's race, each driver is given eight sets of tyres, four prime and four options, and must use at least one set of primes and options in the race.

With the heavy braking at the end of the straights at Yas Marina, expect tyre wear to be a factor in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Drivers

Many people think F1 drivers, who sit during the whole race, are not athletes at all.

The truth is, with the immense forces the cars go through as they carve around corners and brake, drivers must be in top physical condition to just be able to last through a race, let alone win.

All go through rigorous training regimes and have physiques much like a boxer, with strong upper bodies and high endurance.

Jenson Button of McLaren is a triathlete, while the former driver David Coulthard went on military training exercises with the SAS.

One area that drivers focus on is their necks, as the high G-forces make it difficult to keep their eyes on the road.

Safety

During the 1960 and 1970s, F1 drivers were more likely to be killed on the track than live, until three-time world champion Jackie Stewart got tired of seeing his friends die.

Stewart was instrumental in beginning a change in attitudes and implementation that would put more focus on safety for drivers and spectators.

Today, it has been 18 years since the last driver died on the track - that being the great Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994 - and F1 can boast of one of the best on-the-job safety records of any industry.

The biggest reason for this is the cars themselves. In Stewart's time, the driver sat in a tin cockpit surrounded by the fuel tank, which often ignited in even the smallest collisions.

Today they sit in a carbon-fibre tub designed to withstand extremely high impacts, with the fuel held in a collapsible cell behind him that is designed to crumple in a crash.

Outside the tub, the car is designed to break apart in spectacular fashion in a collision to absorb the force, which makes crashes look much worse than they really are.

nvorano@thenational.ae