Date: 6th September 2014 at 7:46am
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It seems close to impossible to believe right now, but there was a time in this 2014 F1 season that we were all restless, and it wasn?t about Nico vs. Lewis.

It seems close to impossible to believe right now, but there was a time in this 2014 F1 season that we were all restless, and it wasn?t about Nico vs. Lewis.

Yes, to the modern eye it strikes as something from a parallel universe. But to remind ourselves of these changed days we need to rewind to balmy early May, when all were gathered in Barcelona for the Spanish Grand prix weekend. Then ? aside from a little bit of grumbling regarding their Bahrain race battle ? things seemed fairly cordial between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. Perhaps, as Lewis had noted in Malaysia, the assumptions that they were closest buddies was rather over egging it but at least there was something resembling peace between them.

But this point of history did however contain a source of seething all of its own. The new for 2014 technical regulations.

Even by that point however many of the arguments against the new way had come and gone, shot down one by one like ducks at the fair. Hardly anyone would finish the races, they said in advance. One at Melbourne even with a straight face asked Charlie Whiting what would happen if no one made it to the end. But no, we had but five mechanical breakdowns in the opening race and the curve of attrition since has been gently downward.

The races would be hideous ?taxi driver? runs (to borrow from Luca Montezemolo) in fuel-saving ? not really, fuel has hardly been mentioned and indeed it?s thought that some of the Mercedes runners have been using less than the 100kg limit on a few Sundays. And while the year started slowly in the thrill stakes the race in Bahrain was excellent and since returning to Europe consistently the entertainment value has stacked up well against that of just about any other season. Even the noise about the noise seems to have quietened over time.

But in Barcelona particular one duck was lingering on display. That the 2014 F1 cars weren?t quick enough.

Perhaps this was with good reason as during that weekend someone noticed that the best GP2 cars circulating on the same track in the same weekend weren?t setting lap times all that far above the best of F1. In the end there was but four seconds between the top F1 and GP2 cars on the stopwatch as well as a noticeable overlap between the two fields illustrated by Stephane Richelmi?s GP2 pole mark being good enough for eighteenth place on the F1 grid. Mirth was made in response to the Caterham GP2 car setting a quicker lap time than the Caterham F1 sister machine.

At the time I argued on another site in response to all of this that there were not so many reasons to worry as Barcelona?s headline evidence would suggest. For one thing the GP2 cars getting close there was likely track-specific. The Montmelo circuit is rather dominated by long corners, which it appeared that the 2014 F1 cars especially didn?t like compared with the 2013 ones, due to a variety of factors: trimmed aerodynamics, the effective outlawing of the exhaust blown diffuser, the less grippy tyres and the increased minimum weight. Which may be considered ironic given that it was the engines rather than the aero and the like that was the most common focus for those who disliked the new regs. But I digress.
I also thought that the rate of technical development in F1, combined with that a GP2 car stays pretty much as it is, meant that Spain?s times were as close as it was going to get. Indeed given this formula in F1 is still at its infant stage the learning curve would be steeper than before the change (i.e. there?s more for engineers to learn more quickly) ensuring even more rapid lap time shaving than usual. Fernando Alonso for one in pre-season estimated that this campaign?s in-year development alone would gain somewhere in the region of three to four seconds per tour. Therefore the pace within the new regulations would catch up with that of 2013 fairly quickly.
Now that we?re some months on ? and that we?d have enough of an accumulated base to look at ? I thought it was about time to see if the numbers back up the validity of my musings. To do this, in the first instance, for each 2014 Grand Prix weekend I did a simple, perhaps crude, comparison of speeds in F1 this year and last, by comparing the best time from practice or qualifying in the 2014 weekend with the best time from the same session in 2013, dividing one by the other to get a percentage difference. For the sake of comparability wet sessions were avoided, so if either year?s session was wet I moved to the next quickest in both years until one was found that were both dry (e.g. if either year had a wet Q3 I sought to compare Q2 vs. Q2 instead, and so on). In the case of the German round the 2012 times are used for comparison, given that?s when we last were at Hockenheim before this campaign?s visit. Austria?s been left out given there is no F1 comparison after 2003.
This comparison is in Figure 1 below.

Fig. 1 ? Comparison of 2014 F1 lap times with 2013 F1 lap times, based on quickest equivalent session that was dry in both years

The first thing we can conclude from this is that, as I thought, Spain was indeed an outlier; atypical of what?s been generally going on this year. There the 2014 pole time was 105.6% of the time of the 2013 equivalent which is the biggest shift of the lot, and by a distance. In Monaco two weeks later the gap immediately shrunk to 102.9%, in Montreal it shrunk further to 101.7%. It stayed in that sort of ballpark until Hungary, where it rose albeit not to Spain levels to 104.2%.

The extremes of Hungary and Canada (albeit at different ends of the scale) further give us a strong clue as to what?s going on, and it?s also what I suspected back at the time of the Spanish round. Namely the current cars don?t especially like twisty tracks with long corners, but do like those that are by contrast dominated by long straights and/or tight corners. The Hungaroring, a lot like the Barcelona track, is very much in the former group, and in these two venues the 2014 pace has been furthest away from that of 2013. While Montreal is a track in the latter group, as is the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain which as can also be seen in Figure 1 for a long time provided the closest time of all to the 2013 pace, its 2014 lap being 100.9% of the 2013 one. And we know that this year?s F1 car flies on the straight stuff; for example in the Spa race day just passed on Nico Rosberg topped the speed trap charts at 314.1kph, while in 2013 the top mark was clearly slower, Felipe Massa clocking 307.2 kph.

Which brings us to a factor that might have got more focus in Spa had our attention not been, um, taken by something else. That for the first time this year, with all of the new much-contested technical regs, over a single lap at least the 2014 machine was quicker than the 2013 version. The best practice/quali time from that latest F1 weekend (in this case from FP2 on Friday) was faster than that from the equivalent session 12 months before. This at another track with long straights (though it has some long corners too).

Gary Anderson watching on in Spa on the very same Friday noticed what was going on and he too reckoned it owed something to the track layout among other things: ?This circuit does have a little altitude, particular at Les Combes, and the turbo will ensure you don’t lose power there. Plus, you will get better acceleration off Eau Rouge thanks to the ERS package.?

As for my other assumption made back at the time of the Spain weekend that the F1 in-season development would kick in, and perhaps be particularly speedy early in the life of a new formula as we are this season, the numbers on this aren?t quite so clear but nevertheless indicate tentative support for it. Given that as mentioned the development of a GP2 car (given it?s a spec series) is minimal we can use the best GP2 time from each 2014 weekend this season (if we have one) as a benchmark, and as before do a percentage comparison with the best F1 time to see if the F1 pace is indeed moving away. This can be seen in Figure 2.

Fig. 2 ? Comparison of best F1 lap times with best 2014 GP2 lap times

This once again shows Spain as an outlier in terms of diminished 2014 F1 pace, with the GP2 pole time 104.8% of the F1 equivalent ? elsewhere the GP2 best never gets closer than 106%.
The overall pattern is up and down and is rather buffeted by two extremes ? with Austria and Germany both having markedly larger gaps than elsewhere.

These possibly again reflect track characteristics though, that Austria is another track dominated by straights, and Germany is one without long corners (and Austria doesn?t have too many), while both have plenty of acceleration zones where the torque of the new power units can be put to good use, and braking zones to charge the ERS. All of these may have combined to ensure they are particularly suitable tracks for the 2014-style F1 cars (oddly though, in Germany this seems to manifest itself mainly in comparison with GP2 cars rather than with 2012 F1 cars). Austria is at high altitude too, which also helps the turbo-powered modern F1 cars shine especially as Anderson said.

Taking away Bahrain, Spain, Austria and Germany on the grounds that they may be outliers reflecting unusual circuit configurations however the creeping of F1 lap times away from GP2 becomes slightly clearer. And even with all rounds in the first three rounds chronologically have the three smallest percentage F1 to GP2 gaps, while aside from the four odd tracks mentioned the growth of the gap over time is consistent.

As for whether the rate of development in F1 in 2014 is faster than that of 2013, the final of my musings made back in Spain, we need to return to the numbers outlined in Figure 1. It?s again hard to decipher with confidence but also again what there is suggests that this hypothesis is backed up.

As mentioned the gaps bounce around depending on the track characteristics and Spain and Hungary are definite outliers. But the overall movement is that 2014 is getting closer to 2013 over the season. In Australia the 2014 best time was 104.3% of the 2013 version, in Malaysia it was 102.7%, Bahrain as mentioned with its peculiar track layout the figure was 100.9% but in China it was back up at 103.1%. After China, aside from the two stray cases mentioned, it never again was as high as 103%.

And seeking to control for the different types of tracks ? again slightly crudely ? perhaps that the gap between 2014 and 2013 pace was smaller in Hungary than it was earlier in the year at the similar track in Spain (and remember that Hungary?s Q3 this year took place just after a rain shower, which can?t have helped), and quicker relatively in Belgium than earlier in Canada, suggests also that over time the 2014 machine is developing more quickly than the 2013 one. We?d want more of a base to conclude as such with confidence, but as said the evidence points tentatively at it being so. As does the fact that as mentioned in Belgium last time out the 2014 pace beat its 2013 equivalent for the first time.

So my musings made back in May look to be coming true. Certainly so on Barcelona itself being an unusual case. And while the evidence is less clear on the rate of in-season development again there are reasons to think that it?s happening. At the very least there isn?t much to refute it. Perhaps we underestimate F1 sometimes.

Author: Graham Keilloh

TWITTER: @TalkingaboutF1


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