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Analysis: Was Caterham's makeshift repair on Kobayashi's car safe?

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Analysis: Was Caterham's makeshift repair on Kobayashi's car safe?
Oct 20, 2014, 9:09 PM

[Updated] Caterham F1 team has been forced to explain the circumstances which led to Kamui Kobayashi racing in Sochi with a car which had a problem...

[Updated] Caterham F1 team has been forced to explain the circumstances which led to Kamui Kobayashi racing in Sochi with a car which had a problem suspension part, which had been repaired by carbon wrapping at the circuit. Kobayashi alleges this was because the team did not have enough spare parts to replace it.

The Japanese driver wrote on his private Facebook page that he was scared to drive the car and this photo and post has got into the public domain and triggered a news splash because F1 safety is in the spot light after the Jules Bianchi accident in Suzuka.

So what is behind this, what does carbon wrapping mean and was Kobayashi's car safe or not?

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 19.07.06

Is it normal to repair suspension parts at the track like this?

It’s not an easy one to comment on because we have no knowledge of the engineering detail. However given the level of professionalism of the individuals involved we can assume that the team would have done everything in their power to make sure the repair was as safe as possible.

It would have been done in full consultation with composite design experts back at the factory and it’s even possible that the solution applied could have been replicated and tested back there. It’s usual that composite parts are proof tested before use in safety critical situations, but not everything is. For example only one of a team’s chassis will ever be crash tested each year and there are some load tests only done on one chassis or component. (A proof test means loading a component like a wishbone in compression or tension to more than the force it will see on track to ensure that no failure occurs. Because composite materials don’t fatigue or locally yield or deform like metals this procedure is ideally suited.)

These issues do occasionally crop up, most commonly with a chassis because you only have one spare at the track, and there will always be some risk in doing things like this at the track. Perhaps the risk is higher with less well funded teams. It is certainly not ideal to do something like this, but F1 cars are effectively prototypes and it wasn’t that long ago that a Mercedes nose and front wing fell off on the track, or the Toro Rosso’s front uprights parted company with the car under braking.

The last team to withdraw from a Race because of a structural problem that couldn’t be resolved trackside was Minardi, who withdrew in Spain 2002 after the morning Warm-up when a rear wing came off and Sauber had something similar in Brazil in 2000.

As a technique carbon wrapping is not “unsafe” or “substandard” either, some teams actually produce components as a combination of metallic substructures wrapped in carbon to get a combination of properties in the smallest and lightest package.

FIA's Charlie Whiting, Herbie Blash

What about the FIA's part in this? Wouldn't they have had to carry out checks on the car during Saturday and Sunday?

The FIA has yet to comment officially on this story. All cars are presented for checks at the start of the weekend. Kobayashi's accident on Friday would not necessarily have been serious enough to require the re-scrutineering of the car and only the team would know about the spares situation. Re-scrutineering is normally reserved for chassis changes or car failures. So if that does not take place, then a team running a car in a session would be taken as an implicit statement from the team that the car is as safe as it can be. There’s also no suggestion that the car didn’t comply with the regulations in terms of safety.

The car would have undergone post race scrutineering if it had finished the race, but Kobayashi retired. He said it was due to mileage issues, but the team insisted that it was a brake problem and reiterated that position again today.

So what conclusions do we draw from this episode?

With respect to Kobayashi's comments on social media (although, to be clear, he thought he was communicating only with his 'private network' and someone has let him down badly here) it’s an example of the kind of 'Chinese whispers' that can go around under the pressures of the track, particularly in a team that is really on the back foot.

We have seen it before and HRT was probably the same in its time. All sorts of thoughts could have been planted in Kobayashi's mind both from inside and outside the team and of course there’s no way he could really have made a balanced assessment of the risk himself having no knowledge of the engineering behind it.

It all shows how difficult the situation at Caterham is though and, while one must have confidence in the men and women on the shop floor that they are experienced professionals who know how to build and operate F1 cars, there is a lot of negativity currently around the management of the team, with reports of bailiffs, sacked staff taking legal action and news on Friday that Caterham Sports was put into administration. A new company Caterham CF1 Team was formed to make the cars. Manfredi Ravetto is listed as the owner of that.

The administrator of Caterham Sports, Finbarr O'Connell of London based administrators Smith and Williamson, has to sort out who owns what, particularly the equipment with which the F1 cars are made at Leafield. He has told the Financial Times that he is nott clear who the ultimate owners of the team are. Ravetto said in an FIA press conference recently that they wished to remain low-key, but they are so low key even the administrator cannot identify them.

They key thing from the point of view of the F1 team is to keep turning up and putting two cars on the grid, then the entry remains valid and they remain eligible for their share of the F1 commercial revenue.
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