For the first time since Malaysia in 1999, Formula 1 will be taking a step into the unknown, as the third round of the 2004 World Championship takes place at a brand new circuit in Bahrain. While the prospect of staging a debut race in the Middle...
For the first time since Malaysia in 1999, Formula 1 will be taking a step into the unknown, as the third round of the 2004 World Championship takes place at a brand new circuit in Bahrain. While the prospect of staging a debut race in the Middle East is a fascinating one, for the Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro engineers it represents the additional challenge of setting up the F2004 to deal with unknown parameters.
However, modern computer simulation techniques mean that when Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello take to the track for Friday morning's free practice session, they will already have a reasonable understanding of what settings (aerodynamic and chassis) will be required.
Ever since the FIA released the official map of the new 5.4 kilometre circuit, the Ferrari engineers have been feeding the data into their simulation programmes to calculate speeds, braking loads, downforce requirements and suspension settings. In addition, the Bridgestone engineers will have made calculations about expected grip levels generated by the track surface -- reckoned to be one of the grippiest on the calendar -- in order to make a tyre choice.
Temperatures, expected to be only slightly lower than in Malaysia a fortnight ago, will also have been factored into the equation. Simulation programmes are now so sophisticated that predicted lap times will usually end up being within a tenth or two of a second of the actual time the drivers will produce.
With the new one engine per weekend rule restricting the amount of running the cars do in free practice, this simulation becomes even more important than in the past.
It is not just the chassis and aerodynamics which have been simulated as a similar programme is also applied to the engines. "Preparing for racing at an unknown circuit like Bahrain is much the same for the engine side as it is for the chassis side," says the Scuderia's Race Engine Manager, Mattia Binotto. Computer simulation programmes allow a team to programme in all the characteristics of a circuit into the engine test bed.
"It allows us to at least work out what engine revs will be used so that we can identify the duty cycle of the engine for any particular track, in terms of the revs used at any particular point and for how long the throttle is open at maximum revs and when the throttle is off. In addition, we can run the engine over an entire simulated grand prix distance and, at Maranello, we have already done this for the Bahrain track."
These days, the simulation equipment and programmes are so sophisticated that there are very few surprises when the team gets to a new circuit. In the past, there might have been some doubt about what gear ratios to fit to the car, either because of not taking into account wind or gradients, which would therefore have an effect on what revs the engine would pull.
"But that is no longer the case," continues Binotto. "However, one additional concern for Bahrain is the risk of sand being blown onto the track and thus getting into the engine." The race organisers have actually planned to coat the sand that borders the track with a special substance which will limit the amount that can be blown onto the surface.
"Of course, sand is not something we can simulate on the test bench!" quips Binotto. "Sand is obviously not what you want inside an engine. If it gets in through the air intakes and then into the combustion chambers it can do a lot of damage to the internal components. At Ferrari, we have given this problem some thought in terms of how to protect the engine from swallowing the sand with added protection to the air intakes, but we will not really have a clear picture of what is required, until we get to Bahrain and see the actual situation on the ground."
The new one engine rule complicates matters further, but Ferrari has simulated the distance of a complete weekend's running in Bahrain on the test bench. "With the new rule, the most important thing is to have an engine that, come the start of qualifying, is capable of operating at its maximum performance level for qualifying and for the race."
There is one aspect of understanding a new circuit that cannot be achieved with a computer and that is a driver's knowledge of the track. Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello have studied drawings of the Bahrain circuit and will have memorised which way the road goes before arriving. Even on circuits which have been part of the F1 calendar for many years, the drivers usually walk the track on the Thursday before the race to note any changes, either to the surface or to landmarks which they might rely on as braking markers.
In Bahrain, Michael and Rubens will repeat the process, but will probably do several laps. In the expected heat, that in itself will be quite an achievement! Once practice starts they will gradually learn their braking points and note any variation in track surface, gradually building up their speed, until they feel fully confident to exploit the full potential of the F2004.