The European Grand Prix used to move around, taking place at a variety of circuits, but it has had an almost permanent home at the NÃ¼rburgring, which has hosted this race nine times, including every year since 1997, except that in '97 and '98,...
The European Grand Prix used to move around, taking place at a variety of circuits, but it has had an almost permanent home at the Nürburgring, which has hosted this race nine times, including every year since 1997, except that in '97 and '98, just to confuse things, it was known as the Luxembourg GP.
Although the current circuit has been in use for over two decades, it is still referred to as the "New 'Ring," by those who remember the daunting 22 kilometres of the old Nordschleife track, that was eventually deemed too dangerous for modern grand prix cars.
At about the same time that the antiquated track was pensioned off, Dieter Gundel was beginning his motor racing career, working in electronics. Today he is Head of Electronics at the race tracks for Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro.
"Twenty years ago, electronics was just beginning to become the "hot item" in motor racing," says the German. "Ever since then it has developed from something that is quite useful and gives a little bit of an advantage into an element that is absolutely essential. Without electronics, nothing turns, nothing blinks, nothing does anything."
Progress on electronics was slow until the advent of the computer and the first advantages seen on the cars were chiefly in terms of providing increased power. "We have to admit that the original ideas came from road cars and it is not a case of motor racing leading the development," continues Gundel.
"The most obvious change was the switch from putting fuel in the engine with a carburettor to using fuel injection. It gave far greater control and allowed you to adjust more parameters."
The other element that moved electronic development forward was the arrival of the turbocharged engines in the 80s. The turbocharger was quite a delicate piece of equipment and needed more accurate control, for elements such as the waste-gate.
"This is how electronics muscled its way into the sport," recalls Gundel. "We had so much electronics it was a case of picking the area that gave the biggest advantage and of course one team would come up with something and the others would follow. Technology has moved at a rapid rate."
"If you compare the power of calculation we have on the car nowadays with that of twenty years ago, you could not run a small computer game for kids with the power we had on the cars back then!"
Once the miracle of electronics had reached a point where it was taken for granted, the specialists in this field came under ever increasing pressure to come up with ever more sophisticated systems that were smaller, lighter and more resistant to vibration and especially to heat.
"The amount of wiring on the car has decreased significantly over the years," says Gundel. "For example, we now use copper wires that are no thicker than a human hair for sensors for example. The wiring per metre is a fraction of what we had. We use more intelligent sensors that now communicate via digital signals, which is another technology that has come from road cars.
The hardware side has reduced in weight and size and technology means our experience has grown. In the past we used military connectors from tanks and airplanes, built to last for 5 years of use. It was good for F1 because not even we could break them. But if I came today with one of these connectors and showed it to (Chief Designer) Rory Byrne he would have a heart attack!
Today, electronics is used in every aspect of the car, but its most obvious use is in running the engine. "You have to inject fuel and you have to fire the spark," maintains Gundel. "But on top of this is all the diagnostic monitoring, the back up systems and pumps. The diagnostic side has become far more important this year with engines having to last two race weekends."
"We might have more than 20 sensors on the engine for diagnostics alone, apart from those used to actually run the engine. To be honest, for us here at Ferrari, this was not such a big change from the past, as we already had a fantastic record of reliability and that was partly down to our monitoring systems."
The new rules, with the cars staying in parc ferme in between qualifying and the race, has also made the role of electronics more important, as software changes are one of the few areas that can be worked on.
"Apart from the engine, other areas where we can tune for performance using electronics are traction control, engine braking and differential performance. These are the only legal areas where we are allowed to work," explains Gundel. "While the car is in parc ferme, we have the model of our strategies on the computer and we can tune them and are allowed to upload all our modifications into the car before the race."
"Now, we analyse the performance of our cars on Friday and Saturday and try to improve areas that were not perfect, by running simulations. We try to combine all these tunings to give an overall improvement on the car without having to run the car. It is not all down to technology though and you still need to use the human brain. Sometimes it is our best friend!"
So will this weekend on home turf at the Nürburgring be a chance for Gundel to catch up with old friends from his racing past? "Not really," he says with a hint of embarrassment. "As a child I was not at all interested in motor racing and when I started working with Bosch back in 1985, I stayed in the laboratory and did not go to the tracks. But when Data Logging and Telemetry became more common I would go to the occasional race."
"At first the racing drivers were very suspicious of Data Logging and regarded it as a spy system. Now, the good drivers know they can improve with the help of the data and they spend a lot of time studying it. But to get back to the question, no the Nurburgring will not be a special weekend for me, except that I always find it a bit disturbing because all the people around me speak German!"