While the opening round of the season in Melbourne provided an immediate example of the effect of the new F1 sporting regulations, throwing up an unusual grid through the combination of rain and the new qualifying format, the second round in...
While the opening round of the season in Melbourne provided an immediate example of the effect of the new F1 sporting regulations, throwing up an unusual grid through the combination of rain and the new qualifying format, the second round in Sepang is expected to highlight the effect of the most important new technical rule that obliges the drivers to use the same engine for two races,
Very high ambient and track temperatures and an elevated humidity level have been a feature of the Malaysian GP since its inception in 1999 and the event has provided the engine specialists with a stern test. Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro has coped well with the challenge, to date winning four of the six races held at the Sepang circuit; one victory with Eddie Irvine and three with Michael Schumacher.
Under 2005 rules, every engine is sealed by the FIA at the end of the first race, so that it cannot be dismantled for inspection or the changing of parts, nor can it be run on a test bed. This is done by placing seals on the exhaust manifolds. After the engine is sealed, it is packed up and transported to the next race venue. So the engines stay with their respective teams.
Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro's Trackside Engine Manager, Mattia Binotto explains the implications of the new rule. "Between one race and the next there is virtually nothing one can do to the engine," he says. "The only work permitted is that already allowed under normal parc ferme conditions: various ancilliaries can be changed such as spark plugs and coils and the engine oil."
"But in the case of Ferrari, these components normally last the full life of the engine and so there will be no need to change them and no changes are planned, apart from the Shell oil. Given that the engine remains closed up for a long period of time, it is important to change it and ensure no old oil is left in the block."
In fact, oil, generally a "forgotten" component in the mind of race fans, now plays an even more important role than usual. "Before qualifying and the race oil specification cannot be changed," states Binotto. "However, for Friday's practice where times do not count, we can use a thicker more viscous oil which gives a greater degree of protection to the major components as the engines are not pushed hard on the first day. Having to last two races, we obviously don't look for maximum performance on the Friday."
The actual management of the engines over a race weekend has not changed significantly, except that its total life has been extended from three to six days. However, the two race life has to be looked at as a whole. For example, a more cautious approach was adopted in Melbourne, knowing that a severe test would follow a fortnight later in Sepang.
"The process of signing off an engine has also remained unchanged," continues Binotto. "The mileage has doubled and we have to meet that target and we keep testing until every engine has reached maximum reliability. Last year we doubled the liife required from 350 to 700 kilometres, so we had added 350. Now we are doubling what has already been doubled, so we are not adding an extra 350 but 700 kilometres so it is a bigger step."
"On top of that we are not adding free practice sessions where the useage can be lower and safer. We are adding an extra qualifying and an extra race where we need maximum performance from the engine, so the job is more difficult this year. Also the timing has been tighter because the FIA rules came out quite late. For the first few races all engine engineers will be under pressure. In the medium term everyone will reach these new targets but Malaysia will be very difficult for everybody."
Looking at the specific demands of Malaysia, it is the combination of heat and humidity, rather than just high temperatures, that presents the real challenge. Bahrain is equally hot, but not as humid. "Humidity means that the air density is rarified and so the available engine power is reduced as air entering the combustion chamber is reduced," says Binotto. "Therefore the radiators are less efficient when it comes to cooling. That increases the difficulty of maintaining the engine temperatures within the norms."
"We therefore need to open up the bodywork as much as possible to aid cooling, but of course the more openings the less efficient the aerodynamics of the car. It will be a difficult race, but we encounter these conditions every year in Malaysia and so they come as no surprise and all the teams will be prepared."
One interesting engine detail in Sepang is that Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello will tackle the event with different life spans on their engines. Having been caught out by qualifying rain in Melbourne, Schumacher's engine was changed prior to the race and, having retired on lap 42 of the 57 lap race, the 053 engine in his F2004 M has actually completed around 250 km less than the V10 in his team-mate's car.
It is not just the engines that come in for a hard time in Malaysia, as the entire car-engine-tyre-driver package is severely tested. No one seemed to have trouble making one set of tyres last for qualifying and the race in Melbourne but the weather there was more akin to that encountered in winter testing.
In Sepang, tyres will be faced with track temperatures that can hit 50 C and the nature of the track with wide, long fast corners will add to the strain. While Schumacher and Barrichello have been acclimatising to the conditions, training in the Far East and Brazil respectively, back in Europe, Scuderia test drivers, Luca Badoer and Marc Gene have been testing with tyre partner Bridgestone, in Jerez, Spain to be as prepared as possible for one of the toughest weekends of the year.