Formula One - On And Off Track Week 36

Formula One - On And Off Track Week 36

Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent

Story Highlights

  • Red Bull, Newey, negative camber and Pirelli
  • Lotus Renault, Heidfeld, Boullier and Lopez
  • Bruno Senna and Lotus Renault

Red Bull, Newey, camber and Pirelli

Although Red Bull Racing scored another one-two victory at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit last weekend, victory didn’t come easy as the team was involved in a tyre controversy. After qualifying on Saturday the team discovered substantial blistering of the front tyres, especially on the inside, and were worried the damaged tyres posed a safety risk. Blistering of a tyre occurs when the temperature gets too high; the rubber starts to ‘boil’ and bubbles are formed.

In the case of Red Bull it was caused by an incorrect camber angle. Camber is the technical term for the angle the wheels have in relation to the vertical axis of the wheel seen from the front of the car. The camber is positive when the top of the wheel is further to the outside, and negative if the top of the wheel is pointed towards the inside. The photo of Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes clearly shows the negative camber of the front wheels.

Negative camber on the front wheels of the Mercedes
Negative camber on the front wheels of the Mercedes

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The camber angle changes the handling of the car; negative camber improves the grip when a car goes through a corner as the right amount of camber enlarges the contact surface of the tyre. In the second picture of Jarno Trulli’s Lotus, the outside front wheel (on which the load is) makes maximum contact with the asphalt, while the inside wheel barely touches the track. However, as Red Bull demonstrated, too much negative camber will lead to increase the wear on the inside of the tyre.

There were three things Red Bull could do: start the race on the damaged tyres and take the risk of a sudden tyre failure; breach the parc fermé regulations and adjust the camber and suspension setup and take the penalty and start from the pit lane on the medium tyres; or try to convince the FIA and Pirelli it was necessary to start on new tyres for safety reasons without incurring a penalty. The latter was what team principal Christian Horner and designer Adrian Newey initially tried to achieve on Saturday evening at Spa.

The effect of camber in a corner
The effect of camber in a corner

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The parc fermé regulations do not allow alterations to the suspension setup, and a driver must start the race on the same tyres he qualified on during Q3. However, this can be overruled for safety reasons, and that is what Red Bull tried to achieve and thus discussed the blistering tyres with FIA’s Race Director Charlie Whiting and Pirelli boss Paul Hembery.

Pirelli’s recommendation is a negative camber of maximum four per cent and Newey after the race admitted the angle had been ‘just a hair over four, four and an eighth, or something, just a tiny bit over’. “But,” said Newey, “obviously if we had known there was a safety concern about it, we wouldn't have done it.”

Hembery certainly wasn’t impressed by Red Bull’s defense and commented to the BBC, “We never had a safety issue. If you were concerned there was a safety issue with your setup creating issues with the tyres you could have started form the pit lane, put a new set of tyres on, change your geometry and off you go.” Newey had another story, “We had some dialogue with Pirelli about it [before qualifying] and they didn't seem concerned. Pirelli were telling us after qualifying that our tyres were very marginal and they wouldn't say whether it was after half a lap or five laps, but they were going to fail.”

Pirelli were telling us after qualifying that our tyres were very marginal

Adrian Newey

Seeing the tyres that came off the car, it is easy to understand why their opponents did not want the FIA to give the top 10 qualifiers permission to start the race on a new set of tyres as Red Bull had requested. The only thing Red Bull could do was to call in their drivers after a few laps and continue the race on new rubber, but that did cost them a lot of time and was a serious disadvantage, and others saw this as an opportunity to beat Red Bull. Which did not work as both Vettel and Webber again had a blistering pace despite the problems with the tyres.

Lewis Hamilton also experienced some blistering on his front tyres after qualifying, but McLaren engineers felt there was no reason to adjust the suspension configuration. “We discussed it and our chassis and tyre engineers reviewed it, and we believed that a camber change in our situation was not going to assist the situation and we believed that it was going to be safe,” McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh explained. “I think other teams were quite adamant that we should not be allowed to replace the damaged tyres and we should not be allowed to have a camber change without undergoing the penalty of starting from the pit lane.”

Asked whether McLaren had also exceeded the Pirelli recommendations he replied; “No. We didn't and we don't. Ultimately we are responsible for the safety of these drivers and they reduced the camber coming here, as you may know. That was giving away some performance but it was the right thing to do as it turned out.” Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali also indicated they follow Pirelli’s recommendations. “If you follow the instructions of Pirelli, they are there to ensure the tyre is used in the best and the safest way possible,” the Italian said.

Adrian Newey, Red Bull Racing, Technical Operations Director
Adrian Newey, Red Bull Racing, Technical Operations Director

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Newey admitted the Belgian Grand Prix was a scary race, “I have to say it was one of the scariest races I've been involved in, it was heart-in-the-mouth stuff, as first and foremost our duty of care is to the drivers' safety,” he told the UK Telegraph. “And trying to make that call in making sure the car was safe, while not handicapping ourselves from a performance point of view, was quite a difficult judgment to make. Frankly at the end of the race I was very relieved that both our drivers were safe,” said Newey.

The FIA and also Hembery blamed Red Bull, as they had gone ‘over the limits of the recommendations’. Red Bull finally found the solution by increasing the tyre pressure after they had calculated Webber’s tyres would with an increased tyre pressure last three laps, and Vettel’s tyres five laps. Which means they were not all that concerned about the safety of their drivers, but more worried about the loss of time if they would have started from the pit lane.

The FIA and Pirelli expect the same problem could emerge at the next race at Monza, as it is another high-speed track, and the FIA has hinted they want teams to follow the instructions from Pirelli, and not use more than four percent camber.

Lotus Renault, Heidfeld, Boullier and Lopez

More controversy during the Belgium Grand Prix as Lotus Renault had announced Nick Heidfeld would be replaced by Bruno Senna for the next two races. Heidfeld was shocked when he heard the news, as the German thought he had a waterproof contract until the end of the season. “I was surprised by the team's intention to replace me and regret that things have developed this way. I just wanted to be in the cockpit to get the best result for the team and me,” he said.

Nick Heidfeld, Lotus Renault F1 Team
Nick Heidfeld, Lotus Renault F1 Team

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Heidfeld did show up at Spa to not break the contract from his side, “It's disappointing not to be here as a race driver but that is the situation at the moment and I have to live with that. If we would not be confident that we have a case here, we wouldn't follow it up and yes, I believe this is the situation. I have a good feeling inside the team. People like me. I've worked with the team for over a year and always enjoyed working with them.”

It is Lotus Renault’s intention to keep Senna, and not GP2 Champion Romain Grosjean, in the seat until the end of the season, but Heidfeld and his manager have started legal actions against the team. “We have court proceedings pending. I can't tell you a lot. The main hearing will be in about three weeks and we will have a decision then. My position is that I have a valid contract and I want to drive,” Heidfeld said last weekend.

Certainly the way he was ousted wasn’t very well-mannered, Lotus Renault had the last 2 weeks day after day reported to the media Heidfeld’s performance was supposedly under par, and he lacked the ability to lead the team, and they were very disappointed with his overall performance. “He didn't get the car fast enough, so it didn't work for us,” team principal Eric Boullier said. “I was not very happy with the pure speed of Nick and his global performance as an experienced driver. That's it,” the Frenchman added.

Well, that’s not it, because Heidfeld and his lawyer announced the matter will be dealt with before an English High Court after the Italian Grand Prix. And ‘not getting the car fast enough’ cannot be a reason to dump a driver, Lotus Renault have been in trouble ever since the start of the season, and this was not caused by the absence of the injured Robert Kubica, nor caused by Heidfeld, but by the 2011 Lotus Renault, a car with a revolutionary exhaust system, which obviously doesn’t work.

Lotus Renault owner Gerard Lopez and team principal Eric Boullier
Lotus Renault owner Gerard Lopez and team principal Eric Boullier

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Nevertheless, team owner Gerard Lopez was ‘surprised’ by Heidfeld’s reaction to the bad news. “I was surprised, I would say it is an emotional reaction,” he said to a Luxembourg newspaper. And he insisted the German was the problem, “His performance was not right so we need to test other drivers, Nick has always been a good colleague but we told him that we had not from him what we had expected.”

The words of Lopez and Boullier had not gone unnoticed and BBC commentator and ex-Formula team owner Eddie Jordan was not happy the way Heidfeld was treated, “It could even be described as bullying. They probably want to wear him down so he throws in the towel voluntarily.” He also defended Heidfeld, “For me, he is Mr. Consistency. I know this because Nick drove for me for a year. 2004 was a very difficult year for Jordan financially, and we could not give him the car that he deserved. The same is true also at the moment of the Lotus Renault.”

Peter Sauber also defended Heidfeld, “I do not expect that Senna can offer the team the same driving skills as Heidfeld.” Again it seems Heidfeld is at the wrong team at the wrong time again, the German, once heralded by Mercedes as the new Michael Schumacher, has in fact never had a fast car, not with Prost, Sauber, Jordan, Williams and BMW-Sauber. And by now it is clear the Lotus Renault is not a winning car either, and although both Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov managed to score a third place this season, that was more the result of their determination and not because the Lotus Renault is such a great car.

Senna and Lotus Renault

Meanwhile, after the Belgian Grand Prix Boullier stated Senna had boosted the Lotus Renault moral after his, it must be said, excellent seventh qualifying position. Boullier is convinced he made the right decision, “I was more than happy to see all my people in the garage applauding at the end of Q2 and Q3 with a smile on their face,” the French team principal said. “It is important to have your people, who work all day and all night, be happy. This is for me very important; this is the way I can get the best out of our guys,” he added.

Unfortunately for Boullier, Senna made a rookie mistake at the first corner by braking far too late, not realizing his fully with fuel topped off Lotus Renault was a lot heavier than in practice and qualifying. The Brazilian took out the Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari, but Boullier wasn’t all too worried about that, “His obvious weakness was the limited track time since January, so he needs more time to get his confidence back in exploiting the car. His strength was his quietness and building up his speed, and working very well with the engineers. You could sense he felt at ease with the engineers and the environment, and he just took it step by step.”

Excellent qualifying but not a good race result for Senna at Spa
Excellent qualifying but not a good race result for Senna at Spa

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Senna about the incident, “I made a mistake in the braking area, so that meant I slipped back and couldn't compete where I wanted to; this left me quite lonely at the back for a while. Obviously I would like to have finished higher, considering my grid position, but I've now got a good pace to build on and take me through to Monza, which is another of my favourite tracks. We'll sit down and learn where we can improve but the foundations are there.”

And Boullier about the future of Senna, “The next races will be challenging for him, especially in Monza with no downforce, which makes the car difficult to drive. But definitely his confidence is back to the maximum so I am sure he can do it.” The word ‘races’ is plural, so does that mean Senna stays in the cockpit after Monza? Boullier couldn’t answer this question because ‘some legal issues still have to be resolved’. Boullier also admitted he himself is also under pressure, “It is tougher and tougher as obviously people expect more, the first year is easy, you step in -- here is the car and driver, go ahead. So you go ahead while the machine is already working.”

“In the second year we have started to restructure and influence change, and people are waiting for you to deliver. We are obviously not delivering exactly as we expect, so it is a little bit tougher. I am not chasing excuses. It takes time to rebuild confidence, have a group of people working together and getting the sponsors and the drivers in place to have this positive loop, to make your team win again. But people need to understand that you cannot change enough and make sure you can win in Formula One within a year or two,” he commented.“

And last but not least: Senna cannot be blamed for the politics of Lotus Renault, as he is just another young driver who is eager to race in Formula One.

Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and off track”

Formula One - On and Off Track week 35

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About this article
Series General , Formula 1
Drivers Jarno Trulli , Michael Schumacher , Nick Heidfeld , Eddie Jordan , Lewis Hamilton , Peter Sauber , Robert Kubica , Bruno Senna , Vitaly Petrov , Romain Grosjean , Adrian Newey , Jaime Alguersuari , Martin Whitmarsh , Gerard Lopez
Teams Red Bull Racing , Sauber , Toro Rosso , Williams , Renault F1 Team
Tags bouman, heidfeld, lotus renault, pirelli, red bull, senna