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Monday, February 4, 2013

Which of the launched cars is best?

To date we've seen 6 of the top 7 cars launched and the question which is now on my lips, and probably yours, is who has done the best job over the course of the off-season?

From the top, not an awful lot changed on the Lotus, with James Allison alluding to the fact that most of the gains have been found under the "skin", thereby being invisible to the wandering eye.  The car looks good, even though it doesn't incorporate a vanity panel to hide the nose.

Lotus E21 - Copyright: LAT Photographic
The reference to the weight of this panel versus the gain that might be achieved leads me to think that they are still very worried about maintaining the fourth place they achieved last year and are unsure as to how well they have done in comparison to Mercedes, Sauber and Force India all of whom finished a long way behind them.

I hope they've kept at least one and a half eyes on the guys in front, otherwise they may have been too conservative and could fall back towards the chasing pack.

On the Ferrari all of the expert commentator's have been focussing on the back of the car, The "coke-bottle" area and all agree that it is likely to represent a big improvement in air flow over the back to improve aero-performance.

Ferrari F138 - Copyright Ferrari
On the rest of the car they don't seem to be very excited and generally don't have too much to say about it.  Obviously the step nose is gone and the nose is higher, which should aid in directing the flow of air under the car but the prime focus of the improvements seem to be on the back end.

Gary Anderson reckons the coke bottle area starts too early
"which is an aggressive pursuit or downforce, but can lead to problems".
The consensus would appear to be positive in terms of moving forward so I'm hoping to see improvements in the car in qualifying which will bring the overall package closer to the front to take advantage of last year's race pace.  The DRS regulations limiting the use of the device except in regulated locations in Qualifying should also help, if the design works.

The McLaren has gotten everyone excited with numerous improvements and redesigns on show.  The launch made it clear that the team had opted to completely redesign the car rather than evolve so there was, inevitably a lot of oohing and aahing going on in the Technical circles with everyone pointing to new and different aspects of the car.

McLaren MP4-28. Copyright Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

First of all they've gone for a pull rod suspension system, a la Ferrari, with all of the commentators last year saying that this system is better than the push-rod system at managing the airflow off the front wing.  The nose is higher like the new Ferrari's and should have the same benefit.

They've moved the sidepods backwards and revised the rear area, leading Mark Gillan to make the following comment with James Allen:
Outboard of the side pod, the detailing is extreme and you can see it runs the length of floor, undercut and very sculpted; this is a very extreme treatment.
What McLaren is trying to do with this area is to create a skirt of air. Air passing through here will create strong vortex shapes and rotational flow to provide a seal of air, crucially so that everything under the floor stays there at all times and does the maximum job at diffuser, which is where the real downforce gains are to be had.
This area of the car has met with gasps of approval from engineers. It’s really nice work.
That simply whets our appetite to see if the car is as fast as it was last year.

This year for McLaren must be all about getting Jenson comfortable with how the tyres operate on the car from the start: that; the increased reliability of the engine and car, and a return to McLaren's fabled precision in the pit stop, would give the team their best chance of securing a World Constructor's Championship (WCC) in the coming season.

I really think that the WCC was thrown away last year due to reliability and understanding of the tyres.  The WCC must be McLaren's primary focus, getting both cars home on the podium on a regular basis.  The World Driver's Championship (WDC) is always No.2 on the McLaren list but if the car is right Jenson can have a good crack at that too.  For Checo Perez this year might give him his first win and, if he's good enough, a good shot at the WDC too.

Both driver's have to focus on the WCC first though and give up the personal battle, though I'm sure that Jenson will not want to let Sergio take any focus away from his side of the garage.

If the Technical commentators are right the McLaren has revealed a lot more on their launch model than any of the other teams.

Force India launched with only one driver, Paul di Resta and an evolution of the 2012 car.  Most of the technical analysis has concentrated on the area around the back of the car and most of the comments appear to be saying that the car is a step forward of last year's model.  For me the interesting thing, which caught my eye at the launch, was once again the treatment of the vanity cover.  The step is gone which is pretty standard across the majority of teams using the panel but the cover leaves a couple of little "winglet lines" along the nose which, tiny detail, leaves me wondering about aerodynamic improvement.

Force India VJM06 - © 2013 Sahara Force India Formula One Team
It probably has very little technical significance but the Lotus Question of weight versus return comes to mind on this and the Sauber.

Will the Force India offering allow them to improve their position? The financials of VJ Mallya and Sahara have featured greatly throughout the back end of last year and the off-season so that may well impact on the team over the course of the coming season.

The Sauber F1 Team provided possibly the best on-line launch of all of the teams. It was to the point, not flouncy and not overproduced and overhyped.  It unveiled the car, welcomed the two new drivers, interviewed Monica Kaltenborn, Team Principal, and followed the old (and correct) principle of "Keep it simple, Stupid".

Sauber C32-Ferrari - copyright Sauber Motorsport AG
The car impressed me personally.  I liked the look of it; the colour scheme; and the interesting treatment of the step nose with a kind of half-cover which keeps the step but channels the air hitting it.  The purpose of that seems to be to prevent the air going over the top of the car from flowing out over the sides into the sidepod area.  The advantage to be achieved is to manage the air from the front wing and barge board area better.  Its described as a small advantage with Gary Anderson pointing out that each small advantage adds up.

I hope their design gives them the boost they're looking for and pushes the team forward but, with no driver continuity it may well be that they are looking at managing this season as best they can with an eye on 2014.

Finally we come to the Red Bull, which was launched yesterday.  Everyone seems to agree that Newey et al are giving nothing away in this car's reveal.  He talks about it being evolutionary rather than new and all of the Technical analysis expresses surprise that there isn't more change visible in the car.  Obviously we all know that Newey has probably only shown us the first iteration of the RB9 and that the car that takes to the track in Melbourne for the first GP of the season will be completely different to that on show at the launch.

Red Bull RB9 - Copyright Red Bull Racing/Getty Images
I'm expecting that various additions will be screened in Jerez, and the two Barcelona tests with the innovation being drip-fed so that they aren't obvious until Free Practice 1 in Australia.  Surely there's an awful lot more to come given the mind behind the Newey Genius.  If the car is as static in design as everyone is saying then we might be witnessing the long-anticipated Newey defection to the America's Cup design office.  I for one am expecting a surprise from the Red Bull team and will look closely at the Toro Rosso launch to see what's changed there that might point to the future of the Red Bull.

I think the fight at the sharp end of the grid will be as intense as last year with, hopefully, Ferrari joining the McLaren's and Red Bull's at the forefront of qualifying.  I hope the McLaren Team get to grips with the tyres quickly so that their challenge for the WCC isn't scuppered as soon as it's begun, and I hope the Red Bull has moved forward enough that any gains by the other two are countered.

In the midfield I have to say that I would worry that Lotus have spent their time looking to maintain Fourth position rather than move up the rankings; I think Sauber are also hoping to maintain their position and are looking to next season already in the expectation that they will move up the ranking there; I'm also unsure of Force India's ability to commit to the season given the mutterings around the Mallya empire but hope this doesn't affect moral and performance.

Williams and Mercedes are the only two of the midfield left to unwrap, with Toro Rosso looking to join the rest of them this year from the top of the back end of the grid.

I must admit that I'm hoping that Williams can really bring last years performance forward.  Last year's car never got to achieve it's true potential and it would be great to see them regularly in the top four in races.  Given the loss of Toto Wolff, Mark Gillan, etc I do worry that the holes that need to be filled will affect performance.  Unfortunately I think that Frank will have to ease himself back into the position of running the team on race weekends until they can find the right replacement personnel.