Styling it Out

Vettel and Ricciardo Chinese Grand Prix c/o James Moy Photography

Vettel and Ricciardo
Chinese Grand Prix
c/o James Moy Photography

The first four races of 2014 have been fascinating as Formula 1’s teams and drivers fight to understand and get on top of the enormous technical regulation shifts and the very different cars they find at their disposal this season. Some have adapted far better than others, and interestingly it is two world champions who seem to be struggling the most. Perhaps it is because of their pedigree that we expect them to be immediately on the pace and thus their apparent struggles seem all the greater, but to my mind the two drivers who have experienced the greatest issues in comparison to their team-mates are Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.

From what I have seen on track so far this season, and using as simple an explanation in layman’s terms as I can, I’m going to try and explain what it is that I believe about the new cars and these two great world champions’ driving styles that has led to them finding things so hard.

The driving style required in 2014 is at tremendous odds to that in 2013. The new Power Units have of course been criticised for being at the root of slower lap times this season, but when one looks at the speed trap times there can be no doubt as to the potential of these creations. We’ve seen higher top speeds at every circuit this year. The reason we have slower lap times is due, in part, to the huge amount of power and torque being produced. When coupled with the decrease in rear end downforce brought about by new aerodynamic regulations and the necessity of a single exhaust and thus the elimination of the clever utilisation of exhaust gasses via coanda outlets and exhaust blown diffusers, it is far more difficult to get the power down on the track. It is possible for drivers to wheel-spin up to fifth gear. The rear ends of the cars are far looser, creating increased instability through medium and high speed corners, and leading to increased trepidation on application of throttle out of the slow speed stuff.

This is what is, to my mind, affecting Sebastian Vettel the most.

Vettel is not happy with the RB10 c/o James Moy Photography

Vettel is not happy with the RB10
c/o James Moy Photography

Back in 2011 when off-throttle blown diffusers came to the fore, it was Vettel who got to grips with the technology far quicker than his team-mate Mark Webber. When moves were put in place to halt the tech mid-season, the pendulum swung immediately back in Webber’s favour.

Vettel thrived in the era of the blown diffuser. He would set up the car on entry to a medium speed corner by lifting or braking slightly, to pitch the Red Bull and get it pointing through the corner and toward exit in order to get on the gas far earlier than Webber or indeed many of his rivals were able to. It required a counterintuitive approach to driving, having to rewire his racing brain to trust that the additional downforce created at the rear by going into the corner harder and faster than all of his experience told him he could, would actually sure up the back of the car at a point where one would usually expect it to snap away.

Having to then un-learn this cornering technique for 2014, away from what had become his norm, to compensate for the total opposite reaction of the car is what is, to my mind, holding him back. The rear end no longer has this stability. He can no longer simply point the thing and hit the throttle. There is nothing there to sure up the rear. This doesn’t just lead to lost time on a lap by lap basis, it also leads to him overworking the tyres… especially the rears.

As Christian Horner told Autosport, “I think that Sebastian is having a tough time at the moment because he hasn’t got that feeling from the car that he is looking for. He is tremendously sensitive to certain aspects of the set-up, and he is not getting the feedback from the car he wants.The compound effect of that is that he is damaging the tyre more, which is very unusual for Seb. We have seen since Pirellis have been introduced [in 2011], that it is highly unusual for him to be going through the tyre life quicker than the average.I think that is just a culmination of the issues that he has currently. But as soon as he has worked them out, he will be back with a bang.”

Given that no team optimised its blown rear as much as Red Bull it is perhaps no surprise that Vettel should struggle so much, nor that a new team-mate far less used to relying on the technology should be able to extract more than the four-time champion from the RB10. That is not to take anything away from the incredible job Daniel Ricciardo is doing, however. He’s got Vettel on the ropes at the moment and the confidence he exudes will only increase should Vettel fail to get on top of the numerous issues the German admits to experiencing with the feel and set-up of the car.

Kimi Raikkonen Chinese Grand Prix c/o James Moy Photography

Kimi Raikkonen
Chinese Grand Prix
c/o James Moy Photography

There is another factor in the re-education of the Formula 1 driver in 2014 and it has to do with braking. Brake-by-wire has been introduced for this season as part of the new energy recovery systems. The MGU-K has replaced KERS in harnessing kinetic energy from the brakes and the resistance experienced under braking at the rear has increased tremendously.

In the past, as with all single-seaters, braking was most efficient at high speed and with a clean hard initial compression being gradually softened. This is because braking works best in the initial phase thanks to the downforce created at speed. But in 2014 this has changed. Talking to the drivers, it seems that the initial braking pressure required this season has dropped tremendously, to something like 10 bar. That said, the braking force applied to the wheels is as strong if not stronger than in the past due to the resistance created by the MGU-K. As such it is not uncommon to see the rear locking under braking. In the old days, a fairly easy solution for this once brake bias had been shifted might be to simply blip the throttle, but in 2014 you can’t do that because blipping will affect the level of power harvested.

Why is this important? Because a driver has to ensure that his Energy Store is correctly filled each and every lap. Crucially, failure to get it filled doesn’t just affect him when using the stored energy as a boost. In 2014 the energy harnessed is utilised throughout the lap by being fed back in, before also being used in driver-determined bursts as boost. Failure to top up the Energy Store thus means an insurmountable drop in lap time on the following lap.

Watching Raikkonen on track, his lines in the corners and his style of braking make me question whether this isn’t the single biggest thing holding him back. I first noticed it in Malaysia and it has continued at every track since then, but especially in the slow corners Kimi’s lines and crucially braking points are not only different to all his rivals, but also inconsistent (think Turn 1 and the Bottas incident in Bahrain). For the most part however it isn’t about braking early as to my mind Raikkonen more often seems to actually go much deeper into the corner than his rivals. This would seem to point towards an unhappiness with the severity of the braking and the likelihood of rear locking, thus too soft an application of the anchors. When he brakes too late or too softly, his mid-corner minimum speed is higher than his rivals because he isn’t slowing the car down enough, but he is then understeering due to the increased speed and, unable to get the car turned into the apex, is almost sliding the F14T through the corner.

In some ways it’s reminiscent of a karting style of cornering, although less direct and a bit sloppier, and in 2014 F1 it is not effective. He’s losing time on exit and through not braking hard enough seems not to be getting his Energy Store levels up to where they need to be, thus impacting his overall laptime. In addition, he struggles with the new harder compound tyres. In the first instance he can’t get his tyres turned on, in no small part due to his issues under braking, but then, through the understeer, he is overworking the fronts.

Raikkonen is also struggling with Ferrari’s power steering. He likes a very responsive and direct system. Every minuscule movement on the wheel he wants to be directly related to movement of the fronts. Alonso isn’t so fussed, he can handle a small amount of what is termed “play” with his wheel, a slightly softer feel if you like. The Finn needs it to be direct… again, like a kart. It affected him at Lotus and was an issue it took the team a long time to resolve, and he won’t be comfortable in the F14T until it is fixed.

He has said he doesn’t see the point in using the Ferrari simulator, but perhaps it would do him no harm at all to spend some time at Maranello, utilising the system to try and get on top of the numerous issues he has with his new ride.

As we move towards the familiar territory of the European season, it will be fascinating to see how these two mighty champions adapt their driving styles to suit the new Formula 1, with their rivals and pretenders to their crowns already two steps ahead on track.

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40 thoughts on “Styling it Out

  1. Or in other words Vettel is an average midfield driver and had a fantastic car. Now he’s in an average car and being beaten by another average midfield driver. I’d rate Vettels driving talent alongside that of Damon Hill, of whom I was a big fan. Very quick when given a very quick car but way below the talents of the top of the field drivers.

    • Rather lose to somebody who was actually quick and had plenty of F1 experience than lose to a rookie or a paper 2009 world champion that could hardly find any “grip” or “balance” for 90% of the season and be outscored by him out of 3 seasons. And those 2 are regarded the “best of the grid” whatever LOL! The only people saying Vettel is overrated are the Hamilton, Alonso and ex Webber fans who are still sore for many years of being thrashed because they could never get to Vettel’s league in equal cars. I bet you anything even a OAP Schumacher could of got closer to winning the WDC than Lewis and Alonso ever did in the last 5 years and would of done what Alonso failed to do in Abu Dhabi and Brazil by actually being a decent qualifyier. Lewis and Alonso are highly overrated and continue to downplay their cars when a certain German crushes them!

      • If this turns into a “my favourite driver is better than your favourite driver” comments section, I’ll simply disable comments on this article. There are numerous forums on which to do that. This isn’t one of them.

        • For me it’s not about having a favourite driver. That implies subjectiveness and leads to ranting ill informed comments about OAPs and what one would do if the other did that. All useless. I just make my own objective observations on what I see then call it as seen. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems that Vettel only ever looks good when the car is under him, unlike other drivers who seem to be able to pull a bad car along with them.

          • “Maybe I’m wrong but it seems that Vettel only ever looks good when the car is under him, unlike other drivers who seem to be able to pull a bad car along with them.”

            How inane. So the measure of greatness is not simply their ability to perform, but their ability to perform when they have a shitty car? By that logic we should be condemning Webber as a talentless hack (which he patently isn’t) for failing to deliver in what was unambiuously the best car in the previous four seasons.

            “Or in other words Vettel is an average midfield driver and had a fantastic car.” This is wishful thinking and quite clearly bollocks. Vettel’s strength, by a long shit, is his ability to push a car that is in tune with him to the utter limit. Moreso than any other driver (bar possibly Hamilton on a good day, and even then I think it would be sacinating to see Vet and Ham in the same car) on the grid, Vettel can absolutely decimate the competition if the car works for him. An average driver? Hardly. Perhaps the measure shouldn’t be against drivers in lesser cars, but against drivers who are in an equally perfect car, and then we’ll have an answer. What good is it saying a driver can drag a car to being worth second place, if they can’t master a car that should be in first?

          • Yes, I’d say one excellent measure of greatness is the ability to perform when they have a shitty car. See Alonso, see Senna and a load more. Drivers who deliver whatever machinery you give them.

            I wouldn’t call Webber a useless hack, but he wasn’t a great either, obviously. I’m sorry if I’ve upset Vettels fans. ‘What good is it saying a driver can pull a car into second place if they can’t master one that should be in first?’ I have no idea, it wasn’t my question and if something should be called ‘inane’ then that question is in pole position. Who are you talking about? This is about Vettel. What good is a driver than can only deliver when given a dominant car that suits his style? Well it’s very handy when you have that dominant car but as helpfully as a chocolate teapot when you don’t. I’d rather have the driver who can pull a bit of a dog into second or make a reasonable car a dominant one or make a dominant car lap the field. It’s not rocket science.

      • i am a Hamilton fan and i admire Alonso.VETTEL CERTAINLY HAS loads of talent.this was clearly seen when he took a torro rosso in 2008 to beat red bull.the win in monza in the wet when HE barely entered f1 is another sign.Hamilton did not downplay his car.if U EVER NOTICED Hamilton was comfortably leading 3 races until a mechanical failure brought him to retirement.Not to mention a SCARF getting stuck in korea.Alonso had a PATHETIC Ferrari at the start of 2012.he made the car good by driving and handling it with ease.I can say that vettel used team orders.But all of them Vettel,Alonso,Hamilton are outstanding in their own way.It was issues that made a difference in their points.In 2010 all of them had nearly equal cars it was a tussle until the final race.

    • I am curious: Have any of you ever actually driven a vehicle competitively? Have you ever driven enough to understand vehicle dynamics, and driver/engineer communication and feedback? Because anytime people start saying a driver in Formula One is “average”, even in comparison to other F1 drivers, I write them off as ignorant hacks with no clue what they are talking about. On a good day, when all of the multitude of variables are right, you will see a driver you once wrote off as “average” become amazing. And sometimes, when it is all wrong, you will see a driver you thought was amazing become “average”, or less than.

      Sebastian is a phenomenal driver. ANY argument otherwise is a result of fan boy bias. Yes, it is… and you KNOW it. Drop the act, and look at it through a realistic lens. EVERY single one of the guys on the grid have true talent. The fact that Seb is a 4 time DWC, speaks volumes.

  2. Pingback: Excellent analysis of Vettel & Raikkonen this year -

  3. Will, just a thought, could part of Kimi’s issues be the pull rod suspension Ferrari use? After all Alonso has been using it for three years and everything I have read is that Ferrari is working on Kimi’s front suspension set-up..

  4. What a fantastic article, Will. Thanks for that.

    Personally, I wouldn´t say that Vettel is an average driver or another simple passenger of Newey´s cars. That would be disrespectful to a man who mastered a technique and use it at it full power to beat any single talent — team or driver — on the grid.

    However, what I would say is that Vettel is a less natural and a less instinctive driver than others on the grid.

    To illustrate, I remember Kevin Magnussen in the beginning of the tests saying that this generation of cars is more driver car´s than the old ones:

    “…With the blown diffuser [on the 2013 cars] it became a little bit easy, but this year it’s more of a driver’s car and I think that’s great.

    “It’s a bit more difficult with more torque. It’s difficult to take care of the tyres and I think it’s going to be tricky. You need more skill and more sensitivity in your throttle.

    “It’s still going to be impossible to win in a car that’s not able to win, but it’s Formula 1; it’s man and machine, and I hope we will see the drivers making more of a difference…”

    — Magnussen

    In Vettel´s, case, Will, looks like on those last years, pressing his accelerator would give him extra downforce from the EBD, while now, it gives him more wheel spin — hence why Ricciardo treat his tyres better than Sebastian as you said.

    Reading all that, it put again Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton in a fantastic perspective; No matter a car you shove at those guys (different tyres supplyer, no traction control etc), they will adapt to its demands and drag it to its full potential.

    Vettel´s problem is: theres no way F1 will bring EBD effect and its magic back to him. He will have to adapt and looking at his gap in performance to Daniel in some races, I cant´see him doing it so kickly and with all performance.

    I really sorry for Vettel; he will face a harsh criticism and distrust from a large portion of F1 fanbase and I think that can’t be good to F1 in general…

  5. Great analysis Will! I’ve suspected as much (at least with Vettel.) As for the Ice Man, I could not put my finger on why he’s having such a tough time with the F14T, but your summation seems as possible a reason as anything else.

    • Fantastic insight Will. I had the same thoughts as to why Seb was struggling but you explained it very well. As for Kimi I found that very enlightening. I mean we all can figure it was a style issue but I had no idea it was so closely married to the by wire system. Great read man.

      I really wish NBC utilized you more during the GP. You strike me as someone who enjoys being at the track but I honestly think you belong in the booth dude. Or at the very least allow you to function as such even if you are at the track. I say this not to degrade any of the existing members of the team I simply think it would add so much more relevant insight to the broadcast.

  6. Excellent observations, always enjoyable.

    Will, I have a suggestion for a future column. Why are Marussia and Caterham still mired at the rear? Wouldn’t you expect that after several years, at least one of them would have worked their way up to mid-field? It would seem that Formula Haas is as doomed to be a back marker as well, since I don’t seem that Haas brings anything to the table that Marussia or Caterham don’t. I’d like to hear your thoughts as to why these two teams, in their fifth year of competition, have yet to move out of the basement.

  7. Will, don’t discount the 2014 aero changes leading to improved top line speed as well. In years previous, the teams using less wing were always the fastest in a straight line. Now, everyone is using less wing ;-)

  8. It’s a great analysis, Will! I reblogged it here —

    If Raikkonen can’t be bothered with simulator time, isn’t there something else he could be doing? For example, if I were him, I’d not only hit the simulator, but I’d also spend some time looking at Alonso’s races and data, and taking in as much information as I could about what he’s doing as Fernando seems to be extracting 101% from his F41T.

    Probably more of a systemic issue than a driving issue with Kimi, but I don’t believe in sitting idle and waiting for everyone one else to fix my problems for me (aka steering rack). While I might want that rack changed, I would still be doing everything else in my power in the meantime to get on terms with my car and my teammate. I can only speculate, but Kimi doesn’t seem to have that sort of drive in him to do better.

    Speaking about Alonso, he gives the occasional comment about cars generally underperforming or being “off the pace” throughout his F1 career, but can anyone ever remember any specific car issue he ever complained about regardless of the team he drove for? Again, aside from just being “off the pace”?

    I seem to remember a preference for HitCo or Carbon Industry braking rotors/systems in his Renault days (part I), but IIRC, they switched to the composite/brand he preferred, and then he got on with it.

    Great article again, Will. Hope to see you in Austin again this year.

  9. It appears to me that the younger drivers are having more success with the new formula with the exception of Alonso. In a race of 1/1000s the fresher reflex and response could have a significant impact. Also, the use of simulators (or lack of it in Raikkonen’s case) might be a big factor. I understand Alonso uses it extensively. Very complex and thrilling season! Glad your giving us the in-depth and behind the scenes info.

  10. Perhaps because I got into F1 Racing late in life, I’m always amazed at what you observe about a drivers style just by watching them through a few turns. I was at turn 1 at the Austin GP and was in sensory overload (mostly from the noise), your comments and explanations were sorely missed.

    Sent from my iPad

  11. Wow, you and I were reading each other’s minds, apparently. I posted this in a discussion with some friends the day before your post:

    “The Red Bull is, and has been, designed around acceleration out of lower speed corners. This is why it is often the fastest car in the more twisty sectors.
    Last year the RB9 had such phenomenal rear downforce that, counter-intuitively, the car actually stuck better when pushing harder and earlier out of the corners. This year much of that rear downforce has been wiped away, and the cars are up on power, so that driving technique is no longer the most advantageous. Ricciardo, as he was already driving an inferior car last year, was actually better prepared to adapt to the new car and the driving style required to make it work.
    Seb and the last few iterations of the Red Bull were in the rarefied position of having a car designed around each other, that played off both their strengths. Seb adapted his driving style to suit a particular strength of the car, and with that Red Bull was able to continue capitalizing on rear end downforce gains, because their driver was uniquely suited to drive it the way that was fast, instead of the way that was normal. Seb has been driving to that specific set of parameters to take advantage of the car’s strength for the last four years. He’s still the driver that scored points in his first race in a BMW and won in the STR in the rain at Monza. It is probably going to take him a little while to adjust to a style that is best suited to the car. You can tell exactly what he is struggling with, since he is running higher downforce settings than Daniel, and causing the tires to go off faster. There’s a happy medium there that has not yet been found. Meanwhile, nearly all of the drivers in F1 are pretty hot shit, and sometimes something changes that one is able to capitalize on better than others. Because he has won so much in the last several years, when he runs in the top five everyone suddenly decides he’s off his game. News flash, 21 drivers are off their game every race of the year, and in F1, the drivers are only the final piece of the puzzle that determine where they are going to end up.
    The Renault engine goes without saying.”

  12. Seems to me you have it right… one more thing though – add in all the complexity of being an in-car engineer during the race as well, and i think the more “pure” drivers will have problems. They want to drive the car (Jimmy Clark has this issue with Chapman once – Graham Hill, the engineer never did). Perhaps that’s also a reinforcement of your comment about Kimi not caring for the simulator.

  13. Every Driver has a “Style”… M. Schumacher , for example , preferred a car that has more oversteer and was struggling on his return to F1 in the Mercedes… However, a truly great Driver can adjust quickly that is why F. Alonso is a true Champion and truly a great Driver, he adjust very quickly and is extremely good doing it !

  14. New technology and the old hands… This may not make much sense, but I can relate. I’m an old-style procedural computer programmer who has been put out to pasture, so to speak. I had trouble connecting with the newer technology because I kept wanting to apply my old-style methods.

    The younger folks could adapt immediately because they weren’t hampered by the practices and habits of the old ways.

  15. Pingback: Kimi Raikkonen Retirement Talk: Finn Risks Quitting F1 with a Whimper in 2015

  16. Pingback: Kimi Raikkonen Retirement Talk: Finn Risks Quitting F1 with a Whimper in 2015 | Essential Post

  17. Pingback: Kimi Raikkonen Retirement Talk: Finn Risks Quitting F1 with a Whimper in 2015 | Hihid News

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