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.
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.
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.