This weekend changes have been made to the regulations regarding race starts. This clutch issue seems to have got everyone flummoxed, with any number of complicated engineering explanations of how the systems work and what is or is not permissible under the new regulations for this weekend.
As such, I thought a simple (or as simple as possible) explanation in layman’s terms might be appreciated. No doubt I’ll get pulled up by the engineers out there, but what the hell. I’ll give it a go…
Imagine you are in a manual road car. To pull away, you depress the clutch with your left foot, select first gear and depress the throttle with your right. You raise the revs and partially release the clutch until you feel engagement. This is the bite point. Thereafter you increase the revs gradually, whilst at the same time gradually releasing the clutch fully.
In a Formula 1 car the concept is precisely the same, only it happens in a much shorter space of time. The requirement is to send power to the rear wheels as quickly and efficiently as possible. The problem is that in a Formula 1 car there is no foot-operated clutch. Instead, two paddles exist on the rear of the steering wheel, both of which play a role in the engagement of the clutch.
Both paddles are engaged on the grid, with first gear selected, the driver’s right foot buried to the floor and revs at max. When the lights go out, the driver fully releases the left paddle. This is, in effect, what your left foot does in lifting back from your road car’s foot clutch up to the bite point. But rather than being the gradual movement that we make with our foot, the dropping of the left paddle engages the pre-set bite point in an instant. The driver then gradually releases the right paddle, which is in effect what your left and right feet do in your road car as you increase the revs and lift off the clutch.
The F1 team, over the course of the weekend and especially on Sunday afternoon via a practice start on the way to the grid and on leaving the dummy grid for the formation lap, will have sifted through reams of data pertaining to the clutch, the tyre and track temperatures etc to ascertain the perfect bite point setting, which the driver is (or was) able to select via a dial on his steering wheel. This bite point setting will ensure that the driver gets the best possible launch and engagement when the lights go out, so that he does not either bog down via revs set too low, or encounter wheelspin via torque being too high.
The only real difference is that, as of this weekend, when the driver leaves his garage on Sunday afternoon, he is no longer allowed to touch that dial and the team is no longer allowed to change the bite-point setting on the car. That’s it. If his practice start at the end of the pitlane isn’t fantastic, that’s as good as it is going to get.
The process of what the driver does when those five lights illuminate on Sunday afternoon, remains exactly the same.
The idea that the driver will, all of a sudden, be entirely responsible for the quality of his race start is false. The only control he has over the start remains over his control of the right paddle operating the final release of the clutch. The bite point remains preset and determined by the data amassed over the course of the weekend.
For many of the teams, the hardware and the operation of the 2015 clutches simply won’t allow such a complicated system to suddenly become entirely controlled by a human.
Some starts will be good, some will be poor, but none will be entirely due to a driver’s feel. For that, you’ll have to wait until 2016. Which is arguably when this regulation change would have been most effective.