- 2018 Schedule & Results 1-10
The Power of Track Knowledge
Unlike many sports, Formula 1 rarely spends significant time in any one venue. In other team sports such as football, rugby, or baseball, there is a home stadium that sees plenty of action, while away venues are visited at least once every year. In F1, it tends to be just the latter.
Apart from the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain, that is.
As the venue for both of the pre-season tests - a position it has held for a number of years - as well as an in-season test this season, the circuit just outside Barcelona sees at least 13 days of track action for all of the F1 cars this year. That’s compared to five days for the Hungaroring - the other in-season test venue - and three days for the tracks that host a race but no test.
So it’s fair to say this is a track that the teams know well. But how does that impact on the way we prepare the power unit for the race weekend? In short, it doesn’t.
“When we start preparation work for a specific circuit, the timing is different depending on the situation,” says Honda Racing F1 Performance Engineer Keisuke Minatoya. “So for the next event in Barcelona we plan to use the same spec which was used in the previous events, so there’s no big need to do something out of the ordinary.
Normally, preparation starts just after the last event and basically we do tests in Milton Keynes and also in Sakura for circuit simulation. So we can test each track layout’s specific test items and settings so we can extract the maximum performance from the PU. This is the base plan.
“In the case that we need to introduce a new spec obviously we need longer time to prepare. At the moment we are planning to introduce a new spec in the summer, and, for that, we already started preparations just after round one, so it takes two or three months. A lot of time.”
Such an approach to a new specification suggests the experience of past running can help when it comes to preparing a power unit for a new circuit. Certain basic functions of what happens when the driver presses the throttle pedal are the same everywhere, but the challenge of energy management is much more complex.
“Optimisation of our configuration is actually very different from track to track. Basically there’s not many things to learn from other track layouts in terms of energy management. But regarding basic engine settings - for example torque control, boost control, ignition etc - basically we do the same at each circuit.
“So we can run many things in terms of engine control itself, but regarding energy management it is quite different from track to track. That’s the biggest challenge for us.
“Deployment is one of the things we focus on when we say energy management. It is different between a race and qualifying situation because obviously we can use full battery power in qualifying for just one timed lap. So in that case we aim to use maximum energy power - electrical energy power - to extract maximum performance. But in a race situation we need to sustain and maintain the battery level.
“In one track if there are 10 straights for example, but each straight has different lengths, generally speaking on the longer straight there is a big benefit if we put more MGU-K deployment. So our priority is to put more energy deployment on longer straights.
“We have a simulation that calculates how much energy we should allocate to each straight and calculates what is the best lap time we can do. So this is the first thing we do with our simulation calculations, based on the power unit power curve and chassis drag supplied from the team.”
But it’s not as simple as just trying to work out how to allocate the battery power on straights, as the knock-on effect on corner entry speed will also have an impact on throttle application through that corner. In turn, that could affect the following straight, making it an almost continuous process to understand on each track. And that’s just for a car running on its own…
“When I get to a track on Thursday, first of all we need to speak to the race engineers and drivers to talk about what our plan is for each track,” Minatoya explains. “Engine control itself is basically the same. If the driver puts his foot on the throttle pedal, this means he is requesting more torque from the engine and the engine is trying to extract the power as requested. This is always the same. But regarding the energy management, even if a driver is at full throttle it sometimes differs due to the situation.
“In qualifying they always have MGU-K deployment, but in a race simulation if there’s one straight at full throttle for example, they will be getting MGU-K deployment but at some point we need to cut it. This is decided depending on the lap time sensitivity initially, but we need to speak with the drivers to find out if it’s good for them because in a race simulation they need to fight with other drivers.
“Generally speaking that means on longer straights we need longer MGU-K deployment to help them fight with other drivers. So we need to have driver feedback in terms of drivability and ability to fight with other cars.
“For this year another difficulty is with the younger drivers. They don’t have so much F1 experience. Spain is OK, but in Melbourne it was the first track for them and on the Thursday it’s hard for them to give feedback, but after FP1 and FP2 we can get good feedback from the drivers.”
That’s where the power of track knowledge helps, with the drivers in tune with what it takes for a good lap time around the Barcelona circuit. But even then, racing performance is very different to testing. So part of Pierre and Brendon’s feedback involves understanding how the power unit settings are matching up against other cars during practice, and if a driver can feel where he might need more or less MGU-K deployment.
“This is really good feedback. Even though now we have GPS data and we can see how the car speed profile differs from the other competitors, but even in this situation the driver feedback is really helpful for us to see the difference with other competitors.”
Having completed so many simulations and received feedback from the drivers all before the car has even turned a wheel during the race weekend, ideally that means major changes are not required once the STR13 hits the track.
“We haven’t really had to make many changes so far, because we already experienced each circuit in the three previous years. So there is a lot of experience. But for example in France at Paul Ricard, we have only had one experience with the 2016 wet weather tyre test, so we need to focus on that. We might need bigger changes there than at other tracks, but usually there are no big changes expected.
“Track knowledge in Spain helps a little, but Friday’s plan is basically the same at all tracks. On a Friday it is our priority to set our baseline for the qualifying and race strategy. I think for qualifying we can make changes if we need to and we can try again in FP3 really, but it’s a one-hour session so typically we don’t plan to have a high-fuel long run. So we need to find out what is the best strategy regarding the race situation in FP2.
“Sometimes we make changes after FP3 but this is a bit risky so hopefully we don’t have to!”
It may come as a surprise that thousands of miles of testing over the past four pre-seasons don’t add up to a different approach to the Spanish Grand Prix weekend, but not only has the power unit developed and evolved over that time, so has the track itself.
“The Barcelona track has been resurfaced since last year’s race and in winter testing the difference was obvious,” Minatoya confirms. “Generally speaking, tyre grip is more than last year and what I could see from winter testing is the driver generally had a higher throttle application even compared to last year’s qualifying session in Spain! So for sure there is a big step change in grip which might also affect engine duty cycle and also the energy management configuration.”
While the approach is always the same at each race weekend regardless of the track, two days of testing that follow next week allow the engineers more freedom to work on specifics when it comes to developing the power unit.
“As I mentioned we plan on introducing a new spec in the not-too-distant future and we plan to evaluate some new ideas during the two days of running after the event. I’m also sure Toro Rosso has many test items, so we need to fight with the team which test items have a higher priority!”
A byproduct of that test is that it eats into preparation time for the following race in Monaco, meaning work is already taking place in advance of Monte Carlo. It’s an endless pursuit of maximum performance at each circuit, and just like the tracks themselves, there are no short cuts.