European GP - Electronics' role in the future of F1
Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro comes to the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, following on from back to back victories for Kimi Raikkonen in the French and British races. The Finn got off to a great start to the season, winning the opening race of the year in Melbourne, although after that he revealed that he was finding it hard adapting to some aspects of driving the F2007. One area that is always different for a driver coming in from another team is electronics and Dieter Gundel, Ferrari's Head of Race Track Electronics explains what exactly these difficulties can be. "The difference comes from two sides: the first is the interface between the driver and the car, in terms of the display he sees on the steering wheel and the array of buttons he has to push," begins Gundel. "This is a big learning curve for a new driver, because operating these functions must be second nature and come almost automatically, as his main job is to actually drive the car. He has to be able to operate these functions 'blind.' The second element is simply how much a driver has to be involved in optimising the car in terms of the various strategies and again, different teams have different philosophies in this respect. For Kimi, this was a big change, because at Ferrari, we involve him a lot in setting up the car and maximising its performance. We ask his opinion on many aspects and offer him a variety of changes and we have to rely on his feedback, while he has to rely on our advice. This is a relationship that has to build in confidence and I think we are nearly there now with Kimi."
Just about every aspect of a Formula 1 car involves electronics and Gundel reckons there are even more areas where progress could be made, but a value judgement needs to be taken, as the technical regulations are about to change dramatically for 2008. "Now, every time we have a new idea and think we can improve, we have to ask ourselves if it is worth it for just half a season," he explains. "Because next year, with a single ECU (Electronic Control Unit) provided by the FIA for all the teams with the same programmed strategies, we will be working in a different environment in electrical terms. The main purpose of the new rules is to reduce the functionality of electronics and to limit the so-called 'driver aids.' The FIA feels if they control the ECU they can control the software and ensure there are no driver aids on the car. At the moment these are already limited; for example we no longer have launch control. But we do still have traction control, the differential that can be made to help the car's handling when entering and exiting corners as well as engine braking to help brake balance.All of this will disappear next year with the single FIA-supplied ECU."
So in the short term there will be less strategy development, but new elements such as energy recovery and in 2011 there will be another major change to the rules. Therefore there is still plenty of work to be done by the teams themselves. "Data logging and the diagnostic side of the job will remain the same, the number of sensors on the car will not be reduced, only what you can do with the sensor signal on the car will be restricted by the FIA," states Gundel. "Whatever the FIA does to the rules, it always ends up producing some interesting new solutions, so this ECU change next year does not mean my colleagues and I will have nothing to do, only that we will have different things to do! We will explore new areas with the major changes for the future in mind."
This weekend's event goes by the title of European Grand Prix, which means that for the first time since 1960, there will not be a German Grand Prix. "I cannot remember a time without a German Grand Prix and it is rather strange when you consider how many German drivers are on the grid at the moment," comments Gundel. "Personally, as I come from Stuttgart, which is near Hockenheim, I will miss not racing there. I will have to wait another twelve months for a race there, but I don't mind because I find the Nurburgring quite interesting as well." The Prancing Horse is extremely popular in Germany, partly because it was ridden for so many years by Michael Schumacher, but apparently wearing the red uniform is not always the key to fame. "Working in electronics in F1, means I am a backroom person and my only tiny time of fame happened about three or four years ago, when we were having some problems with the race starts and this was blamed on our launch control," reminisces Dieter. "My claim to fame is that I was the top story with a photo in a German newspaper and a headline that said: "Is this the man who is stopping Michael Schumacher from winning races?" Not really fame at all!"