Japanese GP - Into the unknown...
There are only a handful of people in the paddock who were at Fuji Speedway the last time it staged a Formula 1 Grand Prix, back in October 1976 and since then, it has undergone an update courtesy of Hermann Tilke and his design team. Therefore, this year's Japanese Grand Prix is a step into the unknown for everyone.
At a regularly used venue, engineers arrive with a computer full of data about the track, but in the case of Fuji, life will be a bit different this weekend. "The first step in preparing for this event came when we received the complete and detailed maps of the track, in order to know where the corners are, what are the radii of the corners and the changes in elevation from one corner to another," says Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro's Head of Race Track Operations, Luca Baldisserri. "From this information you make an educated guess at what will be the trajectory taken by the driver; in other words the line he can take to optimise the lap time. The track map and this ideal line is then programmed into our simulator to allow us to reproduce what might be the lap time around any particular track. We build into this picture the relatively limited information we can get regarding grip levels from the asphalt, comparing that with other similar tracks, so as to make an initial assessment regarding grip."
The next step is to assess downforce levels and look at general set-up of the car, "Once you have this information you run a normal simulation programme in order to optimise the level of downforce and make a first assessment of what the optimum set-up might be," confirms Baldisserri. "We do not rely solely on our simulation as we have also included in our data the information gathered from watching videos of other categories of racing which have been held at Fuji. This helps to give a more general picture of the circuit and what line to take around the track. When we have built up as much of the picture as we can into our simulator, then the drivers operate it to familiarise themselves as much as possible with the new track. At this stage, we can also get them to try the first steps in terms of different set-up options that we will run on Friday over the race weekend."
The whole field of simulation, which allows drivers to experience the characteristics of a new venue and learn where the track goes, is a relatively new addition to a team's technical armoury. "We still need to improve our level of development on the simulator as this type of facility is always moving forward," admits Baldisserri. "It is pretty close to reality but not identical yet. However, in order to allow the drivers to familiarise themselves with a track and having a first guess at initial set-up it is useful."
As a Japanese company, Bridgestone has some experience of racing at Fuji and has data regarding the track. "However, until you actually run there in a Formula 1 car, it is difficult to extrapolate that other data and apply it to F1," reckons the Ferrari engineer. "But that will be the same situation for all teams. However, their knowledge of the circuit has led them to their choice of the two types of tyres which will be available to us, with the "medium" and "soft" being selected for the race weekend. All the teams will face the same grey areas of not knowing the effects of any bumps in the track surface, what the kerbs are like to drive over and so on. The Fuji circuit is higher than many race tracks, but not significantly so, although it will entail a slight loss of engine power, but again this will be the same for everyone. The weather could be difficult to predict. We have analysed the weather from this area over the past few years and the conclusion we can reach is that, generally, it is a bit worse than Suzuka."
In practical terms, while the teams will tackle Saturday and Sunday at Fuji just as they would any other Grand Prix, their first laps of the new circuit will be different to usual. "Because this is a new circuit, it will dictate a different approach in terms of how we will tackle the Friday practice sessions," says Baldisserri. "Because you will need to check all the elements that normally you have some historically based knowledge for. We will be trying to gather all this information on Friday in Fuji: elements such as how much time is lost coming down pit lane for a pit stop, degradation on both types of tyre and the fuel effect on lap time."