Monday, 17 February 2014

Getting on the Lead Lap

In the types of racing where Safety Cars are used to neutralise a race, the need to avoid being lapped is paramount. It hasn't always been thus, but I don't want to waste this particular post debating the uses of Safety Cars and their effects on racing.

At the recent Bathurst 12 hour race, the Safety Car was used in perhaps its most primitive (and simplest) form to bring the field under control. The pit lane entrance is never closed, and cars are released from the pit exit whenever they arrive, unless the Safety Car queue is passing. It means that Safety Car periods are reasonably short - the longest period under yellow at the weekend was 28m 22s - and by making the pace of Safety Car laps quite slow (the average speed of a yellow lap was 4m 24s, or just over 50mph), the queue forms up quickly.

Erebus Racing pulled a very neat trick though, which was noticed at the time, but has since then been quietly swept under the carpet.

It happened under the third (and the longest) safety car period, when the Clearwater Ferrari spun, having hit the wall, at the top of the Mountain and was then struck by the works Nissan. Both Erebus cars had made routine pit stops at the completion of their 55th laps, and were - just - on the same lap.

Bernd Schneider, in the no.1 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG was on his 59th lap, and right on the tail of Will Davison in the other Erebus car; the pair of them 5 seconds ahead of the Clearwater Ferrari, which was a lap behind Schneider, but closing for position on the no. 63 Mercedes. On the same lap that Hiroshi Hamaguchi crashed the Ferrari, Schneider overtook Davison. It was three minutes later that the Safety Car left the pit lane, immediately ahead of the no. 48 M Motorsport Lamborghini (in the hands of Ross Lilley).

Thus, when Schneider crossed the line at the end of his 61st lap, Davison was next in line, completing his 60th lap, and with initially three cars separating them from the Safety Car. This became two on the next lap as the no. 95 Abarth came into the pits.

So it was something of a surprise to observe, as the Safety Car came past the pits for the fourth time, that the no.48 Lamborghini had the no. 63 Mercedes behind it and the no. 1 Mercedes behind that. Next time around, Lilley and Davison were given the wave-by and although the Lamborghini continued round to catch up the tail of the queue, the Merc headed for the pit lane having used only 10 laps of fuel. Of course, it was able to get going again without losing the lap, and as the green flag was shown to Schneider (completing his 66th lap), the no. 63 was already heading up onto the Mountain, also on his 66th, with a full tank of fuel and crucially, back on the lead lap.

Without any sector times available for the no. 63 Mercedes (it having lost its transponder earlier in the race), it is hard to know exactly what happened where, but it is hard to see how the cars can have swapped places while the Safety Car was out.

Less questionable were the tactics of the HTP Motorsport Mercedes, which was two laps down on the race leader and in 19th place, with less than two hours of the race gone following an unscheduled disk change (after contact with another car) early in the race. Later on, the front pads needed replacing - a legacy of the wrong pads having been fitted with the replacement disk - requiring a further long stop; and yet the team still managed to recover to within a gnat's whisker of the winning Maranello Ferrari at the end of the twelve hours.

One lap was recovered fairly easily when the Safety Car made its 6th appearance, to tidy up following the crash of the no. 35 Sennheiser Porsche. Luckily for the HTP crew, the race leader at that time, the no. 1 Erebus Mercedes, had just made a routine stop, and elected to use the full course caution period to make another stop. Although it maintained the lead, it did enable Thomas Jäger to refuel and rejoin as well as regain a lap while the safety car slowed the rest of the field.

By lap 218, Harold Primat was back in the HTP car, and the no 88 Maranello Motorsport Ferrari was leading the race, still a lap ahead of the Mercedes, with just over three hours of the race remaining. Crucially, though, the Mercedes had fuel for four more laps than the Ferrari. Craig Lowndes then brought the Ferrari into the pits after a 27-lap stint (his previous stint had been 28), allowing Primat to regain the lead lap, just as the Ginetta stopped out on the circuit. This brought out the safety car (for the seventh time), and enabled the HTP Mercedes (as well as the McLaren) to pit for fuel without losing any ground.

The green flag waved on the start-finish line as the Ferrari started its 225th lap, with the McLaren second, the Erebus Mercedes third and the HTP Mercedes fourth - all on the same lap, all full of fuel, and separated by less than 20 seconds.

The interesting thing is that the average lap times of the HTP Mercedes were roughly the same as the Maranello Ferrari (2m 05.8s). Even allowing for its two drive-through penalties, the Ferrari spent 3m 42s less time in the pit lane. So how did they end up less than half a second apart? Easy - the Safety Car bunched up the field - on eight of its nine appearances, the no. 88 Ferrari was ahead of the HTP Mercedes, and on each occasion, a gap was wiped out.

The fact of the matter is, that if you're on the lead lap, and the Safety Car appears, you're in with a chance. It may not be fair, but it makes the racing exciting!

Friday, 7 February 2014

Audi's WEC drivers for 2014

I was interested to read earlier this week, Audi’s announcement of their driver line-up for the forthcoming WEC season. Two cars for the full season, and a third entry for Spa and Le Mans. When Allan McNish announced his retirement from prototype racing, my mind immediately went to Oliver Jarvis, and the thought that here was the chance that the under-rated Briton needed. I had first met Olly properly in 2008, at which time he was driving an Audi in the DTM, and it was clear where Jarvis’s ambitions lay. We spoke about his single-seater career (which had included a win at the Macau GP – a fine indication of form if ever there was one) and whether he saw himself one day driving prototypes.

It was very much on his agenda, he said, and when in 2010, he was given his chance at the wheel of a Le Mans prototype driving for Colin Kolles I took particular note of his lap times, and was impressed as he easily out-paced his team-mates. His times were also noticed at Audi Sport, and two years later, he was included in the works squad, driving a non-hybrid R18 with Mike Rockenfeller and Marco Bonanomi, as Audi took the opportunity to run four cars - both at Spa and at Le Mans.

Rocky wasn’t at Spa, due to a clashing DTM commitment, but nevertheless, a look at the average lap times for the three of them from Spa and Le Mans is interesting:

Spa Le Mans
Jarvis 2m 04.346s 3m 28.068s
Bonanomi 2m 04.492s 3m 28.845s
3m 28.818s

My non-statistically minded readers can take a break now (until the next paragraph!), for I want to spend a moment explaining how my opinion has changed recently on the calculation of average lap times. The problem comes when one compares, say, the average of the best 25 laps done by different drivers. Whilst clearly weather conditions, tyre choice and fuel strategy all have a part to play in giving drivers a reason to go quicker or more slowly, I have found that it is the number of laps that they do altogether that can skew the average somewhat more. For example, if one driver’s 25 lap average is from a stint of 75 laps, it is unlikely that he will be able to record the same average as a driver whose best 25 is taken from a total of 250.

So, what I have done above is to use what I call the 20% average – in other words, to take the average of the best 20% of green laps completed.

In any event, the table does seem to imply that Jarvis was quicker than either of his co-drivers in 2012. Now, just for interest, I thought we should perhaps also look at Loïc Duval and Marc Gené, both of whom drove the non-hybrid Audi R18 at Spa and at Le Mans in 2012.

Spa Le Mans
Duval 2m 03.680s 3m 26.887s
Gené 2m 07.761s 3m 28.168s

Here’s where the theory breaks down somewhat, as at Spa, Gené was only out at the start of the race on a damp track, but at Le Mans, Jarvis’s times compare very well against those of the Spaniard. Duval, meanwhile is in a different league (still is, in my view).

Lucas di Grassi appeared in the Audi family in the Brazilian WEC round at Interlagos, in August 2012. He landed a drive alongside McNish and Kristensen - replacing Dindo Capello, who had retired after Le Mans. Interestingly, di Grassi is also a Macau GP winner, two years before Oliver Jarvis.

At a track that he knew well, he was immediately quick. In the race, his average lap times were quicker than any of the other Audi drivers (in a race that was dominated by Toyota).

Interlagos was the Brazilian’s only race of 2012, but in 2013, he and Jarvis were to share a car – along with Marc Gené, as Audi focussed purely on the hybrid R18 e-tron quattro. Jarvis, Gené and di Grassi would only get two races though – at Spa and Le Mans, as the Ingolstadt manufacturer could commit to full season entries for only two cars.

At Spa, it did seem as though di Grassi held the upper hand: his average lap time was 2m 01.834s, compared to Jarvis’s 2m 01.945s, although Olly’s stint was only 40 laps, compared to di Grassi who did 67. Gené’s average, by comparison, was 2m 02.610s.

Le Mans was a different matter, with Jarvis doing more laps than either Gené or di Grassi. The weather was probably kinder to him as well: Jarvis’s average lap time was 3m 26.481s, di Grassi’s 3m 27.378s and Gené 3m 27.583s.

Jarvis must have been hoping for a season-long seat at Audi this year. He’s the same age as the Brazilian, but somehow (a) his career has been a bit slower getting going and (b) di Grassi seems to have made a ‘bigger’ name for himself at Audi Sport than the modest Englishman, not least in terms of his ability to set the car up, which I suspect will be all-important with the new regulations arriving for this year.

At Audi, it is all about the chemistry. I would like to think that Jarvis’s day will come, and I would expect him to shine alongside Bonanomi and Alburquerque. The tricky thing for the drivers of the number 3 car, of course is that they will only get two races in which to prove themselves, whereas the drivers of numbers 1 and 2 will have the full season. Not that there was ever any question of breaking up the Tréluyer / Lotterer / Fässler combination of course.

But one wonders how many more seasons Kristensen will drive, and then, surely, Jarvis’s time will come?