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 J├Ąger 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!

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant! The race was exciting. The problem of "code 60" is, that normally you can't come back after a problem. We saw it at Dubai. At the other end are the "debris cautions" from TUSCC. The Bathurst drama was in the middle and the smartest guys won.