Friday, 17 February 2017

Getting the balance right

Motor sport is not alone in utilising systems of handicapping, and it has done so, in various forms, for a long time. I see no particular problem with this – provided that the mechanisms are understood, and that participants understand what is going on. People tend not to think of horse racing or golf as being ‘impure’ compared to football or cricket, just because there is (quite literally I suppose) a level playing field.

But these days, it seems that the particular phrase ‘Balance of Performance’ has crept up on us, and is, to an extent I fear, spoiling some avenues of our sport. It should not be – although occasionally it is – confused with Equivalence of Technology, which is used by the FIA in an endeavour to ensure that different types of fuel and hybrid system can compete together in the World Endurance Championship.

The particular Balance of Performance that is (perhaps) going wrong at the moment, is that which is trying to bring cars with quite widely differing potential performance into a situation in which they will produce similar lap times, by virtue of adding weight, constraining the amount of air that can get into the engine, reducing turbo boost, and a variety of other measures.

Often, this can lead to some extremely close – and hence exciting – racing. Indeed, I take my metaphorical hat off to those technical arbiters that rule on such matters, because often we have had exhilarating races purely because the ‘balance’ has been just right. Not just between two types of car, either, but frequently between half-a-dozen or more.

The trouble is, of course, that because we see the act of balancing being performed so well, we tend to expect it to be done perfectly all the time. If the races are a little unrepresentative of reality as a result – ‘fake’ might be an inappropriate word to use – then nobody really minds, provided they have been entertaining.

In my opinion, there have been two occasions recently where the balance has not been right, and I draw attention to that here not to apportion any blame, but to show how important it is to get right.

The first was Daytona during the Rolex 24 hours, when the nascent Daytona Prototype International (DPi) class cars were competing against cars from the FIA WEC’s LMP2 category. Although LMP2 cars have been competing at Daytona since 2014, this was the first year of the ‘new’ Gibson-engined chassis, and of course the DPi cars were all brand-new and hence also rather unknown quantities. It was thus always going to be a difficult call.

There were twelve cars in the Prototype class, split 7-5 between DPi and LMP2. Among the DPi’s were three Cadillacs, two Mazdas and two Nissans. Representing the LMP2 brigade were three Orecas, a Ligier and a Riley. The Cadillac was powered by a 6.2 litre normally-aspirated V8, the Mazda had a 2-litre turbo from AER, and the Nissans were powered by a 3.8 litre twin-turbo V6. The LMP2 Gibson engine is a 4.2 litre, normally-aspirated V8.

Off-the-record, I was told that IMSA’s objective in balancing this wide range of configurations was to attempt to limit the DPi machinery to the fastest of the LMP2 cars. Previously, of course, we have seen that Daytona is not really typical of the rest of the IMSA calendar. Daytona is an unabashed ‘power’ circuit and no-one really expected anything other than a DPi to be the fastest. What was to my mind surprising, though, was that no attempt appeared to have been made to balance the individual DPi's – with the result that the Cadillacs were embarrassingly fast.

The touchstone statistic for Performance is to take the average of the best 20% of ‘green’ laps, and compare; and that is what is shown in the table below.
Pos No. Car Type Average Lap %age difference
1 10 WTR Cadillac DPi 1m 37.5s 0.00%
2 5 AER Cadillac DPi 1m 37.7s 0.19%
3 90 Visit Florida Riley P2 1m 40.6s 3.17%
4 2 ESM Nissan DPi 1m 40.8s 3.35%
17 22 ESM Nissan DPi 1m 40.5s 3.07%
31 13 Rebellion Oreca P2 1m 38.9s 1.42%
35 52 PR1 Ligier P2 1m 41.2s 3.79%
39 81 DragonSpeed Oreca P2 1m 39.6s 2.08%
40 55 Mazda DPi 1m 41.0s 3.54%

At Bathurst, a week later, the GT3 Performance Balancers were at work. The GTD class at Daytona had been exceedingly well-matched, and this class is equivalent to GT3. Since this was the first round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge (for which the remaining rounds are the Spa 24 hours, the California 8 hours at Laguna Seca and the Sepang 12 hours), this falls to St├ęphane Ratel – or at least the organisation that bears his initials.

Here are the same results for the Liqui-Moly 12 hours:
Pos No. Car Top
Speed
Average Lap %age difference
1 88 Ferrari 280.3 km/h 2m 04.1s 0.00%
2 12 Porsche 279.2 km/h 2m 05.2s 0.88%
3 17 Bentley 284.7 km/h 2m 05.7s 1.30%
4 912 Porsche 278.2 km/h 2m 07.7s 2.89%
5 1 McLaren 280.3 km/h 2m 04.6s 0.42%
6 32 Lamborghini 281.4 km/h 2m 05.9s 1.41%
7 3 Audi 278.2 km/h 2m 06.6s 2.01%
8 24 Nissan 282.5 km/h 2m 05.2s 0.90%
9 9 Audi 276.1 km/h 2m 07.0s 2.35%
10 29 Lamborghini 275.0 km/h 2m 07.2s 2.46%
13 22 Mercedes 276.0 km/h 2m 05.0s 0.74%


Normally, I would say that anything over 1% is a significant margin. That means about a second a lap at Daytona, or 1.25s at Bathurst. In either case that means that over 100 laps you will be lapped – purely on the basis of pace. At Daytona, there were over 500 green laps, at Bathurst almost 250. Surely a reasonable BoP would attempt to get everyone on the same lap at the end? If the figures from the GT classes in Daytona are anything to go by, this is certainly an achievable aim.

But at Bathurst, only the McLaren was in the same ballpark as Maranello Motorsport’s Ferrari, and even the boys from Woking were looking at a half-second per lap disadvantage. Audi and Lamborghini were hobbled completely out of contention. In defence of the SRO, it is never easy when there is only a singleton entry – as in the case of the Ferrari – since you never quite know to what extent the advantage is due to BoP and how much is due to the team doing a good job.

The danger is, that once the balance is swung too far in one direction, there’s a tendency to over-compensate next time out, particularly when championship points are at stake. Despite this, both Daytona and Bathurst were good, exciting races – what is most important, however, is that the decisions of the technical bodies are respected and that honour and respect is maintained.

Otherwise, it just won’t be cricket, will it?

2 comments:

  1. Do you happen to know how much fuel the 2016 Winner of Le Mans used? I can´t find it, while the 1896L of the 2015 Winner is well published.

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  2. I'm not sure that it actually a published figure, but I reckon the no.2 Porsche used somewhere between 1640 and 1650 litres.

    Remember though that the 2015 race winner went 11 laps further...

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