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2002 Australian GP Preview

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By Craig Scarborough, England
Atlas F1 Technical Writer



As the 2002 season opens in Australia, Atlas F1's technical writer Craig Scarborough serves the most comprehensive and complete Grand Prix Preview - including a look at the circuit layout, the demands from the drivers and the teams, and a full analysis of all participants in the upcoming event

Previewing most Grands Prix with the aim of predicting teams' relative performance is always a tough challenge, but the first GP of the season raises so many question marks to be almost impossible.

The key performance markers are either historic or from winter testing. Judging a team's performance from their previous season is subjective and affected by many factors: staff joining or leaving, new engines or concepts on the car, or simply a team on the rise or in decline.

Furthermore, winter testing is a notoriously poor indicator of a team's performance, as each team has different approaches to testing new cars and run different programmes to test different aspects of the car at different stages of a test. This year, McLaren have come out on top of the later Spanish tests, while at some stage previously most teams have topped the time sheets.

This year, the build up to the season has been compressed into the first weeks of the year, the testing ban over the winter halting circuit testing between the Japanese Grand Prix in mid October 2001 and January 2002. While the teams had less technical rule changes to accommodate, many new components needed to be tested to prove themselves for the Australian GP on March 3rd.

This lack of circuit testing has placed the emphasis on "off circuit" testing - either in the wind tunnel, on the seven post rigs, or with computer simulations. While these alternative testing means are proven, they do not replace real life testing.

As a result this year, several teams have had surprises in their first tests: Ferrari finding their new titanium gearbox failing after 34 laps and forcing the team to delay the race debut of the F2002; and Jaguar finding the on-track performance of their new front wing not matching the figures from the design office due to a calibration problem, resulting in technical director Steve Nichols leaving the team.

Each team - which may have new drivers, personnel, chassis or engines - arrive at the first Grand Prix only to find that the comfort zone which testing provides has disappeared. Instead, the team is in a pit garage on the other side of the world, with a car that never had enough running in testing and has to perform.

The first free practice session on Friday set out the relative performance of the cars, and the teams will be playing with the baseline set up to gain time from the new car. The focus then moves on to Saturday qualifying, where the first true test of the cars' performance takes place. Then on to race day, where establishing a fuel/tyre strategy with still so many unknowns will put the technical directors to the test. And then the race itself, where reliability will always be the biggest worry for all the teams. Moreover, any problems encountered during the weekend limiting track time will severely damage the team's performance for the rest of the weekend.

All this pressure to perform will be under the gaze of the teams' management, sponsors and the world's media. "After the weekend, the teams will have a much more accurate idea of where they all stand in relation to one another," Sauber's Willy Rampf explains.

For the technically minded fan, the first GP is the first chance to see the car operated in controlled conditions - there can be no sandbagging or leaving off secret new performance components. Whereas in testing the teams run any way they like and can keep the garage door closed or leave the car behind tall screens, at the GP the teams have to work to the FIA's schedule of sessions and work going on in the pits cannot always be protected by screens. Therefore, this is the time to see the new cars up close, details hidden at closed test sessions are made public and the first idea of the cars' definitive configuration for the first few races becomes clear.

However, the Australian Grand Prix is on a temporary course - while not a street circuit in the full sense, the Albert Park circuit is only used for the Grand Prix weekend, and the track surface is green, dirty and free of rubber build up. This means the first two sessions on Friday are not a true measure of the teams' performances and not too much should be read into the Friday times.

Circuit Layout and Set Up



The Melbourne circuit is set around a Lake in Parkland and uses roads more normally used for pedestrians and cyclists. While the Grand Prix regularly wins awards for the best hosted race, the circuit is not necessarily the drivers' favourite.

The track is long at over 5 Km, with a fast and flowing layout linking long straights with slower corners. The circuit requires a car with a good balance and accurate "turn in" for the tighter corners. It does not require the high level of downforce Monaco requires, but a modest level of wing is needed, which helps the teams in choosing the initial wing configuration to design for the car as the medium downforce set up suits many circuits and they are not forced to design an extreme high/low downforce wing set to attend the first GP.

However, the teams usually bring several variations of their wings and extra winglets to the race to help tune the car. Some of these solutions never get seen again, such as last year's Ferrari, which had a bi-plane front wing, and Williams's chimney mounted winglets.

Being a circuit with slow corners and long braking areas, mechanical grip is a major chassis requirement. "you need a lot of mechanical grip and traction because of all the slow corners like Jones, Clark, Ascari and Prost," explains Jaguar's Pedro de la Rosa. "All these corners are being taken in second or third gear."

The track beds in over the weekend as the cars lay more rubber onto the tarmac. "Because the track is never used, it is always very 'green' and dirty on the first day, when naturally, everyone wants to do as many laps as possible at the start of the season," states Eddie Irvine. Indeed, while overall the track surface is smooth, some parts of the track have bumps which require a good damper and spring set-up.

With this being the first time the race has been run with traction control, and despite the smooth track surface, tyre wear may be greater than in previous years. It is also a circuit hard on brakes - Ferrari debuted their "barrel" style brake duct here last year. This year, larger scoops will be added to everyone's brake ducts to stop the brakes from overheating and suffering the resulting accelerated disc/pad wear. The race can also be run in warm conditions, which can cause a problem for teams with a sidepod layout giving marginal cooling. Moreover, the teams will bring a range of sidepods and outlets and sometimes resort to cutting away the bodywork if the temperatures exceed those experienced in testing.

The circuit features high kerbs and concrete walls in close proximity to the track. During normal lapping these present no problems for the drivers, but mistakes cost here more than at permanent tracks. Running over a high kerb or hitting a wall will keep the car stranded on the circuit for the rest of the session and in line for lengthy rebuild back in the garage. This could seriously limit a team's set up time earlier in the week and if only one T-car is available (as is usually the case this early in the season) then the common situation of the mechanics playing catch up all weekend and getting no sleep, or the worst case "DNQ" (Did Not Qualify) or "DNS" (Did Not Start) due to the lack of a chassis.
 

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A Lap with Jenson Button

"Starting the lap, I will accelerate up to top gear and a speed of around 310 km/h at the end of the pit straight before braking down to third gear for the first right hand corner, which I take at around 135 km/h.

"That's immediately followed by a left hand corner, making it almost a chicane, although I accelerate all the way through the left-hand part of the corner, apexing at around 200 km/h in fourth gear. On the short straight that follows I will continue accelerating up to 300 km/h, moving through the gears before braking hard down to the 80 km/h, second gear right-hander. Again, this is followed almost immediately by a left-hand corner, but I only have to break very lightly, taking it at around 145 km/h in third gear.

"There is no rest after this as I accelerate all the way into the long right-hander with, again, just a very light touch on the brakes as I enter it and I will go through that at around 215 km/h in fourth gear. The next straight is relatively short and I will only reach something over 280 km/h before slowing right down again for a second gear corner, which I take at just under 130 km/h.

"The circuit map then shows a long right-hand corner, but I can actually take all of this flat out and it is here where my body receives the maximum cornering forces at around 265 km/h in fifth gear. I will finally reach around 285 km/h before braking very hard again and dropping down to just over 100 km/h for the next second gear right-hand corner. From here a fast switch into a long left hand corner demands high concentration and I need to be very careful as I enter it at around 180 km/h in third gear and accelerate all the way up to around 300 km/h as I end the section.

"From here there is a fast and very difficult fourth-gear chicane, and I will take both left-hand and right-hand parts at around 210 km/h, before rising back up to 300 km/h. The next corner is a second gear right-hander, the first of two very difficult corners, and I will have to brake very hard, down to second gear at 120 km/h. Between this and the second of the two right-handers a brief acceleration will increase my speed to 230 km/h and I will move up two gears to fourth. I stay in fourth gear for the next part but brake down by 50 km/h as I head for the next tight left-hand corner, for which I accelerate back up to 245 km/h before dropping to second gear for the 80 km/h left-hand corner.

"The final corner, which leads me back onto the pits straight, is taken at around 150 km/h in third gear, and a good exit from this corner is crucial to give me a good speed as I prepare for another lap."

Tyres

In the build up to the race, a storm has brewed up over the design of the four mandatory grooves in the tyres, which Michelin were alleged to have designed as an asymmetrical groove, where the groove's profile was not the usual symmetrical "U" shape (see diagram, below left) and instead used an angled side (below right). That would have provided more support for the tread block and also result in the groove narrowing more rapidly as it wore down.

"The FIA regulations state that each front dry-weather tyre, when new, must have four circumferential grooves which must be arranged symmetrically about the centre of the tyre tread, at least 14mm wide at the contact surface and which taper uniformly to a minimum of 10mm at the lower surface," explains Hisao Suganuma, Technical Manager of Bridgestone Motorsport. "When grooved tyres were introduced in 1998, we believed the FIA's intention was for all four grooves to be symmetrical." The FIA and the tyre companies have acted and both suppliers will both attend Melbourne with normal grooves.



Michelin

Now in their second year in F1, Michelin's Pierre Dupasquier concedes that, "We must do better, much better, we no longer have the excuse of not knowing the circuits and we are working with teams whose abilities are well established."

The knowledge Michelin accumulated last year has resulted in a tyre optimised for a long opening stint. "We know that this track changes a lot as the weekend wears on, the experience we gained last year leads us to believe that the best race strategy is to do a very long opening stint. We will bring along new tyres that suit such tactics," Dupasquier added.

As with the cars, the tyres will not be the definitive set up for 2002 due to the testing restrictions. Michelin confirmed the tyres "won't feature all the latest developments we have been working on during the winter break," but were satisfied progress had been made, including on the wet weather tyres, after special wet circuit tests held in January.

Bridgestone

"Our aim has been to arrive in Melbourne and immediately carry on where we left off in Japan in October - by winning races," announced Bridgestone's Director of Motorsport, following an intensive winter tyre test programme, which is still ongoing with the Ferrari test team and Bridgestone indoor test rigs, despite the teams being in transit to Australia. This testing resulted in Bridgestone finding "a compound family that showed improved performance on our tyre which won at Suzuka," according to Hisao Suganuma.

Looking specifically to Melbourne, Bridgestone describe tyre requirements that the smooth surface places on tyres: "In normal circumstances, a softer tyre will provide better grip but in Melbourne if you go too soft you get increased understeer, because of the characteristics of the Albert Park track, the compound has to have a higher grip level as well as good stiffness to help balance the car."
 

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Team by Team

Ferrari

Rumours surrounding the reasons for the F2002's non appearance for the first Grand Prix range from the team's official reason of reliability concerns - which Rubens Barichello describes as "we have not had time to fix everything on it," to other teams openly stating the Scuderia's gearbox is illegal, and numerous other wild rumours.

While this strategy of not running the new car seems extraordinary today, it should be noted that in the 70s, 80s and 90s it was normal practise to run the older car for the first fly away races. Moreover, the F2001 was still some way ahead of the opposition on medium speed circuits late last year, and Rubens adds: "It's faster than it was at Suzuka in the last race of 2001 because some improvements have been made on it." The team will only take the older car to Australia and then decide whether the F2002 will go to Malaysia and Brazil.

The F2001 will need to have a new crash tested rear impact structure along with its larger rear light and new larger mirrors aside the cockpit, and the car will run a modified Suzuka spec engine and gearbox. The team are running on Bridgestone tyres and Luca Badoer has continued tyre testing with the F2001 at Imola even after the team have flown the cars out to Australia.

Realistically, the team should have no worries in Melbourne: they know how to get the F2001 chassis working well on medium downforce circuits, the car has great grip, power and brakes, and in 2001 reliability was never in question.

McLaren

Despite team principal Ron Dennis's previous dismissals of the unofficial "Winter Championship", where teams try to post the fastest lap at each circuit they test on, McLaren appear to have won this title, running largely at the Spanish circuits, where the team topped each of the final three day tests, at Barcelona and Valencia.

In testing the car has performed well, and although rumours of the Mercedes engine's outright power output is questioned in the media, everything seems to have gone well following the risky concepts on the new car and management restructure.

The team have taken to Michelin tyres and have outpaced Williams whenever the two teams were testing together. Whether this comparison is valid is questionable, as the teams could well have different aims from the tests. Whatever the comparison, the team have established themselves as a real threat to Ferrari and Williams.

Williams

Public criticism of the new Williams chassis in the media by BMW motorsport director Gerhard Berger may have been to spur on the chassis development programme and exonerate BMW of any blame should the new package not be competitive. But Williams have not been resting on their laurels from last year.

The team have run three cars almost non-stop since the test ban was lifted, completing over 20,000km of running on the new chassis - a measure of the resources Williams have put into their preparations for the upcoming season.

To support the huge testing programme the team have set up a new design, fabrication and manufacturing programme to supply the test teams with parts, working at the factory on shift basis 24 hours a day. The test programme has given the team "a clear picture of what problems we need to work on in the short term," according to chief engineer Sam Michael, and aerodynamically and mechanically the team have "improved the FW24, particularly over the last two tests."

The new car was developed to work better on slower speed and higher downforce circuits, and if these objectives have been met and the new engine is as reliable as it has been in testing, the team should improve on their 2001 form.

Sauber

Sauber approach the first GP with more confidence than most teams can have. Running the 2001 Ferrari engine/gearbox, allied to Ferrari's technical input to its installation, they have a known package at the rear of the car. Furthermore, the new chassis has responded well in testing. Technical director Willy Rampf boasts: "our winter test programme has shown not only that the car is an improvement on last year's successful C20, but also that it is fast, reliable and handles well."

And, Rampfs' outlook for the Melbourne GP: "The Albert Park circuit in Melbourne has always suited our cars, we are confident that the new Sauber Petronas C21 will go well at the venue, we are as well prepared as we possibly can be for this very important first race of the new season."

The team will run for the first time the same model engine as Ferrari at the same Grand Prix, due to the delay in Ferrari's new car, however the version of the engine Sauber are currently running is still one step behind the final Ferrari specification of 2001.

Nevertheless, the car may well be the best the team can produce, although testing highlighted a potential problem for the team at a three day test in Mugello, where Felipe Massa ended his testing with an accident on his 23rd lap, going off the circuit and damaging the car to the extent that it had to be repaired at the factory before being shipped to Australia. Felipe was unharmed, but his untamed speed may cause problems at Melbourne - a new circuit for him with unforgiving walls and kerbs. The team will only bring three chassis to Australia, so serious damage to one of them could prevent it being used in Malaysia or Brazil.

Jordan

The new EJ12 ran quite early in January, despite its official launch with new DHL sponsorship being on the way to Australia. The team have admitted a difficult time with the car in testing. Since its first runs, the car has had some visible development on the aerodynamic side, the team have run two variations of front wing mount and two different shaped nose cones. While most designers will say these parts are of low importance on the car, the level of detail development suggests the car has some intrinsic aero problems.

However, the team had a major test at Silverstone last week and Takuma Sato confirmed: "we have improved a lot and completed a full race distance without a problem, we have found some speed and have been more competitive this week." The team confirm many of the problems present on the early version of the car have been ironed out, but this along with Giancarlo Fisichella crashing on Monday has cost the team a lot of testing time that should have been devoted to other areas of the car.

While they are happier with the car, the engine is an issue for the team. Only receiving the Melbourne spec engine on Monday before flying out to Australia, the team had run with a detuned and rev limited version for reliability's sake up until now.

Sources inside the team reveal that the engine is down on power and overweight compared to most other top line engines. They suggest the engine still uses a lot of steel internally and could be up to 10-20Kgs heavier than other teams' engines. Also, despite Honda's "aggressive" development strategy, the target to have 860BHP at the end of the season for the race engine, is not high enough - almost a year behind the BMW race engine's output.

The team do not seem to have everything in place to go well at the Albert Park circuit but should learn a lot more about the car and the new drivers over the course of the weekend.

BAR

The team have been quietly testing since the car's launch in December and Dave Richards took over the team's management. Now, some two months into his role, Richards is guarded in his projection for 2002. "It is too early to say exactly how we will perform this year," he says, but looking longer term his expectations are higher. "It will be a couple of years before we have all the ingredients in place to consistently beat the top teams," but he predicts to "begin battling for wins next year and to be a title contender in 2004."

Part of Richards's confidence in his strategy stems from the technical partnerships. "The only way that we will achieve these ambitious objectives is with a close co-operation with Honda; our collaboration will become more apparent as the year progresses."

During testing BAR were more confident that the bugs in last year's car have been designed out, and both drivers have been positive about its handling. "We can attack the corners and carry speed into them, whereas last year that wasn't possible," Jacques Villeneuve said, while Oliver Panis was more specific and stated: "Mechanically, it is a big improvement for low-speed and high-speed circuits, I feel more confident with the car so I can push harder."

Testing included a three-day test at the French Paul Ricard circuit, where Olivier Panis completed an engine, suspension and tyre test programme, before Jacques Villeneuve took over on Wednesday to complete a race distance.

The team's confidence seems to be based on actual performance and not predictions as they were prone to do previously. Looking towards the Australian GP Panis said: "we've put plenty of laps on the new engine, we've had no real problems and our reliability has been good so we're feeling quite positive."

If the structural and mechanical problems of 2001 are solved and the optimism in the chassis is well founded, then a stronger result should be on the cards for BAR than perhaps expected late last year.
 

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Renault

One of the later teams to launch their car, Renault have been testing constantly since, and the car has run fast and reliably. Renault are seen as the team most likely to lead the second division of teams behind the top three. Running Michelin tyres should also be a bonus for the team, but they are behind Williams and McLaren in technical support and when the French tyres outperform Bridgestones, they have two formidable teams ahead of them in the race.

Jenson Button thought "testing has gone to plan" and added that, "the car has been very reliable." His body language gives away his added confidence in the new car and his "relationship with the engineers." Jarno Trulli says the team have the key elements in place - "good engine, good reliability and a well-balanced car," but also adds that "once I have completed three or four races I should feel fully comfortable with the R202 and have developed even better communication within the team."

The medium speed Albert Park circuit naturally suits the low line Renault. With its excellent mechanical grip and traction, the team should expect to be competitive there.

Jaguar

Like BAR, Jaguar have had a turbulent winter with staff changes, but have also had to cope with new car problems - the new car's aerodynamics were found to be inconsistent with the wind tunnel predictions, and the expected increase in efficiency (downforce vs. drag) were not evident.

The team's investigation found the baseline figures the R3 was compared to were inaccurate; they believed in the wind tunnel and in simulations the gains had been made, but not when on the car. The result was a major programme to rectify the problems found in the front wing and underfloor, straight-line tests to confirm the figures were carried out and since then the drivers have been happier with the car, despite some contradictory reports of "shopping trolley" like handing.

"It's been a very hectic two months since we launched our new car," team principal Niki Lauda acknowledges. "The R3 could have experienced a better birth, but everybody here has worked tirelessly to address the problems we started the year with." And, like most teams, he admits: "We are understanding the R3 all the time. Our race package for Melbourne could certainly have done with more test mileage, the winter test ban is to blame for this." Eddie Irvine joins in: "Everyone in the team has just knuckled down to try and sort everything out as quickly as possible."

There is a new degree of accord not seen within the team for a while. Lauda has moved staff in and out of the team to establish his vision of the correct structure - some changes, such as Steve Nichols's departure, have came too late for the new structures to gel before Melbourne.

Going on the R2's and the drivers' performances on the slower circuits last year, Melbourne should see a good performance from the team, even if it's not representative of their true 2002 form.

Arrows

With the new car being the last to launch, Arrows have a tough task ahead of the them to perform in Melbourne. "We decided on an all-new car for 2002 and we've had limited testing time," technical director Mike Coughlan rationalises. "But I think it will be a benefit in the long term, the A23 will give us a solid platform from which to attack the new season." The limited running of the car leaves Mike "pretty happy with our testing progress," but he adds that "it's impossible to predict our competitiveness."

While ex-driver Jos Verstappen considers legal action against the team, his replacement Heinz-Harald Frentzen outlines the team and car: "The whole package looks good and the team is full of very good, professional people." He also relates to Coughlan's comments on testing, stating: "After only a few hundred kilometres of testing we still have a lot of sorting to do on the car, but I am convinced it has potential... after the first three fly aways we can start making a noticeable improvement with more time to test."

While the team topped the testing at Silverstone last week, this was on the shorter circuit and in cold and sometimes wet weather conditions. These poor conditions lead to a bizarre near-miss for the team, when, coming into the pits in the wet for a pitstop practice, Frentzen aquaplaned and slewed to halt sideways in front of the pit crew. No one was hit but it was certainly a near miss.

During testing, the patchwork Orange paintwork has been revised, now closer to the first race the team have painted the "twin keels" mounting the front suspension orange, making their shape easier to identify over the previous black paint.

Having said all that, Arrows's startling lap times in winter testing may not be a true measure of their pace, so it's hard to predict how the weekend will turn out for the team. A midfield qualifying slot is probably their realistic target.

Minardi

Minardi had an unusually long design time for 2002, afforded by the early confirmation of the Asiatech engine deal. The team was testing the new car early this year and many miles were logged before the cars were flown out to Melbourne with one of Paul Stoddart's European aviation Jumbo Jets. En Route to Australia, the team stopped off in Kuala Lumpur to launch the new car in front of the sponsors and national media, and even with this completed the team was still the first to arrive in Australia to set up.

The new Asiatech engine has performed reliably in testing (and the French built V10 does in fact feature a 72 degree V angle, rather than the 90 degree angle we stated in the 2002 technical preview last week). The team have not only used the innovative cast titanium components on the car, but now also pioneer a new power-assisted steering system co-operation with German technical partner, Spillner Engineering. The Closed Centre Valve (CCV) system - so-called because the valve that controls the hydraulic working pressure of the unit (up to 150 bar) remains closed when not in operation - requires less power consumption, freeing up engine power not required to drive the hydraulic pumps.

All these factors demonstrate the change that has occurred to Minardi over the past year, and their performance is expected to be improved in line with the changes. The team is better prepared than ever to perform well from the first GP, however this is in relative terms. Either way, the team will no doubt qualify well within the 107% rule and may be closer to the midfield than previously.

Toyota

While the team's official line on their performance in 2002 is still overly conservative, the confidence within the team sometime overspills to reinforce the fact they are not here simply to run at the back of the grid for a year. Driver Allan McNish sums up hopes for the 2002 season by saying: "As much as it's a learning year and as much as it's a year of development for the team, we do want to achieve as much success as we can, and we will be fighting as a whole team as much as we can. It won't sit very nicely if we are sitting on the last row of the grid."

Testing in 2001 was not indicative of the team's performance - the test car was not designed to run qualifying laps but to run for a week with no problems in order to test new components. Furthermore, the new car is a major departure form the old version, and as McNish puts it: "This one's a little bit more on the edge of the regulations and the edge of performance, generally the feel about it is a lot more responsive from the chassis, the engine has developed a heck of a lot through the year and there's more to come from now until the end of the season."

While the car and drivers are proven and tested, the entire team have yet to attend a full Grand Prix, the first time the team runs on a busy circuit environment during a race weekend will test their internal communication and team work. Technical director Gustav Brunner was aware of this when he joined, and he made changes to the test programme, running two cars in a regulation size single garage. Moreover, some testing in 2001 was scheduled to run as a GP weekend, trial pitstops were carried out, and Brunner even left the engineers to make "set up" mistakes he had picked up on, but allowed them to detect the problem and work as a team to rectify it.

The team will have a difficult weekend no doubt, as every problem will be a new one. But this learning experience will build the team and prepare it for the year ahead.
 
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