The F1 cars finally kicked off the 2011 season today at Albert Park with two 90 minute sessions of free practice. This was the first opportunity to see all of the 2011 spec cars in race trim. Although the Hispania Racing Team only managed to squeeze in one installation lap in the dying minutes of Practice 2.
As a spectator, there were a few things that stood out with the cars on track. Wings, tyres and exhausts.
The first thing, which is kind of cool to watch is the movable rear wing flap. I was pleasantly surprised to find that even from the stands in front of the start/finish line, when the cars are travelling in excess of 300kph you can see when the wings are in the open position. There are also a number of rear facing cameras on cars that graphically show the rear wing flaps moving up and down. Now, while I'm yet to be convinced of the racing benefits of the movable rear wing, it will be interesting to see how the racing is impacted by the wing play.
Today we saw the running of both the hard and soft tyres from Pirelli, with their respective silver and yellow logos. The indications from today's running are that the tyre degradation is not as severe as was feared during the pre-season testing in Spain earlier in the year, but there were some worrying images, particularly from one of Sebastian Vettel's front tyres in Free Practice 1 which had chunked a piece of rubber approx 2 inches in diameter from the tread. Presumably this was a result of some rough treatment from locking up the fronts a few times, but if this happened in a race, the tyre strategy would almost certainly be interrupted for the driver and his team mate as the team will invariably play it conservatively and bring in the team mate for an early tyre change.
The talk from the teams seem to indicate that they are still on track for a two stop strategy despite the lower than expected temperatures in Melbourne this weekend. This is a good thing and ratifies the move Pirelli took to provide a series of tyres that could not deliver a consistent pace for an entire race distance, thereby forcing teams to at have at least two decent tyre stints, and possibly more.
Perhaps the most surprising development this year is the exhausts. Following from the blown diffuser that Red Bull introduced last year and that the top teams introduced later in the season, all bar the bottom 3 teams seem to have produced a version of a blown diffuser for 2011. The effectiveness of each team's version of the blown diffuser should be demonstrated in part by the grid positions each team achieves from tomorrow's qualifying session. One of the key changes to the car in order to make the blown diffuser effective not only during acceleration, where the exhaust gases are blowing under the diffuser, is getting the exhaust gases to continue blowing under the diffuser once the throttle is released. The result is a very noticeable change to the exhaust note on backing off, or zero throttle. The most noticeable is the Mercedes, which has a truck-like engine-braking tone, followed by the McLarens. The only other cars running Mercedes engines are Force India, and they do not seem to have been as aggressive in the tuning of their cars on zero throttle.
Behind the McLarens are the Renault who, not surprisingly, given their forward exhaust layout, have opted to pump as much exhaust gas as possible under the floor of their car to the diffuser. Red Bull, also running a Renault engine, are the next most aggressive. Force India slot in next. Lotus are close behind Force India in their zero throttle tune.
Interestingly, Ferrari have seemingly not been anywhere near as aggressive, with a normal sounding engine note on zero throttle. This impacts Sauber and Toro Rosso who also run Ferrari engines.
Cosworth, the only other engine supplier on the grid seem to be conservative along with Ferrari. I guess we should expect to see some development for the Ferrari and Cosworth powered teams as the season progresses.
Finally, I feel compelled to comment on Chandhok, who only made it through three corners of Practice 1 before jumping on the throttle too early and too hard, flicking sideways, failing to catch it and slamming into the wall. Actually, I can only refer you to Lotus Technical Director, Mike Gascoyne's body language on the pit wall shortly after Chandhok broke the car. The image was one of despair. Karun, Formula 1 is a realm for elite drivers. Shape up or ship out!