How McLaren plans to conquer Valencia and Singapore Formula One's newest Grands Prix, Valencia and Singapore, may both be street races, but they represent very different and unique challenges. This is how the McLaren Mercedes team plans to conquer them:
Take Silverstone, Magny-Cours and the Circuit de Catalunya. Their locations are very different, but many of the components of their laps are much the same. Compare street circuits, though, and there are more differences than similarities. Two new street circuits are joining the show this year and they offer markedly different challenges, with the added factor that one of these will host the first grand prix run after nightfall. The races in Valencia (August 24) and Singapore (September 28) add an extra dimension for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes as it strives to arrive for these grands prix better prepared than its rivals.
Barney Hassell, McLaren Racing's head of vehicle dynamics, explains the process: "We start off by creating a track model for our simulation tools, using the outline plans of a circuit and checking them against satellite photos. Then we factor in the location, type of curbs and other details we obtain from a full survey we've commissioned. We also work in such aspects as the likely track temperature. We also use ground-level photos to provide detailed data, but this can prove a problem for a new venue such as Valencia if the circuit itself is incomplete at the point that we're preparing.
"It's all about building up as detailed a profile as possible of the circuit," Hassell continues. "We'll run simulations to work out likely lap times, and to establish the racing line. We check the downforce level requirement, and from there can determine braking severity, cooling requirements and tire operating conditions to make sure that our car development schedule is able to provide optimized components in time for the circuit in question."
Just imagine how a driver from the 1980s would have been bowled over by the extent of this analysis, yet to drivers today this level of detailed preparation is just one of the tools of the trade.
The drivers are then consulted to discuss car set-up and their individual preferences – critical if they are to fine-tune the car to their liking and pare those vital fractions of a second from lap time.
Lewis Hamilton knows all about tight margins, as shown by his pole lap at Monaco: "It's really bumpy and it's the tightest, narrowest and fastest rollercoaster ride you have ever been on. One small mistake at Monaco means you go in the wall, which means a lot of damage to the car. Consequently there's a lot of pressure on you. I crashed in 2007, but it didn't change my approach."
Heikki Kovalainen agrees: "It's very exciting racing on a street circuit. There's no margin for error. You can also hear the sound of the cars much more: it's like driving in a box. Also, street circuits are almost always bumpy, so keeping your hands steady at high speed is a challenge."
Street circuits also add a further layer of interest for the engineers, as Lewis's race engineer Phil Prew reveals: "We look for similarities with other circuits to help give us a generic set-up. With street circuits, however, bumps and camber changes affect the car set-up more than on regular circuits."
Spring and damper choice affect ride height choice, as assistant race engineer Jakob Andreasen explains: "We start conservatively, but by the end of first practice we'll have assessed the ride height we need and the ride quality, and will set up our car as low as possible. Because of the walls, the drivers tend not to lean on the power in the corners and are less aggressive so we can set the car up softer, which makes it better over the bumps, too."
To help the teams prepare, Bridgestone conducts pre-event circuit surface assessment, helping them gauge the tire compounds to select for the track in question. One factor that can't be worked out until arrival, though, is the overall grip level, something that is always a problem on a street circuit.
"You can expect a lot of evolution through a race meeting as rubber goes down," elaborates Prew. "The biggest influence on this is if it rains, as this disrupts the process. Valencia is expected to be hot and dry, but rain is forecast in the evenings in Singapore."
Then, of course, there's the factor that the Singapore race will be held at night. "The biggest problem for Singapore will most likely be visors, as we don't know if there will be glare," adds Andreasen. "We also fear a wet race, as we're concerned about how much reflection the drivers will be faced with. Another concern is where standing water might lie."
After all the pre-event work, the team adopts a seemingly old-fashioned method. "We always walk the circuit as soon as we arrive," says Andreasen, "because there's always a new curb or new patch of asphalt. In Singapore, we'll walk the circuit once in daylight and then after dark."
A good base set-up will give the team a head start, but the drivers need to be performing at the top of their game, too. "It really helps if a driver is confident," says Prew. "It defines the level of margin that they're prepared to accept. As he showed at Monaco, Lewis is prepared to leave a minuscule margin, and he finds the performance as a consequence. On street circuits, a driver who feels grip improve through the meeting is the one who finds the right solution soonest and learns where the bumps are and how to avoid them. Lewis will adapt very well to Valencia and Singapore as he proved last year that he's quick to learn new circuits."
Heikki points out that street racing requires a different approach: "You can't start out at 100 per cent. The track has very poor grip on Friday, so you have to build up little by little as it increases. As your confidence increases, you can start braking later. On a normal circuit, you can push from the second or third lap, brake later and if you miss the apex then you've found the limit. On a street circuit, from Friday's first practice session to qualifying you'll cut three to four seconds from your time. On a normal permanent track it could be just one.
"The most important thing is to get the car balanced. You can drive with your own style as long as the car is handling well. Getting the right balance and set-up is important so that the car can maintain its contact patch and stays stable."
No two circuits are the same, but it's safe to say that Valencia and Singapore in particular will be demanding that little bit extra if Vodafone McLaren Mercedes wants to make a winning debut at each.
Macau: an ideal learning ground
Both Lewis and Heikki gained early experience of street racing when they raced in the Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix on a circuit that's known as one of the trickiest in the world. Heikki raced in the former Portuguese colony in 2001, moving up from Formula Renault, and in '02 when he advanced from fourth to second. Heikki qualified on pole for his next street outing the GP2 race at Monaco in '05, showing his affinity for street circuits. "Macau is a great experience," Heikki grins. "It's a really nice circuit. At almost seven kilometers, it's long and has everything: it goes up and downhill, has wide sections, narrow sections, smooth stretches, bumps, curbs, fast sections and a few hairpins. It's a big challenge, but I'm not sure that you could race Formula 1 cars there because it's too narrow. It was a real eye-opener when I went there for the first time, but my visits helped me appreciate street circuits."
Lewis also turned into a street racing expert. He made his debut at Macau in '03, and then showed how much he had learned by qualifying on pole in '04 – no doubt benefiting from racing on the Pau and Norisring street circuits in the interim. Macau didn't yield victory for Lewis, but Monaco has since proved a happy hunting ground, with wins in European F3, in GP2 in '06 and, of course, in this year's Monaco Grand Prix.
So, in Lewis and Heikki, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes has two drivers who have proved they adapt easily to street circuits, a factor that must stand them in good stead for Valencia and Singapore.