Full article published on Crash.net
After weeks of speculation and predictions, qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix threw up a combination of surprise and familiar results up and down the grid… but there are concerns Saturday efforts will come to nothing if drivers cannot get to grips with one of the off-season’s most intriguing rule changes.
In recent years, the FIA has steadily been revising regulations with regards to starting procedures at the beginning of the race in an effort to delegate more control to the driver and away from the pit-wall.
After introducing compromised measures in 2015 and 2016 that blended driver and engineer input, the FIA has for 2017 gone all the way to giving drivers full responsibility when it comes to getting off the line.
Furthermore, though it is a measure that has been largely welcomed by drivers, many admit they head into the opening round having not yet perfected it.
The shift towards self-sufficiency was made very apparent in 2016 as F1 switched from a two-paddled clutch operation behind the steering wheel to one to abide by a revised Article 20.1 of the Sporting Regulations, which states: “a driver must drive the car alone and aided”.
It was this amendment that many credit as the reason why Lewis Hamilton lost the 2016 F1 world title after poor getaways at crucial moments in the championship race left him playing catch up and sent Mercedes back to the drawing board in an attempt to simplify its procedures.
However, the FIA has tightened the regulations even further this year, with engineers forbidden to map the settings of the clutch, which means the pressure is on the driver to find the exact bite point of the clutch to prevent either wheelspin or an engine bog down.
This process is made more difficult for the driver as the clutch paddle is limited to a maximum movement of 80mm. In addition, the paddle has to be clear of anything else in the cockpit by 50mm, to prevent drivers using any other equipment in the cockpit to steady their hand.
“We lost any reference. We don’t know where the clutch is going to engage, where is the bite of the clutch,” Sergio Perez explains.
“It’s just a matter of practising once and hope that wherever you put it is the right place where it will engage, that you don’t under-engage or over-engage. That’s a bit tricky. It’s just finding the bite point because the clutch with temperatures etc, it changes quite a lot where it engages. So it’s just making sure all the clutch preparation that you do on the formation lap is right and wherever you put the clutch, it bites.”
Given there is such a small window to achieve the perfect start, the Mexican believes that luck will come into play when preparing for the start of a race.
“I think you will always need a bit of luck with the starts. Not shitting yourself! If it goes wrong, then you just have to react to it and lose as little as possible. It’s something that I like. It still is not 100 per cent down to the driver.”
The constant tweaking of the regulations to give the driver more responsibility means much more attention will need to be paid to the practice starts.
Interestingly, Mercedes has gone in a different direction and feel they can minimise driver error by innovating a new more ergonomic design for its drivers to use. They’ve constructed a moulding of the driver’s fingers for them to slot into behind the steering wheel, which they believe will give the driver a better feel for the clutch.
For others, like Renault’s Jolyon Palmer, the new regulation means it will come down to how well the driver’s instincts are once the lights go out.
“It’s a bit more of a random element but still the one that’s more skilful at the start will take the benefit, so it’s not like a lottery,” Palmer told Crash.net
“You can’t practice enough because for all the practice that you have ultimately it comes down to what happens when the lights go out and it’s all gut feel and instinct, so the more you practice the slightly better you are, but you’ve still got to get it right at the time.”
New Force India recruit Esteban Ocon echoed Palmer’s sentiments, and aptly described to Crash.net what the new starting procedure means for drivers.
“It will be much more difficult, definitely,” said Ocon. “It’s so tiny, from here to there you are hero to zero, it’s one centimetre, so I think practice will make perfect and you will see a lot of differences in the starts which is good. There’s nothing coming with luck!”
Pre-season testing saw drivers working hard to get up to speed but Kevin Magnussen admits he only managed one good start in ten when he was attempting it.
“You have full control now… which is the problem,” the Dane joked. “[Out of 10] I got one maybe really good [start], five OK, four really shit…. maybe like that. We have done some work and some practice between testing and here, so hopefully we will get it better here but I am still not 100 per cent confident with the starts.”
Magnussen goes on to say though the changes will ultimately benefit the bigger teams as they have resource to fine tune the action, as Mercedes has done.
“Some teams can [do it better], it is a thing that will make a difference with the big teams. They will have an advantage.”
With a relatively short run down to turn one and overtaking expected to be more difficult in this era of racing, it is very possible the first thousandths of a second could be the most pivotal of the 58 lap Albert Park race.