Discovering a new track with Chris Dyer

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F1 Grand Prix, GP South Korea, Korean International Circuitkr

Formula One is becoming ever more global. Tomorrow the Korean Grand Prix weekend officially gets underway and this Asian nation thus joins a list that already comprises twenty eight countries. 35 events have been been able to lay claim to having staged a World Championship Grand Prix, with the number of circuits hosting them now rising to 68.

The spread to truly involve the five continents has picked up momentum in the last few years. In 1990, only six out of sixteen or 37.5% of races took place outside Europe, while today the figure is eleven from nineteen, or 57.9%.

Racing at a new venue requires a different approach from the engineers and since 1999 they have faced this challenge eight times: in Sepang, Indianapolis (given that up to 1959 this race was held on the classic oval,) Sakhir, Shanghai, Istanbul (Fuji (back after thirty years,) Valencia, Singapore, Yas Marina and now Yeongam. To understand how engineers prepare for a Grand Prix taking place on a track that has never been used before, we met with Chris Dyer, in charge of engineering at the track for Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro.

“In the past, you had to base your work on the CAD drawing of the track and from that, first and foremost you had to to extrapolate the ideal line. Then with the classic tools available, based on simulation software, you tried to work out the best ratios and the most likely level of aerodynamic downforce. However, all this data was essentially an estimate and, as such, required a more detailed verification on track,” explains Chris. “After driving simulators came into use, the level of accuracy of the available information increased considerably: the drivers were able to have a much better aproximation of what lines to take on track. On top of that, thanks to the simulator, we can get important information on other areas, for example the effect of the kerbs on the handling of the car.”

Increased precision is not the sole advantage of the simulation. “Thanks to these tools, before we get to the track, we can evaluate different set-ups, specifically as far as weight distribution and stiffness are concerned, areas where we now get much more precise information, as well as deciding on the best settings for such parameters as the active differential and engine mapping,” adds the Australian engineer. Having said that, nothing can be a substitute for real experience on the track. All simulation requires a certain degree of improvisation. When a driver arrives at a new track for the first time, one of the first things he does is to go and look around it, usually by bicycle, but sometimes on foot. “The same applies to us engineers,” says Chris. “It is always important to have a physical understanding of the track, to see for yourself how the kerbs are made and to check out the condition of the asphalt. Then you start to plan the work schedule for Friday: usually that means starting with a broader span of set-up changes when compared to a Grand Prix at a track where you already have data available. You also need to allow the driver time to get confident with the track, therefore the number of kilometres completed is slightly higher than usual.”

One of the main difficulties and that will be even more the case in Korea where the final layer of asphalt only went down last week, is to understand how the track conditions will evolve. From one day to the next, the grip level can change considerably, making the results very hard to interpret. “That’s how it is and there is nothing you can do about it,” continues the man who used to be race engineer to Schumacher and Raikkonen. “Therefore, you need to be very careful in how you evaluate Friday’s data.”

So how long does it take for a driver to learn a track? “I have always been surprised at how quickly they can work out the best lines,” recounts Chris. “Obviously, today’s driving simulators are a real help, but usually, they only take about half a dozen laps to get a 95% understanding, so there is plenty of time to deal with the missing 5%, which can maybe make the difference. It is therefore important to work with both drivers to exchange their data: it’s possible that one driver tackles a corner in a slightly different way to his team-mate and it is useful to be able to compare the two thus arriving more quickly at a conclusion.”

Since 1997, in various roles, first with Arrows and then with Ferrari, Chris has been able to experience working at all these latest tracks as they made their Formula 1 debuts. Here are his personal memories from each Grand Prix.

Sepang, 1999: “The main surprise was the rain. That year and the next, the race was held in October and it was incredible to see how, right on time, everyday it started to rain in the late afternoon, very heavily. It was the first time we had raced near the Equator.”

Indianapolis 2000 (not used since 1959:) “Even putting aside how long I have followed racing in America, the Indianapolis oval is one of the legendary venues in motor sport, on a par with Monaco and Monza. Being there was a great opportunity to get to know and understand better a world that is close to ours. I remember going to the museum which is located inside the circuit and it was very nice indeed.”

Sakhir, 2004: “After a first visit to the Equator, now we had a first visit to the desert. A fantastic track in the middle of nowhere: when we did the first track walk, as soon as you left the pit lane and the main grandstand behind you, you found yourself surrounded by rocks and the atmosphere was very strange.”

Shanghai, 2004: “A gargantuan venue in the most populated country on the planet. Honestly, the first thing that springs to mind from this race was the traffic: to get from the hotel to the circuit, it could take almost two hours.”

Istanbul, 2005: “I like the track a lot, it’s really nice and demanding. The undulations that characterise it make it very special, because they are not very common and you don’t come across them often these days: maybe that’s what makes it special, more so than the much talked about Turn 8.”

Fuji, 2007: “There has always been a special spectator in the two years the Japanese Grand Prix was held here: Mount Fuji. Even when hidden in the clouds, which meant most of the time, you knew it was there and when it was bathed in sunlight, then it really was a special sight, especially for someone like me who loves the mountains.”

Valencia, 2008: “I knew Valencia well, because we usually go there for winter testing, although that was at the permanent Cheste circuit. It is a very lively and vibrant city and it was a pleasure to go back there for a Grand Prix and to race on a street track with a unique atmosphere, given that the paddock is situated in an area that is usually home to the Americas Cup yachts.”

Singapore, 2008: “I think that, for everyone, it was something special seeing the cars race at night under floodlights. Unfortunately, that first staging of the Grand Prix was definitely not a good one for us, but at least we made up for it this year!”

Abu Dhabi, 2009: “A very nice venue, with a fantastic infrastructure. However, what most impressed me was just outside the circuit and by that I mean the Ferrari World Theme Park. Last year it was still under construction and I can’t wait to go back there in a few weeks time, when we will be there for the final race of the season.”

Source Ferrari