Predicting the Weather for a Grand Prix: How Formula 1 Teams Plan for Rain
While nothing is absolutely certain in the complex world of Formula One racing—not least which driver is going where for the 2014 season—some things in the sport never change. Near the top of this list has to be the fact that there is always a likelihood of rain over the Belgian Grand Prix weekend.
The Spa-Francorchamps circuit, set in the Ardennes Forest, has its own unique micro climate at this time of the year, meaning it can be raining on one part of the long 4.352 mile circuit and dry on another part. On the Friday and Saturday of this year’s event, there were occasions when sectors one and three were wet and sector two relatively dry.
It makes the job of F1 team strategists an extremely taxing one because they have to try to make a call on how long to run on their limited allocation of wet weather or intermediate tires during practice, as well as trying to make a call on qualifying.
Teams are accurately able to judge when a bank of rain is approaching in the pits or on the pit wall to within a matter of minutes and relay that information to the driver over the radio; this is all made possible by tapping into local weather systems via an internal F1 intranet.
Meteo France, the official F1 weather supplier, is so precise that it can predict everything a team needs to know about during a race, from wind strength and direction to the more vital information of when the first drops of rain will fall and where.
Of course, no system is foolproof, and even if it is accurate to within minutes, a car may still have to negotiate a sudden burst of rain on slick tyres before completing the best part of a lap to pit for intermediates or wet rubber, or risk staying out in the hope that the shower is just passing and the track will quickly dry again.
So it transpired on the Saturday in Belgium when it looked as if the Force India team had judged it perfectly when to bolt on intermediate tyres to Paul di Resta's car with just minutes remaining. But the rain eased within moments, and with the track drying rapidly, four other drivers bettered his time right at the death and he ended up fifth on the grid.
It proves that even when a team thinks they have predicted the weather perfectly, another may judge their gamble even better as Force India team principal Vijay Mallya made clear on his team’s official press release afterward. And because every team on the grid now uses the same weather supplier, nobody is at an advantage or disadvantage.
As soon as it started raining before qualifying we knew that it was likely to be an unpredictable qualifying session. The track conditions were constantly changing from wet to dry and it was vital to be on track at the right time on the right tyres. With Paul we judged this pretty much to perfection and for a while we were looking good for a front row start. But the rain eased up and he dropped down to fifth, which is still an excellent result.
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