Secrets of How F1 Drivers Prepare for Brand New Tracks Like Austrian Grand Prix

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Secrets of How F1 Drivers Prepare for Brand New Tracks Like Austrian Grand Prix
DANIEL MAURER/Associated Press
The end of the last Austrian Grand Prix, back in 2003.

Austria's Red Bull Ring will present a unique challenge to the teams and drivers when they arrive for this weekend's 2014 Austrian Grand Prix.

It was last used for Formula One back in 2003, and is therefore a completely new venue for most of them. Of the 22 drivers, only Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa have done racing laps here in a grand prix car.

Of the teams, only McLaren, Ferrari, Williams and Sauber have competed at the circuit.

But the sport has changed a lot since then, so all the teams and drivers will be entering the unknown when they roll out of the garage for first practice on Friday. Because it's a "new" venue, this session and the weekend as a whole will be approached in a slightly different way.

In the modern era, a lot of preparation work is done long before the teams arrive at the circuit.

Lewis Hamilton revealed, per The Guardian, how he'll be preparing:

Years and years ago when I was probably 13, I played it on a computer game, but once I get on the simulator, I will learn quickly.

I don’t know which way Turn One goes if I am honest but I will find out before I get there. Nico [Rosberg] has driven it before in Formula BMW, I would have thought. But I will be on it for the next one, doing my best.

Hamilton refers to using a simulator, which is today the most important tool the teams and drivers have to help them prepare for a new track. They're a bit like the F1 games we play on our PlayStations and XBoxes, but with a degree of realism Codemasters and friends could only dream of.

The drivers sit in a model of an F1 cockpit (or an old chassis) with their real seat, belts, suit and helmet, while software engineers can input almost any data they wish.

Getty Images/Getty Images
A stripped down, lower-tech mobile simulator used by Shell for promotional purposes, to give some idea of the immersion levels.

Red Bull's Driver Development Manager, Andy Damerum, spoke on the Red Bull website in 2010 of some of the things the simulators can do:

We can simulate any set-up that we might see on the track during a race weekend or during a testing programme. We can change springs, [anti-roll] bars, weight distribution, camber, toe-in etc. We can adjust wing levels and change the overall aerodynamic drag, we can change fuel levels. In fact pretty much anything we can change on the track.

Just like our games consoles, simulator technology has developed even further since then.

It's the closest thing possible to driving on the circuit itself. The drivers will spend hours on the simulators in the run-up to the weekend, performing race and qualifying runs and learning as much as they can about the layout they'll soon be driving on.

Here's Lewis Hamilton giving us a demonstration of what it's like, with a lap of the Sepang circuit:

But as good as the simulators are, there's no substitute for the real thing. Aside from the lack of pure realism, g-forces cannot be properly simulated, nor can the feeling of being physically inside a living, breathing car with all the sensory feedback that provides.

That old faithful variable, the weather, can only be guessed at in a simulation.

And working with a new circuit presents additional problems. Without past data, it's difficult to properly simulate tyre wear, braking distance, entry, apex and exit lines and traction.

So while simulation lays the basic ground work, what the teams and drivers can learn in free practice will be far more important.

Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Racing at the last "new" circuit, CoTA, in 2012.

The first laps at a new circuit are invariably slow ones. The drivers concentrate on finding the braking points and best lines through each corner, building themselves up towards attempting laps at racing speed.

It's very easy for a professional to hit a rough braking point, but getting it down to the nearest metre or two as quickly as possible allows representative laps to be done earlier in the session. The same goes for turn-in points and throttle pick-up zones.

These are things that need doing even at a familiar circuit; a new one just makes it that little bit tougher.

It's also important for the drivers to identify which kerbs are kind and which are not. Kerbs can extend the racing surface by a metre or so at the outside of some corners. On others, they allow the drivers to cut a similar distance from the inside.

But the higher, nastier kerbslike the famous sausages in Indiamust be spotted and avoided. Early scouting of kerbs and run-off strips will be done in a track walk on the Wednesday or Thursday before the race, and fine-tuned in practice.

The pit-lane entry and exitand the speed-limiter lineswill be approached in a similar fashion.

Once all this is done and the circuit is learned, the drivers will have to focus on another important part of modern racingtyre management.

Pirelli send representatives to new circuits in advance and have samples of the tarmac to work with, so they provide the teams with their best guess of what the rubber will do. But as we saw at the 2012 United States Grand Prix, they can and do get it wrong sometimes. 

Again, there's no substitute for real, on-track running. With no prior knowledge of the track, until the tyres have been physically run on the surface, the teams, drivers and Pirelli themselves have only a vague idea of how they will perform.

This is true to an extent for all circuits, but doubly so at new ones.

Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Friend or foe?

Spielberg's Red Bull Ring is a relatively simple track, so it will be easier to learn than most. It only really has eight corners, far fewer than most circuits around today.

The very best drivers will have it all but learned within a dozen laps, as Kimi Raikkonen did, without any prior simulator work, back at the 2012 Indian Grand Prix.

But the lesser talents may find it takes a bit longer.

The first hour or so of Friday practice will be especially interesting to watch.

 

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