IT WAS interesting to hear Vijay Mallya say that, with the Mercedes engine package, he can now benchmark where Force India is against McLaren. My guess is that he will find about the same shortfall the team had against Ferrari when it was using the Italian engines.
That's no reflection on the quality of the people at the team's Silverstone base, it's just about money. For a little insight into what a small F1 team is up against, let's just consider one aspect of the team Mallya is about to measure Force India against: tyre modelling.
BIG TEAMS AHEAD ON TYRE MODELS
At Force India the aerodynamicists will be working from information provided by Bridgestone, and from the scale windtunnel model tyres supplied. These models, which have only been made in rubber rather than rigid plastic for the past couple of years, are only a very loose representation of reality.
Statically they're okay. Dynamically, the sidewall movements of a real tyre under load are hugely complex, and those movements have a profound effect on the car's aerodynamics. These miniature tyres are nowhere near replicating those movements in the windtunnel. The team has a small CFD capability with which to model airflow over the surfaces of the car, but those mathematical models of air over a static surface are vastly simpler than those that would seek to represent a shape - like an under-load tyre's - that is constantly changing.
McLaren understood this a long time ago. Back in the late 1990s, it decided it wanted to know more about the mechanisms driving tyre behaviour, rather than just accepting the hard info provided by the tyre company. The team got in touch with the leading academic in the field of mathematical tyre modelling: Hans Bastiaan Packejka, a professor at Delft University of Technology in Holland, whose work to date was in the road-car industry.
McLaren contracted the professor to develop an F1 tyre-modelling programme for the sole use of the team. They worked together for some years and the team built up a very sophisticated understanding of the dynamic forces acting upon the tyre and how they affected its performance. Once this had been achieved, it began to investigate the aerodynamic implications of what the tyre was doing. This was at a time when most other teams didn't even know what the tyre's shape was doing, let alone its effect on airflow.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SQUISH
As a tyre deforms under load around the squish area (the part where it flares out as it meets the road) and sidewalls, it has a huge impact on where the air is going. Hence the very intricate bargeboard arrangements around there that allowed the flow to continue producing downforce through a variety of tyre shapes. That paid back spectacularly in 2007 with the Michelin pull-out, when McLaren, like most other teams, had to switch from Bridgestone. The first time this tyre was fitted to the 2006 car, it instantly lost 12 points of rear downforce (over 1s per lap's-worth), mainly because the different way the front tyre deformed meant the air was being channeled to the underfloor in a different way.
Renault, without this technology, developed much of its aero configuration around the previous tyre, not fully appreciating the impact of the change, and then not knowing how to correct it.
The indications are that this year's change to slick tyres has been nothing like as big an aerodynamic change as that from Michelin to Bridgestone, so McLaren's tyre-modelling expertise will probably not pay such spectacular benefits this time around. But it's all illustrative of the depths of expertise that a big budget buys a big team. If it's not tyre modelling, it will be something else. Imagine how a tiny team like Force India will be able to compete with that level of resource. It won't. Which is why Mallya's statement sounds naive.
But it might not stay that way, depending upon what the FIA has in mind. In a statement last week it said: "In view of the difficult economic conditions which continue to affect Formula 1 sponsors and major car manufacturers, the FIA is preparing radical proposals for 2010. If adopted by the World Motor Sport Council, the new regulations will enable a team to compete for a fraction of current budgets but nevertheless field cars which can match those of the established teams. These regulations will not affect the established teams which now have stable backing from the major car manufacturers, but will enable new teams to fill the existing vacancies on the grid for 2010 and make it less likely that any team will be forced to leave the Championship."
Can you read the resurrection of customer cars between those lines?