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How cold Las Vegas conditions will test F1's engineers

The cold conditions expected when the cars take to the track on Thursday evening in Las Vegas are set to provide Formula 1 teams with an intriguing challenge.

Las Vegas GP rendering

Las Vegas GP rendering

Las Vegas GP

Not only do they have to ensure they can get the three Pirelli compounds to work effectively, but the unusually low temperatures will also have a significant impact on overall car cooling, and hence the aero specifications that teams run.

As such, the challenge is very different from that at the recent races in Qatar and Mexico City. Compared to the latter, where the thin air requires maximum cooling, Vegas will be at the opposite extreme.

And, while it’s obvious that modern hybrid V6 power units don’t like running too hot, equally they are not designed to operate in extreme cold conditions. For example, it’s important that the plenum chamber doesn’t get too cool.

While F1 cars run in chilly winter testing and filming days in Europe, the difference is that Vegas is a competitive event, which means that there can be no compromises in terms of power unit usage and so on, and the car spec is fixed from the start of qualifying onwards.

The ultra-long main straight that runs along The Strip will present its own challenges. Much like Baku, it will ensure that brakes and tyres will potentially be colder than optimum when cars reach the corner at the end of it.

Just to add to the fun, as with any street circuit, there’s only so much detail that teams have been able to incorporate into their simulations in terms of bumps, and the exact nature of the newly-laid surface remains something of an unknown.

“It is tough,” says Williams' head of vehicle performance Dave Robson. “I think that combination of the track surface, which we know very little about, and how that will interact with the tyres will dictate so much of how the weekend pans out.

“In terms of the layout of the track, we've got a good understanding of that, and we can run it in the simulator and get a rough idea.

“Going to a new track like that, one of the main things will be that we go with a clear starting position, but we also have a whole host of options lined up ready to cover whatever actually happens.

“Certainly, we can't predict exactly how the car will behave in Vegas, so we will go there with plenty of options.”

F1 Las Vegas atmosphere

Photo by: Shutterstock

F1 Las Vegas atmosphere

Other teams agree that it’s something of a step into the unknown.

“It does look like it's going to be cold,” says Alpine head of trackside engineering Ciaron Pilbeam. “We don't really know how cold! It's a new circuit, which is always interesting. We will do all our usual pre-event simulation work and simulator work, but never know quite what you're going to get.

“There's always some variation in how bumpy it is, or what the track surface is like, that kind of thing. We'll do everything we can before the event, but we can't do everything. We need to go in there prepared to learn in the first couple of practice sessions."

Tyre management has been one of the keys to the 2023 season, and as recently as the Brazilian GP we saw huge discrepancies between the teams that got it right for the race, notably Red Bull and Aston Martin, and those that got it wrong, such as Mercedes.

Teams usually have a narrow operating window in which they can get tyres to work, and finding that sweet spot in Vegas – with mechanical set-up and out-lap preparation among the variables – might not be so straightforward. Firing them up after safety car periods will be a special challenge.

“In terms of the tyres, it really is taking them into a different environment, isn't it?” says Red Bull chief engineer Paul Monaghan.

“A few years ago, we went to the Nurburgring in October, and it was wet and cold every day. And Austin a few years ago I remember one day was particularly freezing cold.

“We get into all the concerns of cold cracking, handling the tyres, all this type of thing. And yes, they are very much at the lower end of their operating range. 

“So within the sort of freedoms that we have with the wheel bodywork as we now call it, and trying to operate the car, it is up to us to try and get the tyres to a point where they work.

“And the challenge is there for all of us. I think that's across the three compounds, they are all going to be too cold. It's really a case of can we get all of them into the window for long enough that we can run a decent race stint?"

Monaghan says there's no shortage of variables in Vegas

Photo by: Dom Romney / Motorsport Images

Monaghan says there's no shortage of variables in Vegas

As Monaghan indicates, there’s a relationship between tyres and aero specification in terms of what he defines as the wheel bodywork – brake ducts and other parts in that area – but obviously the conditions will have a substantial impact on other areas of the car.

For Qatar and/or Mexico, most teams brought extra louvres or opened up the Coke bottle at the rear to aid cooling, and for Vegas, none of that will be required. You would think that would encourage teams to focus on low drag for better straightline speed, but it’s not necessarily that straightforward.

“It's not really an aero gain, it's more about managing the power unit and the gearbox and all those other things in their operating window,” says Pilbeam. “But we are ready for that. It could be like winter testing; it could be that cold.

“It's hard to know exactly what we're going to find when we get there. There are times in winter testing when you need to blank the radiators a bit, which you wouldn't normally design the car for. It could be those kinds of conditions.

“But I think we're ready for it. The operating window is much wider now than it used to be covering between that sort of temperature, and what we saw in Qatar. It's a very wide operating temperature range.”

Monaghan agrees that teams should be able to adjust to what is required.

“I'm not too worried about sorting the car cooling out to be honest,” he says. “I don't think it will be that bad. We ran our first promotional day back in February this year, and I was sitting there shivering at Silverstone wishing I wasn't there, and we could make it run.

“We'll see some more closed-up cars, maybe some people will alter the cooling exits towards the back at the top body, which will shrink it down a little bit.

“It's a case of not wanting to stall all the radiators because they've got so much back pressure on them, they don't work. But that's our problem.”

Las Vegas GP rendering

Photo by: Las Vegas GP

Las Vegas GP rendering

Teams will have to juggle with the complex relationship between cooling and downforce levels.

"I think what you would see typically, and it's a sort of broad-brush summary, if we open the car, we lose a little bit of a downforce,” says Monaghan. 

“So the more closed we are, the better it is for our downforce. So typically the drag is more tyre and rear wing than it is necessarily the cooling arrangements.

“If we can put a bit of load on the car, closing it up, we will. But we're coming to the end of the season, so it's not going to be a whole new top body or something that we choose to do. We'll try and do it from the options we have."

That’s an intriguing admission from Monaghan. As teams start to bounce off the cost cap, designing and manufacturing new parts for one specific race starts to become something of a luxury, and not just for the big players.

“The interesting thing is what we do now that we live in this cost cap world,” says Robson.

“Previously, we’d have probably made a new, small cooling package and traded in the cooling we didn't need for downforce, and there may have been a few other things on the car we would have done.

“But now we've got to say, ‘Well, is it worth doing that?’ Particularly as you get towards the end of the season, that may depend on how much attrition and expense you've had to spend on that in the previous months.

“I think it's quite a good example of how in a cost cap world do you choose to optimise the package for that particular circuit? Because the parts you could make, you probably won't use anywhere else. 

“And in part that depends on what you think the other guys will do. So the whole thing becomes quite a nice little game theory problem.”

Las Vegas GP rendering

Photo by: Las Vegas GP

Las Vegas GP rendering

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