The Challenge of Turn 13

Adam Cooper looks at possible problems posed by the Indianapolis track

The Challenge of Turn 13

One way or another, the first US GP is going to be an event to remember. I'm sure the organisation will be superb, the welcome will be friendly, and the new infrastructure will no doubt set standards others will now have to emulate. And by all accounts Indianapolis the city has come on in leaps and bounds in the five years since I was last there. It should be a great weekend.

But one very large question mark looms over the whole event, and that concerns the track itself, and in particular the last corner. With the tragic accident at Monza fresh in their minds, a lot of F1 insiders are a little nervous about what could go wrong. Some cynics have already suggested we could yet end up with a temporary chicane on the banking, as in Spain in 1994...

American circuit owners have a habit of giving their corners numbers rather than the sort of evocative names we are used to in Europe. I do wonder if the guy who designed the Indy layout had second thoughts once he'd finished counting his way around the lap. What were the odds on the dramatic final sweep onto the pit straight being Turn 13?

If you think that Indianapolis folk aren't bothered by connotations of that number, consider this. According to my research only once in 84 attempts has anyone taken the start of the Indy 500 with '13' painted on the side, and that was back in 1914...

Drivers are notoriously lacking in imagination when it comes to assessing new venues. They were shown plans of the changes to the Monza chicanes some time ago, and I'm told that Michael Schumacher for one had a very positive reaction. Of course only when they went there and tested did the criticism start. I'm sure the same will happen this weekend. But it will be too late to voice any complaints, and the local media will be seriously unimpressed if wholesale whinging results.

The Indy map has been in the public domain for a couple of years, and drivers have had an open invitation to go and visit, although the only man to do so was Heinz-Harald Frentzen - and even he didn't see the track in its finished state. Fans who've played the Indy course on the F1 2000 PC and PlayStation game probably have a better idea of what to expect...

The real story will emerge on Friday morning. What the drivers will find is a track that includes two extremes. Indy has the longest straight in the world (or longest flat-out blast to be more accurate), but also a surprising amount of frustrating first and second gear running.

All the teams have run detailed simulations, and will go to Indy with a good baseline for ratios and so on. But computers can only tell so much; it will be interesting to see which teams and drivers get on top of things first. It's obvious that set-up will involve a massive compromise, possibly with higher downforce levels used for qualifying, and less to assist overtaking on race day. I'm told that a range of downforce levels will produce similar overall lap times. However, the big unknown is the grip level of the new infield tarmac. One team source says that their predicted lap time varies between 1m12s to1m17s, depending on whether grip is high or low.

I suspect that drivers will not enjoy the infield very much. Turn 1 and 2 are very slow, but at least they help to create an overtaking opportunity. But the bizarre double hairpin at Turn 9 and 10 is sure to create a fuss. Mario Andretti says that it reminds him of Monaco, and predicts first lap traffic jams.

That's not to say that the infield won't bring out the best in the best. On the contrary, it looks highly technical, and bearing in mind that the road is quite wide it won't be easy to find the optimum line and the ideal rhythm through what are complex sequences of corners.

But the real talking point will be the quick stuff. The corner onto the oval is itself pretty fast, potentially in fifth gear, but Mario points out that the transition won't be straightforward where the surface changes. Once on the oval the cars will be on full throttle for around 1.8kms, or 21 seconds. By way of comparison the likes of Hockenheim and Monza can't muster more than 1.2kms or 16 seconds. It's a real step into the unknown...

Known for 90 years as Turn 1 of the oval, Turn 13 is attacked in the reverse direction but otherwise is completely unchanged. Some have compared it with the last corner at Barcelona, or 130R, the sweeping left that precedes the chicane at Suzuka. But nothing comes close to what the drivers will experience for the first time when practice kicks off.

For everyone except Jacques Villeneuve, who raced on ovals in 1993-5, it's going to be a novel experience. Even for Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen the first few laps will involve a little caution; they're simply not used to heading straight at a concrete wall and grandstand at 200mph plus. The feeling of claustrophobia will be totally alien.

Not so for Villeneuve, who is sure to be on it from the start. When I suggested to him that he should be quickest on Friday morning, he shrugged, but eventually admitted that maybe for the first 10 or 15 laps he might have an advantage. He's probably right, and it may take everyone only one session to adjust. But it will be fascinating to see who else gets up to speed first.

The corner should be comfortably flat for everyone, so it's not really a question of whether the car can take it, but more of driver confidence. "You have to remember that an Indycar is trimmed right out with very little wing on it," says BAR technical director Malcolm Oastler. "And it goes through there flat, and attacks the corner at 240mph. We'll be going through there with a sensible wing on - we'll probably run more wing than Hockenheim - and approaching it from a slower corner. There will be quite a lot of load on the car, but between the banking and the wing you'll have masses of grip."

There's also the issue of what happens when cars are running together through Turn 13. Traditionally at Barcelona the pursuer loses front downforce in the turbulence, and has to ease off.

The banked corner throws up other issues. Tyres have been a topic of discussion for some time, and the subject has taken on an extra dimension since Firestone landed itself in legal trouble Stateside. It has become a by-word for corporate incompetence, and an easy target for late night talk show hosts. To say that the parent company Bridgestone cannot afford any kind of problem at Indianapolis would be an understatement.

The cars will be in Turn 13, loading the tyres at 200mph plus, for around 4-5 seconds. "At the last corner the loads are similar to 130R at Suzuka," says Adrian Newey, "but over a much longer period." Bridgestone has produced a special tyre to cope with the demands, and at least it knows what's required, because of the immense experience gained with Firestone's oval tyres.

However, they are built just for oval use, while the F1 tyres will also have to cope with all the demands of the twists and turns of the road course. Anyone picking up a flat spot with a bit of heavy braking at Turn 1 will definitely notice a vibration next time they head onto the oval section...

The F1 teams tested the new tyres at Mugello, Estoril and Silverstone last week (although as Prost and Arrows didn't run I assume they haven't had a chance to try them), and reports were favourable. They seem to be very durable, but those tracks don't necessarily give an indication of what might happen this weekend.

The key thing is that Bridgestone wants teams to run with unusually high pressures. One team insider told me that while 18psi is considered normal, at Indy teams are being asked to run with 23psi on the left side (ie the outside on the banking), and 19psi on the right. These lopsided pressures are very much a first for F1. This at least is the recommended starting point, and at the end of Friday practice the situation will be reviewed.

I say recommended because I don't know to what degree the teams will follow the rules. Some are concerned that the opposition might try to steal an advantage by running lower pressures; you may remember the outcry at Hockenheim last year, after Mika Hakkinen's race failure was blamed on such tactics. One team source suggested that Bridgestone might "...withdraw a team's tyres if it doesn't comply." I don't know where the FIA stands on this, but you can imagine that the issue will be the source of some tension in the pitlane.

Turn 13 won't just have an effect on the tyres. When F1 cars raced on the combined oval and road course at Ontario in 1971 the banked first corner caused a series of unusual suspension and other failures on the visiting cars. Things have moved on since then, and most folk I've spoken to say that they are on top of any such problems, and that cars undergo high loads at places like Eau Rouge. However, there's no room for complacency, and I'm sure that extra checking will go on between sessions. Prost's John Barnard mentions wheelbearings as one area that might cause concern.

Another issue that has emerged involves engines, or more specifically their oil systems. Those used in the IRL or Champcar are designed to cope with the unusual forces experienced on long banked turns, but F1 engines are not. I know that one leading team is seriously concerned that oil starvation in that 4-5 second spell in Turn 13 might lead to failures, although it's also said that the situation may in fact be no worse than the combined effect of the last two turns in Barcelona.

If you think this sounds a bit unlikely, consider an example of how sensitive complex F1 oil systems can be. At Interlagos this year Michael Schumacher was struggling with diving oil pressure until an engineer watching the telemetry told him to adjust his line in certain corners, in an attempt to keep the pressure up. It worked, and Michael won.

CART participants Mercedes, Honda and Cosworth have some advantage in that they have inside knowledge of the special demands, but for Ferrari, BMW, Peugeot and Renault this is something new. An engine failure on this part of the track won't be much fun. Not only for the driver concerned, but for the first guys to come across any oil he might have dropped.

Of course, the overriding issue is what will happen if someone goes off in Turn 13. As I've said, the corner should be flat for everyone but a mechanical failure, tyre problem or even a bump from another car could lead to disaster. Grand Prix cars are smaller and narrower than their US equivalents, and in there is simply less material available to cushion any impact.

The safety standards set by the FIA are commendable high, but the fact is that the first consideration of any Indy designer is that these things can and will hit walls at 200mph, and the whole car is built around that concept. Remember too that both Ralf Schumacher and Alex Wurz have been injured this year when suspension components have intruded into the footwell.

However, former Reynard Indy designer Oastler says that he's not worried: "These cars now are just about as strong as an Indycar, and they've got good headrest protection. The sidepod isn't as long, but we've got side impact structures, so I don't really anticipate a problem if somebody hits the wall."

Oastler should know, but we're still talking about 200mph impacts with a concrete wall, flying wheels, and all the rest of it. Any accident in or coming out of Turn 13 is going to be a big one. "If there's any sort of car or tyre problem it could be nasty," says Adrian Newey.

Another consideration is that should someone go off on the exit, debris could head towards the pit lane - which during practice and qualifying will be full of people.

The long pit entry may also be a cause for concern. Drivers will be flying down it at full speed, and if they lose it - perhaps because of oil dropped by an ailing car - they could go sailing back out onto the track. Another issue brought up by Mario was the surprising lack of a gravel trap on the outside of Turn 8, at the end of the back straight, although this may have been rectified.

And finally there's the question of rain - one can only speculate as to how that might affect things. Obviously water drains easily from the banking, but it's anyone's guess as to how fast the cars will be able to run through Turn 13. And there's still going to be spray.

I'm playing Devil's Advocate here, and it could well be that the whole weekend runs smoothly and without controversy, and we get a fabulous race at a tremendous facility. Let's hope it turns out that way.

But what concerns some folk is that no F1 car (or indeed any single-seater) has yet run on a course which is so different from anything we're used to. Contenders from the Porsche and Ferrari support races have been able to test, but their feedback will have been of limited use, and some problems may only emerge on Friday.

You can't blame Indy. It's worth noting that when the idea of a Winston Cup race at Indy was first mooted, the leading contenders invited to a general test to see if the cars were suited to the Brickyard. And this on a track that was similar to what the NASCAR machines race on every other week. The exercise also served as a massive PR boost.

So should the FIA have waived its own rules and insisted on some kind of F1 testing taking place at Indy in the past month? Even one car running for a day would have given Bridgestone, the teams and the Indy organisers something to go on. Of course the problem is that every one of the 11 teams would have wanted to be represented; no one would have accepted just one, two or three teams getting a special preview. But some sort of compromise must surely have been possible. Let's hope that the decision to wait until Friday September 22 doesn't prove to be a costly mistake.

Consider this nightmare scenario. It's unlikely that Bridgestone has got its sums wrong, but if a major tyre problem does emerge on Friday or Saturday, we might reach the stage where this very conservative company could be forced to the point of withdrawing all its supplies. At which stage we can all go home. It happened earlier this year with the Pirelli Porsche Supercup event at Spa...

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