F1: WHEN THE COMPUTER SAID “NO”!

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The Halo and its obstruction of on-board camera views wasn’t the talking point of the season-opener in Melbourne as it was after qualifying.

It was Team Mercedes and ‘the Software Bug’. Sebastian Vettel jumped from third to first in the 2018 F1 season-opener in Melbourne with a fortuitous (but legal) pitstop, taken while Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen lapped slowly during a virtual safety car period.

24 hours earlier in the Post-Qualifying Press Conference, Mercedes had far superior pace in qualifying and the Brit couldn’t resist taunting Vettel. The German, who had been third fastest replied, “What goes around comes around. He’s free to have a party tonight and then hopefully Kimi and I will have a party tomorrow.” And it happened! Hamilton was left in a Ferrari sandwich between Vettel and Kimi.

During a Virtual Safety Car period, drivers must not go faster than sector times set by the FIA’s control ECU (Electronic Control Unit). A pitstop under VSC conditions is less costly because the speed disparity between the pitlane limit and cars on track is lower. Hamilton had closed the gap to Vettel when the VSC was deployed due to the breakdown of the Haas (“Ferrari replica”) of Romain Groajean, to 11.614 seconds as calculated by its race strategy software. Mercedes thought that was enough to ensure it would reclaim the lead when the Ferrari pitted, but they only realised its calculation was wrong, and were actually about 15 seconds behind when Vettel emerged from the pits in front. By the time the race continued, Hamilton tried relentlessly to overtake Vettel, but couldn’t on a track where overtaking between the top teams is pretty difficult. And so, Vettel had the last laugh…or smile, rather. Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff afterwards said, “We need to ask the computers and that’s what we are doing at the moment. Whether we had a software problem somewhere, we need to fix it. I think the problem is within our systems. I think we have a bug somewhere…”

Formula One racing represents the highest class of motorsport, constantly leading and ever pushing in the marriage of sports and technology. It is the best definition of man syncing with machine. Computers have long been used in designing and optimizing the complex settings for race cars and collecting data from the cars to teams in the pit wall. A Formula One car has between 150 – 300 sensors. 100 gigabytes of data is generated on a race weekend, equivalent to 250 DVDs! Fans of other sports have accused F1 of being too dependent on technology, rather than a driver’s talent. But you can’t grind out speed and reliability from a car without technology. Even with a Mercedes F1 2018 spec engine, a Benz 230 wouldn’t go faster than a 1980s F1 car! Technology permeates every sphere of life. Even football (Goal Line Technology).

Technology is man-made, so it is not devoid of occasional errors. That’s why software updates are made available by their owners on a regular basis, to fix bugs. But this time, the bug proved costly as the computer said NO to Lewis and Toto. Mercedes has subsequently found out that the problem was not with their race strategy software, but with an offline tool used to calculate times between cars staying out on track and those coming into the pits during safety car phases. Computer talk. It’s pretty sure throughout this season, Mercedes would assign a “human” to watch Seb and Kimi from start to finish, computer or no computer!

The FIA (F1’s governing body) made a mistake by reducing the engines for each driver this season from 4 to 3. There is optimism that it’s going to be a keen contest this season but fears have risen that races would be ending with 5 laps to go due to teams preserving their engines for the next race, making the remaining laps more of a procession. Hamilton denies that Mercedes has an engine “party mode” which it was alleged that he used to achieve that rocket qualifying lap. Even if there is, or was, it wouldn’t have mattered as he had to call off the battle towards the last 3 laps of the race to ensure that there was no long-term reliability issues with the engine after pushing hard and running in the hot air behind Vettel’s car.

Finally, after Round 1 in Australia, one thing is sure: the rivalry between Mercedes and Ferrari, between Lewis and Sebastian, is on!

By Ekwonye Osy Ernesto

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