Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, July 28, 2000

Few Can Cook Up a Great Racing Car

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - It helps to know the ingredients before baking the cake.

And Formula One's point standings as the season heads for its 11th race, at the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim on Sunday, have rarely better illustrated how few teams really know how to cook up a great car. The leaders, Ferrari and McLaren, have 92 and 88 points respectively -- sharing all the victories -- while Williams, in third place, has only 19.

What makes Formula One different from most other racing series is that each team must build its own car according to a highly complex recipe -- the technical regulations set by the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body -- rather than buying an off-the-shelf chassis from a car manufacturer.

The problem, said Gary Anderson, technical director at Jaguar, is that none of the 11 teams is able to master construction of every part of a car. While Jaguar may have mastered 70 percent, McLaren and Ferrari will have mastered 80 percent. Teams can improve on the parts they understand best, he added, but it takes time, money and risk to develop the parts they do not understand.

''It's like making a cake when you've got seven ingredients, but really there should be 10 ingredients,'' Anderson said. ''No matter how precise you are with the seven ingredients, it still won't make the cake better until you discover what those other three are that you're missing.''

A team that mastered every one of the car's 3,000 parts, he said, could also

improve on those from year to year and make a car significantly faster. But without all the ingredients, research sometimes leads up the wrong track.

''Say there's something silly in the steering geometry that we don't understand yet,'' he said. ''I may make a mistake on that and make it worse. But we don't know we've made it worse because we don't know it exists yet as far as the performance value of the car. You have to keep on looking into the unknown to see what parts really make a difference.''

Johnny Herbert, a Jaguar driver who has driven for seven teams in 11 seasons, said new-model cars are almost always an improvement, but that a car's relative value can only be learned in races.

''While you may have done a one-second jump in lap time compared to the year before, the other teams may have done two seconds,'' he said. ''Like last year the car was quite good, and we were -- relative to everybody else -- quite competitive. This year the car is better than last year, but relative to the rest it's not as competitive as it was.''

A poorly conceived car seldom offers a quick fix, said Mario Ilien, designer of the Mercedes engine powering the McLaren.

''When you put the new engine in the new car,'' he said, ''you might have some surprises because some of the auxiliary things like the fuel system, the oil system or cooling system might not work in harmony with the engine. But that's not so difficult to sort out. With a chassis it's a different issue.''

Development then becomes a matter between the drivers and the engineers as they try to find the best setup and add-on parts to make for a faster drive.

''But it all depends on how good it is when it first goes on the track,'' Herbert said. ''You can make a bad car maybe okay, but you can't make it a very good car.''

Patrick Head, technical director at Williams, disagrees.

''The Lotus 72 when it first ran was a bit of a disaster,'' he said. ''But they went away and did some pretty major modifications and it came back and won the world championship.''

But that car, in which Jochen Rindt became champion posthumously in 1970, was built and modified in an era when the recipe was less complicated.

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