Will Gray

Tech Talk: Can Schumi find the answer?

Will Gray

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Michael Schumacher's comeback has been a disaster so far - but can a new chassis and a change to an ill-designed wheelbase really be the solution to his problems?

Mercedes have suggested Schumacher's struggles may not all be down to his 'race rustiness' by revealing he has been driving a "damaged car" for several races and that the fundamental design of their W01 machine is neither optimised to this season's rules nor suited to his style.

The first issue is a surprisingly common one. Formula One cars are far from robust and even an over heavy kerb rattle could put things out of line, sometimes causing delamination of the carbon fibre chassis construction and alteration in the stiffness of the car.

Schumacher has had a few incidents, and according to Mercedes something has caused his car's baseline to shift from that currently being raced by his more successful team-mate Nico Rosberg - and because it happened in the fly-away races, the capacity was not there to correct it fully.

The fact that Brawn says Schumacher has been losing speed in "odd places" and in "not the difficult corners, but the technically simple ones" perhaps backs up the team's theory, but equally teams have been known to change the chassis for a driver to appease his concern, rather than truly believing there is a difference.

The major change for Schumacher, in truth, will come with the longer wheelbase, which will be brought in for the next race in Barcelona.

Tyre changes have caused teams to be a bit hit and miss with wheelbase in the last couple of seasons. Last year, Brawn actually predicted the effect of switching from grooved tyres to slicks accurately and it was the rival teams, like Red Bull and McLaren, who were forced to alter their wheelbases during the season to compensate.

This time, it is Brawn's team who have got it wrong. And as with their rivals last year, the knock-on effects could be something that leaves them playing catch-up all season.

The new narrower front tyres reduce the amount of mechanical front-end grip they can deliver, meaning the car needs to generate more front-end grip through downforce. Brawn expected Bridgestone to develop a tyre with a softer sidewall, which would have provided greater grip, but they did not - and now Mercedes simply doesn't have enough downforce to counter that.

For Schumacher, this is a big problem.

"Michael needs to be able to lean heavily on the front of the car to make his driving style work," Brawn explained after China. He needs a very responsive car that changes direction sharply, not one that wallows and is tough to turn in.

It appears he may have tried to compensate for this in China by scuffing the rear tyres, reducing their grip and altering the balance between front and rear - but this just resulted in an overall lack of grip and a significant lack of traction in slow corners. This is also proof that he is still building an understanding of the tyres, which are very different to the ones he used last time he was racing.

Fundamentally, the length of the wheelbase determines the weight balance of the car, and when it is incorrectly balanced the car will not only perform poorly it will also wear its tyres more.

In Barcelona, Schumacher will not only get his hands on a chassis that is back in optimum condition (he will use the one he used in pre-season testing) but also a car that is much more suited to his driving style.

But it's not as easy as all that.

Due to the homologation rules, Mercedes cannot alter their chassis so the wheelbase change will have to be done by altering the suspension geometry to move the front wheels further forward - and while this should go some way to solving the balance problems, whether there is enough movement available remains to be seen.

Additionally, it could have knock-on effects on the car's aerodynamics. The front wheels are obstructive lumps to the airflow and if they are moved significantly far forward, closer to the unique droopy nose on the car, it could choke the airflow in this area and call for a complete front-end re-design.

So while the new wheelbase car should address the imbalance between Schumacher and his team-mate, it could still be a while before the re-design pushes Mercedes closer to the opposition up in front.

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