Monday, June 15, 2009

Remember that Algebra you took in High School and never though you would need again? JP discusses the competition conundrum.

There’s been a lot of conversation recently about competition and the inability of cars to race side by side. After seeing the racing in person at Indy and Milwaukee I had some suspicions, but after seeing Texas there was no doubt that there is a problem.

The shift to the 122 inch wheel base and removal of various specialized aerodynamic components for oval races may have made the budgets slightly more reasonable but unfortunately has had ill effects on the quality of the racing. While it remains early in the season, instead of making things more competitive, we may go through the oval season with only two teams in victory lane whereas last year we had three.

Many people have begun to weigh in on what’s needed. Perhaps the strangest example being Mario Andretti quoted as saying the series needed more Milka Dunnos. IE - Slower cars that serve as moving chicanes – or - Latino women wearing hip hugger pants. I’ll let you decipher his motives for yourselves. While Dixon benefitted from a slower Schekter at Milwaukee and Mario may have a taste in women that puzzles the rest of us, I am not sure a wider disparity in average speed is really what the series needs.

Dixon mentioned trimming out the cars though I am skeptical of suggestions coming from members of either of the top two teams. The last thing we need is the rich to get richer.

I will note – that I am not an expert in how the cars operate or could be changed to improve the racing. I will suggest what the ideal changes might result in to bring more drama to the on track racing competition. As to how to make that happen, I will leave that to someone really smart, like JR Hildebrand.

Remembering back to a lot of the racing I have seen over the years, I recall a lot more instances of Tortoise and Hare racing within fuel stints than we have seen this year. By Tortoise and Hare racing I am referring here to where some cars, the Hares, were fast early, and either used up tires or fuel quicker and drew back to the field to be caught by the Tortoises. The cars that were set up to run slower initially but preserved tires over a fuel stint.

What we have now is a series of exclusively Hares (or Tortoises, if you are Robin Miller). All cars are set up initially very similarly and the permanence of performance is not sensitive to the initial setup. The average speed of a car is generally X, with B being a multiplier based on the quality of the team or driver and diminishes by Y for each lap after 10 laps. Speed for a given lap (t) is roughly = Xt*B – Yt. The stuff before the minus sign is referred to as initial setup speed and the stuff after the minus sign is referred to as the decay rate. If the only thing in this equation that changes is the B, then the racing is going to be pretty poor because the decay rate of the equation, Y, is the same for everyone. The only thing that differs from competitor to competitor is B, and B is constant throughout the entire race.

What would be more ideal are a set of rules or changes in cars or tires where a wider variation in B is possible, but comes at a cost of C which is a new term in the decay rate of our speed equation. The speed equation now becomes Xt*B – Yt*C. Where if B increases by 1 then C > 1. SO you can buy yourself a little extra speed up front but you loose it quicker as the run goes on as the balance of the car changes with the burning of fuel or a more sensitive tire loses tread sooner.

Let’s say car P is set up with a low B and C, but car Q is set up with a higher B and C. If Car P starts a fuel stint in front of Q then Q, which is faster initially, catches up to and pressures P for the lead. If he succeeds by passing P then after a while of leading, the aggressive setup that allowed P to get the lead causes the car to go away faster than Q, who’s car is more consistent throughout the run. Q then begins to reel in P and has the potential to pass him back for the lead.

If technological freedom can create a situation where the average speed of cars is equal over the length of a fuel stretch, but the ways in which cars obtain that average can be quite different – then we are onto something. Such an arrangement creates situations where twice within a fuel stint a faster car is confronting a slower one.

The question becomes, if there really were tortoise and hare set ups, wouldn’t everyone migrate to one or other negating the competitive benefits?? That depends on the philosophy of the race team – Many or Few yellows anticipated??? If you expect many, then you go the hare setup, if you don’t expect many then you go the tortoise setup. If you are in the back of the field and need to move up in a hurry you might go with the hare setup hoping to gain spots and then block like Helio once the car goes away. If you are up front and have the benefit of clean air to run in you might go the tortoise route and have more speed deeper into the run.

Of course I can’t imagine creating this scenario is easy to engineer. It probably means giving back the wheelbase and various aero options while at the same time asking your tire sponsor to make a tire with a little less permanence. You risk in some teams just running faster overall and a team or driver complaining about tires going away too soon. Perhaps someone at the league competition office needs to give JR a call…

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