Before the cars have even emerged from the garage on Friday for practice in Zandvoort, a huge amount of work has already happened in the virtual world, to ensure we are in a good place by the time the cars hit the track. This is true for both familiar and unfamiliar tracks.
One of the most important areas of the preparation process involves computer simulations, where the model of the car is coupled with a “virtual driver” to complete thousands of computer laps of a circuit’s racing line file (which is generated in state-of-the-art simulator facilities).
This form of preparation produces a few terabytes of data, as laps can be sped up and run in parallel with other simulations, sampling a massive range of set-up options, to find the optimum direction for the car.
The strategy department also use computer simulations to determine strategy options for Qualifying and the race. The models feature all drivers and teams, assumptions for pit stop scenarios, pit stop losses, tyre degradation and car competitiveness. These are thrown into the computer simulations to run a wide variety of scenarios, determining which tyres to use, what lap to pit and much more.
The data output from all these different simulations are compared and overlaid with other simulation data, to decide the fastest options. Our technical partners play a big role in this stage of the process, from HPE providing data centre infrastructure and hardware, to Pure Storage’s storage solutions and TIBCO’s visualisation and reporting tools.
While the simulation tools are running on the computer, the Driver-in-Loop (DiL) simulator is also in action, utilising a virtual environment, sophisticated models of the car and track, but with one important difference: the virtual driver is replaced for a real one. They’ll complete hundreds of laps in the simulator, trialling different set-ups to try and get a better feeling for what works and what doesn’t around that track.
This work is all designed to prepare us the best we can to hit the track running on Friday. The aim is always to arrive with a set-up direction we are confident in and can build on, as we work through our run plans, rather than having to make significant changes during practice.
How does this preparation differ for a new or unfamiliar track?
For the most part, the preparation stages are business as usual, running through the usual rhythm and drumbeat of work ahead of a race weekend. But there are some differences that need to be taken into account, which does mean preparation timeframes are longer.
The DiL and simulation tools that are used in F1 require a hugely complex and impressive model of the circuit, including bumps, kerb shapes and corner gradients. The more detail, the better! As we can get more accurate information from it.
For new tracks, we understandably don’t have these detailed track environments to use in our simulations, so we need to start these from scratch. The FIA provides CAD drawings and coupled with high-tech lidar data (from laser-scanning the track), these lead to the 3D map of the circuit being created.
Obviously, for tracks that we have raced on before, we already have these 3D circuit environments, and these will continue to be tweaked and changed each year. But having to create a new map is a much bigger piece of work, which must be completed in incredible detail.
For a new circuit, the information and data we can get in the virtual world is hugely important, because we have very little historical data. So teams are much more dependent on these simulation tools, which leads to a more extensive programme.
For a race we have been to before, we’d typically complete a two-day programme in the build-up to an event, completing roughly eight race distances in the process. But when it is a new race or venue, a further two days are added to the programme, plus a further day for the race drivers to familiarise themselves with the layout.
What are the main characteristics of Zandvoort?
The Zandvoort track layout stands out as one of the more unusual circuits on the 2021 F1 calendar, with a fast, flowing and old-school feel.
There is a real mix of corners speeds, which will put many aspects of car performance to the test and provide the drivers with a challenging circuit to master! It’s also an undulating track, rising and falling between the sand dunes, with a rollercoaster-like vibe similar to Portimão.
One of the most striking elements of Zandvoort is the super-fast, steeply banked Turns 13 and 14. The 18-degree banking will add significant load to the tyres through this section, which will impact the durability and life of the tyre compounds.
Climate wise, the weather in Zandvoort can be quite challenging and changeable, which could trigger some potential tyre issues, such as graining or blistering. But given the banked final corner, high-speed turns and undulations, it’s not surprising that Pirelli has picked the hardest tyres in their range.
Which sections of track do we expect to be the most challenging?
The banked final two corners, which feature a banking angle twice as steep as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, will definitely be challenging for the cars and the tyres, putting a lot of forces through them. But they should be fairly simple for the drivers to tackle.
Getting this section of track right is crucial for the run onto the main straight, which leads to one of the few overtaking opportunities: Turn 1. The 180-degree corner is similar in profile to the first corner at the Hungaroring, so it should provide a good chance to make a move and try alternative lines.
The banked Turn 3 will also be a challenge and sets you up for the long, fast sweep through the next few corners. Traction here will be a particularly crucial area to find time through those flat-out turns.
Elsewhere, the tight and twisty Turns 11 and 12 will be another potential overtaking spot and a good exit here will either set up a strong run through the final banked corners, or bring you close enough to follow the car in front through those last two turns and try a move down the main straight.
Regardless of specific corners, Zandvoort is a fast track and will provide drivers with a fun challenge, particularly in Qualifying when pushing to find the limit.