Speculating about the Red Bull Miracle
It’s your decision – either Red Bull staged the biggest comeback since Lazarus or they are blatant cheats. The answer to that will be a good indicator of peoples level of pain in the rear end. Well it will certainly be more accurate than the FIA’s shambolic fuel flow sensors. Those who were jealous of Red Bull’s success over the last few years will come out with tar and feathers declaring that they’ve known all along that Red Bull were nefarious cheats, while those, who care for more than just who wins the race, will be forced to question the FIA’s wisdom, or lack thereof.
But let’s start at the beginning. Shortly after the last Bahrain test, which ‘culminated’ in Sebastian Vettel not even managing a single lap, the news broke that Red Bull was dispatching a crack team to Viry to fix Renault’s buggy software. If Friday was anything to go by, the operation had been a spectacular success with Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel running lap after lap. Both of them did more laps in the 90 minute sessions than they managed on any testing day within the allotted 8 hours.
It was rather obvious that there were two very different stories to be witnessed in the Red Bull camp. While Red Bull and their sister team, Toro Rosso, were racking up the miles, Caterham and Lotus were practically no-shows. Was there some villanous trickery at work? Did Red Bull – heaven forbid – keep their shiny new software to themselves? I spent a 3 hour/6 beer train ride on Friday cackling over hilarious posts in the Autosport forums where people were condemning Red Bull for not sharing their hot-fix with Lotus and Caterham. And I thought I was the one who grew up in a communist country!
Now, lets start with the fact that we don’t know which software Caterham and Lotus were running. They just might be crap at developing their cars. Both have no money and Lotus lost just about everyone, who could write his own name, to other teams. But let’s pretend it is as the conspiracy theorists say and Renault was not allowed to upload the hot-fix made by the Red Bull crack team to any car that sported a forklift nose or enormous barn door sized side pods. So bleedin’ what? Do they really expect Red Bull to share their own work with the only team that could routinely challenge them last year?
Lotus and Caterham have an engine supply contract with Renault – not Red Bull – so if Red Bull fixes a broken product for themselves they are not required to fix it for Lotus also. They shared it with their baby sister, but not with the jock from across the street – shocking!
It all became academic anyway as not too far into FP3 Vettel’s ‘Suzie’ seemed to develop a bad case of PMS, while Danny boy’s car seemed perfectly fine. It took about 0.5 seconds for the first forum troll posting that RB had accidentally mixed up the cars and Vettel had gotten the one meant for Danny, but that’s just their way of relieving pain in a nether region. The truth is probably much more mundane. The software had failed, so RB’s code monkeys were not so brilliant after all?
That’s where speculation meets my experiences in this area. I once had to rewrite the firmware for a moisture sensor in an acetylene production line and it took me 6 weeks to do it. Now, I’m probably a pitiful script kid in comparison to the sort of talent RB has on their payroll, but nobody – short of Jesus Christ – could have come up with a final software solution for Renault in 2 weeks. What RB have done is provided what geeks like me call a ‘quick and dirty hack’.
A ‘QDH’ is a piece of software in which you take deliberate short cuts, relying on parameters always being in a reasonable range. Let me give you an example: If you write software that takes date values as an input, you have to check, if the date entered is actually valid. If you don’t some user will make your carefully crafted program go bluescreen, because he entered the 41st March 1793 as the birth date of your latest new recruit. To avoid that, you have to build in a lot of checks.
You need to check the plausibility of the year, to make sure that your system doesn’t think your new secretary is 465 years old. Then you check that the month is one of the twelve known to man and then you have to write a whole host of code to check how many days are allowed for the entered month, which gets a tad messy for February as you need to calculate whether the year in question was a leap year, so you need to allow for the 29th Feb.
As you can see, just asking the user or an automated interface for a date value can soon turn into quite some work, which is a bit impractical if you have to come up with a solution on an insane schedule. So the first thing you drop is all the messy malarkey to check February dates, as there are only 2 in some cases 3 values that could break your program. You drop the year plausibility check and probably only test if 0<month<13 and 0<day<32. That way you finish a routine in a fraction of the time it would have taken to do it absolutely perfectly. You still catch a lot of wrong inputs, but not all of them.
That’s what I suspect has happened with the software the Red Bull guys came up with. It was hurriedly produced and sorted out a lot of problems, but it also has pitfalls because they took some short cuts. A final solution will likely take a lot more time. If the RB crack team does it anywhere close to how we went about things, there is already part of the team working on a more elaborate version of the software that won’t be blown up by the 31st February, but that solution will need time and until then they’ll have to use the one that works reasonably well, but might go medieval on you for a simple wrong date.
Why the FIA are Blithering Idiots
Of course a discussion about Red Bull’s weekend cannot be complete without having a look at Daniel Ricciardo being DSQ’ed for allegedly running more than 100kg/h consistently.
Now call me mathematically inept, but doesn’t ‘consistently’ imply that he did it with some sort of regularity. And wouldn’t that imply that running at the upper end of the scale consistently would have drained the tank prematurely? They only have 100kg to begin with. And why do we need that limit in the first place? They have 100kg of fuel, let them decide how fast they use it.
There have been reports all through winter testing – and the Melbourne free practices – that the FIA homologated sensors were delivering faulty, or at least unreliable, data as the sensor units turned out to have a rather unacceptable range of error. You could run 98 kg/h or 102 kg/h and still be legal, depending on how wonky your fuel flow meter is.
The FIA reacted by softening measurement from 10Hz to 5Hz and told teams to run significantly below 100 kg/h (by offset) because they couldn’t measure and govern their own limits as prescribed by the rules. But here’s the kicker – they would still decide the legality of a car by equipment proven to be unreliable.
Unless I’ve missed a news item that said that the FIA HQ has been moved from France to North Korea, such an approach is utterly unacceptable. Their own rules say that fuel flow is limited to 100kg/h and the teams have sensors in place to make sure they stay below that limit. But according to the rules, only the reading of the FIA sensor counts, whether it is accurate or not. What that means is – in everyday terms – the police can fine the raw stuffing out of you, if their wonky speed camera said you were speeding – even if your accurately measuring speedo says you weren’t.
I may be weird, but am I alone in thinking you can’t enforce a limit if you have no reliable way to measure it? Mercedes and other teams did what all blithering idiots tend to do – they blindly followed the fatwa from the authorities and ran lobotomised cars. Mercedes ran their cars to a limit of 96 kg/h, to avoid going over the limit, even if the sensor had a Münchhausen moment again.
Why? The rules say you are allowed 100kg/h and Red Bull insisted on doing what the rules say (minus the relying on a dodgy sensor bit). They were told during the race by Charlie Whiting that they should apply an offset that would effectively neuter their engine, because the FIA sensor said they had a flow above 100 kg/h, even though their own – calibrated – equipment said they were below, so they ignored that.
The fact that they didn’t black-flag the #3 car despite seeing that Red Bull igored their friendly warnings, could mean Whiting and co weren’t so sure about their own measurements either. As the gavel man said in his news item – this whole shebang seems about something bigger. Red Bull already ‘enjoy’ the same popularity like Muhammar Al-Gaddhafi for winning a wee bit to much in the past, so they know there’s a sh*tstorm heading their way, yet they took the risk of further alienating the masses. I doubt they did it for a 2nd place.
Formally the FIA are right. The rules say that only the FIA sensor reading counts, so in essence if yours delivers wrong data, you have to be an obedient peasant and accept being bent over the proverbial barrel but in terms of common sense their reasoning is ridiculous. They fatwa’ed a rule allowing a certain fuel flow limit, but the equipment to monitor it is faulty. A team might be forced to run at 95 kg/h because the sensor adds 5 imaginary kilos, while another runs 105 kg/h, because the sensor says only 100. So basically a 3rd party piece of equipment decides how much of your cars potential you’re allowed to use. Now I know why India disappeared from the calendar. They would’ve imposed a gambling tax.
In any scenario decided by common sense, the FIA would have acknowledged the problems with the sensors and waived the fuel flow rule, especially since it is completely unnecessary. The fuel is limited to 100kg for the race. Running at 100kg/h would drain the tank mucho prematurely and even the shortest race on the calendar is longer than 75 minutes, so on average you have to stay significantly below 100 kg/h anyway. So why in the name of all that’s holy did they introduce an arbitrary, non-enforceable rule on fuel flow? As if double points, hideous cars and ridiculously wussy sound wasn’t enough to ruin F1, they’ve added another layer of ridiculous brain-fade to it.