Valencia: Ban on engine map changes

A matter of days before the first practice at the European GP, there was surprising news that there will be a further restriction on engine mapping for this race. Ahead of the more stringent ban coming at the next round in Britain, in Valencia teams we have to start the race with the same engine map as used in qualifying. As with many of these FIA clarifications there is little information and even the teams have been hard pushed to provide full responses to my questions on the matter. With what limited information we have I will try to explain the impact of this change.

Currently teams are free to alter engine mapping settings between qualifying and the race, as these parameters are not part of the Parc Fermé regulations. Thus with the advent of hot & cold blown diffusers teams are able to run a much more aggressive map for their qualifying laps for more downforce and of course faster laptimes. Unable to run these maps through out the race, due to the fuel consumption penalty and the heat generated in the engineexhausts, after qualifying teams plug in a laptop and revert the engine map to a softer race strategy. These qualifying maps give a considerable laptime gain, some reports suggest over 0.5-0.8s per lap. This is also one of the reasons for Red Bulls superior qualifying pace relative to their race pace, as I reported last year http://scarbsf1.wordpress.com/2010/07/10/red-bull-map-q-the-secret-to-the-teams-q3-pace/.

Clearly Charlie Whiting is still unhappy that the engine is being used for aerodynamic advantage, he has brought in a restriction on the maps being changed after qualifying. I asked the teams what has been introduced. McLaren told me “same engine map from Q1 until the start of the race”. A fact also confirmed by Lotus and Renault. Therefore no specific engine maps are being banned, merely the teams have to make the judgement call, on whether they can run the first stint on an aggressive map or qualify on a softer map.

But this appears to only the basic principle of the rule revision, clearly there’s a lot more to it than that. It leaves the question of what can the driver change and when can he do it, as well how is this to be enforced. Again McLaren were able to explain some more “I think the intention is that you can’t alter the map – it would take too long to change it during a pitstop as you’d need to plug a laptop into the car”. So while we are used to seeing the drivers altering engine settings from the steering wheel, there is a limit to what he is able to achieve. Renault also were able to confirm “Some parameters are adjustable from the steering wheel, but not all. In Valencia, you can officially change your exhaust setting during the first pitstop, but you would need to plug a computer to the car, so it would take ages”. So it’s clear the driver is either not able or not allowed to make the changes from the Qualifying to the end of the first stint.

From what I’ve learnt, there is a difference between what we define as an engine map. There’s the settings the driver commonly makes via the steering wheel to fuelignitingrev settings, to either increase power or lower fuel consumptionpreserve the engine. But there’s also a level above that, to which the driver has no access to via the steering wheel. The engines parameters are managed via the Standard ECU (SECU), which also includes peripheral items such as the steering wheel interface. Thus to make changes to the main map the team need to plug a laptop into the car and makes changes via the software interface.

Its been suggested the team could code a control on the steering wheel to alter the map between aggressive and soft and simply switch in the first stint, however the FIA have access to the data off the SECU which controls these parameter and could detect if this change had been made, which would be in contravention of the rule.

However its likely that the driver can still make changes to setting on the main map, during the first stint from the steering wheel, but not to the extent where it will go from full aggressive to soft. But simply to find a tactical short term boost or fuel consumption saving, as they normally would during a race.

Equally people have suggested the teams could develop a quicker method for altering the map at the first stop, rather than plugging a laptop in. I guess this is a possibility, assuming the SECU supports any alternative method. But it should be pointed out that the aim of this rule is to stop the aggressive hot blown qualifying maps, which will be restricted to the point of ineffectiveness at the next race (Silverstone), so it’s unlikely any teams would risk any literal interpretation of this rule. If indeed there isn’t already any additional info available to the teams or direction form Charlie Whiting that isn’t public that prohibits this.

If a team were able to run the first stint with an engine and fuel tank that could cope with the load from the aggressive map, the laptime gain might offset the time lost at the first pitstop. This RiskReward scenario might be played out in Valencia, but I’d doubt any of the top teams with these aggressive maps would take such a risk without weeks of testing and pitstop practice with the laptop. The short notice of this rule change no doubt aided the FIA in circumventing these sorts of workarounds.

Another workaround suggested has been set a lap fast lap on an aggressive strategy, pit, then change maps and run a lap on the race strategy. But the FIA are already beating this trick in two ways. Firstly the same map must be from used Q1, therefore all qualifying laps will have to be made with the same mapping as for the race start. This will further add to the deterrent of teams using aggressive maps, as this accounts for several extra laps in Q, as well as the first stint. This will be hard on the engines life and the fuel consumption. Secondly just as with tyres, it’s the set up on which the cars fastest lap is set that becomes the set up to start the race. It seems there are few workarounds to the rules.

The impact of this rule is teams will have to reign in their qualifying maps, this will cost them laptime and obviously any teams with an overly aggressive map will suffer more. The introduction at Valencia is significant as blown diffusers give the car more low speed downforce, although Valencia is not the slowest track on the calendar these maps will provide a big chunk of laptime at this circuit. Paddock rumour places Red Bull towards the top of the list of Q-Map users, so we could expect a smaller gap between them and FerrariMcLaren, but I doubt this would account for all of the laptime difference. McLaren are also a team with a well developed Q-map, where as Ferrari are still believed to be immature in this area of development. Further down the field the other Renault engined teams and the Cosworth teams are likely to suffer less. Which should bring the tailenders a few tenths closer to the P1 time in Q1 reducing the fear exclusion on the 107% rule.

Going forwards this rule change is likely to be retained; further reducing the special qualifying set ups that the FIA have spent the last ten years restricting. It seems now there is very little the teams can do to alter the car between a qualifying and race set up.

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