With Fuji Speedway returning to the calendar for the first time in 30 years, how does the team begin preparing for a new circuit?
First of all you get a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file with the circuit data, so we can start to run some simulations in our software and get a first impression of what the circuit is like. We are able to simulate all set up aspects of our car and see the results of set-up changes on the new track. Effectively our simulation software calculates virtual laps of the circuit showing the effects on lap time of running different levels of downforce or different set-up options. Using these simulations we are able to find the best starting set-up for the new circuit, so we arrive at the track well prepared.
What areas are we able to simulate?
You start to determine what downforce level gives the best lap time on the new circuit. Once you know that, you look into which gear ratios suit the track with the given level of downforce, before you get into more detailed simulations of different set-up solutions. Getting a bit closer to the weekend, you start running race simulations in order to predict the optimum race strategy. This prediction takes into account estimates of relevant characteristics of the new track, like the degradation of the two Bridgestone tyre compounds and the effect the fuel has on lap time. If you have more fuel in the car, this affects your lap time, but we can accurately predict how much time is lost with every extra kilogramme of fuel carried.
Are there any unusual set-up implications at Fuji Speedway, particularly considering the long straight?
The main straight at Fuji is exceptionally long, 1.475km, but the rest of the circuit is relatively twisty so there is a compromise you have to find on the aerodynamic and mechanical set-up. You have some very slow corners which require good mechanical grip and as always you want good grip in general, but you have to balance that with the long straight, where you need low enough downforce to get a level of drag which allows you to have a good top speed.
Is it more difficult to predict the best strategy when the team has not raced at the track before?
It is a bit more difficult, yes, because there are more uncertainties at a new track compared to one which we know very well and have all the data on. Obviously, it is a bit harder to predict tyre behaviour if we don’t have any actual data from testing or racing at that particular circuit. Mainly, what you want to know about the tyres is the level of degradation over long runs and the effect that has on lap time. Also, without having driven at a track, you can only estimate the time loss during a pit stop and that makes a difference to the strategy you choose. Having said that, I am confident our predictions will be very close to what we find when we get to Fuji Speedway.
Historically, how accurate are these predictions?
I think we are quite accurate but the ultimate response to that is very difficult to say for sure because it very much depends on what happens in the race. Many incidents can happen, which then have a positive or an adverse affect on strategy. If you get a good start or a car you would be fighting with gets stuck in traffic you can gain a lot in the final race result, but the opposite case obviously costs time and ultimately will compromise your strategy. On the other hand, if you have a clean race you are able to see more clearly how accurate the prediction was.
With a new circuit, do we learn more about set-up requirements just by observing the track before the cars have even run?
To a small extent, yes. We have most of the information but when we first go to a new track we would walk the circuit and study elements like the kerbs and the cambers of the track in the corners. We have a good idea what to expect but it is helpful to actually see the track with your own eyes to really have a complete understanding. Well before the race all the teams get a complete circuit map, which shows all the corners in detail so you have the altitude and the topography of the track. We have quite a bit of information there.
Would you keep a wider set-up window available in preparing for a new circuit compared to one we know very well?
Not really because at any race we come prepared with all the set-up options, so we have everything available to us. However, it is true to say you might make bigger steps when evaluating set-up in free practice as you tune the car to the requirements of the track.