Fuel woes Virgin on the ridiculous
Richard Branson's Virgin Racing Formula One cars are fuelled and ready to go for 48 laps of the Australian Grand Prix tomorrow.
Unfortunately, the Australian GP lasts 58 laps but it emerged last night that Virgin's designers had produced cars with fuel tanks too small to complete some of the sport's most high-profile races at full speed.
The team face a £1m bill and a dash to build new cars capable of completing the most fuel-thirsty grands prix on the calendar, starting here in Melbourne. Rival teams calculated that the Virgin cars could be as much as 10 laps short of finishing in Australia, with one team principal saying: "Sounds to me they have misplaced a decimal point."
Branson, the billionaire tycoon, is expected in Melbourne today and is said to be fuming. It could be two months before new cars are designed and ready, and Virgin Racing, not exactly flush with cash despite Branson's involvement as title sponsor, will have to pay a huge bill to manufacture a minimum of three new chassis.
The team were trying to play down the problem, although Nick Wirth, the technical director, admitted that "fuel tank capacity is marginal" on the four miles-to-the-gallon cars.
Given that the team's cars completed a combined total of only 18 race laps in Bahrain, running out of petrol was a problem that did not register.
But the Virgin boffins obviously had their calculators whirring before Melbourne -- the same engineers and technicians who were part of Wirth's pioneering method of designing a car entirely by computer. The idea was to cut costs radically by doing away with expensive wind-tunnels and workshops.
Instead, the team are faced with finding as much as £1m from their tight budget with the season a fortnight old because the number crunchers failed to input the correct dimensions of a fuel tank needed to get through entire races because refuelling is banned this season.
F1 is padlocked by severe rules, and almost the only subject in town has been about the quality of the regulations that appear to have returned the sport to the bad old days of processional racing since the now-infamous bore in Bahrain two weeks ago.
That race was so dull that team principals called a rapid inquest last week and will meet again at the Malaysian GP next weekend to discuss whether to take emergency action.
But teams are torn between the fear that what was being billed as the most exciting F1 season in decades is about to be wrecked by regulations that appear directly to prevent overtaking and being forced into a knee-jerk reaction that will make things worse.
"I am worried by the prospect of the racing at the moment but I respect others who say, 'hang on, there has only been one race'," said Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal.
Before refuelling was banned for this season, at least spectators could look forward to the carefully choreographed action in the pits if there was none on the track.
Now pit-stops are reduced to a single stop, a three-second blur before cars return to their place in the procession.
Pointing the finger is easy but finding solutions is much harder, although the teams are already sitting on a raft of proposals that could be rolled out immediately if the racing continues to be dire.
The quest is to introduce variables, whether it is introducing tyres that degrade rapidly or bringing in a mandatory second pit-stop to shake up the order. Qualifying could be the first target: the logic for change is simple and undeniable, according to Whitmarsh.
"The underlying problem is that we have high-quality drivers who don't make mistakes in cars that don't want to run line astern and then we spend two days ordering them so that the fastest driver-car combinations are at the front and the slowest at the rear," he said.
"When you run a race like that, you don't get overtaking."
One idea, to load the fastest cars with ballast, so the championship leader might be forced to qualify with 10kg of extra fuel, equivalent to a 0.3 second-a-lap penalty, the second in the championship nine kg and so on.
But there is a strong move for a football Champions League-type system of putting the teams into four qualifying pools of six, their names drawn at random.
The pool winner would go forward into a series of knockout rounds, with pole position going to the eventual winner.
Tyres are also an immense contributor and Bridgestone's new, narrower front tyre and fat rears have proved immensely durable, against all expectations.
The teams want tyres that shred fast, forcing pit-stops and driver error, but asking a proud Japanese manufacturer effectively to make a tyre that will be seen by millions to shred itself in minutes instead of hours could prove beyond F1's powers of persuasion.
Whatever happens, the only thing F1 is praying for is an epic race here tomorrow, although that might not prevent a charge to change.
As Whitmarsh put it: "If we have a less-than-stunning race then the likelihood of pushing through changes is enhanced. But I want a stunning race -- and changes." (©The Times, London)
Australian GP, tomorrow,
Live, Setanta Ireland, BBC1, 7.0am