Ever wondered how to corner as fast as possible in an F1 car? Not just how quick it is - or whether it’s fun - but what physical and mechanical processes are involved in doing it? Have you ever wondered what ‘fast’ feels like?
I had, and earlier this week Mercedes F1 driver Nico Rosberg found himself stuck in an S-class with me for half an hour. So I asked him. I asked him to dissect a corner for me and, to his eternal credit, he humoured me.
Let’s assume you’re on a straight, and a corner is approaching. A braking point, Rosberg says, is “literally a specific point. It can be markings on the road, bumps, the 100-metre boards, all sorts of things like that.”
(Unhelpfully, however, depending on fuel load and tyre wear, this point “changes all the time”.)
To my surprise, even at very high speeds, Rosberg says it’s possible to lock the wheels under braking. Nevertheless, he suggests it’s best to hit the unassisted left pedal “very hard”.
And although in an F1 car “there is a big weight transfer,” unlike a road car “it’s not in pitch movement, just in straight-ahead movement. You have to push against the steering wheel hard otherwise you fall [down] into the seat.”
Braking, Rosberg explains, is the big difference compared with a road car. "In the first part of braking you hit it as hard as you can because there’s so much grip – because there’s so much downforce. But, then, as you’re slowing down, the grip of the car is reducing at the same time. So you have to ease off the brakes to get maximum deceleration.”
Do F1 drivers trail the brakes into the corner, gradually easing them off even as they turn? “Yeah, a lot. All the way to the point where you go onto the throttle, you’re holding [the brakes] in,” Rosberg says.
However, this season’s tyres, noted for a wear rate that makes racing exciting rather than for their durability, don’t always like doing that. “If you steer and brake, it’s a longitudinal deceleration and a lateral acceleration. It can easily overload the front tyres,” Rosberg says.
The (hydraulically assisted) steering, meanwhile, is “quite light, in general”, though heavy enough to retain road feel. “You need feedback through the steering wheel,” says Rosberg, “because it’s very sensitive to when you’re locking up and turning. There’s more feel [than in even a good road car]. Loads more.”
Then you’re at the apex. “We accelerate at the apex all the time,” says Rosberg. “You have to be very careful feeding the throttle. And as soon as you feel the rear going, you have to wait again.”
Is any lateral slip advantageous? “Yeah yeah, of course,” he says. “You just need to find the right balance. There comes a point where you lose too much, so it’s finding the right amount.”
Does that mean a neutral steer point, where the steering wheel is straight and the car is effectively slipping across the track? “That’s the fastest way to drive,” says Rosberg. “It’s like the rally guys: always driving on the rear. Because with understeer you have to wait and wait and wait and wait… until the car drives around the corner. Whereas with oversteer… it’s just the fastest way.”
On top of that theory, “you always have little secrets everywhere, definitely”, says Rosberg. “And it’s very small things. Often one driver is finding it here, and the other is finding it there, and you look at the others and take bits and pieces and try it yourself. There’s many, many small pieces happening all the time.”
Which all sounds ideal. If, that is, you’re driving flat out to your preferred style.
With this season's tyres and fuel loads, however, drivers are often not. The tyres are “very sensitive”, says Rosberg. “You really have to drive so carefully; don’t put any aggressive steering inputs into it because you lose time straight away.”
“That’s a very recent thing. It didn’t used to be like that; you used to be able to just push and drive fast.”
So, er, is driving an F1 car fun? “Oh yeah for sure, it’s amazing!” says Rosberg. “Especially the qualifying lap when you’re low on fuel, and you can go for all the limits. Because nowadays you can’t do the push, flat out [all the time], so it’s different. But for qualifying you can go flat out. And as Mario Andretti said, if it all feels under control, you’re not going fast enough.”