Start, Hockenheimring, 2016

Why manual starts are the quiet success story of 2016

2016 F1 season

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When electronic launch control system were banned in Formula One ahead of the 2004 season it began a scramble for teams to devise the best manual alternative to help drivers get their cars off the line as quickly as possible.

Start, Melbourne, 2004
Fast-starting Renault aroused suspicion in 2004
Renault were the first team to hit on the potential gains from optimising their clutches. The team drew suspicious glances when Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli shot from fifth and ninth on the grid to third and fifth as the season-opening race began.

Inevitable accusations of ‘secret launch control systems’ followed, but it soon transpired Renault’s solution was legal and the rest of the field eventually mimicked it.

Over a decade passed before the FIA took another look at the assistance drivers were receiving from their start systems. By using a twin clutch set-up drivers could pre-select the optimum bite point for their getaway on one clutch and quickly reach it by releasing a second clutch at the start.

Some engineers expressed surprise the FIA permitted such set-ups for so long, as it allowed the teams to almost entirely recreate the benefits of fully automated launch control, albeit with drivers having to pull two levers instead of pressing a single button.

That all changed at the beginning of this year when the FIA forced teams to switch to single-clutch set-ups. Since then drivers have been forced to perform true ‘manual’ starts.

The hope was this would lead to greater unpredictability at the start of races. The data from the first half of the season gives good reason to believe it has worked.

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Drivers gaining more places

Over 19 races last year drivers gained a total of 415 places on the first lap – an average of 21.8 changes in the whole field per race. In the 12 races so far this year we’ve seen 294 gains in position, an average of 24.5 per race.

Start, Sochi Autodrom, 2016
Sochi saw the most changes in position at the start
That’s a modest rise, but the increase becomes more convincing when we take Safety Car starts into account. Drivers don’t perform racing starts and can’t change position on the first lap when a rolling start is used, and while there were none last year we’ve already had two this season at Monaco and Silverstone. Factor those out and we find that in the ten races with standing starts we’ve seen an average of 29 places gained per race, a 28.2% rise compared to last year.

Of course some of this change would probably have happened anyway because there are two more cars on the grid this year. The arrival of Haas meant a 10% increase in the number of cars and therefore a greater potential for positions to be won on the first lap.

But even taking this into considering the 28.2% rise we have seen is significant. And the figure becomes even more impressive when we compare starts at the same circuits.

Mastering the variables

The rate of development is rapid in Formula One and any new variable presented to the teams will quickly by analysed and mastered. It’s inevitable that some teams would find better solutions to the new start procedures and the rest would gravitate towards them over time.

The data indicates this has happened and recent race starts have not been as unpredictable as those early in the year. But the nature of the tracks F1 has raced at recently means it remains to be seen just how far things have settled down.

Comparing standing starts at the same eight circuits raced on this year and last illustrates this point. First, the total number of positions gained at those tracks has increased this year by a whopping 71.6%.

However it’s clear from this graph that the bulk of that increase occurred in 2016’s early-season races:

So have F1 teams cracked the new-style starts, leading to less variability. That’s definitely happening to some extent. Lewis Hamilton, who made some conspicuously poor starts at the beginning of the year but has done better of late, admitted as much on Sunday, describing his starts as a “work in progress”.

Start, Hockenheimring, 2016
Hamilton is making better starts now
“We have worked very, very hard,” said Hamilton. “Obviously I have a guy that I’m working with very, very closely and it’s been an up-and-down season and it’s not his fault or not my fault, it’s just the way these new clutch regs are and how sensitive the clutches are. I think we’ve worked and worked, and just consistency and really trying to be precise with the whole procedure.”

However other drivers made less good starts in Germany, notably Nico Rosberg, Kimi Raikkonen and Sergio Perez, so the potential to make a poor start remains.

And there is another reason why we’ve seen less variable starts of late. The more recent races happen to have been on circuits where the run to turn one is shorter than at tracks earlier in the season. Drivers have therefore stood to lose fewer positions if they make a poor getaway.

It indicates that while teams are making better starts now than they were at the beginning of the season, we’ve still seen more variability than we had 12 months ago, with the sole exception of the Hungarian Grand Prix.

But what’s most encouraging is how the increased variability in starts has given us more action at the sharp end. Fast starts in Australia and Canada helped Ferrari take the fight to Mercedes, even if they ultimately missed their chances of victory. And even in the most recent race a poor getaway by Rosberg set up a race-long battle between him and the Red Bulls.

Will it continue?

The only area of the radio regulations not freed up at the German Grand Prix was communications on the formation lap. That ban, which was introduced at the Belgian Grand Prix last year, remains in place, so teams still cannot give their drivers feedback based on their final practice start to optimise their getaways.

The upcoming races will reveal whether the teams have more gains to make in terms of perfecting their starts. One key measure of this will be whether we continue to see the pole sitter struggling to preserve their advantage at the start. In the ten standing starts this year the pole sitter has only held the lead on three occasions.

F1 has been criticised repeatedly this year for making ill-considered rules changes which have been quickly abandoned: the radio communications ban and short-lived elimination qualifying format being two obvious examples.

The new start restrictions are a good example of F1 getting it right. The rules have taken a largely automated part of driving the car and made it a greater test of a racer’s skill. As a gimmick-free means of making the action more interesting, it’s a good model for F1 to bear in mind for the future.

Over to you

Are manual starts a change for the better? Do you expect to see more predictable starts in the second half of 2016?

Have your say in the comments.

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 34 comments on “Why manual starts are the quiet success story of 2016”

    1. Yes, it’s a great success indeed. It’s good to talk about a rule change for the better in F1 for a change. Anything that gives more control to the driver over his destiny is a positive. However, the radio rules reversal, save for the formation lap is a joke! They go from one extreme to the over without considering anything in between. Any radio communication that constitutes driver coaching(not something related to a car problem) should be gone from F1 forever

      1. Indeed @montreal95, the radio regs were set to fail, as we have just heard Bernie wants radio coms as a product to sell. Cue Abba, money, money,money.

        1. @hohum

          Money, money, money
          all that matters
          to the poison dwarf!

    2. Great analysis as always @keithcollantine however; one way of finding more accuracy in regards to the average field changes per race would be to compare the first 12 races (I know Baku and Hockenheim weren’t there last year) of last year as against 12 races of the current year as again tracks also play a critical role in changing positions off the line.

      To cite an example, field changes would be more on tracks like Spa, Monza, Abu Dhabi while less on tracks like Singapore, Mexico or Suzuka.

    3. Under the entire philosophy of ‘letting the drivers do more of the racing’ this has always been one of my more favourite things they introduced. Although as F1 goes, it won’t be long untill this has been mastered and the ‘challenge’ is taken away by a proper understanding of the problem at hand.

    4. Even if they tend to master those new starts, there is more room for human error and thus a driver going backwards from the start if he doesn’t nail it in a particular occasion. And that is exactly what F1 drivers should be about, being as close to optimum every time it counts.

    5. I’m surprised that the starts are still causing problems for the teams (or the drivers rather). Seems like finally there is something in this sport that is extremely difficult to perfect – and that is great to see.

      Oh, and one of the problems with this data is that this takes into account the entire first lap; if you lose a couple places at the start but gain them back before the lap finishes then “nothing” has happened. However, this is probably the only way to measure the positional changes in starts, as it’s pretty difficult to determine when the start ends and racing begins. For example, in Melbourne it’s usually up to T3-4 that we see some changes, while in Bahrain you can still capitalize on a good start till T8.

    6. Good article, and I agree that it is a step forward to put more emphasis on driver skill at the starts. However, would just like to say that the stats above are probably misleading in some cases. Take Barcelona for example, this year there were 42 recorded position changes – but the Mercedes’ took each other out on the first lap so presumably almost all those ‘position changes’ were a result of the rest of the field moving up a net two places. That’s the most extreme example but I guess any race where someone high up the field has a major problem on the first lap would show a similar increase in position changes. This is assuming that cars that DNF on the first lap are not excluded from the data in some way.

    7. I read a comment, I think on James Allens website, from an alleged F1 engineer that the best way to mix things up is to switch the computers off.

      You’d get a million squeals from some fans and most teams alike but id definitely like to see a ‘return to brain power’. The drivers preferably.

      1. You’d get some rather loud squeals from inside the cars as well, as the engine, transmission, and ERS system spontaneously implode in a shower of sparks and damaged components.

        It baffles me that F1 attracts Luddites the way it does.

        1. Slightly un- necessary personal criticism. Still, it was at an F1 race engineer and im sure you know better than him. They banned plenty of gizmo’s before, somehow the sport continued though the early 94 season Williams that had benefited most was a dog to begin with.

          Maybe you’ll become less baffled if you read more history of the sport

          1. Luddite: a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology.

            Is F1 supposed to be the pinnacle of motor racing, or not? Is it supposed to be the most advanced motor racing on the planet? Or is it supposed to be V12 engines screaming out a banshee wail with no electronics whatsoever? If you just want “no computers”, you’re still going back to early 80’s specifications (pre 1983, when the first engine management system was incorporated into an F1 car).

            If an F1 engineer was seriously suggesting switching off the computers in the car, I doubt he was a current F1 engineer. If he was suggesting turning off the pit wall computers, that’s slightly more reasonable, but still, it’s just removing information that ought to be available to the drivers, and seems kind of backwards for a technologically advanced sport.

            Now– If he meant turning off the terabytes of data being streamed back to each team’s home base, to be analyzed in real-time by massive banks of computers and a room full of engineers, so that strategy can be calculated out to umpteen decimal places, I’d be on board for that. It would be one area in which you would be saving money, and would give the smaller teams a chance at competing on strategy terms with the big teams.

      2. the best way to mix things up is to switch the computers off

        Which computers?

        If he was talking about the ones on the pit wall, the ones outside of the car, then I can see the point. If teams do not have all the computer power there to model and monitor, strategies will be more varied and cars less reliable. This would mix it up. I don’t know if I agree with it, but I see the reasoning.

        If they mean the ones in the car, F1 would become rather boring. Without the computers, these modern cars will not do a thing. Every part of the engine is controlled by computers, and more. It would take a complete redesign, moving back to carbs and a simple ignition system. We would loose decades of development, cars would be much slower… This would not be even remotely sensible.

    8. is that graph meant to be 2016 vs 2015? typo?

    9. With a single clutch, how come we don’t see the (pre-2000) wheel spin starts anymore?

      1. Better enginemapping to a point which aint to far from tractioncontrol. Its just preset values instead of reactive values.

      2. I have to rant a bit. There is only one clutch. There has been only one clutch. Nothing inside the power-train changed as a result of the start clampdown.

        What the F1 drivers had before was two *levers* for the clutch… One of which covers the range of “fully disengaged” to “bite point”, where the bite point is that point where the friction between the clutch surfaces just begins to have an effect. The second lever is the “feather” lever, and is used by the driver to control how fast the clutch goes from slightly engaged to fully engaged (and thus, controls wheel spin, how fast the engine revs drop, etc…. everything someone driving a normal manual transmissions expects as they let out the clutch).

        The rule change is that both levers have to have the same effect on the clutch travel. That’s it. So there are two levers (in theory, for redundancy), but you have to feather the clutch all the way out on your own.

        …. end rant. :)

        As for the wheelspin starts, the MGU-K and MGU-H are a trifle slow (deliberately, I expect) to come in, so you’re not getting full torque off the line, but rather a few feet past the line.

        1. Yes good point, well made.

    10. Ofc. Manual starts are better who would have thought. Let them shift manually aswell and we will enjoy this sort of things all race long and not just for the first 3 turns turns.

    11. Budapest 2015 was an unusual situation whereby there was an extra formation lap. This hindered the cars that could not, or did not, correctly manage their clutch temperatures.

      I have to agree with you that the new rules have made the starts more variable. One thing to note is the teams used to be allowed to make on-the-fly Bitepoint mode changes via the radio to the driver to select a different clutch engagement level. Now, the clever bit of the regulations is that that switch cannot be changed from the moment the car rolls out of the garage on Sunday. That means teams need to estimate what the clutch is going to do, having last completed a start in Saturday morning practice. This is certainly one area where the FIA rule change worked as expected. I think this was because they consulted their soaftware engineers that can see data from all teams. They understood what the teams were doing and blocked it.

      It will be interesting to see how the 2017 rule changes effect the variability at the start. These are aimed at making the drivers clutch paddle position in direct control of the clutch without any fancy mapping in between. lets wait and see on that..

    12. If we remove the roughly 40 spots gained by the field passing both Mercs in Spain, the numbers are much less impressive.

      Leads me to think, how many of these gains are true gains and how many are the result of a crash or puncture?

      Haryanto may be gaining 3-4 positions per race but you can’t attribute that to skill.

      1. Yeah fair enough. They all have the same challenge though and they are supposed to be the best drivers in the world so you wouldn’t expect too many mistakes.

        It’s just much better that bad starts are now the driver’s fault rather than something attributed to a problem with the car. User error is something to expect when you are doing something very difficult and it shows that the drivers are being pushed.

    13. Funny how many people were opposed to this (deeming it dangerous) when this change was brought up for the first time.

      1. Well everyone wanna be abord the safetytrain even if most of the safetyhype doesnt make any sense whatsoever.

      2. Yeah, it’s funny how people were complaining F1 should be a motorized sport and not every change should be aiming for increasing the “entertainment”, but apparently it’s hooray for random starts by dodgy start systems. Great.

        How about using dice to add a random delay for the first pit stop. Or even better, roll the dice for the number of pit stops to be made. Now that would be entertaining and it would increase the position changes by a huge amount. Brilliant if I say so myself.

    14. Mark Webber must be secretly thankful that he retired before he had to deal with this single-clutch start. The old one was tough enough for him.

    15. Well still it continues, now Nico is doing Lewis like starts, that bring so much fun on opening laps.

      By far the best thing we can see on start is a slow Mercedes, instantly we get racing, since eventually Mercedes will try to get.to P1, P2.

      Teams will eventually make it easier for drivers. But by no means it will be like before, two paddles, one set in perfect position via race engineer.

      That was taking all the variability out of it.

      1. Mercedes had plenty of poor starts with the double clutch system. Remember Silverstone 2014? I think that was just after they revised their start system because Rosberg kept having horrible starts while Hamilton was rocketing away every start. They “fixed” the start system and then both cars were overtaken at the start.

    16. I think yes and we need this. At least the starts are still exciting…

    17. Now we have the clutch sorted out and some skill required at the start let’s put a gear stick back in the cockpit and extend the skill levels for the whole race.

      1. This has nothing to do with skill. It’s still the engineer who sets up the clutch and they get it right or wrong. There is simply much more chance for them to get it wrong since they can’t adjust the settings anymore to adjust for changed circumstances.

    18. Good article. I think this and the increased tyre freedom have been excellent rule changes that have helped produce some fairly interesting races so far. May it continue!

    19. The figures don’t add up. If the input values are correct, it’s a 34.6% increase, not 28.2%.

    Comments are closed.