Today’s Australian Grand Prix could be shaped by a chaotic start thanks to new clutch rules introduced for this season.
Clutch rules were tweaked last season to prevent the pit wall from aiding the driver in finding the optimum clutch bite point, which resulted in varied starts throughout the season.
Clever torque mapping and steering wheel design helped to mitigate against the change to some degree, but the FIA has further strengthened the rules to put the drivers under more pressure on the grid.
Clutch paddles will be simplified and their relationship to the clutch will be made linear — more like a traditional car clutch pedal, in other words — which will make executing a good start more difficult race by race.
“We put some restrictions on how much travel the clutch lever can have and how far away from any adjacent levers it can have,” explained race director Charlie Whiting.
“The simple point is that now torque being mapped against the paddle distance instead of position.
“It has got to be linear and the drivers have got to find it himself without any help from another reference point.”
Teams have been adjusting their solutions during preseason testing, but Haas driver Kevin Magnussen, who qualified seventeenth, believes the rule will do its job and make race starts more variable this year.
“It’s going to make some abnormalities,” he said. “You have full control now, which is the problem.”
The Dane revealed that his own preseason practice starts in Barcelona had been poor compared to last season.
“I got maybe one really, really good [start], then five okay and then four really shit!” he said.
“We’ve done some work and some practice between testing and here, so hopefully we’ll get it better here, but we’re still not 100 per cent confident with the starts.”
Force India’s Sergio Perez, who was eleventh quickest in qualifying, explained that good fortune will play a part in each start procedure this season.
“It’s just a matter of practicing once and hoping wherever you put it is the right place,” he said. “It’s a bit tricky as the temperatures change quite a lot.”
“You will always need a bit of luck with the starts — that and not shitting yourself!”
Both Magnussen and Perez might find themselves at a natural disadvantage, however, because both teams operate on small budget, which disadvantages them in the search for a solution to ameliorate the rule change.
“Unfortunately it’s still the way that the big teams are going to get it — they’re going to get that right more than a small team.
“Some teams can [simulate starts at the factory]. It’s a thing that will make a difference. The big teams will have an advantage, like everything. It’s kind of how Formula One is.”
Mercedes and Ferrari are two such teams that have used their manufacturer might to find innovative solutions.
Ferrari is running a similar steering wheel to last year’s novel single-paddle design, which presents drivers with a longer lever that allows for greater feel of the clutch.
Mercedes has completely reimagined its clutch paddle, creating levers with bowling ball-like finger holes that will theoretically allow its drivers to more finely adjust clutch position. The team also redesigned the stitching style in its driver gloves last year in search for an advantage.
“At the moment there are still some things you can fine-tune,” Magnussen said. “I’m sure the big teams are going to get that sorted out better.
“I think either we need to go back to how it was or we need to make it completely the same for everyone — the FIA control completely the way we work things — but that is also very difficult.”
Magnussen’s suggestion is unlikely to gain much traction, but if the grid’s 20 cars likewise struggle to find grip, the FIA can feel vindicated in its quest to regulate engineers out of the cockpit.