May 18th 2012 (F1plus / Chris Cameron-Dow).- Michael Schumacher crashed into the back of Bruno Senna during the Spanish Grand Prix. It was clearly Schumacher’s fault, and he has been handed a grid penalty for the next race as a result. But while it’s easy to blame Schumacher based on television footage, it’s not so simple to imagine what’s going on in the car.
Consider what Schumacher was doing at the time of the accident. The crash happened under braking for turn one, at the end of the longest straight on the circuit, while in the slipstream of Senna’s Williams, just after the DRS on the Mercedes had closed.
Let’s break that down a little bit, to illustrate just how much Schumacher had to deal with in the few moments between hitting the brakes and hitting the Williams.
Before braking, the Mercedes would have been traveling at around 310 km/h. That’s approximately 86 metres per second. Missing the ideal braking point by just a tenth of a second would have put Schumacher off the track, even if Senna were not in the way.
The slipstream, as any racing driver knows, is useful. The car in front effectively punches a hole in the air, which means there’s less air to create drag for the car behind. As a result, the following car has greater acceleration, which assists with catching the car in front.
But there’s a downside to the slipstream. A Formula One car has very carefully designed bodywork that uses airflow to create downforce that pushes the car into the ground to generate more grip. More grip means the car can turn, accelerate and brake more effectively. Running in the slipstream of another car dramatically interrupts the airflow that is required to produce downforce. The result is less grip, and therefore, in Schumacher’s case, less effective braking.
Since 2011, Formula One cars have been fitted with a Drag Reduction System (DRS) that reduces drag to boost acceleration and therefore assist overtaking. The system works by reducing the angle of the rear wing, which reduces rear drag and downforce. In the 2012 Mercedes, the system also stalls the front wing, which reduces front downforce to balance out the effect on the rear of the car.
The DRS is designed to de-activate when the driver brakes. So when Schumacher hit the brakes, the car would suddenly have had a massive amount of downforce. More grip is certainly preferable, so let's not suggest that Schumacher was at a disadvantage because his DRS closed. The opposite is true. But it's still one more thing to deal with at 310 km/h.
Braking in a racing car is not like braking in a road car. In a road car, braking hard results in the driver leaning forward against the seatbelt a bit. In a Formula One car, braking hard is about the most violent experience a human being can have. Forces sometimes in excess of 5G push the driver's lungs up against his ribs, making breathing difficult, and will blur his vision. To put it in everyday terms, braking in an F1 car is like being hit in the stomach with a baseball bat. Or running into a wall.
To top it all off, the car is in seventh gear at the end of the straight, but turn one in Barcelona is a third gear corner. So there are four down-shifts required during the braking phase.
With all that going on – picking a braking point at 310 km/h while running in compromised airflow behind another car,, braking at 5G, DRS closing, down-shifting four times – Formula One drivers are expected to overtake each other. From the outside it looks so simple. From inside the cockpit, it must be terrifyingly complex. That's not to suggest that Schumacher is not at fault for Sunday's accident. He is. But it provides some insight into just how easily it can all go wrong, and just how good these guys are at what they do.