How F1 teams might use extended Grand Prix break

The gap between the Malaysian Grand Prix last month and the next race in China is longer than normal at three weeks, and the Formula 1 teams will be using that time to do everything they can to improve their competitiveness.

The teams sent their cars straight from Kuala Lumpur to Shanghai - although Lotus did bring a chassis back to the UK for repairs and some other tests  .

Most will be bringing new parts to the race in Shanghai, which is 13-15 April, but those developments will mostly be products of a programme that started during pre-season testing.

Developments take time - and teams need to plan what they want and when.

Three weeks is not long enough to make major new parts for an F1 car - although it is just about sufficient time to build a small development.

In the gap between the two races, it will have been possible to make simple bits if they were considered necessary - perhaps a front-wing flap or endplate, or a part of a sidepod around the exhaust exits, or something like that.

But a major structural part such as a front wing takes a bit longer - more like four weeks. So most developments that appear in China will have been in the pipeline since before the first race of the season in Australia.

WHAT TEAMS WILL BE WORKING ON

I would imagine most teams will not be rushing out new parts in a panic.

That's because, with very few exceptions, most teams pretty much knew where they were by the end of the final pre-season test in Barcelona.

There were very few surprises in Australia and Malaysia - although people expected Red Bull to be a bit more competitive in qualifying than they were; and Williams are perhaps a little bit quicker than we thought they would be.

Apart from the well-known problems at Ferrari, Mercedes are the team who will perhaps be doing the most soul-searching.

Michael Schumacher's Mercedes during the Malaysian Grand Prix

Mercedes have scored only a single point from the first two races

They clearly have a quick car in qualifying, but they have not performed well in races, and the car is still showing the trait it had last year in generating excessive tyre wear.

In 2011, Mercedes felt that they knew why that was - the car had an unusually high centre of gravity and short wheelbase. They thought if they fixed those two issues, they would be fine.

Well, they have obviously done that for this year but they're not fine - so they'll be looking fairly deeply into that.

The way they will do that is to look deeply into the set-up of the car and see if there is anything there that might be using the rear tyres too heavily.

To help them with that, they will use a device called a seven-poster rig.

This is a hydraulically driven device on to which you mount the car and which simulates the forces going through it out on the track.

A seven-poster rig in motion is quite something to see - it really emphasises how violently an F1 car is being smashed about when it's on the limit.

If I had to guess, I would say Mercedes' tyre-wear problem is something to do with the aerodynamics of the car.

When the tyres are new - ie, in qualifying - they hang on and the car has a lot of grip.

But then when the tyre grip-level is falling away, that's when the rubber gets overworked.

So it may be they can do something by changing the aerodynamics to make the car a bit less responsive on the front end - which can work the rear tyres too hard.

Another area they can look at would be how the harvesting is working for the Kers power-boost system. This is done from the rear axle and it affects the brake balance, so that can also have an effect on tyre wear.

HOW A NEW PART IS MADE

F1 teams are constantly developing new parts for their cars - and this is how they do it.

A design engineer or group comes up with an idea for a new design, and that is tested both virtually on a computer using a tool called computational fluid dynamics and via assessment of scale parts in a wind tunnel.

Once the new part has been defined in that way, a full-scale drawing is made on a computer, which can take quite a bit of time depending on the size of the part.

A new front wing, for example, is made up something like 20 different parts, and drawing that would take about a week.

Ferrari front wing

Ferrari introduced a new front wing in Malaysia

That drawing is turned into a three-dimensional model, which then goes to a multi-axis machining centre.

The material you make the pattern out of is called tooling board - a kind of high-density foam that does not change shape with temperature - and is machined to make a solid model of the end part. That is the 'pattern', as it is known.

When that comes out, it is given a bit of manual care and attention, smoothing off the edges and so on, and the pattern is used to make the mould in which the part itself will be made. That's done in carbon-fibre. And, like the model, it too is tidied up before the end part is made in the mould.

Depending on the part itself, it may need to be rig-tested to see if it passes all the FIA tests.

Using that process, a complete new front wing takes about four weeks to make from start to finish - and that's not including the time taken to design and draw it.

So that scale of new development is too big a job to do in this gap between Malaysia.

There is a way you can shortcut this process if you find something revolutionary and want to get it out quickly - and that is to machine the tooling block into a mould rather than a copy of the part.

That allows you to make one or two or - at a push - perhaps three or four parts, which saves about a week.