Formula One cars pour 850 horsepower through a multi-plate clutch about the size of a saucer. At the start of the race, the driver must be able to feel the “bite” point precisely in order to make a clean getaway. Get it wrong and the car either bogs down or the rear wheels spin uselessly on the pavement. Either way, other cars can go screaming by in the blink of an eye.
That’s precisely what happened at the Canadian grand prix on Sunday. Pole sitter Lewis Hamilton was unable to get his car moving properly after the lights went out. In a heartbeat, he was swallowed up by Sebastien Vettel’s Ferrari and in second place by the first turn. Were it not for some questionable pit strategy from his team, Vettel could easily have gone on to win the race.
Afterwards, Hamilton told interviewer Michael Douglas that he might have overheated his clutch, which contributed to his poor start. But fans are aware by now that the Mercedes cars, all conquering in virtually every other phase of Formula One racing, are prone to issues on the starting line. By contrast, the Ferraris of Vettel and Raikonnen usually get away better, putting the Mercedes drivers under pressure immediately.
Is there a reason for that? Yes, according to Motorsport.com. It has published an analysis by Giorgio Piola that finds the clutch control on the Ferrari steering wheel is very different from what Mercedes and every other team uses. Until this year, the cars were allowed to have two paddles on the steering wheel to control the clutch. One provided general control over the clutch mechanism while the other allowed the driver fine control over the “bite” point. Also, drivers were allowed to get information from the pit lane about clutch performance, including temperature.
For 2017, most driver coaching communications are banned and only one steering wheel mounted paddle is allowed to operate the clutch. For most teams, that paddle is about 3″ long, but Ferrari has designed a system that spans the entire width of the steering wheel. The thinking is that the longer lever gives the driver a much better feel for the clutch and makes it easier to control it precisely.
Ferrari is not saying whether Piola’s analysis is correct. So far, none of the other teams have revised their clutch control systems to mimic the Ferrari procedure. But the results tell the tale; the Ferraris make better starts. Just from looking at Piola’s illustrations, his theory seems to offer a credible explanation for why the red cars from Maranello get away from the starting line so well.