Formula 1’s final triple-header of the season comes to a close with a brand new challenge for the Honda-powered teams, as the first ever Qatar Grand Prix will be held this weekend.
The Losail International Circuit was only added to the F1 calendar at the end of September, filling a vacancy after late changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And that meant limited time to prepare in the middle of what is such an intense season.
Since the race in Qatar was announced, we’ve had four races in six weeks to focus on, but as Honda's chief engineer for Scuderia AlphaTauri, Masamitsu Motohashi, explains there’s an additional challenge on top of the restrictions on time.
“We started our preparations for Qatar around two weeks before the race,” Motohashi-san says. “As we do not have any PU data from the past, we need to refer to the data from the two teams which they use to find the best set-up for their chassis.
“We then set-up our PU in accordance with the set-up of the chassis, which is the same procedure at all circuits.”
The 16-turn venue was completed in 2004 and features a mixture of high, medium and low-speed corners, while the main straight is more than a kilometre long. Trying to take all of that information on board to prepare the PU is slightly more challenging for one main reason: you’re not certain quite how the drivers will need to approach specific sections without any historical running having taken place.
“There’s not so much more work compared to a track we’ve visited before, but yes there is a little bit,” Motohashi-san adds. “The extra parts are that we normally prepare broader parameters than we would for a normal track as sometimes we face a situation that we have not expected.
“In addition, sometimes there are cases when the actual track running shows different behaviour to the simulations, especially for those new tracks, so we prepare more set-up items than usual. For example, if the simulation says we can run with full throttle in a particular corner, we’ll also prepare the set-up in case that doesn’t turn out to be the case.”
At 5.380km, the circuit sits close to the middle when it comes to track lengths on the calendar. But it’s the layout rather than the actual length that plays the biggest role in preparing for aspects such as energy deployment and harvesting under braking, and that's why the simulations can be so important.
Part of the challenge has been the work that has been ongoing at the circuit, too. So even previous simulations are now slightly different, with a revised pit entry and the addition of certain track characteristics that can influence a corner.
“The majority of the changes have been to do with safety, it had to adapt to Formula 1,” Amro Al-Hamad, Executive Director at the Qatar Motor & Motorcycle Federation says. “Changes have been done to the fencing and the Tecpro, but very minimal things to do with hosting a race like Formula 1 such as sausage kerbs and double kerbs in some areas.
“The pit entry has been changed to offer more safety for Formula 1. It was more suitable for MotoGP so we changed the location so that it doesn't produce any hazards for the drivers coming into the pits."
Despite those changes, Al-Hamad points out how the circuit was originally designed with MotoGP in mind. And thanks to that, we can lean on another arm of Honda motorsports, with HRC - the motorcycle division - having raced at Losail a number of times with both MotoGP and World Superbikes.
“Basically we complete our settings based on the team’s simulation,” Motohashi-san says. “But in case there are any doubts or unknown things, of course we speak to HRC and get their view and data. It is very useful to have people inside the company who have experience of those tracks even though it is in a different category.”
Friday will be a busy day of learning for all the teams as they get to grips with the new circuit, but through collaboration with Red Bull Racing, Scuderia AlphaTauri and HRC, we give ourselves the best possible chance of hitting the ground running.