until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

Alfa Romeo’s costly F1 start problem is likely to linger

by Edd Straw
6 min read

Alfa Romeo Formula 1 technical director Jan Monchaux says its start troubles could continue for at least a few more races, but that it should be possible to produce good launches if the drivers are more “gentle” than they would normally be at the start.

Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu both lost places at the start of the Bahrain Grand Prix thanks to wheelspin, with Bottas revealing after the race that the Alfa Romeo struggles with a clutch vibration that compromised its launches 50% of the time.

Bottas indicated on Friday that there was a “mechanical fix” on the way in the coming races, suggesting that it would take at least one or two races before this was deployed.

However, Monchaux suggests it could be a little longer than this with the changes set to come from Ferrari, which supplies Alfa Romeo’s engine and gearbox internals – although the team produces its own gearbox casing, which is how it has been able to run pushrod rear suspension.

“It seems that many teams, not just us, apart from maybe two or three are struggling currently with drivetrain oscillation at the start,” said Monchaux when asked by The Race about the problem. “When they are queuing and you look at them, you will see they are all vibrating a bit.

“It’s something that is not going to be fixed very quickly in my view because it’s on the driveline, which means it might be a topic of stiffnesses, weight, position of the clutch, new tyres, heavier car. For the moment, it’s a bit early to say.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Practice Day Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

“I personally have not yet fully got to the bottom of it, but there are ways to live with it. We’ve been able to do a decent start also with the oscillation.

“It just requires the driver to be a lot more gentle with the throttle and the clutch as maybe he would be in normal circumstances. So I would like a mechanical fix but I would be surprised if we had something in the next weeks.”

Bottas lost places off the line in Bahrain then lost more ground as the lap progressed owing to the rear tyres overheating as a result of the wheelspin at the start. He finished the lap 14th but recovered to finish sixth, where he had started.

He indicated resolving this problem is considered a priority for the Sauber-run team, but despite efforts being made to tackle the problem operationally this weekend, the physical fix will take a bit longer.

“It’s been perhaps the biggest priority since the first race,” said Bottas when asked by The Race about the problem on Friday.

“We saw it in testing and unfortunately there’s no quick fix.

“I think the lead time is going to be, I don’t know, maybe another one or two races at least for a mechanical fix.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

“But there’s other things we’re trying to look into how to avoid it because in 50% of starts it happens.

“How to avoid it in terms of the way it works, where you drop the clutch, the driver inputs trying to be as consistent as possible.

“So we’re looking at all of those areas to try and hopefully have clean starts for both cars and more consistent ones. That’s where we are at the moment.”

Bottas qualified eighth for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix despite concerns about the Alfa Romeo C42 not being strong in fast corners.

He suggested this performance proves that Alfa Romeo can aim to fight for Q3 at every event.

“High-speed corners are the weakness and we see the biggest losses are Turn 16 and Turn 22/23. So I think they [Alpine] have the upper hand in those two places.

“But for the medium speed, the car’s not bad. I think it’s only the top two teams that are further away. Otherwise, it’s so close.

“Today shows that if we can just keep improving the car, there’s no doubt we should be still able to in the future always fight for Q3 and top 10 places. So that is good to see.”


Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Valtteri Bottas has taken to life at Alfa Romeo like a duck to water, but when you move to any new team it will do things differently.

Sometimes, on the way to understanding how a team goes about its business, it’s easy to make the wrong assumptions and or say the wrong things.

After the race in Bahrain where his start risked ruining his race as he dropped from sixth to 14th through a combination of massive amounts of wheelspin off the line and the resulting tyre overheating, he said something perhaps he shouldn’t have done regarding his clutch problem.

“It’s a mechanical thing, that sometimes we have this vibration on the clutch,” said Bottas. “It happens 50% of the time.

“And when that happens it’s quite easy to break the traction. So yeah, it’s on the list and we’re working on it.”

It could very easily be a drivetrain stiffness issue with these new low-profile tyres and heavier car. But that’s fairly easy to simulate, or at least to have a simulation tool available if you do have a stiffness problem to help you to understand it.

I am by no means saying that Alfa Romeo is up to anything suspicious, but to be successful you always push the limits on everything. And finding legal ways to achieve certain effects is one of them.

There have been times when we have encountered problems like this in the past and it has been deemed something like a traction control effect off the startline and away from pitstops.

Back in the day, you would have the late Charlie Whiting on the phone pretty quickly if that happened – and that happened to me on more than one occasion. Sometimes even when something is legal, he wanted to prevent such an effect from being created.

It’s not easy to achieve, but if you can get a clutch vibration working correctly it can be very beneficial. But you need to work on it in conjunction with the rotational tyre stiffness to get the frequency of that vibration right. This year’s tyres on 18-inch wheelrims with reduced sidewalls will behave very differently to last year’s tyres.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Practice Day Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

One way to achieve it is by having clutch actuator position overshoot. In other words, you generate an actuator ‘vibration’ around the bite point of the clutch.

This gives a drive-slip-drive-slip function until the clutch is fully engaged. There is no feedback, the actuator is just slow to react and achieve its final position. This is what gives you potential control of the wheelspin combined with maximum power delivery.

It’s a bit like the motorbike ‘big bang’ theory of firing two cylinders at the same time. Give the tyre a real torque kick and before it slips, release the torque. It’s also a bit like the ultimate cadence braking.

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