Go back to 12 o’clock midday on Day 2 of the 2011 World Time Attack Challenge. Sierra Sierra have just pulled a 1:29.0240 lap, seemingly out of the bag, while Cyber Evo only managed a 1:29.7510.
The Cyber Evo team protest, claiming that Sierra Sierra must be running nitrous, that no car that heavy could be running speeds as fast as they were down the straight. The scrutineering team are called and the Sierra Sierra team lose a mechanic as they have to prove there was no nitrous in their car.
This all happened as the Sierra Sierra team were frantically changing a head gasket in order to get the car out for the next session. Were the Cyber team afraid they could not better the time, or merely sandbagging and masking the true potential of their car.
Of course no nitrous is found on SSE car and things go back to normal, but the SSE team is disrupted and now has to work extra hard to regroup and refocus on the task ahead.
Let’s rewind a little further back to the Thursday practice sessions during which all teams run their own timing systems, not the official timing beacons used during the two days of the WTAC. When quizzed about their lap times, most of the top teams will answer with a vague nod, a smile or a non-committal “pretty good/happy with the times/roughly what we were expecting” type of reply. Despite knowing, and we suspect in quite a lot of detail, exactly how quick their car can go, most hold their cards close to their chests, so the true potential of the car wouldn’t be easy to guess.
Another common practice is doing ‘partial lap times’. Rather than doing a full hot lap, the drivers would do a moderate lap and only push through one section of the track. Add up all the split times, and you get a good indication of the lap time the car can run, without giving the game away to the competition.
The mental game continues on the race day. With the two best sessions being the morning and late afternoon sessions in terms of track temperature, getting a good hot lap off without staying out on the track too long is crucial to making sure the car doesn’t become overstressed and have a mechanical failure.
Once on the track, the idea is to stay as far away from your direct competitor as possible as you prepare to do your hot lap. When two cars with similar capabilities are on a hot lap you really want to avoid overtaking or indeed being overtaken by another car. A competitor with similar speed might not want to concede his spot. Ideally you want a clear track ahead of you where all you need to worry about is getting around the track as fast as possible.
So despite the fact that Time Attack is not a “head to head” race, there seems to be a fair bit of tactic involved as teams try to outsmart each other in the pits and jostle for the best position for their hot lap on the track. At the top end of Time Attack, where 1/10th of a second changes you from a champion to a runner-up, where the cars run at their limit and every single element needs to be perfect, strategy becomes a crucial part of getting that perfect lap.