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Driven to the Margin of Error

FEATURE BY MAX NOBLE
24/10/2022

International design rules allow car manufacturers a 10% error - both plus and minus - on vehicle speed as displayed to the driver.

If one further considers the needle, indicating speed is of such a width as to obscure 3 or 4 km/h or mph of the arc of speed values, plus one has high hopes the driver has eyes mostly for the road ahead, sparing but the briefest glance for the instrument cluster, then it is no wonder that none of us is ever doing precisely the same speed within a regulated zone. Digital speed displays use smoothing algorithms to ensure they are not jittering faster that Kylie Minogue on opening night. As a result they give the impression of accurate readings, when in fact they are hiding the wobble behind an LCD curtain.

As your tyres wear from brand new and unworn to faded and scuffed, eventually reaching the legal minimum tread depth, their diameter shrinks, meaning your distance rolled per wheel revolution reduces by round 3% over the life of the tyre. Or, framed another way, as your tyres get older they rotate more, but cover less distance for each rotation of the gearbox output shaft, meaning your actual speed diminishes compared to your displayed speed. Then factor in manufacturing tolerances in the sensors (usually on the gearbox output shaft, but it can vary), your wheel rims and the tyres. It is a miracle of modern manufacturing and engineering that each car brand ensures we remain within the allowed 10% margin!

A few years back, all in the name of safety, some folk here in Australia wanted us to be smacked with speeding fines and demerit points as soon as we were 1 kph (0.63 mph) over the limit! To my utter shock the WA Chief of Police came out and, based on his understanding of the issues I've just outlined above, told them all to stop being so bloody stupid! I was in shock for weeks at his rational, science based and reasoned proclamation!

Just because you can measure and control something, it does not mean you should...

Measurement impacts behaviour.

A 10% margin on speed readings in cars and laws calibrated to the same error allowances would be logical to implement if we believe speed limits are a practical weapon in the war on dangerous driving. However, as a dear friend used to say: It is never a question of how fast you are travelling, it is a vital question of how fast you stop.

Miss Physics applies a series of laws amply represented by Mr. Newton's Laws of Motion. Unless you are a sub-atomic particle or a black hole, Mr. Newton's maths will model you just fine. Airbags, crumple zones and the million other smart things quality cars do these days in the event of heavy impact all exist to increase the time available to slow down so that energy is dissipated over a longer time duration, resulting in less crushing blows for us humans. This application of the Laws of Physics ensures the car absorbs as much of the impact energy as possible, while transmitting as little as possible to us soft humans.

Margins for error, aspects of accurate measurement. Sensible, guided by science decisions. The things we need to know precisely such as how much energy can a human absorb before sustaining critical injury? Things where an approximation will serve. Are we travelling at 68.5 or at 70.9? Decisions and actions, shaped more by the consequences of what happens when things go wrong, rather than an arbitrary horror when an arbitrary definition of perfection is not attained for some reason for which Miss Physics cares not and Mr. Newton has maths not.

Anyone who has flown in a commercial jet has travelled on the ground at around 300 kph (190 mph) during take-off before proceeding to sip water from a plastic bottle (economy) or a delightful selection of French reds (business class) while blasting through the air 38,000 feet above the earth at an air speed around 800 kph, being around 500 mph. Instant death!? Horror heaped on horror? Life in the mouth of the volcano? Unless one is travelling with one of the planet's more questionable airlines, no. You will arrive as intended at around the time intended, and proceed with your day roughly as intended. All a bit approximate? Sure. Yet we humans can live with a sensible amount of ambiguity, so that as a race we do not enter a group mind-state of crushing OCD rendering our very humanity a stain upon the universe.

Politicians and the FIA appear to want to live within this universe of perfect definitives, except when they wish to allow themselves an error margin which would allow the Titanic to be in the South Pacific that night rather than the North Atlantic. Utterly ruthless on everything but themselves...! So to the blazers of the FIA one can only but ponder.

There is a glorious 1970's picture of Ronnie Peterson's wife, Barbro, monitoring practice lap times with a clipboard, pencil and mechanical stop-start push button stop watch. A leading driver in a top team and his wife was pressing buttons on a mechanical stop watch.

Anyone wish to hazard a guess as to the operator induced timing error each lap with that approach? A second? Half a second? A quarter? Assuming she was focussed, was at a perfect, unchanging angle to the finish line, to eliminate parallax error, and did not suffer any neurological issues (increasing her reaction time) the very best she could have achieved would see a variance of around plus or minus two tenths of a second per lap. Something around half a second is more probable. Tyres going off? Missed gear coming out of the final corner, changing fuel load, tail wind on the back straight? Or simply the limits of a mechanical stop watch and an attentive wife? Did that margin for error destroy racing back in those raw days?

Ronnie (pictured driving the Tyrrell P34 at Monza in 1977) was a remarkable driver. He and Mario Andretti were dominating the 1978 season in the glorious ground effect Lotus 79. At Monza, Mario took pole while numerous mechanical issues saw Ronnie forced to resort to the older 78, which he managed to qualify 5th.

24 cars qualified for Monza that year. As the formation lap was nearing completion the flag - no lights back then - was dropped before the last had rolled into their grid slots, causing a chaotic start. Approaching the first of the 70's added chicanes, at that time named the Variante Goodyear now called Variante del Rettifilo, Riccardo Patrese, in his Arrows, touched James Hunt's McLaren causing it to spin into Peterson's Lotus, launching him into the barriers on the right hand side of the track. As the multi-car crash unfolded the cars from the rear of the grid were closing at high speed. Vittorio Brambilla, who had started his Surtees from the back of the grid, arrived fast and was instantly, desperately trying to avoid the cars spinning in front of him. Running out of space he speared into Ronnie's stranded Lotus causing it to promptly burst into flames.

Hunt leapt from his stricken McLaren heroically pulling Ronnie from the burning wreck. Ten cars were now littered across the track, with the Lotus furiously burning.

In panic the Italian Police formed a human wall across the track, stopping everyone, including surgical advisor Sid Watkins, from approaching the stricken drivers. Eventually after a delay nearing fifteen minutes an ambulance arrived to take Ronnie to hospital.

With his legs a mess Ronnie underwent extended emergency surgery, before being placed in ICU in what was believed to be a stable condition. At around 4:00am Watkins received a telephone call saying Ronnie's condition was deteriorating. Before Sid could do anything useful Ronnie was clinically brain dead. Later it was discovered a fat embolism in his thigh resulting from the massive crash injuries combined with the extended surgery plus, most damningly, the delay to starting treatment, were the factors combining as the probable cause of death.

Wrong start procedure, delayed responses, no fire marshals (it was Hunt who performed the rescue), police blocking aid, not helping it access the scene. No ambulance for fifteen minutes... So many errors. In combination, a disaster of a start, ten cars seriously damaged, several drivers injured and a great talent in Ronnie Peterson dead. A margin for error that was a bloody rent in reality into which the FIA poured every possible error during mere seconds of tragic events.

The margins for error here were so massive one could have flown a dam-busting Lancaster Bomber through them, and not lost any paint from the fuselage. At the time it was yet another horror incident serving to accelerate many changes. The move of Sid Watkins to a full time senior medical position, the medical safety car following the field at starts, trained fire marshals and many more alterations over the following years. Each safety revision aimed at eliminating more of the margin for error, and thus making safety inbuilt, not an unplanned accidental benefit.

Some things demand to be measured and as far as is reasonably possible controlled. Other things need to be monitored for signs of concern, but not overly fussed about. Yet others can be measured for all the wrong reasons, thus producing results unexpected, and occasionally unforeseen disastrous outcomes.

On the public road we are afforded a reasoned 10% margin for error with our actual speed. This is then measured against an arbitrary speed zone limit set by some jobs-worth buried deep within an indifferent government department. Usually with no recognition of Miss Physics, safety-leading road design, quality of driver training, condition of the vehicle in question, or current local weather conditions.

Most higher education establishments consider a mark above 75% as either an "A" grade, or a "High Distinction" depending on local messaging beliefs. By contrast, would you be likely to board a plane where the airline assured you that "nearly 75% of our flights make it to a safe landing"...?

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READERS COMMENTS

 

1. Posted by Toado, 30/11/2022 13:19

"Worst day of my life the Italian GP '78. I was on the inside of the corner where Brambilla came to a halt. I could have leaned over and touched the car. I knew in my heart Ronnie wasn't going to make it when James pulled him out. His legs were liquid as he came out. Vittorio's helmet was split in half from a wheel in the face. It was utter chaos, and the marshals, track officials and crowd didn't cover themselves in glory. The crowd were throwing things at those trying to help because they didn't want the race stopped with the Ferrari's already through. The cops blocking the circuit were appallingly bad and nothing was ever done about it Haven't been to Monza since and never will again. "

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2. Posted by Max Noble, 01/11/2022 1:32

"@dejan - There most certainly is! Rounding errors are the death of precision, and differing versions of Excel have produced different numbers from the same spreadsheet data. For highly accurate calculations one needs to perform accuracy calculations so that one knows how many decimal places can be trusted. The more one iterates, the worse the compounding of errors… In the world of finance one has 90-day payment terms, exchange rates, tax off-sets… I do not believe an accurate “live” reading of total company finances is possible.

@spindoctor… hoho… :-)

@Tafferel - Fully agree. We explored these concepts in earlier articles “Cash on Delivery”, and “Numbers in my magic square”. Mercedes in particular have 10,001 places to hide $5.

Back when BMW were in F1 they used to fit their latest F1 engine into a BMW 5 Series, and hammer it up and down the autobahn filled with engineers, sensors, and laptops… All for that road-crossover-F1 car that they never built I’m sure… :-)
"

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3. Posted by Tafferel, 31/10/2022 12:53

"What's to say that any team with a road car/engineering division couldn't hide some of their development costs in any of the numerous layers of companies worldwide?

Maybe, it was easier for some of the other teams to be below cost cap because another division made a 'discovery'. Nothing to stop Renault running a wind tunnel for a new Megane Sport and 'accidently' finding some gains, or the truck division of Mercedes improving turbo charger efficiency. If Ferrari trade on their F1 activity being relevant to their road car business, surely the information most flow both ways, even if it's over informally. I suppose it could even be possible for Haas to knock out the odd part whilst testing a machine prior to customer delivery, or even during a sales demonstration.

Taking it to an extreme possibility, how much valuable data would Merc have gained from the AMG One project? Numerous delays in making an everyday F1 engined road car and more reengineering, would have generated a lot of reliability data, not to mention all the long term testing. It could be that some teams overspend has been hiding in plain sight. Maybe that's the idea behind Red Bull deciding to launch their own roadcar project."

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4. Posted by Spindoctor, 28/10/2022 11:00

"To mislay 1million, Mr Horner, may be regarded as a misfortune... to mislay $2million seems like carelessness"

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5. Posted by dejan, 27/10/2022 21:03

"There is no margin of error for a calculator or a spreadsheet. There are no mechanical parts in the budget calculations and most of the expenses are done well in advance of the calendar year so an F1 team can't really argue that they drank 500K of liquor in the after-Christmas party.

At the end of the day everything counts and any team could have a running budget displayed in at their factory for the CEO to see with accuracy of a day or two at most.

At the end of the day though if Max was not a beneficiary of a much bigger error made by the FIA on track at Abu Dhabi last year nobody would be challenging the fact that they "wasted" over 1M over budget but came up short...

....

But come on now to the serious side - 75% mark and getting an "A" - I have yet to see a US university that does this. Most grade on a curve so you have to be top of the top to even get a decent passing grade."

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6. Posted by Max Noble, 27/10/2022 11:52

"@Malenoi - “A handbag!?”
"

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7. Posted by Malemoi, 27/10/2022 11:34

"An accounting error??"

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8. Posted by LiamIII, 25/10/2022 17:21

"Thank you for making my argument about speed limits being done away with. I drive at a reasonable speed for conditions and almost NEVER look at the speedo. I argue if the signs were all taken down and severe penalties were imposed for reckless, inattentive or all around poor driving there would be far less incidents. Or at least the reckless idiot would have his license revoked forever so we never have to see him again. "

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9. Posted by Malemoi, 25/10/2022 13:53

"If the FIA cut down on the clueless venues in obscure parts of the world with no F1 heritage the costs savings would be immense
"

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10. Posted by ancient70!, 24/10/2022 8:13

"The problem with the track limits analogy is that the track limits have been defined, but at this stage it seems we have not got a clue how big the track is?"

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11. Posted by Slamm, 23/10/2022 4:48

"4 tires over the white line is out. Any part of a tire inside or on the line is in. We no longer use mechanical stop watches and clipboards. The rules are the rules. No one forced Red Bull to spend up to the limit. They could have used caution to stay under the limit. What happens when you drive too fast through the corners? You go over the white lines and your lap is disqualified. Try again next lap. Same thing for the championship. Spend too much and you get the season thrown out. Red Bull agreed to then rules. It’s like the track limits at Parabolica, your current lap and following lap are disqualified. The overspending is compounded in following years. Stop trying to justify breaking the rules. "

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12. Posted by ARL, 22/10/2022 19:59

"We continue to operate in a largely fact-free zone which is still allowing team managers to confect suitable levels of outrage at each other and letters that may or may not be aimed at them.

I did notice a breakdown of the '22 financial rules which indicated that team were allowed an extra $1.2m or so for each race over a base of 21 events. Presumably the assumed cost/GP in '21 was not radically less.

So effectively RB appear to have had about an extra GP worth to play with in '21 over the other teams.

To suggest that they blew it all on Prawn Cocktails and Ferrero Rocher stretches credulity but then so does Horner's confected outrage at suggestions that RB have been caught out bending the rules - again."

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13. Posted by ancient70!, 21/10/2022 16:33

"@Max, non-woke is ok with me, sorry!"

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14. Posted by Superbird70, 21/10/2022 13:49

"Imagine losing a world championship over some wiener schnitzel, potato salad and a Red Bull.
This is a joke. Write a rule that can't be measured and then enforce it. Only in F1."

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15. Posted by Chester, 21/10/2022 13:22

"Spot on, givememychoice. What you described is called transfer pricing. Companies use it to reduce taxes by charging divisions in high tax countries a higher transfer price, thereby lowering profit and tax in the high tax country.

If anyone thinks Mercedes, Alpine, and Ferrari aren't playing this game, they are fooling themselves."

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