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The Circuit

The F1 race that no one gets to see

  • Story Highlights
  • Off-track development in teams' factories is a crucial, unseen part of F1
  • BMW Sauber run a supercomputer instead of a second wind tunnel
  • Force India hope new gearbox can move them off the back of the grid
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Neale Graham
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The race to be first in Formula One takes place as much off the track as it does on it. And virtually no one gets to see it.

Force India, here sporting this season's must-have aerodynamic innovation 'the shark fin', hope a new gearbox will move them off the back of the grid.

Drivers can often be heard talking about their teams needed to improve their cars, about finding the elusive few tenths of a second per lap that will move them up the grid.

But in practical terms how does a team make its car go faster?

The current F1 rulebook has limited certain areas of car improvement: a 10-year freeze on engine development is in place, Bridgestone tires are standard issue to every team and testing in season is restricted.

But BMW Sauber hit upon a way to make the leaps forward that other midfield teams have been unable to match.

BMW have only been a constructor since 2006 after buying the Sauber team the previous year, but thanks in part to a supercomputer called Albert2 they have already established themselves as the third force in F1.

Albert2's mega processing power convinced the team to not tread the costly and familiar path of a second wind tunnel to conduct their aerodynamic development.

"The big difference with computational fluid dynamics (CFD) compared to wind tunnels is that you not only get results, but also an understanding of what goes on," said team boss Mario Theissen.

"Wind-tunnel testing remains important for experimental work and as a complement to CFD."

BMW's problem is that the teams they are chasing, McLaren and Ferrari, are not resting on their laurels; the ultimate pace in F1 is a forever-moving target.

McLaren spent five years and an estimated $600m building their Technology Centre in Woking, England, and they have reaped the dividends since, often demonstrating a peerless ability to make their car go faster throughout the season.

The centre is the headquarters of the McLaren Group, which incorporates a number of different but related automotive businesses.

So, it is not surprising that McLaren's research and development spending -- an annual figure in the region of $35 million -- is greater than any other F1 team.

Ferrari, meanwhile, are the only team in F1 with their own test track, Fiorano, while their budget, thought to be second highest in the sport, means that almost more than any other team they are able to throw money at a problem.

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Teams continue to run separate test teams -- and each test kilometer is believed to work out at around $1,000.

Aerodynamic parts built in the factory are tried out, with their use in races hinging on effectiveness in tests.

Teams in the middle of the pack or towards the back often have little to lose by trying something different on the design front.

The 'shark fin' engine cover, which tapers to a point behind the air box rather than swooping down towards the rear of the car, has become this season's most obvious aerodynamic innovation after Red Bull first sported it in winter testing.

Other teams have jumped on the bandwagon -- such is the need to not lose out to a rival -- and even those setting the pace are not above looking down the grid for developments.

McLaren tested the shark fin, while Ferrari will run their version for the first time at the Hungarian Grand Prix this weekend.

Backmarkers Force India have been testing a new seamless shift gearbox recently, which is standard on all the other teams' cars.

Worth around 0.3 seconds per lap, the team are confident it will help move them up the grid and closer to the midfield scrap when it's introduced later in the season.

It is the kind of clear gain that all teams are desperately searching for but seldom find.

"We hope that it will allow us to move off the back row, which considering we are the smallest team in Formula One and we have only had a proper budget for six months, the fact that we are still only a tenth or two off Honda is a good effort," the team's technical director Mike Gascoyne told Autosport.com.

After a strong first half of the season, Ferrari appear to have fallen behind McLaren in the development race, as evidenced by Lewis Hamilton's waltz to the win in Germany.

Away from the glare of the world's media, how the unsung employees at the factory in Maranello respond will go a long way to determining the destiny of this season's title.

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