Dave Robson, the head of vehicle performance at Williams, reported that Alex Albon had to withdraw from qualifying due to an incorrect tire switch position.
The spectacular brake failure experienced by Williams Formula 1 driver Alex Albon during the first portion of qualifying for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was caused by a brake balance that was too far back, having been set for running intermediate tyres in damp circumstances.
The cameras captured the Williams driver trundling around Imola with a fire on his FW44’s rear-right brake, spewing flaming debris onto the track before an explosion blew out his tyre. However, Albon was able to return to the garage safely, but his car had suffered substantial damage in that region.
Albon, like the rest of the race, started on intermediates but returned to the pits after one lap to switch to soft slicks. However, the team did not request that Albon use the brake balance adjustment switches on the steering wheel, the brake bias stayed unchanged from the first lap.
No issues were expected, as building sufficient rear brake temperature had been a difficulty during Friday’s running. However, the extra energy from the tyres’ increased grip allowed Albon to brake harder, causing the temperature to rise quickly, exceeding the brakes’ cooling capacity.
“We were running a fairly rearward brake balance in the wet because we were struggling to get the brakes hot enough,” Williams head of vehicle performance Dave Robson said.
“We should have gone forward again when we went back to the slicks and we didn’t until it was a bit late.”
“The problem is that there’s so little cooling on the rear brakes because the power unit does most of it [the braking].”
“Once it got too hot, we could see it and we did what we could in terms of getting him to slow down, but it did start to run away.”
“You are balanced on a knife edge between getting them hot enough when it is wet and not letting them run away when it’s dry. It’s just frustrating.”
Albon was ranked last since he didn’t set a time, while teammate Nicholas Latifi was ranked 18th.
Williams had a similar issue with Latifi during Bahrain testing, but it was caused by a brake by wire issue that overworked the rear brakes. Latifi attempted to return to the pits but was forced to stop, at which point the fire spread and caused extensive damage.
Albon was able to return to the pits this time, which had a cooling breeze that stopped the fire from spreading, indicating that his strategy was accurate. This kept the damage to the brakes, wheelrim, and upright to a minimum, though the suspension was altered as well as a precaution.
“At least we proved what we tried to do in Bahrain to get the car back was the right thing to do,” said Robson.
“It does look bad, but the dramatic bit is the wheelrim. There’s actually not much damage – it’s very much contained within the upright.
“So getting the car back and letting the guys deal with it straight away rather than parking up and waiting for a marshal was definitely the right thing.”
Williams could only estimate the braking loads of the 2022-spec cars at Imola because the lone free practise session was performed in wet conditions earlier in the day.
Small changes might cause problems because there is such a thin line between the brakes being in the appropriate window, or being too cold or hot. In the cool climate of Imola, finding the correct balance is especially difficult.
“It’s one of those things where it would be too easy to say, ‘there’s a risk of getting it wrong, so we won’t try’ and then you let the brakes run too cold and give up performance,” said Robson.
“So you try and push it and then when you push it too far, In this case, it goes visually spectacularly wrong.”
“Although it was costly, it’s not as bad as it looks. But it does attract the attention so the easy thing to do would be to play it safe – but that’s not how the sport works.”
“We misjudged it, made a mistake with the [brake bias] switch and it backfired.”
Albon’s brilliant drive to 10th in Australia, helped by an unconventional strategy of running on his starting set of hards until the end of the penultimate lap, gave Williams its first points finish of the season heading into the Imola weekend.