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So What’s With Honda?

Aerodynamics is an arcane science. In fact, to call it a science is probably giving it more credit than it is due – it remains an area where things can seem perfect in theory and the wind tunnel, but go hopelessly wrong when the car actually gets out on the track. That seems to be what has happened at Honda this year; according to all their calculations, this should have been the car to take them to the top, but in practice it has proved a huge step backwards. Super Aguri reap the benefits of development of last year’s chassis while the factory team scratch their heads in puzzlement as to what to do next.

Honda

Weight of the world on its shoulders…

It reminds me of the Arrows A2, the “Buzz Bomb” of 1979. On paper it should have been the best of the ground effect cars, with its extensive areas intended to suck the car to the ground like a leech; in reality, it was almost undriveable, porpoising down the straights as the low pressure area wandered around under the car as it pleased. The engineers slaved away with it all year, trying to make it work, but gave up in disgust and reverted to standard practice in 1980.

Not that the Honda is as obviously as bold an experiment as was the A2, but it may well be that the designers have made a similar mistake in pushing the theory further than it is ready to go. Aerodynamics has come a long way since the early days of ground effect but it is still a discipline in which there are few rules and practical experience remains the arbiter of what is right or wrong.

The change to Bridgestone tires has not helped either. Only McLaren and BMW of last year’s Michelin runners seem to have progressed in their understanding of how to make the Bridgestones work properly; the rest are struggling. And poor Honda has to work out how much of their car’s handling problems are due to the tires and how much to some undiscovered design flaw.

So is the Honda a bad car? It is far too early to say – there may be a tweak or modification that is all that is required to get the engineers moving in the right direction. But, even if that happens, there will be a mountain to climb to catch up to the front runners. Honda may not be down and out for this year’s championship but they have certainly made things very difficult for themselves.

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Super Aguri and the Shadow of the Past

One thing about F1 can always be guaranteed: the off season will be enlivened by some controversy or other. This time it’s the Great Customer Car Row and we have been entertained by Gerhard Burger’s determined assertion that Toro Rosso owns the intellectual property rights to their car for 2007; the fact that Red Bull also owns those rights to a car that looks identical is neither here nor there, apparently.

Riccardo

Riccardo Patrese in the 1978 Arrows A1

But the ’tis/’tisn’t scenario can wear pretty thin after a while and, right on cue, Nick Fry arrives on stage to enliven the show with his denial that the new Super Aguri is really last year’s Honda. Ummm, yeah, okay Nick, so when are we going to see it?

There is a delightful thread running through Super Aguri’s part in the performance, however. Remember that last year SA were running an aging Arrows chassis – to which they had bought the intellectual property rights, quite correctly. And this brings echoes of history to my mind, shades from Arrows’ past when, just like SA, it was a new arrival on the F1 scene.

The year was 1978 and Arrows turned up for the races with a car that seemed suspiciously similar to the Shadow team’s entry. This might have been coincidence except that the Arrows designers were refugees from a big bust-up in the Shadow camp the year before. Shadow cried foul and took the matter to court, eventually being vindicated by a verdict that decreed that Arrows could no longer run their copycat car.

By that time, Arrows had designed a new car and so was able to continue racing; but it seems ironic that the distant inheritors of an Arrows product should be embroiled in so similar a kerfuffle. Are we talking some sort of F1 version of “the curse of the pharoahs” here?

Now that I have raised this specter from the past, I would like to mention something that puzzled me then and might have implications for the coming season. The driver of that first Arrows car, the A1, was a young Italian named Riccardo Patrese and he would have set an amazing record if the Cosworth engine had been a little more reliable. He was on course to win Arrows’ first race when the engine expired, thereby preventing what would have been a phenomenal debut for the new team.

For the rest of its brief career, the car remained very competitive, Patrese showing up amongst the leaders in almost every race. But the Shadow cars were nowhere, continuing the slide that was to end in their demise a few years later. One of their drivers was Clay Regazzoni who was no slouch and should have been able to give the inexperienced Patrese more than a run for his money – yet he finished the season in 16th spot, Riccardo in 12th.

My question is this: given that the Shadow and the Arrows were almost identical and that both used the Cosworth DFV, why was the Arrows so much the better car? Presumably the disruption suffered by Shadow when half their team defected may have crippled their ability to fight, but it still seems strange that a new team, also hampered by impending lawsuits, could defeat them so comprehensively.

It is all water under the bridge now and we might never know all the political and legal manouvering that went on at the time. Who cares now, anyway? I have one final thought, however.

We are told that history repeats itself; if that is true, is it possible that Super Aguri could prove quicker than the new Honda in the coming season? Highly unlikely, I know, but it would be deliciously ironic, you must admit…

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How Super is Aguri?

I see that Super Aguri are muttering about using Honda chassis as well as engines next year. That would be a huge step forward from the outdated Arrows chassis they have modified (twice) to produce their cars this season, but it is extremely doubtful that the FIA would allow it.

Super Aguri

Super Aguri

Years ago, all you had to do to go racing was buy one of the previous year’s cars from an existing constructor and turn up on time. If you went to March, you could even have the current year’s model. Quite a few famous drivers began their F1 careers in such entries and some of the constructors used secondhand cars to tide them over difficult years. But things have been tightened up since then.

The FIA has reasoned that, if you’re going to compete for the constructor’s championship, you ought to be a constructor, not just a purchaser. That seems reasonable and now, if you want to enter F1, you have to pass stringent tests as to your financial viability and ability to build a competitive car. Even then, only one new constructor is accepted each year, so you will have to look better than anyone else seeking entry. Prodrive beat several other applicants in their bid to be the next F1 hopefuls.

I cannot see the FIA accepting the use of a Honda chassis by Super Aguri, therefore. Given the improvement in performance of the latest model, the SA06, it is doubtful that this would be the way forward for the team anyway. If they can make an ancient Arrows even vaguely competitive, it surely augurs well for their ability to build a car from scratch.

No doubt the problem is money. Super Aguri is a small team and have had difficulty in keeping to their original schedule for development of their car. The construction of a new car may be more than their finances can take, as well as being an enormous strain on their personnel. It might even be the case that the Honda option is their only possible route to survival.

But that is Formula One; if the money isn’t there, you’re dead. History is littered with the bones of F1 projects that started out so hopefully but ran out of money long before success guaranteed them decent sponsorship. And Super Aguri’s rather desperate plan to become a “Honda B team” does not bode well for their future.

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A Failed Experiment – the Arrows A2

Sometimes it takes a while for a new idea to be fully understood and implemented. This was the case when Colin Chapman introduced the idea of ground effect into F1 in 1977.

His first attempt at using the effect was the Lotus 78. It was a strange beast, with bulges and intakes in odd places, but it did demonstrate that Colin was on to something. Although it did not sweep all before it, some of the teams began to sit up and take notice.

Lotus 78

Lotus 78

In 1978, Chapman revealed the Lotus 79, the car that made full use of ground effect theory, and this proved unbeatable. Lotus ran away with the Constructor’s and Driver’s Championships that year.

Lotus 79

Lotus 79

Notice how much better a design is the 79 than the 78. It is cleaner, simpler and the wings, at the front especially, have been slimmed and flattened. Ground effect was providing so much downforce that there were suggestions that wings might disappear entirely.

Naturally, everyone climbed on the bandwagon then and designed ground effect cars for 1979. Most went the route of the Lotus 79, producing cars that were almost identical to it in looks, and the car to beat that year was one of these, the Williams FW07.

But Arrows, in a quest to get ahead of the rest, decided to take things to their logical conclusion. They produced the Arrows A2 which was immediately dubbed the “Buzz Bomb” upon its unveiling. It looked extremely odd but I could see the reasoning of its designer and I “kinda liked” it.

Arrows A2

Arrows A2

Theoretically, the A2 should have blown away the competition. The front wings had disappeared and stubby winglets appeared above the front suspension instead. The bodywork was basically a box extending right to the back of the car and incorporating the rear wing, thereby maximizing the area of low pressure under the car. Intakes and protuberances were kept a minimum. It really ought to have stuck to the road like a giant sucker.

In practice, it scared the drivers silly. Yes, it had plenty of downforce but this varied according to the ground clearance under the car, so that every bump in the road altered the car’s handling. The area of maximum downforce wandered around too and the car would porpoise down the straights, alternately sucked on to the track and then released.

It became clear that positioning and control of downforce was more important than masses of suction. The designers went back to the drawing board while the drivers, Riccardo Patrese and Jochen Mass, struggled on with the A2, finishing the year with only 5 points between them.

Yet it was a brave failure, a bold attempt by a small team to leapfrog to the front. The Buzz Bomb is largely forgotten now but I store it in my memory as one of those “might-have-beens” that I love so well.

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