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The Excitement of Traction Control

Autosport dot com has a good article on the techies’ view of the ban on traction control from 2008 onwards. It means a lot of re-design work for them but generally they seem content with the decision.

They do not think that the racing will be more “exciting” as a result, however. That may be true but I don’t think that was the FIA’s intention anyway – the idea was surely to allow the drivers’ skills a bit more influence on the race results. Everyone is agreed that the ban will help with that, Williams technical director, Sam Michael, admitting that “those who can feel the rear tyres and the throttle will shine.”

Prost

Alain Prost

Well, yeah. Which means that those who can save their tires by more skillful driving will benefit. Years ago Alain Prost was legendary for being able to take care of his tires and then to challenge strongly at the end of the race when everyone else’s tires were shot. In fact, without that ability, it is doubtful that he could have been quite as strong a teammate to Senna when they were both at McLaren. And it is drivers with the smooth, economical style of a Prost who will gain most from the ban, while the more spectacular but abrasive drivers will have to be more careful.

Certainly, it won’t be more exciting – but we might find the usual order shuffled a bit. Just as an instance, Kimi Raikkonen is rumored to be quite hard on his car and that means tires too. If he has to curb his instincts somewhat, that could put him in range of a lot of pretenders to his crown as one of the three quickest drivers. And they do say that Jenson Button is one of the smoothest drivers around…

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Technical Rumblings from Melbourne

One race done and already the muttering about cheating has started. Ron Dennis has been hinting that Ferrari’s speed can be partly attributed to a flexible floor on the cars. Since the scrutineers had a good look at this during their inspection, it may be that Ron made sure that they heard a rumor.

Ron

McLaren boss, Ron Dennis

The point is that, if the floor moves downwards at speed, it can alter the under-car aerodynamics and lessen drag, thereby allowing more speed on the straights. That would show up on the speed traps but you could disguise it by increasing the wing angles, thus slowing the car to a believable speed on the straights but reaping the benefit of extra downforce in the corners. All of which would be illegal under the “no moveable aerodynamic devices” rule.

The scrutineers passed the cars in Melbourne but this does not necessarily mean that something underhand is not going on. Apparently, they test at the moment by looking only at upward flexing of the floor – but it would be downward pressure that would clear the matter up once and for all.

Naturally, a lot of people are saying that it’s just Ron looking for excuses for his own cars not being as fast as the Ferraris. But that presumes that he knew before the race that the McLarens would be beaten. It is far more likely that his concern is genuine, having noticed the complex arrangement for keeping the Ferrari’s floor in place at the front.

Probably, Ron hopes that the rumor will activate the FIA and they will have a quiet word in Ferrari’s ear to tell them to get rid of the system. That would be the most sensible way to proceed, avoiding any possibility of legal action and a continuing unseemly fight throughout the season. F1 has had enough of those, surely, with the mass damper fiasco fresh in everyone’s mind and the customer car row about to enter litigation.

This is the kind of thing that happens when the rules become so all-embracing and extensive, however. With the importance of aerodynamics and every constructor having wind tunnels, the cars get ever closer in design and performance increases become a matter of subtle and sometimes dubious tweaks. Since every designer is looking for ways to gain an advantage, it is no wonder that they work in areas that are not completely dictated by mandatory measurements.

And that means they push the boundaries of legality on occasion, thereby forcing the FIA to be even more stringent on what they will allow. It is an endless cycle of increasing complication that needs to be stopped before the rules become so limiting that there is no difference at all between the cars, apart from the color scheme and badge on the front. How do you do that?

Well, you could start by simplifying everything immediately; extend the flat bottom from nose to tail, for instance, and let the designers work out how they are going to cope with that. But it’s a long subject and I could best sum it up with the philosophy of “We need less regulation, not more.”

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Memories of an Early Innovation in F1

Over at F1-Fanatic, Keith Collantine asked the question, “Which Manufacturers Will Quit (F1)?” and received a long reply from Number 38 of Halifax VA. Now, I like Number 38; for one thing I learned from a previous comment of his that he’s even older than I am. And Keith’s answer, including the fact that he’s not old enough to remember the introduction of the Tyrrell six-wheeler, set me to thinking of the first innovation in F1 that I was witness to.

Maser 2

Birdcage Maserati

I started watching Grands Prix in 1962 – which means that I just missed Cooper’s revolutionary idea of putting the engine in between the driver and the rear axle. But I can remember when Colin Chapman introduced the monocoque to F1, thereby consigning the spaceframe to the scrapheap. Although monocoque chassis had been around for a while in production cars, racing cars still relied on the tried and tested formula of welding tubes together to make a frame (known as a spaceframe) and then bolting body panels to it. The monocoque made the body into the frame upon which everything else was hung.

In Chapman’s hands, the monocoque became a large tube that housed the front suspension and driver; he then bolted the engine to the rear of the tube and hung the rear suspension on the engine. The resultant saving in weight enabled him to build a car that was much more nimble and just as strong as the other cars – the mighty Lotus 25 that Jim Clark used to such good effect.

And so the spaceframe welder’s art disappeared into history. I say art because the development of the spaceframe had led to some incredibly intricate and complex constructions from steel tubing; and the high point was probably not a F1 car but a sportscar known as the Birdcage Maserati (for obvious reasons).

The Birdcage was introduced in the dying days of Maserati’s involvement in racing – after their withdrawal it was the French Maserati dealers who tried every year to win at Le Mans with the original design supplied with various bodies. The car was very quick and invariably established a lead over the pack of Ferraris and Aston Martins in the early stages of the 24-hour race. But it was fragile as well and, sooner or later, something would break and it would be retired. It became almost a tradition that the Birdcage would be the hare in the first couple of hours at Le Mans but, in the end, reality had to be faced and the Maserati disappeared from the entry lists.

Maser 1

Take a look at the photograph above that shows the Maserati’s spaceframe. It is a model of the real thing but gives some idea of how complex a structure it was. Before the Lotus 25, all F1 cars were constructed in this way; after it, they went monocoque, chassis-less in effect, unless you regard the body as the chassis.

Chapman’s revolutionary idea also illustrates perfectly one of the most important rules of design: simplicity is always better than complexity. Colin had the vision to see that the spaceframe had become too complicated to develop further and something much simpler was needed. It was a logical step to use the existing technology already present in production cars – but it took genius to see that.

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The Secret Weapon of F1 Design

If you want a winning car, hire a South African to lead your design department. Ferrari did so when they took on Rory Byrne and many years ago Brabham and then McLaren opted for Gordon Murray, also a South African.

Both designers have not been content to follow the herd in creating reiterations of established practice; they were innovative right from the start and always on the look-out for something different that might give their cars an edge. Byrne showed this very early on with his Toleman TG183 – putting the radiators in the front wings and attaching the rear wing to the sidepods. No wonder he was to become the revered force at Ferrari that he is now.

TG183

Ayrton Senna in the Toleman TG183

Murray too began with new ideas and created several championship-winning cars in his career. Consider this long line of excellent designs:

BT44

Brabham BT44, Carlos Reutemann aboard

Not quite a championship winner, the BT44 still won many races over a long career. Note the radiators in the nose and the triangular body section.

BT49

Nelson Piquet in the BT49

Murray’s take on the ground effect design of Colin Chapman’s, the BT49 was the most successful of all Brabhams, winning the driver’s championship with Nelson Piquet aboard in 1981. After driving the BT49 for the first time in 1982, Piquet’s new teammate, Riccardo Patrese, remarked that “anyone could win races in that car!” Piquet responded with, “Yes, and it took us two years to make it that good…”

BT50

Piquet again, this time in the BT50

Incredibly fast but unreliable, the BT50 was Murray’s first turbo-engined car. Piquet took on the task of getting the BMW turbo to last a race distance (while Patrese enjoyed the BT49) and also re-introduced refuelling to F1. He would hurtle off from the start, build a massive lead and then come in for fuel, usually rejoining the race still in the lead. The fragility of the engine meant that the strategy worked only once, however – the Canadian GP of 1982.

BT52

Patrese in the BT52

A new design for the first year without skirts, the BT52 benefited from the work done on the BMW turbo by allowing Piquet to win his second driver’s championship in 1983. The long sidepods of the ground effect era have given way to triangular stubs at the rear but the family resemblance to the BT50 remains.

MP4 5B

Senna in the McLaren MP4 5B

Well, okay, a McLaren looks like a McLaren – all the flair and brilliance of the MP4 5B is hidden by what now seems a standard body. But this was the car that dominated the early years of the 1990s.

It’s a list that any designer would be proud of. Murray called it a day in F1 after that and went off to design road cars. But he and Byrne have written in bold letters across the sport: South African designers have something special!

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