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The FIA Might Clip Some Wings

According to an F1-Live story, the FIA is considering a ban on the winglets and flip-ups that have sprouted from F1 cars over the last few years. This has to be a step in the right direction, considering the strange growths seen in testing in Barcelona, McLaren’s over-the-nose wing and Honda’s bunny ears.

Renault rear view

The big problem is going to be in defining what is an aerodynamic protuberance and what isn’t. As can be seen from the above shot of last year’s Renault R26, there are bulges and extrusions all over the outer surface of modern cars, most of which are primarily aerodynamic in intent. But some are caused by what lies underneath – the blisters above the rear suspension mounting points on the Renault are an example. So how are the FIA to draw a line and say that’s the limit?

All those obvious winglets on the body would have to go but the flip-ups are more problematic; at what point do they cease to be a necessary part of the body and become aerodynamic extensions? Barge boards and the increasingly-complex additions to the front wing could perhaps be outlawed – but who is to say what is part of the wing and what is an addition?

It could be a thorny problem and has the potential to involve the governing body in complicated discussions for years. But they are right in that something needs to be done. Although aerodynamic extensions have increasingly been sprouting from the cars over the years, this year’s engine freeze and consequent saving of money has ensured that the extra cash goes into aerodynamics instead. The result is an acceleration of such developments and yet more problems with overtaking as the cars become completely dependent upon clean air to function properly.

I have been saying for some time that it is not the car that needs to have its wings clipped – it’s the science of aerodynamics. Extend the flat bottom to eliminate the raised nose, consider getting rid of wings completely, and you leave the aerodynamicist very little with which to work. That may be what the FIA will be forced to do in the end, instead of trying to define what bits are allowed where and how big they can be. Simplification is what they should be aiming for, not endless complication.

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Bunny Ears and the Aero Boys

Sounds like a new cartoon adventure, doesn’t it? But it’s just the story of testing in Barcelona this week. First we had McLaren putting the nose of their car in brackets, then bunny ears sprouted from the Hondas and, finally, Ferrari talked about their amazing shrinking sidepods.

The McLaren development seemed logical enough to me, surely just taking the idea of “mustachio” front wing elements, as seen on several of the cars this year, and extending them from endplate to endplate, thereby maximising whatever benefit they give.

Williams

A mustachioed Williams

The strange growth of ears on the nose of the Honda looks like desperation, however. Obviously they are intended to give a little more downforce and control to the front of the car under braking, but a more inelegant solution can hardly be imagined. If that is the best their aero boys can come up with, methinks they need a better wind tunnel.

Honda

Honda or Bugs Bunny?

And then there’s Ferrari. When Kimi Raikkonen seems much happier with developments and there is mention of major advances in the design of the sidepods and engine cover, rather than bits and pieces added to the nose, it is time for the other teams to get worried. All the teams are talking about steps forward being taken but it sounds as though it’s Ferrari who have made the most important advances.

Notice that these are all aerodynamic tweaks, however. In this era of frozen engine development, the concentration on aerodynamics becomes even greater until it seems the only way to squeeze a little more speed or grip from the chassis. The FIA may be congratulating themselves on helping the engine manufacturers to economize but the money just gets spent in other areas instead. And F1 hardly needs even more effort put into aerodynamics, blamed as it is for the dearth of overtaking these days.

Somehow we need to get back to a situation where all aspects of a car’s handling are equally important. Whilst the science of aerodynamics cannot be “un-invented”, it is certainly possible to introduce regulations that make it less important, thereby encouraging renewed life into suspension and chassis design in the quest for mechanical grip.

It seems to me that the first and most logical step towards this would be to change the flat bottom rule. At the moment, the floor of the car is supposed to be flat between the rear face of the front tires and the front face of the rear tires; extend the flat bottom rule from the nose to the rear face of the rear tires and you immediately do away with the raised nose that has consumed the great majority of aerodynamic work over the last few years. The designers would be forced to look at other ways of clawing back some of the downforce they have become used to and, more importantly, would have to find non-aerodynamic methods for coping with the huge reduction in downforce.

The flexi-floor saga is an illustration of how ridiculous things have become, thanks to the flat bottom rule being circumvented. If the FIA had insisted that the floor of the car must mean the bottom of the chassis, the extended lip would never have been necessary and flexi-floors would be pointless. Hence my suggestion that the floor be extended to the nose – let them try to circumvent that rule!

The FIA has delayed the introduction of new aerodynamic regulations and even these do not envisage anything so radical as a truly flat-bottomed car. It seems that the regulators would rather fiddle about with ever-more-precise measurements of what can be done here and what is allowed there. It is all wasted energy; the designers will keep the aerodynamic advantages they have developed over the years unless you take away their toy completely. Remove it and they will have to go back to cars that corner quickly because they work better, rather than relying on a huge aerodynamic hand forcing them on to the ground.

And with aerodynamics put in its place, who knows, we might even have a bit more overtaking in F1. Now that should keep everyone happy, surely.

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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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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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