Published on March 18th, 2012 | by TAY0
Formula 1- a technical preview
So it’s almost upon us, in just a matter of hours those red lights will extinguish and the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship will be in full swing and it looks set to be a thriller, (and not only because for the first time ever, there will be six World Champions on the grid). I’m going to try and explain why. Analysing winter testing form in F1 is an inexact art. In fact, to be honest with you, it’s a mug’s game. I’m an aerospace engineer by training, who specialises in aerodynamics and I’m also pretty handy in a race car myself, having gone wheel-to-wheel in my younger years with British Touring Car driver, Tom Onslow-Cole. So I’m hoping with these tools at my disposal, I can try and decipher the showmanship and gain an insight about what to expect this season, and why.
So what’s new?
For 2012 there are a few rather important changes to the technical regulations that govern the design of the cars. To the casual viewer, this may seem arbitrary, but it must be remembered that F1 is a team sport and just like a great football player cannot win a league title without a great team around him; neither can a great driver win without a great team providing him with a great car. Changes to the technical regulations present the teams with new challenges to overcome, and the ones who adapt to these the best, often have a head start.
The most glaringly obvious change you will see to the cars this season is the horrifically ugly noses. There has been a trend with F1 cars of late to try to raise the height of the nose structure as high as possible to encourage greater air flow beneath the car, in an effort to generate more downforce from the floor and diffuser. FIA research suggests these noses contribute to the likelihood of a car flipping over in the event of a crash (see Mark Webber, European GP Valencia, 2010). So now the maximum height of the nose has been reduced by 100mm. Unfortunately, the rule to enforce this has been poorly thought out, largely because some of the teams rejected the FIA’s plans to lower the maximum height of the chassis from 625mm. As a result of this, they were given a distance of 150mm to transition from one height to the other. The result is a large step in the noses at the point where the maximum height rule no longer applies, creating these “platypus” noses we see.
The image below is taken directly from official the official FIA Technical Regulations Appendix and helps to illustrate what has happened here. I have very quickly and crudely drawn on a schematic example (in blue) of how teams are exploiting the rule to raise the nose.
In 2011, Red Bull “blew” the competition away, and much of this was down to the design of the RB7 and its ability to maximise downforce generated from the diffuser by “blowing” it with the gases from the exhaust pipes. The principle is quite simple and was first used in F1 by Mclaren back in 1998. A diffuser generates downforce by creating an area of low pressure at the rear of the car; this in turn encourages higher speed air flow under the floor. High speed airflow = low pressure = suction. Try it for yourself: get a piece of paper, hold it at one end just below your lips. Now blow. You’ll notice that it moves up, even though you’re blowing over the top? This is how an aircraft’s wings work, and this principle in reverse is how F1 cars generate downforce.
A diffuser can be made more efficient by “blowing” it (just like that piece of paper) by using the fast-moving exhaust gases from the engine. Obviously this means more downforce is generated when accelerating than when braking, which can create unpredictable behaviour and balance characteristics and the idea was abandoned until more recently when new engine “maps” were developed which allowed the exhaust gases to keep flowing even when the driver was off-throttle.
For 2012 the ability of teams to exploit this has been restricted. Firstly, there are new rules regarding where the exhausts must be positioned and, secondly, there are limits to the engine maps that are allowed.
Right, let’s get one thing straight. Forget DRS, forget KERS and forget blown diffusers. The reason F1 is exciting again is almost all down to tyres.
Tyres are an often overlooked piece of technology on an F1 car, and it’s easy to see why: your average road car doesn’t have a moving rear wing, a carbon fibre chassis, or the ability to generate over 6g in braking force. But it does have tyres. In essence, then, they’re boring.
And yet they are the biggest reason F1 is not. F1 car tyres are amazing: combined, the four tyres have a total contact patch smaller than the area of a postage stamp – and yet they can transmit enough force and provide enough grip for an F1 car to accelerate to 100mph from a standing start and return to a standstill in under five seconds.
The Michelin-Bridgestone “tyre-war” provided such advances in technology the tyres became practically perfect. Drivers no longer had to manage their tyres; intermediates would work in almost any condition other than “hot” and “torrential”. When Pirelli became the sole supplier they were told to make tyres that would improve the show, and they did. The tyres were less durable, harking back to the days of old, where there was a genuine performance/durability trade off between the hard and soft compound tyres.
This year, Pirelli have tweaked the tyres construction. They’re a slightly difference shape at the front and softer in construction meaning more grip, but less durability. Also the colour coding of the tyre sidewall markings has changed this year and been made easier to spot:
Wet Tyres – Blue
Intermediates – Green
Supersoft – Red
Soft – Yellow
Medium – White
Hard – Grey
With each attempt to slow the cars down the designers find new and ever more ingenious ways to reclaim some of this lost performance.
Mclaren have, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful car of 2012 – largely in part to their nose design. For the last few seasons Mclaren have followed a design philosophy whereby they use a lower nose structure which is supplemented by what has been termed a “snow plough” slung beneath it. What they appear to be doing is aiming to generate more flow around the sidepods and over the floor to energise (speed up) the flow. In the Barcelona test they abandoned the snow-plough and reverted to using more conventional vanes under the nose. Whether or not their reluctance to exploit the nose regulations will see them falter remains to be seen. But they have produced competitive cars in the past with this design and it would be foolhardy to suggest they’ve missed a trick simply by not following a trend.
Elsewhere on the car, the MP4-27 features some intriguing exhaust solutions. The car’s exhausts exit in two bulges at the rear – a solution that was later refined for the final pre-season test – within two deep groves. I believe that this is an attempt to force the exhaust plume down towards the floor area to regain some of the lost diffuser performance.
The general consensus is that Ferrari have been left behind in recent years because their car designs have been too conservative. So for this year they gave their designers a very simple brief: be creative, get radical and produce a fast car. The result is the F2012, quite possibly the ugliest Ferrari of recent times. But it is radical. The front end features pull-rod actuated suspension. A lot of teams are starting to use pull rod suspension at the rear of the car but retain push-rod front suspension. The difference between the two systems is subtle. In push-rod suspension systems the suspension arm runs from the bottom of the front wheel to the top of the chassis. The load from the suspension is used to push the damper and spring assembly. Pull-rod works the other way around and the damper and springs are pulled apart when the suspension is compressed by a bump in the road surface. The advantages to pull rod suspension are slight. The weight of the springs and dampers are lower down as they are mounted on the floor of the chassis rather than on top of it and this lowers the centre of gravity of the car by a small margin.
There is a disadvantage to using pull-rod suspension however. The placement of the springs and dampers in the car is less accessible; meaning adjusting the settings becomes harder and takes longer. This is only a slight disadvantage but it could have serious effects in the time constraints of the practice sessions at each Grand Prix.
The biggest problem however appears to be with how Ferrari in particular have designed their system. In a pushrod actuated system, you can transfer load across the car when the driver is steering by moving the push-rod mounting point backwards or forwards along the chassis. This means the car can be fine tuned to work in both high and low speed corners with relative ease by allowing you to make the car softer, and thus more compliant, in low speed corners without actually softening the suspension and thus removing the higher mechanical stiffness you need for higher speed corners.
But Ferrari’s particular solution see’s the pull-rod connected to the upper wishbone, not the upright, so in one swoop they’ve negated their ability to do this.
This was brought to my attention by a fellow observer during the winter testing and it seemed a strange solution to both of us as by designing their system in such a way,Ferrari have effectively removed a key adjustment ability from their car. Throughout winter testing I’ve seen the car look quite imbalanced and can’t help but wonder if this facility to adjust the suspension which they no longer have might have fixed this imbalance.
Having said that, by the time they arrived at the Barcelona test the car appeared to have good raw pace. The biggest problem seemed to be an inability to continue this pace over medium-long runs. The car seems to degrade its tyres at a very fast rate. Last year’s car was very kind to its tyres and it is believed that this attributed to their poor showing in qualifying as the car failed to “switch on” its tyres quickly enough. Perhaps they’ve gone from one extreme to the other?
Finally Ferrari unveiled the car with exhausts mounted wind in the sidepods (near the “Acer” logo). It appears they are trying to blow the floor near the brake duct area. During the winter testing they moved the exhausts further inboard suggesting this solution didn’t appear to be reaping the dividends that their wind tunnel testing suggested it might.
Red Bull’s RB8 was unveiled with a typically tight rear end. But for the final pre-season test they introduced a revised rear end resign and exhaust layout, which seems to mimic the solutions of Mclaren and Sauber. Along with this was a new front wing. The tunnels at the rear of the car suggests that they are trying to speed up the airflow underneath the rear brake ducts, which helps energise the flow from the diffuser in much the same way as Ferrari appear to be trying with their exhausts. In theory, the newer design should yield more outright downforce, but it appears to be making the car more difficult to drive as the original solution seemed to provide a better balance. That being said the second solution does appear to be faster, so perhaps once they understand the newer design they’ll be able to maximise its driveability.
Mercedes have designed a car with possibly an even uglier nose than the Ferrari, but putting that aside the car appears to be a nice, simple design. There has been a lot of talk about them attempting to blow the front wing through the cooling slot in the nose. Frankly, I find this highly unlikely and until I see a picture of the underside of the front wing showing any blown slots I’m going to ignore that as hopeful speculation. Besides, in my opinion all this discussion is diverting attention away from their one key bit of design ingenuity.
The rear wing on the Mercedes car features a valance plate on the end of the DRS flap that sits flush with the endplate. I couldn’t figure out what its use was until I was shown a picture of the Mercedes in testing with its DRS flap open.
When the DRS is open the valance plate moves with the flap and reveals a small NACA duct in the endplate. Pictures from the rear of the car seem to show a blown slot on the underside of the main plane of the rear wing and it is easy to draw the conclusion that they are blowing the underside of the rear wing main plane when the DRS is open in order to increase its effectiveness.
It is a clever idea, but I expect rival teams will question its legality. Mercedes will argue that it is a passive system which works when the duct happens to be exposed. Rival teams will argue that it is deliberately designed to work when the DRS is open, and as the DRS is a drive controlled device, the system is driver-controlled and not passive.
I expect Ferrari to struggle for the first few races at least. They’ve made some design mistakes and their wind tunnel numbers don’t appear to correlate on track. They’ll be much better off after a few races once they understand the car, which at the moment appears to be rather unpredictable. No doubt we will see this car receive a lot of development parts over the course of this season – don’t rule out a full “B-Spec” either if the car is very poor – but it will take time as to fix a problem you first have to understand what is causing the problem. And I’m not sure Ferrari understands this yet fully.
Red Bull will be quick as always, but I feel the gap between them and the rest will not be as large as before. The era of red Bull dominance, I feel, is over.
Mclaren appear to have a car that seems well balanced, driveable, and reasonably quick. Unless they are hiding their true pace I expect them to be at the front causing the Red Bull’s a few headaches.
Mercedes will fill the gap that Ferrari leave, their car seems quick, and their tricky DRS-actuated “F-Duct” only offers slight performance enhancements. The car seems well balanced and most importantly quick.
Elsewhere, Renault will be strong; their car is neat and driveable. I’m not too sure about their ultimate pace or indeed if they can keep up in the development race with the big budget teams but they’ll easily be a top 10 team. I also expect a better showing this year from the Caterham and Force India teams. Williams this year appear to at least have a reliable car, assuming the car has some reasonable pace I expect to see a resurgence from them, but only a small one. Sauber have once again appeared to have designed a tidy car and their exhaust solution appears useful. Scuderia Torro Rosso have followed their design from last year with massively undercut sidepods and, while I can see the aerodynamic benefit, this is thrown off balance by raising the centre of gravity too high. They’ll stay in the midfield. I expect them to hold station as they did last year. The strugglers this year will once again be HRT and Marussia (formerly Virgin) the Marussia car in particular appears poor and the HRT seems to be an improvement over last year so those two could be much closer to each other than last year.
I predict the Mclaren and Red Bull cars will be the pick of the bunch with the Mercedes and Renaults snapping at their heels. Ferrari will find themselves battling with the likes of Force India and Sauber in the upper midfield with Torro Rosso and Caterham closely followed by Williams chasing after them. Marussia and HRT will once again be the minnows of the year.
We’ll only know for sure on the morning of Sunday 18th March. Coverage starts at 4:30am on Sky Sports F1, with the race at 6am GMT. Set your alarm clocks because it’s going to be the start of a thrilling season!