09 July 2019 09:41
Chris explains the aspects of the car designs that are so important, and looks into some of the weirder cars that made it to the grid.
It's the argument of the modern era. What is more important; the driver or the car? Any driver can win with the best car, but can the best driver win with the worst car? Fernando Alonso would certainly have something to say on this subject. The billions of dollars coming in to Formula 1 teams through sponsorship, investors, and prize money, are poured into research and development groups who are looking for every hundredth of a second that they can find in their designs.
The regulations around a car design are strict, and whilst there have been some weird and wonderful experimental vehicles on the grid through the 1970's and 1980's, designers today have to go in search of the wiggle room in the regulations alongside refinement, making a big jump near impossible. The designers assisted with CAD software and the use of machine learning has pushed F1 to the very fore-front of technical innovation and in its wake little room for error.
The height and width of the car is set in regulations, stating that a car can be no wider that 200cm and 95cm tall. The widest parts of the car are the wheels and front wing. The length of the car is not set, however other regulations add up to keep most vehicles looking the same. One of the differing points is the wheelbase of the car. The distance between the wheels can affect the turning ability and maximum straight-line speed of the car.
Aerodynamics are at the epicentre of a complex car design landscape, and getting them right is essential to having a fast car. The cars' main wings are a key component for this, but in today's modern cars' even more focus is put to the turning vanes, barge boards and other winglets too. It is a fine balancing act though between downforce and drag. A car with the fastest engine is only as good as its cornering speeds and downforce from the wings are key to this. The purpose of a front wing is to push the front wheels into the circuit creating downforce, and giving the car more grip when turning into corners. The rear wing pushes the rear wheels of the car into the ground, allowing more of the mechanical grip to transfer into the ground. For a circuit like Monza in Italy, the corners are fast and sweeping thus the cars will run a low downforce set-up there, so to have as little drag as possible making top speeds of 340kph possible. Meanwhile, in Monaco where braking is heavy and corners are slow, they will run a high downforce set up, almost bolting every spare aerodynamic surface to the car.
The floor, rarely seen is the often forgotten yet key parts of the aerodynamic set up, as they use a number of specifically placed holes and fins to suck the car into the ground.
The engine is of course the true power house of the car. Manufacturers have the upper hand, with Mercedes, Renault, Ferrari, and Honda, all vying to be the best. In recent years, Mercedes, and its all-conquering hybrid engine have wrestled the mantle from Renault and Ferrari, who dominated the 20 years prior to their 2014 title victory.
One of the most influential designers of the modern aerodynamic age of Formula 1 is still designing today. Adrian Newey started straight out of university as a race engineer in both open wheel racing and sportscars. His first championship winning car was the Williams FW14B, which took Nigel Mansell to the World Drivers' Championship in 1992. With five Constructors' Championships at Williams, he moved to McLaren where he designed another two World Drivers' Championship winning cars, most notably the MP4/14 which took Mika Hakkinen to his second successive win.
In 2006, Newey moved to Red Bull Racing, where he continues to work today. The team dominated F1 in a four-year streak from 2010 to 2013. Sebastian Vettel enjoyed the spoils, becoming the youngest World Champion in history. Newey continues today in this digital age still choosing to draw his designs and pass them on to his design team to render. In later years his interest in Formula 1 has started to waiver, helping design an America's Cup sailing craft, and more recently Aston Martin's Valkyrie hyper car, now set to have an iteration for Le Mans and the WEC in 2020.
Designs from the past
The 1970's and 1980's were an experimental time with design, and these were between brilliant and absolute madness. In 1971, the March 711 took a different approach to the front wing, in what essentially looked like a surfboard bolted on top of the nose cone. The 1976 Ligier JS5 started life with an oversized airbox that rapidly cooled the engine, allowing them to run it harder, but in turn looked like a teapot on wheels.
1976 also saw the Tyrrell P34, a six wheeled car that had the standard rear wheels delivering power, and four smaller wheels at the front increasing front end grip. This managed 14 podiums, including a win. 1978 saw the infamous Brabham BT46B, which took the nickname of the "fan-car". The giant fan was clearly sucking air from under the car increasing downforce significantly. Niki Lauda went on to win the Swedish Grand Prix, but the car was later banned.
The design wars have been and are as much part of the battle in F1 as the drivers themselves are over the last 69 years of the sport. The design elements of the cars today have long risked overshadowing the sport itself, and this has led to a build-up of politics over the years that are making setting the future presidents of the sport almost impossible; only last month F1 said that they have put back announcement of the 2021 regulations overhaul back until October this year.
Most of us are watching because we're attached to the personalities of the drivers and their battles on track, whilst enjoying the technical battles between teams. This however is having more influence over a race than we would like. The 2021 regulations look to address this, shuffling the order and hopefully bringing the field closer together. Only time will tell. We already can't wait for the start of the 2021 season.