From roots to revolution – Craig Scarborough on the proposals that might just reignite Formula 1.
Recently, Formula 1 has been soul searching. The sport realises it’s not producing the spectacle it needs to attract and keep fans. There are a huge number of factors involved in this issue and, sadly, there is no silver bullet to cure the ‘show’. However, efforts are being made; a key one of these is the future technical direction of the sport. Currently, this is the work of the F1 strategy group; a collection of team principals who are working together to revamp the sport for 2017. It’s proposed that F1 goes back to its roots; to create cars that are both fast and able to overtake by being wider and with ground effect tunnels.
Some of the key problems the sport wants to solve include reducing costs, improving overtaking, increasing the spectacle and generally ensuring that F1 remains at the top of the motorsport ladder. This latter issue underlines a lot of what is being aimed for, especially when – earlier this year – the cheaper GP2 series was seen to have cars fast enough to qualify for an F1 race. Adding further insult, GP2 is also a category which involves plenty of overtaking and spectacle.
Thus, back in May, the strategy group made a broad announcement of directions it would be looking at:
• Faster cars: 5 to 6 second drop in lap times through the evolution of aerodynamic rules, wider tyres and reduction of car weight.
• Reintroduction of refuelling (maintaining a maximum race fuel allowance).
• Higher revving engines and increased noise.
• More aggressive looks.
If agreed, these rules will be the most far-reaching changes for a decade, and the first time rule changes have purposely set out to increase speeds. The refuelling idea was quickly dismissed as an expensive and risky way to shake up the racing; the exact reasons for which it was banned just a few years ago. Still, the kernel of ideas to increase the speed, noise and spectacle were sown.
Then, at Silverstone a few weeks ago, another press release outlined in greater detail the avenues which will be explored. Although the press release lacked any real technical specifics, discussion in the paddock by team principals (and, latterly, with the media) have fleshed out some quite exciting directions for the sport. Some of the announcements in the release – driver aids, tyres and exhaust noise – are intended to be addressed for 2016.
But key to meeting the speed and overtaking aims of the more far-reaching 2017 proposals are the projected tyre and aero rules:
“A new set of regulations aimed at achieving faster and more aggressive looking cars for 2017 – to include wider cars and wheels, new wings and floor shape and significantly increased aerodynamic downforce – have been outlined and are currently being assessed by the teams.”
This simple sentence gives away few details, but underpins discussions amongst the teams’ technical directors surrounding the way to achieve faster lap times and increased levels of overtaking. To address each of these ideals can be counter-productive; the trick will be to create both without them affecting one another.
Above: How the 2017 car might look (featuring wider track, wheels, tunnels & front wing).
Tyres will be adapted in two ways to meet the strategy group’s needs.
Firstly, with wider tyres comes greater cornering speeds; a sure way to reduce lap time by the simple fact that the tyres can provide more cornering energy.
Secondly, with the wider tyres also comes wider cars. The cars were narrowed down to 1,800mm wide back in the mid-2000s, partly to upset the aerodynamics by having the wheels in closer proximity to the chassis. A wider track will allow more corner speed, which again meets the group’s aims. Now, the cars will be widened back to 2,000mm, with the front wing widened to match the wider track. These changes will also increase aerodynamic drag, which will slow the cars on the straight, but will be less of a hindrance in turns.
This change tallies with the tender for F1’s sole tyre supplier agreement in 2017. It’s thought that many contenders for this deal want a larger diameter wheel and smaller tyre sidewalls. Many teams’ technical directors do not want to follow this direction. It is still open for debate, but it’s likely that the 2017 cars will continue to run the traditional bulbous tyres and 13” diameter wheels.
Downforce is arguably the biggest controllable factor to lap time and, in many eyes, the biggest contributor to the lack of ‘show’ during F1 races. It’s true that an F1 car cannot closely follow another car without losing its own aerodynamic downforce as the wings do not work in the wake of the leading car. The inability to follow closely means the car has more work to do on the straight to slipstream past the leading car. Also, the loss of grip means tyre wear increases and compounds the issue in trying to follow the leading car. Physics being physics, this means that any car with aerodynamic downforce will struggle in the wake of another, as the leading car takes the energy out of the airflow, leaving the following car with less air to act over its wings. The challenge is to create a body shape that’s less prone to creating a turbulent wake and is less affected by running in it.
With the current generation of F1 cars, the front wing creates the biggest problem for overtaking. Only part of the front wing creates downforce, much of its more complex details affect airflow to the rear of the car. When the front wing isn’t working, not only does the car lack front downforce, but the rear downforce is also affected. Both the balance of downforce (front to rear) and the total amount of downforce are affected, making it hard for the car that is following. The front wing remains largely unregulated in its complexity, which is certainly in contrast to most other aero surfaces.
It was Red Bull that proposed a solution to the strategy group; their solution being ‘Back to the Future’ or, perhaps you could call it, ‘Back to GP2’. The idea was to increase the size of the tunnels under the floor to make more downforce under the car and less with the higher mounted wings.
F1 used to have full length ‘ground effect’ tunnels in the wing car era from 1978 to 1982. These wing shaped side-pods produced such huge amounts of downforce that they were eventually banned for 1983. Now, few categories run large underbody tunnels – GP2 being an exception. It is thought the design is less sensitive to following another car.
The Red Bull concept means that the longer tunnels create both more downforce and even distribution of that downforce, front to rear. As the car is better balanced by the long tunnel, the front wing can be simplified, making it less sensitive to following another car. With this, the car can follow another without such a huge loss in downforce. The change also implies smaller wings and thus less drag, but the larger tyres offset this, so the cars will be slower on the straight and faster in the turns. The smaller delta between straight and cornering speeds means lap times come down but brakes will not need adapting, thereby saving costs.
The FIA have to be careful not to open a new direction in aero development that may be counterproductive to the new floor. In order to prevent an arms race in under-floor development, it will need to be contained either by a tightly-worked rule set on the geometry of the tunnels, or by a single-specification floor being mandated.
So, with wider cars, wider tyres and shaped underbodies, Formula 1 is showing to be taking cues from the successful GP2 series, as well as returning to its roots. There are a few short months to get the plans agreed and the floor design tested in a wind tunnel, so that these proposals can be approved for use by the teams. It seems the sport is finally back on track to giving fans the excitement they want.