Editorial: The Next Era of Formula 1



I have a confession to make. I am a Formula 1 junkie. If Formula 1 was the only racing series in the world, I would still be happy. Not that I dislike other series, I follow most motorsport, I just think Formula 1 is the pinnacle of performance, the “Holy Grail” of motorsport for designers and competitors.
This year we are going to see some big changes in Formula 1, they are returning to slick tires (from grooved tires) and they have made changes to the formula to limit how the designer can apply aerodynamics in the design. This is in an effort to increase over-taking and make the race more exciting for the spectators. They have also introduced KERS (kinetic energy recycling system), which requires a separate discussion. More after the jump!

The return to slick tires (no tread) will provide increased adhesion and is thought to allow later braking to encourage over-taking. For those who may not understand, most over-taking in racing is as a result of gaining a slight speed advantage down a straight and using this to create an overlap on the target car, then bravely, delaying braking to the last possible moment to prevent the target car from taking the shorter inside line into a corner. Personally, I do not see what difference this will make, since both cars will be using similar tires, they will have similar adhesion under braking. However, there might be something else here, the decision to go to rain tires will be more critical with slick tires than grooved tires. The grooved tires provided some wet adhesion because the grooves did displace some of the moisture on the track. Slicks will not be so kind, and we may see more action like we enjoyed in Brazil last year when several drivers attempted to finish the race on dry tires. It may also be more difficult to bring the slick tires up to operating temperature than the grooved tires. (Race tires need to be hot to be effective).

The most noticeable change, from the initial launch photographs, has been in the look of the new cars. Although they are all different in many respects, they have similarities as well. They look smaller lighter and more streamlined than in previous years, especially in the nose area. The front wings are very wide and the rear wings are higher, and narrower than we have seen in recent decades. To understand this change we need to understand aerodynamics and their effects on racecars.

Aerodynamics in racecar design has been increasingly important over the last few decades. The job of the aerodynamicist is to push the car into the road (down-force) while reducing drag (resistance through the air) to increase acceleration and top speed. Since the two are diabolically opposing, this is a difficult task to achieve. We need down-force to stick the car to the road; we need less drag to accelerate the car to higher speeds. Down-force increases the tire’s adhesion to the road, helping us corner faster and brake later. The resultant drag created by achieving this down-force reduces the ability for the car to accelerate to higher speeds. We end up with a car that either brakes and corners well or a car that accelerates and can achieve a high top speed. Formula 1 requires both of these so the aerodynamicist has become the magic wizard of Formula 1 design.

The downside to their creative wonders is that the cars create large amounts of turbulence (unstable air) behind them. This causes the following car to lose the effective down-force on the front and reduces the ability for that driver to brake later than the driver in front. If you watch motorsport on television you will often hear the announcer say that a driver “is having a look” as they approach the brake zone. The reality is that the following driver is pulling the car to the inside, out of the turbulent air, to re-attach the airflow on their front wing, and the resultant down-force, so he can brake with out hitting the car in front. That is the reason why over-taking is difficult in modern racing at the higher levels, the cars need to have an exponential difference in horsepower to get past a competitor before the brake zone. It is said that the modern Formula 1 car needs to be 2-seconds per lap faster to facilitate overtaking, this in a sport that celebrates a 10th of a second as a great achievement.

This has resulted in the organizers changing the formula for car design to eliminate many of the aerodynamic bits we have come to see in the modern Formula 1 car. The little “winglets” and peculiar pieces that have adorned the cars in recent years have now been banned. The new cars display a cleaner, less cluttered look. They also have narrower and higher rear wings to help eliminate the turbulent air behind the car from interfering with the following cars front wing. The front wing has been increased in width and has driver controlled, moveable flaps that will increase front grip in the braking zone. This is similar to the flaps on an aircraft wings used for take-off and landing. The intent is to give some advantage back to the driver of the following car and encouraging him to attempt a passing maneuver.

Will all of these changes work? I doubt it. Each car will have the same advantage and I still think that passing may still be difficult in Formula 1. There is no reason why the lead driver will not take advantage of the moveable flaps and brake later as well. But, if it puts both drivers in too deep into the corner, then maybe we will see more driver error, this could lead to more exciting racing and provide a larger advantage to the more skillful drivers. There is one additional change that might make all of this work, that is the introduction of KERS and I will talk about this in a later post. Effectively this new technology will enable Formula 1 drivers a “Push to Pass” option. This combined with the changes in aerodynamics just might return over-taking to Formula 1.