Joe-Pinions: Sports

29 July 2010 – GP of Germany Thoughts (Part 2)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 29/07/2010

In my most recent blog post, I shared some thoughts about Ferrari’s recent resurgence as well as why I thought it was wrong for the team from Maranello to ask Felipe Massa to move over for teammate Fernando Alonso in the German GP.  In this blog post, we’ll examine two more outstanding issues:  

  • The controversy over illegally-flexing front wings involving Ferrari and Red Bull
  • McLaren’s troubles adapting the blown diffuser into its car is making it hard for them to keep up with both Red Bull and Ferrari

Let’s look at these issues in turn.

Ferrari and Red Bull Give You (Flexible) Wings

There’s a good chance that you may not be aware of it, but there has recently been a row brewing amongst the teams in Formula 1 about a couple of competitors having illegal aerodynamic components on their cars.  Red Bull and, to a smaller extent Ferrari, have been reported to have overly-flexible front wings.  Several teams have put forward their concerns about the legality of these two teams’ front wings to the FIA’s technical rules enforcers.

I first came upon the rather suprising story (surprising, since it seems to have been largely ignored by many of the specialist press outfits I consult regarding F1) on Autosport.  According to the report they filed, the story actually was first reported by a French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, and consisted of a series of photographs from multiple angles that seem to show the central sections of the front wings dipping lower than what the regulations prescribe.

When Yahoo!UK’s Will Gray wrote that there was some footage on YouTube that seemed to support the contentions that the Red Bull’s front wing did seem to be flexing under load, I naturally had search for such clips and have a look for myself.

I found two clips:


The apparent flexing in the wings looks most obvious (to me, anyway) when you look at the wing’s endplates (its outer edges), near the inside of the tires.  When the car speeds up, the endplates look like they’re slowly dipping down closer to the track’s surface.  More obviously, when the car is under braking, the endplates appear to be moving up away from the track.  This would be indicative of the aerodynamic effects in play:  As the car speeds up, the downforce exerted on the wing increases the load, pushing it (and the entire car) down onto the track; conversely, when the car slows down, the aerodynamic load decreases, allowing the car’s suspension to decompress and push the car up a little bit.  

Autosport’s report highlighted the relevant technical regulation (Article 3.15):  

Article 3.15 of the F1 technical regulations states that bodywork that affects the aerodynamic performance of the car: “must be rigidly secured to the entirely sprung part of the car (rigidly secured means not having any degree of freedom)” and “must remain immobile in relation to the sprung part of the car.”

In simple English, this means that the front wing and any of its components (“bodywork that affects the aerodynamic performance of the car”) should not move at all, even when under aerodynamic loading.  I don’t know if I’m merely reacting to the power of suggestion, but it sure looks to me that the Red Bull’s front wing is indeed moving when the rest of the car (particularly when you use the car’s chassis that you can see in the onboard footage) is completely static.  Even the suspension arms look to be moving far less, even though they are subjected to the forces of weight transfer.  (Although, to be fair, suspensions are set to be very rigid these days anyway, with the tires themselves acting as the springs in a conventional car.  The reason for the very hard suspension settings?  Aerodynamics, specifically the need to have the car be at the most consistent ride height possible to maximize the under-car venturi effect from the underbody and rear diffuser.  The car’s suspension system is now nothing more than just a means to control the car’s ride height.  What this all ultimately means is we should be seeing much less change in the wing endplates’ relative position to the track as the car goes accelerates and decelerates.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve not found any “evidence” or any other kind of indication of similar things going on with Ferrari’s front wings, nor have I found footage of Webber’s Red Bull exhibiting similar behavior.  That is not to say, however, that only Vettel’s car has the flexible front wing (Autosport and Gray’s articles obviously says otherwise).

(EDIT:  On James Allen’s F1 Blog, there are a couple of comparative photographs illustrating just how low the Red Bull and Ferrari front wings are compared to other cars (a McLaren and a Mercedes are pictured).  Darren Heath, a well-known F1 photographer, took the photos.  See and judge for yourselves.  Incidentally, it is Mark Webber’s Red Bull pictured in two shots.)

This is the Red Bull front wing:  

This is the McLaren front wing, in comparison:  

Finally, Ferrari’s front wing:  

To my eyes, given these three photographs, the Red Bull’s wing’s endplates look to be lowest to the ground, the McLaren’s the furthest from the ground, and the Ferrari’s somewhere in between the two.  Of course, it’s impossible to say whether conditions (i.e., photographer’s position, angle, etc.) were identical in all three shots (not likely), but I think the shots are still fairly good to be able to make a judgment one way or the other.  Insofar as I’m concerned, there is a clear difference in how the wings on all three cars vary insofar as how close their critical components, the endplates, sit relative to the track surface.

The upshot of all this is that the FIA has ruled the Red Bull and Ferrari front wings to be perfectly legal after inspections conducted during the German Grand Prix.  All the other teams are now obligated to study and fully understand how these wing designs actually work and how they are deemed legal by the FIA.  McLaren, for one, has already said that they are completely stymied about how the wings are constructed

I have a feeling that this controversy will only get bigger, despite the FIA’s declaration that Ferrari and Red Bull’s designs comply with the technical regulations.

McLaren:  Blowing It With Its Diffuser

Speaking of McLaren, their MP4-25 has slipped from being the second-best car on the grid to the third best car, after Ferrari’s impressive resurgence in recent races.  In an effort to keep up with their rivals from Milton Keynes (Red Bull) and Maranello, McLaren decided to adopt a technical feature the Red Bulls have had since the pre-season testing, the so-called blown diffuser.

What is it?   Renault’s own F1 Blog explains it quite elegantly:  “A blown diffuser is simply a diffuser that is energised by putting the exhaust flow into the diffuser and blowing it with the exhausts.”  In other words, the engine exhaust is routed through the diffuser, where the hot gasses then accelerate the flow of the air going through the diffuser, thereby increasing the venturi effect and increasing drag-free downforce.

It’s not a new invention, as blown diffusers were first run in early 1980s by Renault (from James Allen’s F1 blog).  They became basically de rigeur in F1 until Ferrari invented the upward-facing exhaust layout in the late 1990s, and all the teams followed suit.  Adrian Newey’s design team at Red Bull basically just took the concept out from mothballs and incorporated it into the RB6, judging that the advantages in additional downforce outweighed the potential pitfalls (which clever management of the Renault engine was able to eliminate, at least to some degree).

McLaren has struggled to adapt its MP4-25 to accept a blown diffuser thus far.  They first ran the new diffuser at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix in Friday’s free practice, but took the parts out and reverted to the “conventional” diffuser for the rest of the weekend.  Apparently the team were experiencing problems with overheating suspension pieces, so they decided to take the safe route and go with the older diffuser design.  In Germany they ran with the blown diffuser the entire weekend, but were still unable to catch up with either the Red Bulls or the Ferraris.

With the ban on in-season testing, McLaren is racing not only against their rivals on the circuit, but also against time.  Simulation programs can only go so far in evaluating a sub-system as big as a blown diffuser, since there are so many other parts of the car that are affected.  Solutions to these kinds of technical issues will only be found with track time, but the ban on in-season testing severely restricts McLaren’s efforts to catch up.  Until they get on top of their issues with the blown diffuser, which includes full acclimatisation by the drivers, Ferrari and Red Bull will continue to stay ahead.  Not only that, but other teams (such as Renault and Mercedes) now have a chance to catch up to McLaren, which will make things even more difficult for the team from Woking.

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