Saturday, 4 February 2012

Formula 1 season 2012 - a look ahead

This week saw the reveal of a third of the field's cars ahead of this week's testing in Jerez, as CaterhamForce IndiaMcLaren and Ferrari all unveiled their cars for 2012.

There are a couple of trends in the news designs, as compared to 2011 cars both led by some small rule changes.

Firstly, the rear of the car has gotten smaller. This is a knock-on effect after the FIA created rules relating to where the exhaust of the car must be, and to how the engine must respond to the throttle. They did this because last year cars were having the exhaust blow the underneath of the car, to maximise airflow around the diffuser and to make the best use of the ground effect. This is something that the FIA want to minimise the use of because it leads to dangerous crashes like Mark Webber's (thankfully harmless) crash at Valencia 2010. What happens is that as the car lifts a bit, the ground effect sucking the car down suddenly disappears which further flicks the car upwards.
Video: Mark Webber flips his RB6. Ground effect more directly caused this crash from the same driver at 24 hours of Le Mans 1999. He escaped both crashes miraculously uninjured.

To make the "blown diffuser" work the teams had to engineer the engines to keep pumping out exhaust gas, even when the driver was off the throttle. This decreased horsepower and made the engines less fuel efficient. The new rules mean the engines are more fuel efficient and more powerful. The knock-on here leads to smaller fuel tanks, which allows teams to make the back of the car smaller.

The other rule change lowers the legal height of the nose of the car. Teams were putting the nose of the car as high as possible in order to get as much air going under the car as they could (ground effect, again). This, however, caused some very alarming crashes in 2010, and Karun Chandok and Michael Schumacher are both lucky to be alive (and unhurt) after the high nose of another car caused to go over the top of their cars.
The nose of Liuzzi's VJM03 causes it to go over the top of Schumacher's MGP W01. 10 or 15 years ago this would almost certainly have been a fatal accident, but Schumacher escaped unharmed.
(Note that this is not how new F1 cars are made.)

The lower nose of the car has seen some interesting interpretations, as most of the teams have a stepped nose:

Ferrari have an interesting idea to get the new nose 10cm lower than last year's car. I really wish I was making this up. Caterham and Force India have also gone down this route, although theirs look more deliberate and less like someone accidentally stood on the model before sending it to the factory. Source

I personally believe the stepped nose looks awful, and I can't imagine it does the aerodynamics any good at all. Even more baffling about it is that it has to create horrible turbulence, and then send that turbulence straight over the rear wing. I find it really hard to believe that this solution is really better than sending less air underneath the car but I also don't have access to a multimillion pound wind tunnel or a team of the finest aerodynamic engineers in the world.

I cannot help but feel that McLaren's far more elegant nose will prove to be faster this year.
McLaren's nose is far more elegant, but the airflow underneath the car will be reduced compared to the Ferrari. 

Having said this, if ground effect is the biggest deciding factor in creating downforce and if the height of the nose is so important, a side-by-side comparison of the Ferrari and the McLaren shows that - at the front of the undertray - the Ferrari's front is just above the height of the wheel axle, while the McLaren's front is level with it despite the fact the Ferrari appears to be sitting lower on its suspension. Maybe the "Platypus nose", as several commentators have referred to it, is the way forward after all. I hope not, but we can't really tell at all until testing starts on Tuesday.

Between the rule changes, downforce will be reduced considerably, but the teams will make back some of the difference in straight-line speed as the smaller back end of the car means less drag, and the new engine rules mean faster engines. This essentially means the new cars will be faster on the straights, but slower on the corners. This speed difference will hopefully lead to some more interesting racing, as the braking zones are where overtaking happens.

Bring on F1 2012.

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