Sunday, 19 July 2015

Back to the Future – How Ground Effect could save modern F1

Sometimes the answers can come from the past..

What should an F1 car be? Ask most fans and they would tell you the fastest circuit race cars on the planet. They should have a degree of difficulty to drive that allows talent to shine through. They must have a purity in design and driving experience that reflects the pinnacle of motorsport. The racing spectacle should be as entertaining as possible whilst the sport being at the forefront of technology to keep the manufacturers involved.  This balancing act and ideal vision of the sport has become somewhat eroded. Yet look into the sports past and you will find a technology that could re address this balance and bring the spark back the audiences are currently longing.

Still tail happy at low speed
What are the modern turbo F1 cars like to drive? Certainly they are not the turbo charged monsters we saw in the 1980s era. Many including me fantasised of ridiculously powerful cars squirming sideways and forcing the drivers to wrestle them into submission. Even with recent rules restricting downforce, modern cars have so much more grip than their 1980s counterparts. They feel glued to the road and more refined compared to rocket propelled shopping trolleys. At slow speed the back end will still squirm under the huge torque of the turbo engine breaking traction. But throw the car into a bend at speed and the front wing and complex rear diffuser will produce a huge amount of downforce making the car feel stable and planted.  That’s right, modern F1 although recently dominated by engines is still all about downforce.   Back in the 1980s teams were dominated by engineers, today the design teams are guided by aerodynamicists. HNDs have made way for Aeronautical degrees as reluctant poster boy Adrian Newey proved with success that every aspect of the car should be optimised for aero efficiency.  Now aerodynamicists lead the design direction of the car.

Complex modern front wings
There is one single component on an F1 car that generates around a third of this downforce. It is the front wing. By means of hugely complex winglets and end plates these wings also play a vital role in channelling air around the disruptive tyres and under the car. As rule changes evolved this component has become the holy grail of car design. You might find your F1 nerd trying to impress by attempting to explain the latest wing upgrade that he has read in Scarb's blog or Autosport magazine. The truth is such is the complexity you truly need an Aeronautical degree to really understand the design direction of front wings. Teams plough millions into developing them which individually cost alone around £100,000. Think of this when Maldonado love taps his next opponent and comes into the pits for a new one.

'Dirty Air' phenomenon
The serious problem with this hugely complex piece of carbon fibre is overtaking. When chasing another driver you may hear a radio transmission complaint about ‘dirty air’ or losing time tucked up behind an opponent. Once a following car gets close behind a car in front it enjoys the advantage of a hole in the air being punched open. This is great down the straights as the hole generated by the opponent allows it to ‘slipstream’ behind and gain an advantage from less drag. However, approach a corner under braking and enter a bend and this lack of air doesn’t allow the front wing to work. The air flow it does receive has already been shaped and manipulated by the car in front so doesn’t flow as it should. This ‘dirty air’ reduces front end grip and produces understeer, meaning the car doesn’t want to turn into the corner. Continue to try and close the gap and overtake and this understeer produces unnecessary front tyre wear and can rapidly snowball during a race when tyre wear is all important. Cue drivers backing off and saving their tyres and accepting the position they are in. This is caustic to racing and a sad reality of modern F1. The slow reacting FIA are aware of this and have tried to band aid the racing with DRS zones to artificially boost the chasing driver. In 2009 ‘tea tray’ style wide front wings were bought in to channel air around the outside of the front tyres thus attempting to make the front wings less sensitive to dirty air. Although we saw plenty of overtaking in the following years this was down to new high-degradation Pirelli tyre compounds and the introduction of DRS. The front wings were still very sensitive to dirty air and increasing their size had only increased cornering speed. They were soon shortened in 2014.

Ground effect 'Venturi' tunnels
If you asked an alien to design a fast single seater racer using earth’s technology, would it have a large and highly important, expensive and complex front wing? No and far from it. To find the most natural, simple way of a car producing high amounts of downforce with as little cost and drag as possible you have to go back in time to 1977. Legendary Lotus founder Colin Chapman had been studying aerodynamics at the British jet fighter manufacturer De Havilland. Aerodynamics had already come to importance over 10 years ago when ‘wings’ appeared on racing cars. Wings are in fact upside down aircraft wings. Instead of producing lift the wing produces downforce, pushing the car into the ground and producing grip and speed. Colin was further inspired by fluid dynamics and how they worked on De Havilland’s ‘Mosquito’ fighter aircraft. He came to realise that the underside of the car could be profiled into a curve, similar to a wing face. Plastic brushes and later rubber around the edge of the cars floor created ‘skirts’ which stopped air interfering with this large area of low pressure. The ‘Venturi’ affect as it is called would basically turn the entire car into a wing, sucking it to the ground. His ideas were relayed back to his designers Peter Wright, Martin Ogilve, Tony Rudd and Ralph Bellamy. Penned as the ‘Lotus 78’, a new car was born out of these ideas and principles. The front wing was small and skinny and all that was required to address balance and allow the underside of the car to work optimally.  Sculptured after many hours in Imperial College London’s wind tunnel, the result was in my eyes the most beautiful car to ever grace a racing circuit. 
The Lotus 79 changed motorsport forever
Introduced for the Argentinian Grand Prix in 1977 the benefits were obvious and the cornering speeds were phenomenal. Unfortunately the grip was being generated so far forward in the car that a huge rear wing was required to keep the back end in check. This meant the car suffered on the straights with drag. This coupled with an underpowered and over worked Cosworth DFV it wasn’t enough to top the season and the team finished the constructors championship 2nd. Efforts went into reducing the rear wing size and tendency to oversteer for the new much more rounded '79'. That went on to win 9 of the 15 races and won the World Championship with Mario Andretti.  A successful year was marred by the death of the talented team mate Ronnie Peterson, succumbing to injuries sustained from an off-line pile up at the Italian Grand Prix. It would prove to be Team Lotus’ last World Championship and it wasn’t long until the rest of the field cottoned onto the advantages of ground effect. However many teams did not have the budget for wind tunnel testing and the results were crude applications often with undesirable side effects. Disturbances in the airflow under the car would cause cars to ‘porpoise’ or rock back and forth. This could often be violent and was particularly uncomfortable for the driver as the cars had to be run on rock hard suspension to maximise efficiency. At times the cars could lose their ground effect and grip in an instant with scary results.

 ‘To be honest, there was no such thing as cornering technique in the ground effect era.  “Cornering” was a euphemism for rape practised on the driver. . . When you came into a corner you had to hit the accelerator as hard as you possibly could, build up speed as quickly as possible and, when things became unstuck, bite the bullet and give it even more. In a ground effect car, reaching the limit was synonymous with spinning out.’ – Niki Lauda

1982 proved a dangerous season
FISA were worried with cornering speeds and teams experimenting with ground effect with very little aerodynamic knowledge. Skirts could break sending cars off the track at high speeds. Patrick Depailler was killed testing for the German Grand Prix in 1980. While the accident was blamed on suspension failure and poor guard rails the car was travelling at significant velocity at the high speed Ostkurve, thanks to ground effect. The following year skirts were banned by FISA but teams had other ideas such was the advantage. Skirts that dropped out on circuit but retracted to hide from scrutineering were developed and FISA lifted the ban in 1982. Cars continued to have accidents at very high speeds with legend Gilles Villeneuve losing his life at Zolder in Belgium. Although not the cause of Villeneuve’s death, again the high speed of the cars played a factor. Turbo engines were beginning to appear in F1 and were looking to make a scary combination. Villeneuve’s team mate Didier Pironi suffered a horrific crash at the German Grand Prix were the ground effect of the cars in front had thrown up a fog like mist from the wet race track. Unsighted Pironi smashed into the back of Alain Prost’s Renault severely injuring his legs, surviving but ending his career. Across the pond Gordon Smiley lost his life in an horrific high speed accident in his ground effect car at the Indy 500. FISA had enough and made a flat under tray under cars which effectively banned ground effect from Formula One. While it continued 

Today in principle we still have ground effect but at a very restricted level, with the diffuser at the rear of the car. Bring back unrestricted ground effect with today’s understanding of aerodymanics would result in the drivers having to wear G suits – the cornering speeds would be ridiculous and highly dangerous. However remove the complex over body aerodynamics and the over reliance on the front wing and you have the potential for some great racing. Limitations, be it on tyre compound and some clever restrictions on the ground affect area would bring the cornering speeds down to acceptable levels. This wouldn’t be the highly explosive twitchy cars of old. Ground effect can now be applied with modern safety standards. The band aid of DRS would be redundant and even road cars would benefit from the most efficient way of producing grip in this age of efficiency.

Now it looks like the F1 circus is starting to see sense, with proposals for ground affect for 2017 up for discussion by the Strategy Group.  Jenson Button supports the notion, “if you’re going to work with downforce it should come from the floor rather than the wings, because you can race closer and fight, and you don’t have as much dirty air from the wings for the car following,”   

Let’s hope the proposal makes some serious inroads. In 2012 the idea of ground affect was thrown out the window with teams stating their worry over costs. The reality was the dominant and powerful teams in the sport at the time, namely Redbull and Ferrari, didn’t want the pecking order shaken up by a fundamental redesign. You can be ensured after this initial investment the costs of development would be slashed ­­­­. Bring it back I say…

Elio De Angelis at the French Grand Prix 1982

R.I.P Jules Bianchi

R.I.P Jules Bianchi 1989-2015. Such as tragic end to a young life and talent.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Motorsport Justice at Le Mans - Hulkenberg, Tandy and Bamber bring Porsche victory

The #19 and #18 Porsche cross the line

The motorsport Gods cast light at Le Mans this weekend. A trio of drivers who hadn't been gifted with the opportunities or money of their compatriots shared the seat of the winning Porsche 919, bringing the manufacturer its first top class win in 17 years. Nico Hulkenberg, who many believe has never had a car in F1 capable of delivering the results his skills deserve, took the chequered flag to a sell out crowd at le circuit de la Sarthe . But if it wasn't for the stellar performance of British driver Nick Tandy and kiwi Earl Bamber this record wouldn't have been possible.

Porsche's first win in 17 years
The win granted Nick Tandy the honour of the first British winner at Le Mans since 2003. Nick began his climb to the top of motorsport by following his older brother's Joe route into the unconventional working-class world of Mini Stox racing. Both himself and Joe enjoyed success winning National and regional races and titles. Progressing onto Formula Ford Nick's talent was further recognised, but more often than not a lack of money bought performance handicaps. To his aid his brother Joe with a fresh engineering degree formed 'Joe Tandy Racing' and produced competitive cars for his brother in Formula Ford and F3. Unfortunately the good times were about to come crashing down when Joe driving a BMW 5 series collided with a van at a junction in Bedfordshire. It proved fatal for both himself and his to-be brother in law in the passenger seat. Nick vowed to continue on and 18 days after the incident scored the team's first win in F3 with a dominant performance at Rockingham. An opportunity to race in the German Porsche Carrera Cup lured him to sports cars, scoring 2nd place in his first race with no testing experience. Success followed and in 2013 he was signed to the Porsche factory team. His performances and loyalty to the Porsche family won him his drive this year in the third Porsche 919 Le Mans racer.

Nick Tandy began his racing in MiniStox
Of course many of you will be aware of the predicament of F1 racer Nico Hulkenberg. Highly rated by many in the sport, Nico lost his opportunity for a top team contract to Kimi Raikonnen for the 2014 season. His lap times in comparison to team mates speak for themselves, but Ferrari favoured their previous World Champion Kimi. For me and many that was not a wise decision. On his good days the popular bad boy of F1 Kimi has amazing talent, but since getting battered by his team mate Massa in 2008 has become a bit of a spent force. To Ferrari however a driver consistently able to challenge their lead man Vettel wouldn't be welcome.

Nico continues to campaign on in F1 driving the inferior machinery that is the Force India. Although this huge Le Mans win will further raise his stock value in the sport, could it entice him to race in sports cars full time? With Formula One being slagged off left right and center on social media with Mercedes domination, quiet engines and boring races of recent a factory drive with Porsche seems tempting.
Will 'Hulk' be tempted out of F1?
An exciting Le Mans this year has only raised the World Endurance Championship's profile and that unbeatable winning feeling might have stirred something inside Hulkenberg. No one wants to spend their years racing mid field machinery in F1 so could this be a tipping point?

And lets not forget the third driver of the winning car, New Zealand's young Earl Bamber. Coming through the ranks of the expensive world of single seater racing on a tight budget, the kiwi took the same decision as Tandy to move to the comparatively cheaper world of sports car racing. Winning the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia in his first season in 2013 proved his credentials and another year of Porsche racing followed. Signed up as a works factory driver for Porsche this year at the age of 24, he was gifted given the opportunity to race at Le Mans this year with Hulkenberg and Tandy in the #19 Porche 919. His good friend and fellow New Zealander Brendon Hartley drove the lead Porsche 919 #17 car this year with Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard.

Sun rises at Le Mans
At what of Mark Webber, the man favoured to lead Porsche to victory this weekend at Le Mans? During the evening young kiwi Brendon Hartley made the a mistake of not slowing down enough under double yellows in the new 'slow zone' and so the #17 Porsche was penalised with a one minute penalty. This was left for Webber to serve after jumping into the seat shortly after. This took the car out of the race and some very quick laps by Nick Tandy in the #19 Porsche bought his car into contention. The chasing #7 Audi lost its bodywork requiring pit repairs and the only other threat from the team's #9 car ended when a front driveshaft required changing. Earlier in the race Loic Duval's #8 Audi had also suffered bodywork damage when clashing with battling GT cars on the circuit, costing 2 minutes and bringing it out of the battle at the front. This would be the first time the German marque had lost Le Mans since 2009, after a dominating run of 12 wins in the last 15 races.

The polesitter and third Porsche dropped down the order when Neil Jani and Romain Dumas both had a copycat lock ups bringing them off the track at the end of the long Mulsanne straight. Last year's World Endurance Champions Toyota continued to struggle with a lack of pace and were not in the same league as the Porsche and Audi cars all weekend. The best placing Toyota was the #2 of Alex Wurz, Mike Conway and Stephan Sarrazin who were able to salvage a 6th place out of Audi's issues.

Nissan struggled with its radical concept
Nissan's radical GT-R Nismo's race was already played down as a test session rather than a challenge for glory this weekend, with the cars regularly visiting the garage to keep them going. The front wheel drive car struggled with traction out of the corners and a scary moment ensued for Exeter boy Harry Tincknell - loosing his front bodywork and lights in the darkness of night. It was the only car to cross the chequered flag, be it unclassified for being too far back.

In other classes the KCMG Oreca of Nicolas Lapierre, Richard Bradley and Matt Howson led a convincing victory in LMP2 after stopping on track at one point with reliability issues. The GT class was won by the loud roaring Chevrolet Corvette of Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor. Towards the end the Ferrari 458 Italia of Gianmaria Bruni took the lead only to drop to third after a heroic gearbox repair, with Italian mechanics pulling out and replacing individual gears in 45 minutes.

A historic Le Mans 24 Hours certainly bought a refreshing taste to motorsport after a few less than exciting Grand Prix races in recent months.