So what should F1 do to get more exciting?
Will Racing in 2018 be Better? – Short Answer… No!
And here is why: Even before one car hits the road for the Barcelona test it’s already possible to say that there won’t be any real improvement. Liberty Media and the FIA chose to change insignificant issues like the implementation of a halo device (in this writers opinion; unnecessary and ugly), the logo (to cut the ties the sport has with Mr. E, and some might say unnecessary and ugly.), grid girls/kids (to create some controversy). But what they forgot to address was the only real problem F1 has.
It’s not that they didn’t try, I mean opening up the (much too tight) social media rules was a step in the right direction. Changing the starting times of the qualifying sessions and races can be argued about (yes, it’s better for American fans but Asian and Australian fans won’t be happy about it.) and since Liberty Media is an American company I understand where they are coming from. Liberty Media’s prime target is to reach a bigger audience, and they feel America is a, still largely, untouched market. But as long as the racing won’t improve all they’ll accomplish is losing even more fans.
And I’m not talking about engine rules here. I’m a fan of the hybrid 1.6L V6 power units. I mean if you’re not impressed by figures close to 1000bhp, and 50% thermal efficiency, from such a small power-plant there is something wrong with you. Plus, the engine noise (or the lack of) is the worst argument I heard many (maaaaaany) times, in the last couple of years. I’ve been going to races for a long time now, and yes the first time I heard a V12 and a V10 it was an ear-shattering experience. One that I’ll never forget. But did it make the races better? No. Look at it this way: Many of you hate the Monaco GP, because it’s seen as a procession. Now imagine you’ve seen a race there, in the V10 era, with one single overtake. If I were to use the argument ‘What a great race that was, because the sound of those cars is so incredible!’, you’d all look at me like I have the IQ of a frozen yoghurt…
Which brings us to the biggest problem with F1 at the moment: the lack of overtaking/ close battles. You have to be pretty hardcore to enjoy a race like the 2017 Belgian Grand Prix. I am, and I did, but I can imagine how a casual viewer got frustrated that Vettel could keep up with Hamilton, perhaps be driving marginally faster in some sectors, but was unable to pass, or even try to make a move. Truthfully, I have to admit that even I would have enjoyed it more if the cat and mouse game would have ended up with a pass or two. There is nothing more thrilling than a dogfight for P1. And the fact that Vettel stayed within 0.364 sec to 1.953 sec, for 27 laps(!), only highlights the current problem. And I’m not saying this because I’m a Vettel fan. Those that know me know I really don’t care who wins, as long as the race is exciting.
Which brings us to the next question: Is there an easy fix for said problem? Once again the answer is no. I know many of you will say ‘Yes, just change the front wing’, but that doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the problem. If anything, the 2017 rules, that made the cars look old skool again (wider tyres, wider rear wing, etc.), enhanced the problem. Back in 2009 the rules were going in the opposite direction, exactly with such a solution in mind. The width and height dimensions of the rear wing were altered in order to change the turbulence (wake = the turbulent disturbed air behind a car where the total pressure is low.) generated by the cars, improving slipstream possibilities. For the same reason large barge boards and various small aero bits got banned. Remember how the 2008 cars looked? Every possible space had some aerodynamic flap, winglet or small gap. And, because the wheels are the biggest aerodynamic obstructions on the cars, the front wing was widened. Furthermore, the FIA introduced a similar central section for each car, that way they tried to give each car similar flow structures.
2008 vs 2009 regulations, top view.
2008 vs 2009 regulations, head view.
Everybody sees the front wing as the main enemy of overtaking possibilities, and while partly true, it wouldn’t be F1 if the problem wasn’t a bit more complex. F1 cars are built in such a manner that there are 3 main downforce generators. The first being the front wing (23%), the second is the floor/diffuser (60%) and the third is the rear wing (17%). The complexity is that the rear wing gets a part of its downforce via the front wing. The front wing creates a stream of vortexes, directed alongside the front wheels (where the blown front axle does the same, feeding rear body work.), in an elliptical shape towards the rear wing.
Back in high school a mate and I made a miniature wind-tunnel as our project for chemistry, even though it’s more of a physics matter. I think the teacher just wanted to see if we could pull it off.), which highlighted this phenomenon. Minus the front blown axle, because a) the 1997 championship winning Williams car didn’t have one and b) even if it did, you can’t expect Tamiya to incorporate such a detail in their model cars. Anyway, we did two “experiments”. The first was to feed the air stream with the smoke of a CO2 cannon (the kind every party had in the 90s and 00s). This showed the various vortexes, created by the front and rear wing etc. And for the second one we replaced the smoke with flour. Unlike the smoke experiment, this one did not show the vortexes. As a matter of fact, you couldn’t see much because of the thick mist the flour generated. However, the end result was just as exiting. When we cut off the air flow and the dust settled, the flour had gradually accumulated on the places that generated downforce. It was a mess to clean the car up after each time we tested the flour, but the way it highlighted where the lowest and biggest forces pressed down on the car made it well worthwhile. Unfortunately, since that happened years ago, I have no idea where the thing is (or if it still exists…). So I will have to use plain pictures here, instead of a cool video. But I remembered the story and wanted to share it, since I’m still proud that it worked back then. In the end we even got a perfect score for that project.
So back to the main story. The front wing is part of the problem, yes. But the solution I’ve seen given by many on various social media platforms (i.e. put a simple front wing on!) is too simplistic for such a complex problem. This would only result in an unstable rear of the car. As a matter of fact, the 2017 rules took away some of the responsibilities the front wing has, when it comes to influencing the stream of vortexes towards the back of the car. That’s why we’ve seen so much evolution in the barge board area and in the floors (Remember this Ferrari article). The rules have been relaxed on those parts, and the gains to be made there are much bigger than the ones possible in the front wing area. Of course, once this playing field is level, teams will return their focus to the front wing.
Which brings us to the magic solution according to (nearly) everyone on the Internet: Ground effect. First of all, every F1 car uses ground effect. Remember the 60% downforce figure that I mentioned earlier? There are several ways how the floor generates it, but every way is a gateway to the magic solution…
Why else do we see cars with such an aggressive rake? Yes, 1.5 to 2 degrees is aggressive. It might not seem much, but the effect is immense. Because it creates a tunnel under the car where the beginning of the tunnel (the front wing) is closer to the ground than the end (the diffuser). This has two benefits. 1) It accelerates the airflow beneath the car and reduces the pressure at the lowest part of the car. And 2) it enhances the volume in front of the diffuser, which makes the diffuser “think” it’s bigger than it actually is. Which is quite important since that diffuser has been tightly regulated, but more of that in the following paragraphs.
The role of the diffuser is to speed up the airflow underneath the car, reducing its pressure, and creating a difference in pressure between the upper and lower surfaces of the car. This generates downforce/ aerodynamic grip. This is why we’ve seen brilliant inventions like the double diffuser which helped Brawn win the championship, and the blown diffuser which helped Red Bull Racing get a similar result. The Brawn strategy “tricked” the regular diffuser by cutting holes in front of it and feeding a second (smaller) diffuser on top of the regular one. Herby the car was able to channel a bigger volume of air under the floor, which enhanced the “suction” of the floor.
Red Bull’s innovation was a bit more complex. Through a belated ignition of the air and fuel mixture, at a later phase in the engine revolution process, when the exhaust valve had already opened, the explosion of the mixture also creates a rush of gas through the exhaust mimicking the effect of running with the throttle open. With the exhaust placed in the airflow of the diffuser, it maintains a flow of gas (and downforce) despite the engine slowing down.
Both of these clever solutions have been banned by the FIA by tightening the regulations concerning the height and width of the diffuser. So why don’t teams use a bigger rake angle, to circumvent these regulations. Well, there is a downside, the higher the diffuser, the more the air flow beneath the car can “leak” out, which would eliminate the volume won by raising the tail of the car. That is why F1 cars, in the old days, had skirts, that sealed the tunnel beneath the car. As we all know, those skirts were banned, but F1 wouldn’t be F1 if our genius engineers hadn’t found a clever way to mimic those skirts. Only downside, there is a physical limit to it. Today an F1 car manipulates the airflow (through the outer edge of the barge boards) around the floor in such a manner that the vortexes act like those skirts.
Ferrari came up with a clever solution to make further gains in this area with their radical designed 2017 car. In this article you could read about their strange looking side pods already. The unusual deep undercut of these side pods meant that the air stream, alongside the car, is directed towards the diffuser even more as before. And an additional benefit of these side pods is their positive influence on the low center of gravity.
So to summarise, F1 cars use ground effect today. Is it therefore valid to say they should use more ground effect and less front wing and be able to follow each other more closely? Once again I have to say no. I’ve said that quite a few times already. But here is why:
Most people say that it would be the way to go. And their first argument is ‘Look at Indycar, they have even increased their ground effect for 2018!’. But this will only be the case on oval courses. For their road/street races they will have a bigger wing package. Which brings us straight to the second point as to why it wouldn’t work in F1. Indycar is a spec series (with limited aero). That means the cars are basically the same. Which is a very big plus, if you use ground effect. But hear me now; Formula One is not a spec series, nor should it ever become one!
So should we conclude that F1 is doomed? Of course not. Ross Brawn wants to limit surface aero, to evolve towards more downforce from the floor. But you can’t eliminate it completely. However, the fact that the FIA bought the wind-tunnel model of the former Manor F1 team should show you just how serious Brawn is. Nevertheless, I feel that there are more simple solutions. Why else would I write this article, haha. Because aero is not what prevents overtaking. Yes, you read that right. Aero is not the problem. Back in 1982 ground control/ side skirts got banned. Does that mean that 1983 is the season that had the most spectacular rise in overtaking numbers ever? No… F1 lost about 80% of their aerodynamics, yet in 1982 there was an average of 41.6 overtakes per (dry) GP, and in 1983 the average was 41.5!
Another proof is that wet races always seem to have enough action, yet they’re driven with maximum downforce. The 2106 Brazilian GP had 65 overtakes, even-though 34 of the total 71 laps were behind the safety car…
Thus there can only be one conclusion. To find more overtaking opportunities you have to search in other places than aero. And those places are:
Who needs 7(!) different compounds? No-one! What we need is just 2 different (dry) compounds. One super soft compound for qualifying. This will show us exactly how quick the cars are. And since they will never have to do long stints in qualifying sessions durability for safety reasons won’t be a concern. And one rock hard compound for the race. That way the cars will be sliding a lot more, thus driver-ability will be key again. I’d still keep one mandatory pit-stop, since I think that’s part of F1 too. Furthermore, those rock hard tyres would shed fewer marbles, therefore going off line wouldn’t be a punishment, like it is today. Look at WEC where the much quicker LMP1 cars have to overtake all the slower cars, when those get a blue flag. Unlike in F1 where the slower cars have to move out of the way of the quicker cars. This also means that the difference of mechanical grip on and off line would not be as big as today.
Another benefit of these tyres would be that there would be more action in braking zones again. Drivers like Hamilton, who is known for his late braking, should benefit from this since the braking zones would be a lot longer than they are now. The more grip a tyre has the sooner it’s able to stop the car. Yes, (F1)drivers hate hard tyres, but they all say they love action packed races so they’ll have to take one for the team. And one more benefit, and this one will be repeated a couple of times, it brings down the costs! Why use a budget cap when you could save money in simpler and more effective ways, with regard to the quality of the racing.
Plus, it would be easier to get F1 to switch to hard tyres than to go back to steel brakes. Those brakes would have the same effect as the tyres, in the braking zones, but brakes can be seen as a safety device. Therefore I think teams would protest quite fiercely if the FIA would outlaw carbon fibre composite brakes.
I’ve been saying this, to everyone who wants to listen, for quite a while now. Bring back manual gearboxes. I used to say the H-kind, (Remember how excited we get when we watch on-board clips of Senna, who has to take one hand of the steering wheel while wrestling a 1000bhp monster?) but I’m feeling generous today so I’ll change it to semi-automatic flappy paddle gearboxes. Not only are those gearboxes cheaper than the ones we have today, it would also (once again) bring back emphasis on the drivers. And the tech is still modern enough, since some feel H gearboxes are from the stone age. But you can’t deny that errors due to a missed gear create overtaking opportunities. Plus if you use semi-automatics the engine is still protected against over-revving, during the downshift process. When this ridiculous 3 engine rule per season is the new precedent, this will be a big selling point to the teams.
The qualifying format.
Something else that creates overtaking opportunities, while laying the focus on the drivers, are cars that qualify out of their normally expected position. If a faster car ends up behind slower cars on the grid, they have to go for an overtake. Fast has to attack slow. It’s as simple as that! It also gives the drivers in the slower cars more opportunities to demonstrate how much they’re worth. One thing that gave us such grids, was the one lap qualifying format. I know some of you didn’t like that format, but think of it with the benefit I just mentioned. It beats the reversed grid idea every day. And some drivers are better at qualifying than racing, so they could make Saturday exciting. And then there are drivers like Alonso. Never the best one on Saturday, but on Sunday up there with the absolute best. Can you imagine how much fun such situations would be? I can.
As a compromise the one lap qualifying could become a two lap qualifying, using the average of the two timed laps. Each driver would have two attempts, ruling out the “unfairness” that some people complained about, during the previous one timed lap system.
Back in 1967 Jacky Ickx managed to qualify third at the Nürnburgring in an F2 car, against the big boys in F1. Why? Because his car was lighter, more nimble. At Zandvoort that year he even drove faster than every other F1 car. Every real racer would opt for the lighter car, even if it’s less powerful. General rule is that every 10 kg extra adds 0.3 sec. In 2006 the cars had a minimum weight of 595 kg, for 2018 this minimum weight has gone up to 734 kg! That’s 139 kg more… Sadly a lot of that is due to the new power-plants, since that weight minimum has gone up from 95 kg to 145 kg. There was a time that the cars minimum weight got raised because of the new safety regulations, but that hasn’t been the case for a while now, apart from the 6 kg the FIA added for the 2018 season because of the halo device. Funnily teams report that the whole device weighs about 14 kg…
Weight is the biggest enemy of any race class. I don’t have a problem with extra weight because of crash structures or other safety devices, but surely there must be a way of getting the overall weight down again. The MGU-H removal in 2021 will help a bit, but that’s still a long way down the road.
All of these are easy fixes (well, the weight issue perhaps not, but the others are). But why doesn’t the FIA think of them? They all want new fans to find the sport, but nothing will bring in more fans than exciting races. And for exciting races we need change. Actual changes that influence the cars and therefore the racing!
Or is the FIA not bothered anymore? Do we need Liberty Media more than we realise? When you think about it, every change during the last season, be it big or small, have come from Liberty’s input. And with Ross Brawn being so involved with the new rules for 2021, it seems that the influence of the commercial right holder (remember that Liberty Media is nothing more than the commercial right holder) is bigger than most of us suspected. Are we in for a change that no-one thought about? Could Liberty Media be planning to take over F1 completely? Breaking off from the FIA, and creating a stand alone series, like CART. Only successful…
Would you welcome such a change?
This is what we want! And when do we want it? As soon as possible!