A short rant on Formula One aero regulations

The past three seasons of Formula One have seen a number of desperately important aero innovations that obeyed the letter of the Technical Regs while pretty clearly violating their spirit.  I am of course referring to the double diffuser (okay, it’s really only a single diffuser with holes cut in it and a rear crash structure that’s shaped like a diffuser); the F-Duct (which isn’t considered a moving aerodynamic device because the moving part is the driver’s hand, elbow, or foot… and those aren’t technically part of the car); and the blown diffuser (which, in the wake of the F-Duct decision, led to the eyebrow-raising ruling — for the 2011 British GP at least — that the engine itself had become a moving aerodynamic device).  Honestly, innovations like these three are a large part of why I care about F1: it is car nerd heaven.  Or at least it’s supposed to be.

Nota bene: If you don’t know what a double diffuser is, or why anyone would want to blow it, and for some reason haven’t yet clicked “next” on your RSS reader, don’t worry about it.  All you need to know is that they obey the letter of the rules while subverting the intent thereof.

So, the 2012 technical regs were supposed to fix this by outlawing blown diffusers, and they were supposed to do that by constraining the location, dimension, and vector of the exhaust outlets.  Naturally, Formula One’s brilliant designers have already subverted the intent of those rules and partly regained the blown-diffuser effect in fine style.  The only question that remains before the lights go out in Melbourne is whether the FIA cares to crack down on these new exhaust systems.

Apparently not:

(Hat tip: F1 Fanatic)

Charlie Whiting: “All of the systems we’ve seen so far comply with the extensive new regulations so our position is simple: we are not in a position to be able to say exactly how much aerodynamic influence each individual system has. The aim of the new regulation was to ensure that we don’t have to do that. We have no idea how much aerodynamic influence each individual system has, nor really at this point is it anything that interests us. As long as they comply with the rules, we are happy. And as far as we’ve seen so far, they all do comply with the rules.”

Now, when regulating something as complex as formula-car aerodynamics, it seems to me that the FIA have two options — not mutually exclusive ones — if they want to be consistent enough for teams to genuinely develop their cars.  First, they can regulate the construction of the cars, and permit whatever behaviour arises from cars that meet those regulations, as well as whatever variations in construction are unregulated or not strictly nailed down.  (“The diffuser section of each car shall start here and extend to there under such-and-such constraints.”)  Second, they can regulate aspects of the behaviour of the cars, and permit whatever form cars take provided they meet the regulated aspects.  (“The diffuser section of each car shall not produce more than such-and-such or less than thus-and-so negative lift at this given speed, ride height, rake, and aspect ratio.”)

It seems they’ve chosen the former.  That’s all well and good — as Red Bull and McLaren and &c. have shown us, there’s still plenty of room for innovation involved — but it does make the cars look rather samey.  In Whiting’s defence, regulating the latter would be ferociously difficult (as the flexible front wing kerfuffle has shown us).

Still, I can’t help but wish for a world in which F1 cars were regulated by their performance, and low-budget teams could soldier on with brute-force solutions like enormous three-element wings or huge underbody tunnels while McLaren and Red Bull and the rest of the front of the grid would spend their millions maximizing more subtle elements of car behaviour — downforce at all speeds, transient effects, and so on.  I think we’d end up with much better racing all around, and a more interesting grid besides.


3 Responses to “A short rant on Formula One aero regulations”

  1. March 26, 2012 at 01:38

    It increasingly seems to me we’re heading towards a combination of increasing the number of standard parts on the car, plus tighter restrictions on things like numbers of team personnel.

    This would contain spending in some areas while allowing development in more interesting areas – such as the forthcoming 2014 engine rules.

    But achieving this while retaining F1’s identity as a championship where teams build their own cars is not going to be easy. Particularly as the area that most needs restricting from a cost and entertainment point of view – aerodynamics – is also the key visual point of difference between the cars.

    • March 26, 2012 at 10:51

      (Wow, Keith Collantine in my comments section!)

      You’re probably right, but I don’t think it’s going to help much as far as cost control is concerned. Teams with big budgets will still find ways to spend all of their money, whether development is completely unrestricted or most of the car is spec. In Indy Car, for example, Penske has managed to spend enough money to dominate even when the series went to a spec car and engine. If F1 wants to control spending, I think an RRA with real teeth is the best way forward — good luck getting the teams to agree to something like that, though.

      On the other hand, the field has tightened up enormously over the past few years, and mid-budget teams like Lotus Renault and Sauber are in a position to give the big-budget teams a scare, at least, when the opportunity comes along. I think that’s good for the sport without question. Restrictions on aero development might not actually reduce spending from the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull, but it looks like they’re allowing lower-budget teams to be more competitive.

      As for aero development and visual points of difference: Major rules changes like the 2008-2009 shake-up have tended to produce a lot of variety for the first few years, until teams converge to a single optimal-seeming solution. (The 2008 cars looked very much alike, too.) Maybe we just need the occasional major revision every five years or so.

      • March 29, 2012 at 02:59

        Restrictions on aero development might not actually reduce spending from the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull, but it looks like they’re allowing lower-budget teams to be more competitive.

        I definitely agree with that and it’s a good thing. But I think it’ll all change in 2014 with the new engines.

        (Wow, Keith Collantine in my comments section!)

        Hahaha! No problem! And thanks for the link.

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