Race Blog
China 2015

Diffusing myths

What a different F1 world we now live in. Seemingly gone are the days of Coanda-gripped, hot-exhaust-gas-fed-floor fixation, apparently replaced with far more future-thinking – but to many, ultimately boring – smooth-bodied size-zero cars, concealing in their shrink-wrapped forms incredibly efficient and technologically wonderful hybrid power units.

Chief among those bemoaning the passing of all that oh-so-clever downforce-generating trickery are the media-room-based scribblers who ‘educate’ the world on the look and function of the constantly updated bits and pieces of carbon fibre that adorn the cars. Unable to legitimately claim any personal genius, they make a career penning drawings of the F1 cars, and their appendages, of those that do.

OK, I admit it, I am interested in how an F1 car cuts through the air that precedes it, works that air over and under its body, and effectively expels it  from the rear; but my attitude is forever corrupted by the past. It may come as no surprise that as a teenage boy and wannabe F1 photographer, I’d spend hours poring over magazine-published pictures of my chosen sport, and any double-page spread devoted to a scratchy, confused cutaway black and white scribble of a Ferrari 126 C2 – or any early to mid-80s F1 car – struck me as a pathetic waste of paper and ink!

In doing away with so much that fascinates so many, I wonder if the powers that be have made a wise choice. Do the ‘F1 public’ care for genius designers who revel in producing thoroughbred vehicles that careen around corners at rib-busting velocities, or – as we now enjoy – does the average fan appreciate the 21st century technology that powers the current cars? Perhaps we should have both.

The debate has been brought into sharp focus by the recent suggestions from Red Bull’s Team Principal Christian Horner that budget-busting wind tunnel time should be extensively cut back and possibly banned. That’s all very well for Christian to say, but his complete and utter lack of a sense of irony is  – even in the fickle, self-obsessed and short-of-memory F1 world – shocking to hear.

After delivering arguably the most efficiently aerodynamic F1 cars in the history of the sport, Red Bull’s genius designer Adrian Newey is, of course, now more concerned with how a racing yacht speeds through the waves than how the RB11 drives around corners.

Without doubt what we all certainly do miss are clever loophole-exploiting tricks that can shake an F1 grid – and the designers who fail to spot them – to the core. Who can forget possibly the most famous, or infamous, of these recent law-bending ruses, the double diffuser? Even Newey missed that one!

‘Ah yes,’ I hear you say, ‘Ross Brawn’s brilliant mind at work, spotting an opportunity to get an advantage’. Well, according to a few ‘in-the-know’ guys I’ve been talking to, you’d be wrong. It wasn’t the bespectacled, multi-title-winning Manchester man that came up with the idea – no, it was a secretive and dedicated team of Japanese boffins employed by Honda.

A good number of months before the 2009 F1 season was set to commence, Brawn’s English-based Japanese outfit tasked three in-house technical teams with a brief: work with the impending new aerodynamic rules and design a car that would deliver Honda some much-needed success.

Studying long and hard, the three groups set to work. One went for a conventional aero package, one for something revolutionary, and the other with what would eventually become known as the double diffuser. Option one was quickly dismissed, option two generated impressive downforce but quickly hit a maximum that couldn’t be improved upon. Group three had nailed it. Exploiting a gap in the regulations, they’d engineered a gap in their floor. Result: downforce points off the scale!

Bombshell. That’s what dropped when in late 2008 Honda pulled the plug. They’d had enough of tooling around at the back of the field and were off, selling the team, factory and designs to Brawn and his gang.

Included in those designs was, of course, the double diffuser. Once Mercedes had been persuaded to give Brawn their all-powerful engine there was no looking back. The BGP 001 car steamrollered its way to race win after race win, eventually delivering Jenson Button the 2009 drivers’ title and the team constructors’ championship success.

An interesting aside to the story is that Honda’s rival Japanese F1 team, Toyota, had also designed a double-diffuser rear floor with – so I’m told – significantly more downforce-generating effect than that of Honda’s, but a lack of application, driver ability and engine power, along with wretched management, combined to negate all the advantages they should have enjoyed.

So, so much of what you read and hear about Formula 1 is simply not as it appears. Some of that is born of ignorance, some by a lack of journalistic rigour, and some for fear of lawsuits and/or paddock-pass-machine rejection…

I’ve always been in awe of the technical strides made by the men with the minds that understand how air generates high - and low - pressure forces, which they harness and control in a never-ending pursuit of more speed. Under the current F1 car design restrictions aerodynamic efficiency is still critical, but the focus has shifted. Engine and electric hybrid power and their delivery are now of paramount importance and, much as I am a fan of the forward-thinking technology now propelling the cars, I do miss the spectacle.  A Formula 1 car seemingly defying the laws of physics as it raced through corners at fighter-jet-like velocities was a treat to behold.

Time to take another look at those scribbles!

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