Formula One racing (F1) is the pinnacle of motorsports. Various Grands Prix (GP) took place beginning in 1906, before in 1950 a few of those annual events were organized by the Fédération Internationale de l‘Automobile (FIA) into the first World Driver’s Championship (WDC) season. A World Constructor’s Championship (WCC) for the teams that race the cars was inaugurated in 1958. At first the rulebook was rather short – build your engine under a certain displacement, depending on whether or not it is naturally aspirated. Since then the FIA regulations have expanded to cover everything from the weight of the car to how many engines can be used over the course of a season and the calendar has grown to include roughly 20 races. There is still the financial reward of winning a Grand Prix but the money is assigned on the basis of WCC ranking, which itself is derived from the sum of WDC points scored by a team’s drivers.
Like bicycle racing, automobile racing was born in France. The Tour de France is still cycling’s biggest event by far, but F1 shows less love for its origins. Formula Two has long since passed away and this will be the seventh season running without a French Grand Prix. Things change in Formula One, but the racing spirit endures.
People have always been enthralled, as with cycling, by the interplay between man and machine. It’s true that the drivers have less of a chance to show their athleticism but as in life fitness is merely a piece of the puzzle. The biggest factor by far is the design of the cars, and even unsuccessful teams employ hundreds of people that work 24/7 to find those crucial tenths of a second in the time it takes to lap a racetrack. It’s considered that a couple extra tenths separate the best drivers from the rest, but that’s on top of the seconds teams can improve by through development of the car over the course of a season.
Absent major rule changes such as last year where more emphasis is placed on the engine each team uses and the chassis they design, aerodynamics is the key area of development for the teams. As car designers converge on the optimum chassis design under their current rule “formula” more of the freedom lies in how the “packaging” of the components is optimized to work with the main source of resistance – air. In the past teams could test different designs on-track however much they could afford to, but in the interest of reducing costs there are very few days when teams are allowed to run cars which “conform substantially” to the current regulations. Instead the teams use computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to model new parts before bringing them to a race weekend.
As part of my Engineering curriculum I took a course on Fluid Mechanics and have a rudimentary understanding of what the teams’ aerodynamicists are aiming for. A word bandied around is “downforce” – the opposite of the lifting force on a wing that allows flight. One can think of an F1 car as an upside-down plane with all its wings pushing the car onto the track, which puts more weight on each tire to increase the lateral friction or “grip” that prevents the car from losing traction in a corner. Therefore an assumption would be more downforce leads to more grip, which leads to the car going faster. However this leaves out a side effect of larger wings, which is increased drag. Gaining a tenth in a corner is no good if you lose two tenths on a straightaway. In fact, F1 cars already produce enough drag at top speed to airbrake the car at 1g, the same as gravity’s acceleration, when the driver lifts off the accelerator.
Blind pursuit of downforce also forgets something else. F1 cars have multiple wings and winglets upon winglets that all need to be supplied a smooth, “laminar” flow of air for optimum performance. A large amount of downforce also comes from the floor and rear diffuser of the car, so it is important to direct clean airflow along the floor to reach the rear of the car, where it is ejected as broken-up “turbulent” air from the diffuser. In recent years the teams put so much effort into using exhaust gases to increase performance in this area that for 2014 the FIA mandated the exhaust be pointed upwards away from the floor, effectively banning the “exhaust-blown diffuser.”
What defines the crossover from laminar to turbulent flow is the Reynolds number Re, which is a unitless property of a system utilized in fluid mechanics. As a massive simplification, higher Re leads to increased turbulence and separation of the “boundary layer” from the bodywork, creating a wake of turbulent air whose effects are drag and reduced performance downstream. Therefore the teams’ aerodynamicists play a balancing game between ultimate downforce and management of airflow over the car.
To bring this back to human terms, I love F1 because even though the actual sport is decided over two hour races on Sunday afternoons (or in the middle of the night for us Americans) every couple weeks, the behind the scenes work has so much content technologically and logistically that it’s really rewarding to actually understand what’s going on. This isn’t to say that I like the sport having a steep learning curve or that other sports teams have less of an organizational hierarchy, but the F1 “circus” resembles a real-life high technology industry more than other sports in terms of both having a physical product and intellectual property created through extensive research and development. The teams work around the clock all year, with the exceptions of holidays and a factory lockout in the month of August, which puts in perspective the pressure resting on each GP appearance and the true impact of failure through driver error or mechanical gremlins.
Each F1 car is a prototype under constant development, a fact overlooked in the marketing of the sport compared to endurance racing, for example. Some technology will trickle down to road cars eventually, such as the new hybrid “power units” that have allowed a 30% increase in fuel efficiency through energy recovery under braking, though historic developments such as anti-lock brakes and traction control have been banned in F1 for decades. “Privateer” teams such as McLaren and Williams that have been and plan to be in F1 longer than the major car manufacturer-funded teams like Mercedes have divisions that apply technologies created through racing R&D to other sports such as cycling. Grand Prix racing remains on the cutting edge, and as long as it’s there I’m a fan.