Photography by James Moy
With a couple of years left to go before a potentially large shake-up of the Formula 1 (F1) rulebook in 2021, I find myself clinging to every shred of information that presents itself about the upcoming 2019 season. The top teams are closer than they’ve been in a long time, and with so many new variables, I think this season has the potential to harness the intense, close racing we all crave. Not so much because of this year’s minor regulation changes involving the new front wings, but because of other reasons altogether.
There’s a trend of dynasties in F1, and they usually occur within the year ranges of the large regulation changes. By this I mean one specific F1 team will interpret the fine print of the rulebooks much better than others, and have a noticeable advantage through that time period, until the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA)—the sport’s governing body—changes said rules again in hopes of stirring up some close competition between teams.
A byproduct of one team having a better grasp on the rules than other teams is that they dominate in competition until that area of the rules is adjusted. That domination accumulates hundreds of World Constructors’ Championship points, which results in hundreds of millions of dollars of prize money—a “rich get richer” type of thing.
So it usually produces some landslide victories by one team or racer for entire seasons at a time, and the team that starts with the edge even has a leg up going into the following year. It doesn’t need to spend extra resources to catch up, as it is already in front, and it can dedicate those resources to additional research for the future. This means it is continually winning—over the course of a few years—until the next big rulebook change.
However, sometimes the rest of the grid’s performance levels are able to catch up and put pressure on the leaders, which causes the top team to make mistakes. That’s what I hope happens this year.
The regulations have mostly been the same since 2014 when Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport began their five-year World Constructors’ Championship winning tear. In the span of those five years, the other teams have been paying close attention to finding gains wherever they can. With new chassis being designed and constructed each year, the level of refinement and understanding of the rulebook forms much tighter competition as the years progress.
As I count down the final grains of sand in the hourglass known as the offseason, I can’t help but get excited for this coming season. Thanks in part to a few of these highlights from F1’s preseason winter testing at Spain’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya; I think they might help you love the series, too.
The Clever Workaround Of New Front Wing Regulations
It’s an argument that’s as old as time in Formula 1. Make the racing better (closer). For that, the FIA analyzes issues within the sport and makes adjustments accordingly, in this case overtaking.
The wake of disturbed air following an F1 car needed to be adjusted to create a scenario more inclined to produce overtaking on track. Did I lose you? Allow me to explain a little further…
When F1 cars are built, they’re essentially engineered from front to rear as one giant upside-down wing, which pushes the car forcefully down into the ground. This does wonders for each car’s individual grip and downforce levels, assuming they’re in clean undisturbed air. However, once they’re following another car, turbulent air completely nullifies all of those gains and causes a significant drop in performance.
This makes passing another car on track extremely difficult. The lead car not only has all of the grip and clean air, but also track position over the trailing car, who now has to push through the dirty air. With a lack of grip, and a lead car that doesn’t want to be passed in front of them, it’s not a great scenario for fans who want to watch an exciting race.
If you don’t understand how disturbed air could affect something so much, it’s the same exact forces that spill your complimentary Sprite and pretzels all over your tray on a commercial airplane, because the wings can’t function as they’re intended to in disturbed air.
In an attempt to prevent the harshness of turbulent air behind the cars, for 2019 the FIA have restricted the complexities of the car’s front wing, and forced the height to be smaller. In turn, this should prevent some of the outwash of dirty air coming off the front of the car, and allow cars behind to utilize cleaner air with less aerodynamic performance loss. Think of the wake of a boat through water becoming smaller.
Sounds good in theory, right? Except the fanatical engineers at this level of professional motorsports make their living exploiting these regulations.
The outcome isn’t so much that there’s no more outwash of dirty air, but just new front wing designs that either direct air towards downforce-generating pieces of their own car, or careen it outwards away from their car altogether—just in a different fashion than before the rule change.
It is a perfect example of the constant battle between engineer and rule maker, which occurs throughout every step of the series. Ingenuity at its finest.
The Influx Of Driver Changes
Why are driver changes important? Well, for starters, three of the top four teams from the past year have new lineups.
Mercedes is still on top from last year, and it would be unwise for them to change anything about their outfit in winning form. However, the legendary and close-battling second-place Scuderia Ferrari team introduced a wrench into Mercedes’ plans for domination. The future of the Scuderia firm is a 21-year-old Monégasque named Charles Leclerc.
During his rookie season in F1 last year, Leclerc displayed such overwhelming potential that he was called up from Sauber Alfa Romeo Racing—Scuderia Ferrari’s affiliate team—to the main squad for 2019.
He now sits alongside Ferrari’s veteran driver and four-time World Champion, Sebastian Vettel, who himself is no slouch behind the wheel. The duo is perhaps the best representation of where the sport currently is and where it is headed.
Many followers of F1 think Leclerc was brought in to take a backseat to Vettel, supply the team with solid follow-up points finishes, and learn a few things along the way. However, I think that given the right instrumentation—as 21-year-old Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing has shown—the young drivers in the sport are capable of challenging for wins against the entrenched veterans.
Leclerc has already mentioned he doesn’t intend to yield to Vettel throughout the season. That signifies to me that his introduction to the team wasn’t initiated to learn at Vettel’s feet, but rather for applying pressure to an aging superstar at the height of the championship chase.
As he gains comfort in the new car throughout the beginning of the season, I can see him becoming a threat to some of the most renowned drivers at the forefront, many of whom may have become complacent in their winning ways.
Leclerc grew up racing karts, idolizing the drivers he’s now competing against, and feeling the pulsating and deafening roar of F1 cars navigate his hometown once a year. He has been shaped and molded for this exact moment, and now has all of the ingredients—including a Ferrari team in prime performance—to deliver upon his promise.
Where Modern And Rudimentary Aerodynamic Testing Methods Meet
The various methods used by the teams’ aerodynamicists to procure data is one of my favorite aspects of F1’s preseason testing. The engineers use this data to compare with offseason wind tunnel testing, projected computer simulations of airflow from their design and build process, and then assess what could be changed to create the flow they desire.
It’s pretty intricate stuff, but when every single inch of the car is not only critical to performance on its own, but also directly affects every inch of car behind it, the importance becomes staggering.
The aero engineers are tasked with analyzing airflow across their team’s car in testing. In modern day F1, this evaluation is worth its weight in gold, as aerodynamic gains are crucial to success and dictate the behavior of the entire car. It’s basically the first real signal of whether or not the designers made a car that is cohesive and balanced, or a complete basket case on the track.
One method of data acquisition is to affix aero rakes to the car. These are grids of Kiel probes (sensors) lined up either behind the wheels or surrounding the rear wing, which helps the engineers to formulate digital maps of the air’s flow and speed as it passes through them.
If I had to assign pros and cons to this method, I’d say the benefit comes in the form of secrecy and accuracy. By which I mean the data extruded from the grids is only visible on the team’s private software, and can be measured to whatever depth is needed. One downside to this method would be that no physical data is ever traced from the subject, and the digital form may not always illustrate an issue that is happening in real life.
Another method, which might be more undeveloped, is the use of airflow visualization paints, or flow vis.
The oil paint is first applied in different hues to different pieces of aerodynamic structures. As the car is driven on track, the paraffin eventually bleeds onto other surfaces and dries.
Leftover are drips of dried dye; these form a diagram which showcases the usually invisible airflow over each surface and those nearby. In theory this method seems to be simpler and more direct than assigning the task of visual airflow representation to computerized sensors, but it has its own set of drawbacks.
For one, every single other team can see what the flow characteristics of the tested car are. While some teams apply a dye to be picked up by black lights back in the shielded garage, most teams apply flow vis in high-visibility fluorescent colors to be picked up by staff photographers around the testing grounds. Allowing everyone on the grid know one of the biggest kept secrets in the industry? It’s probably not the best thing to do in a competitive atmosphere with millions of dollars at stake.
Another issue with the paint flow process is that there’s no way of knowing at what speed the paint actually dried. If the paint dried in its final design at low speeds before the car ever left pit lane, then there is no representation of the airflow at high speeds, and vice versa.
Because of this, the paint is never used as the be-all-end-all solution for comparing real life data with computational fluid dynamics software (CFD). It is merely a rough check that surfaces are working as they’re intended. By checking the smoothness of the dried dye, engineers can see whether the piece is behaving or not, as smooth lines equate to accurate operation.
It’s Almost Time For Melbourne!
Last but not least, the best thing about preseason testing is that it’s almost time for the first race of the new season at Albert Park’s street circuit in Melbourne, Australia!
All of us F1 enthusiasts have endured long enough through what was seemingly an endless winter. Because the inner workings of the offseason in the highest form of motorsport are shrouded in complete secrecy, the winter season is always significantly lacking F1 content.
Perhaps we’re all spoiled now with a nine-month-long, 21-race season, which fills the race year with elite automotive competition almost every other weekend. Regardless, the three-month offseason is torturous and finally coming to a close.
You may have noticed I didn’t discuss any of the facts or figures from testing like every single other automotive news outlet does, and there’s a reason for that. That’s because the preseason testing is open for all teams to use as they see fit. Comparing lap times doesn’t matter, because we’ll never know if they were testing for race distance with a full fuel load, or if they’re stripped down to the bones to test qualifying pace. They could be measuring suspension loads for longevity, or brake temperatures in certain corners—you never really know.
Even number of laps turned has become a not-so-fascinating statistic to throw around, but even then, if every piece of data coming back to the team is positive, is there any need to waste time and team resources to prove something that has already been proven?
Either way, I like to look at preseason testing for the reasons I’ve already stated. It’s a time to get excited for the upcoming season of competition, and get ready for some potential upsets to the marginally-mundane rhythm of F1.
Will we see Daniel Ricciardo—in his new seat at the Renault works team—show his departed Red Bull Racing team that he made the right decision in leaving?
Backed by the new Honda power plant, will Red Bull Racing’s prodigy, Max Verstappen, claim the podiums and wins he narrowly missed last year?
Will Sebastian Vettel put together a season with less mistakes and demonstrate the calculated perfection which has previously earned him four consecutive world championships…
…or will Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes trounce everyone for another year—again? I guess we’ll see soon enough.