Formula 1

2012 Formula 1 launch season: Ugly but interesting

We are already two thirds of the way through the launch of the cars that will contest the 2012 Formula 1 season and already there are some interesting points of discussion as the first race in Melbourne looms. Before the season had finished many commentators had seen the minimal changes in the regulations for 2012 as the chance that rival teams needed to close the gap on the all-conquering Red Bull RB7 (at least that is in the hands of Sebastien Vettel). Flash forward to today and the ‘minimal changes’ are quickly displaying the wide scope of interpretation allowed to the designers, resulting in some very different Formula 1 cars which in turn may well ensure that the perceived lessening of the performance gap within the 2012 field may be very wide of the mark.

The ‘minimal changes’ introduced to the regulations in 2012 surround both the front and rear of the cars which in turn has had the effect of teams altering the centre of their cars as well. For 2012 the front wing, beyond the circumference of the front tyres, is to be lowered in a bid to minimise the inclination of the cars to launch into the air when making contact with another car from behind. The most dramatic example of this form of accident was between Mark Webber and Heikki Kovaleinen at the 2010 European Grand Prix in Valencia. In addition to the changes to the front wing, 2012 regulations also dictate the positioning of the exhaust outlets. These regulations have been designed to eliminate the technique of blown diffusers and the channelling of exhaust gases across the aerodynamics of the car. The exhausts must exit from the rear of the car, in a defined zone in front of the rear wheels and the angle on which they exit is defined between 10 and 30 degrees. While the aerodynamic advantage derived from the exhaust can no longer be maximised, it would be remiss for anyone to consider it’s importance to have been nullified. So how have the designers interpreted the new changes and what issues should we look out for during the testing period beginning on 7 February in Jerez?

Minimal regulation changes have brought about massive changes to the appearance of Formula 1 cars in 2012 as shown by the Ferrari F2012

From the unveiling of the Caterham in the January edition of F1 Racing, fans and experts alike have come to terms with the new style (a term I use very loosely), of the 2012 Formula 1 car. Already acquiring more names than a poorly performing F1 team, the new front wing or ‘platypus nose’, ‘step-down wing’ or ‘boxer’s wing’ has already been adopted by most of the teams who have unveiled their 2012 cars, or to put it another way, every car except McLaren has adopted what many have accused as an ugly design, made all the more unpalatable by the knowledge that its existence is in the name of safety rather than performance. And it is with this in mind that attention must shift to the second car unveiled this year, the Mclaren MP4-27. In the event that the platypus is adopted on all remaining cars to be launched for 2012, one thing is certain, the McLaren will be awarded as the prettiest car on the 2012 grid. But as the late former team owner Ken Tyrrell once said, there is no prettier car than that which finishes first. Can the McLaren be both pretty and effective or has the team’s season fallen off the rails already?

The FW16 seemlessly adopted driver safety regulations to dominate in 1996

History has shown that the implementation of safety features into the design of Formula 1 cars should not genrate ugly cars. In fact, as recent histroy has shown, the passing of time has seen the effective adoption of safety features generating very attractive cars. The introduction of compulsory head support in 1996 produced some of the most ungainly Formula 1 cars of recent memory. The 1996 Ferrari F310 and Benetton B196 placed the drivers helmet within the surrounds of a high padded wall, seen by both teams as unavoidable for the purposes of the regulation. That season would however be dominated by the Williams FW16 which utilised a lower driver position, and more ergonomic padding on the rear of the driver’s helmet, to produce a car that was far safer for the drivers while maintaining a very sleek profile. As inevitable as death but far less successful, Ferrari protested against the design but this was fortunately dismissed. The following year all cars had alligned with the Williams design. This is not to say that unique designs are always successful. The infamous ‘walrus nose’ on the front of the 2004 Williams FW26 ensured that any progress made on Ferrari in 2003 by the Grove based squad was all but lost by mid season. By seasons end Williams had returned to a wing system reminiscient of the previous year.

The 2004 Williams FW26 equipped with the ill-fated 'walrus nose' front wing.

In his first segment for the BBC as a technical analyst, former Jordan and Jaguar chief designer Gary Anderson expressed doubts over the design of the new McLaren, indicating that by lowering the chassis and enabling a gradual curve to the front of the car, McLaren has limited the amount of air that can be worked into and across the underside of the car. In addition, should the McLaren underperform in testing, attention will quickly turn to the front wing configuration which would only be rectified by extensive changes to the car’s chassis.

 

Like the first week of a grand slam or the opening two days of a golf major, the design of a new car will not win a team the championship but it certainly may lose it. With the first day of testing complete both Ferrari and McLaren are presently well off the pace. For McLaren and Ferrari the situation is clear, the second week has begun and moving day is now.

Testing resumes in Jerez tomorrow.

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