The re-innovations of F1

A lot of talk and discussion in F1 comes from the question of where the next innovation is going to come from, and who is going to provide it. We’ve seen crazy ideas like the F-Duct, FIA-approved ideas like the Drag Reduction System, ‘blade’ roll-hoops, exhaust-blown diffusers and many others.

What’s interesting though is that many of these seemingly fresh and new ideas have roots not only in previous engineering history, but within F1 itself! Such is the advancement of Formula 1 and the trends that come and go within it, that many ideas are reused and recycled and also forgotten, despite it’s merits during it’s lifespan. Here are some recent ideas that you might be surprised to see in a previous guise…

Drag Reduction System (DRS)

DRS in the 60's?

There have been mixed reactions to the FIA’s introduction of the DRS ‘gimmick’ for 2011, citing that it has made overtaking a little bit too easy in some circumstances. The notion of shedding drag is something F1 engineers have been seeking throughout it’s entire history, and with big wings come big drag figures. The first wings appeared in the late 60’s, attached on tall thin rods and mounted directly to the cars suspension, to best allow for the downforce to press down on the unsprung mass of the tyres. Some teams also experimented with moveable wings (sound familiar?) that used actuators linked to the brake pedal that would increase the wing angle when the driver used his brakes. The French Matra team were the main pioneers of this technology, until the high wings were banned after a number of highly dangerous accidents caused by the wings breaking off, leaving drivers with sudden losses of grip. After the 1969 Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuich Park, where both Lotus-Fords of Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill had massive crashes, the rules were amended to only allow wings fixed to the car, with restrictions on their size and height.

DRS in 2011

‘Blade’ Roll-Hoops

With regulations that limit the perimeters of the car in the major downforce generating areas like the wings and underfloor, F1 designers are forced to think of other methods of getting the best airflow to these devices, to get more out of them than their competitors. In 2010, Mercedes debuted a novel method of maximising airflow to the rear wing at the Spanish Grand Prix, showing off a roll hoop that comprised a blade- like roll structure with two lower air holes to each side of it. The thinking behind it was that the drivers helmet provided enough airflow attachment to keep a similar amount of air going to the engine, whilst allowing for a smaller frontal area for the roll bar and therefore the rear wing behind it. Mercedes didn’t carry the idea into 2011, believing that the amendments to the rules for the new season would mean the idea had less merit, but despite this Team Lotus and Force India both debuted their 2011 cars with the concept and have raced them throughout the year.

Mercedes' 'Blade' Roll-Hoop

Now where have I seen this before?…… Ah, yes, all the way back in 1988. The Benetton team had started using normally-aspirated engines again, with 1988 being a transition year between Turbo and NA engines. In the turbo era the now traditional airbox above the driver wasn’t needed to feed the engine, so designers did away with them in favour of thinner roll hoops that still fitted the rules regarding them. With the reintroduction of NA engines that required more air, Benetton designer Rory Byrne still saw the benefits the turbo trends had given in terms of rear aerodynamics, and decided to locate his airboxes to the side of the driver on his B188, allowing for more air to reach the large rear wing and provide more downforce. It made for a slightly bulkier car lower down, but was effective in making Benetton a relatively competitive team in 1988 against the might of the Turbo McLaren’s and Ferrari’s, giving them 3rd in the Constructors Championship. They pursued the idea into 1989 with an evolution of the B188, before again trends relating to the height of the sidepods meant that they dropped the concept for 1990.

The Benetton B189

Exhaust-Blown Diffusers

The technology that’s caused most of the traditional intra-team political squabbles this year is one that’s also a revisited one from years gone by. Blowing exhaust gases through the floor of the car was pioneered by Renault engineer Jean-Claude Migeot on the Renault RE40 of 1983. The principle behind the idea was that introducing hot air into the flow under the car would create a pressure gap, sucking the car to the road and greatly increasing downforce. The problem with this first iteration of the idea was that was very sensitive to what the driver was doing with the throttle, coupled with the lag problems the Turbo cars of that era were prone to, all making for a car that was very good in traction zones and in full-throttle corners, but a lot more nervous when the driver had to feather the throttle.

Renault's exhausts, blowing underneath the car

“Diffuser blowing is specially good for traction out of slow corners but it has its downsides too. It increases balance sensitivity to throttle position which may create problems on high speed corners. Good and bad sides are quite depending on the driving style too: some drivers can take advantage of it more than others. The gas momentum available in the exhaust today is anyway much reduced compared to the turbo era (about 50%).”  – Jean Claude Migeot

This technology was picked up by other teams, and became the norm throughout the paddock over the course of the 80’s, becoming more useful when anti-lag systems were developed for the Turbo engines, and also for the reintroduction of Normally-Aspirated engines. The concept remained popular until the early 2000’s, when Ferrari introduced their ‘periscope’ exhausts, having made found scope in developing a rear end based on stability rather than the fluctuations of throttle-derived downforce. Adrian Newey and McLaren continued to use the idea up to 2004, before moving to the periscope concept along with everyone else.

McLaren MP4-18, with the exhausts exiting into the floor of the car.

Come 2010 and Red Bull Racing, under Adrian Newey (yep, that guy again…), bring back the idea of using the exhaust flow to influence the aerodynamics of the car, this time also making use of complicated engine computer programming to give an even flow of gas at all times, even when the driver isn’t on the throttle. It played a big part in their time advantage over the chasing teams in 2010, and even into 2011 the others were still catching up on the advances Red Bull had made. Most of the technical-related news coming out of F1 in the last 6 months has been related to this technology, so to post any more about it here would just be adding to an over-inflated inventory of photos and articles! But again this is a technology that has it’s roots deep within the history of the sport, it’s evolution and reinvention being all part of it’s allure and intrigue.


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