F1 technical battle continues unabated
F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel drives in for a pitstop during practice for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at the Albert Park circuit on March 16, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Formula 1 is a playground for engineers who continually find more innovative ways of staying one step ahead of the rule makers, as teams look to eke out whatever advantage they can.
If there’s an advantage to be had, you can be sure the teams will be looking at, regardless of whether it’s bending the rules to just about breaking point.
“There’s no such thing as ‘spirit of the rules’,” McLaren’s Technical Director Paddy Lowe commented in April. His remark came in response to a question about blown diffusers, which have become rather topical in recent days, but first let’s wind the clock back to March.
As the season started in Australia there were threats that Lotus and Red Bull could protest the double-DRS Mercedes had fitted to its cars. Without going over old ground, the device stalls the front wing when the DRS is active, boosting the Mercedes’ top speed.
Questions were asked about its legality, which were scoffed at by Mercedes’ Ross Brawn, who quietly suggested the practice of blown diffusers should be of greater interest, given regulation changes had been made in an attempt to outlaw the practice.
Those regulation changes affected engine maps, exhaust openings and the design of a cars floor. The spirit of the regulation was to prevent exhaust gasses being blown under the car to generate downforce, as had become standard practice in 2011.
“The FIA probably told you all that we weren’t going to have exhaust blown diffusers anymore,” Brawn said in Melbourne.
“Our wing system has probably taken the spotlight off of what is clearly something that wasn’t intended.
“But that’s the nature of Formula One. You have to work to written regulations and if someone can see a clever interpretation then that’s the nature of our business.”
“Actually blown diffusers in themselves have never been defined and therefore also were never banned, and I think that’s an important point to make,” argued Lowe.
“What we were doing last year was exploiting the exhaust to deliver a huge amount of aerodynamic performance and what’s happened for this year is that performance has been severely reduced by changing the rules around exhaust exits and engine mode. Those are the facts.
“Are people still generating performance from the diffuser, from the floor, that includes some elements of exhaust generated downforce, the answer is yes.
“We’re doing that. I think most of the teams are to a greater or lesser extent. That is a direction you can find some performance but it’s not anything like as extreme as it was in 2011. Therefore the regulation change has achieved what it set out to do. I think you can’t pick a moment to say ‘ah but that was the banning of blown diffusers’ it was never advertised as such in terms of the actual regulations.”
Lowe’s argument is symptomatic of the mentality within Formula 1, where any loophole is exploited. It’s the basis for the saying that to stand still in Formula 1 is to go backwards, and it therefore comes as no surprise that Lowe subscribes to the theory that anything is legal unless the regulations say otherwise.
“There’s no headline regulation that says ‘and above all else you’ve got to maintain within the spirit of what was intended’,” he reasons. “If you look, for instance at the Mercedes, with the system is talked about on the Mercedes car, you could get in to arguments there – is that in the spirit of what was intended with DRS?
“Well, it definitely wasn’t. DRS was a set of rules created in order to move the rear wing flap and not to do anything else. To turn that around can they keep the system on the car is not about whether it’s in that spirit or not, it’s about whether the text that’s written in the regulations permits it or not.”
The situation at Red Bull is not unique. All teams will push the envelope of development to the very limit and stray in to the grey areas between right and wrong more frequently than they care to admit.
Of course Lotus protested against Mercedes’ wing, despite team boss Eric Boullier assuring this writer that such suggestions were “bullshit”.
They were ultimately dismissed, leaving teams to ask themselves whether it’s worth investing time and money into develop their own version of a system which cannot easily be implemented into a homologated chassis, especially given it’ll likely be banned for 2013…