Monday, January 14, 2008

The Trap

There has been a long, slow drift towards increasingly restrictive technical regulations in F1, gradually closing down the space in which teams can seek to find the 'unfair advantage' and design a better race car than their rivals. Of late, this tendency has rather accelerated. Max Mosley's announcement earlier this year of a ten year engine freeze has been the most dramatic example, but the move to standardised ECUs (driven by the understandable desire to eliminate traction control) and even the recent move to a single tyre supplier, are examples of the same underlying trend.

I'm not going to start defending Max Mosley as a person. His behaviour, particularly this year, has been ill-fitting of a man who, as head of the FIA, ought to be able to stand above the day-to-day scandals and spats of the F1 paddock. In this context, his remarks about Jackie Stewart, his insistence that Ron Dennis "probably lied" during the Mclaren spy-affair and his legal action against the Sunday Times all suggest a man who has forgotten the requirements of his office, and is descending into an undignified pettiness. Let's not pretend, though, that the issues that he, and the FIA, are wrestling with, do not really exist, or that there is an easy and straightforward solution which the FIA are boneheadedly ignoring.

Anyone designing a set of rules for F1 might reasonably be aiming to achieve five objectives.

Firstly, the rules should promote close, exciting racing.

Secondly, the rules should ensure that there is scope for engineering innovation and technical excellence to shine through.

Thirdly, the rules should ensure that the sport remains affordable (I'll get into more detail about what I mean by that later).

Fourthly, they should ensure that the cars are a genuine challenge to drive - that a great driver will be faster than a merely good one.

Finally, the rules should ensure that the sport remains acceptably safe - in particular, it should guarantee in so far as it is possible, that the spectators are not put at risk.

The trouble is that these five objectives will always end up conflicting with each other. A complete technical free-for-all would almost certainly result in cars that all but drive themselves, are absurdly expensive, and profoundly dangerous. While many officials will claim that "safety must always come first" this is true only in relative terms. The only way to entirely guarantee safety would be not to race at all - as ticket stubs remind us "motor racing is dangerous."

These are extreme examples, but nonetheless, the FIA has a very difficult job on its' hands in trying to balance these objectives. Take engines for example. The ten year engine freeze (now apparently reduced to five) represents a very serious restriction on the ability of teams to develop their cars. Between 1995, when the 3.0l engine formula came into being, and 2005, when it was phased out and replaced with the current 2.4l formula, the power output of F1 engines improved from around 700BHP to over 1000BHP. Now, that battle has been stopped in its' tracks and engines will remain essentially as they are. Thus the desire to ensure that the sport remains affordable comes into conflict with the desire to keep it technically interesting.

Why? The argument for the engine freeze is that engine development represents a hugely expensive dead end, in which rival car manufacturers spend hundreds of millions of pounds running to stand still, all advancing at, give or take a few BHP, exactly the same rate, until eventually the engines produce sufficient power that the FIA feel they have to cut engine capacity again in the name of safety - thus forcing yet another costly development cycle on the engine manufacturers. At a time when many large car manufacturers are struggling somewhat, pouring vast amounts of money into the development of ever more powerful small capacity engines must seem something of an expensive indulgence.

There has been a lot of focus of late on the need to control costs - to ensure that F1 remains affordable for the teams. Now, of course, leaving aside the possible solution of budget-capping, the cost of F1 will always be some percentage of what the wealthiest team is prepared to spend. When the richest teams had $30m budgets, the smallest teams could get by on about $3m. Now the Ferraris and Mclarens of this world have as much as $400m a year to play with, the likes of Spyker need at least $40m even just to stay at the races. However, the sport can be made more affordable by 'closing off' those aspects of car development where additional research and development budgets are likely to produce the greatest improvements. Before the engine freeze, customer engines were far and away the greatest expense for the smaller teams, severely curtailing their ability to spend money in other areas. With the freeze in place, engines inevitably begin to come down in price. The engine makers no longer have to recoup immense development costs, and so can cut the price being charged to the likes of Williams, Red Bull, Spyker et al. This frees the smaller teams up to spend more money on things like wind tunnels and CFD, and so should help to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor.

Restrictions on technology aren't always about saving money. The recent introduction of the standard ECU has more to do with ensuring that the driver remains an essential part of the equation than anything else. There has been a growing suspicion that modern F1 cars have dramatically reduced the difference between the great and the merely good drivers. The fact that Felipe Massa was able to run Kimi Raikkonen so close last year may - or may not - help to illustrate the point. In reality, traction control is only one small part of that particular equation (fundamentally, the problem is that F1 cars now have too much grip and too little power), but nonetheless, it has become something of a totemic cause for the purists, and so the FIA have stepped in. The standard ECU has become necessary because, without it, any ban on traction control would be all but impossible to enforce. It is simply too easy to hide software code away in proprietory ECUs. In contrast with many of the changes the FIA have brought through in recent years, it will probably have the effect of making the sport ever so slightly less safe. But then there has always been a conflict between the desire to ensure safety and the requirement that F1 cars are challenging to drive.

For all the focus on engines and ECUs, the vast majority of the performance difference between current F1 cars almost certainly derives from their degree of aerodynamic efficiency. In general, the front running cars have tended to look visibly more aerodynamically intricate than their less well-funded rivals. Like the engine horsepower battles that raged until last year, highly competitive teams are spending millions to fight each other to a stand-still. As with the engine battle, it is hard to see what possible wider use all this development could have, beyond the world of motorsport. And, to an even greater extent than the engine battle, it is genuinely difficult to see what the FIA could do to stop it. Short of forcing teams to homologate a single body shape for what? A whole season? Five seasons? or introducing standard bodywork pieces that would surely be the first part of a move to make F1 a spec-formula, there is little the FIA can do but let the battle continue to rage. Talk of wind-tunnel time limits and suchlike strike me as fundamentally unworkable, and liable to open up F1 to constant allegations of rule-bending and outright cheating. Something we have frankly already had enough of last year.

These are problems which motorsport has faced since its earliest days. However, I can't help but feel that motorsport, and perhaps particularly F1, has become a victim of its own success. The problem is that, over the last eighty years , so many incredibly bright individuals have given so much thought to the question of how to make racing cars go faster and faster, that there really is little scope for the truly novel innovation left. Not only do teams now know more about the physics of race car design than ever before, but they know much more about the science of determining how to go about making a racing car faster.

In the 60s and 70s, when budgets were much smaller and computers available to few outside NASA and the military, the intuition and intelligence of individual engineers and designers could still produce quantum leaps in performance. And those did not necessarily rely on the team being better funded than it's rivals. When Lotus dominated the sport in 1978, they did not do so because they had more money than their rivals, but because their engineers had developed a means of producing dramatically more downforce than any other car on the grid (so called 'skirts'). Nowadays, car development consists to a much greater degree of exhaustively enumerating possible detail changes to aerodynamic parts, in the hope of finding maybe a few thousandths of a second a lap. The more money you can throw at your exhaustive search, the better you will do.

This is of course, a caricature of the real situation. If race car design really were as simple as throwing as much resource at the problem as possible, there is no way that Toyota would have failed to win a race and that Renault would have picked up the World Championship twice in recent years. Nonetheless, F1's collective knowledge and understanding of the science of building a racing car is now such that radical innovations and giant-killing achievements from small teams are vanishingly unlikely. The sport has fallen into a trap of it's own making - a victim of its own success. The restless, ceaseless desire of some of the cleverest and most competitive minds on this earth, seeking to understand perfectly how to make half a tonne of carbon fibre around a 3 mile ribbon of tarmac quicker than anyone else, has produced an expensive stalemate. The FIA face an almost impossible task in balancing the contradictory objectives in a satisfactory way to enable the sport to survive in some recognisable form into the coming decades.

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Anonymous Clive said...

An excellent summary of the problems facing F1 at present. You make it very clear that no solution is possible without some radical and courageous thinking. Tweaking and fiddling with the aerodynamic rules will get the sport nowhere - a way to seriously curtail the influence of aerodynamics needs to be found.

5:47 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Unfortunately there is no way to seriously curtail the influence of aerodynamics other than making F1 average speeds lower 60mph. Alright, that may be an exaggeration but consider that most modern cars around 55-60mph, majority of their engine power is going towards counteracting aerodynamic drag.

In F1, you're seeing Average speeds of 110-150mph around tracks. Aerodynamic forces increase as the square of velocity so by tripling velocity, we now have 9 times as forces. And consider I'm only talking average speeds. Max speeds would bring something like 14-16 times more forces than just your MODERN ROAD CAR. Unforunately, to maintain the speed of F1, aerodynamics will ALWAYS have an influence. What needs to be done is put it towards a productive method of thinking. Regulations concerning Drag Reduction will direct towards something more useful (the more efficient wings we have trickles down to more than just the automotive industry. the Aerospace industry takes a lot from motorsports) And removal of 50% downforce should shift some of the focus back towards mechanical grip.

Unfortunately aerodynamics is very empirical and getting large amounts of data is the only way to progress. Lower downforce, and focus on cutting drag, generate grip mechanically and we'll move towards a space were innovation can flourish.


2:24 PM  

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