Sunday, October 17, 2010

Looking Back

I realised the other weekend that it had been exactly a quarter of a century since I went to my first Grand Prix. I've written before on the impression that that trip left on my 7 year old self and on the particular significance of that race - the day on which Alain Prost secured the first of his four world titles, and on which Nigel Mansell finally broke his duck and won his first Grand Prix. The realisation that it has been 25 years since I was sat on the banking at Pilgrim's Drop got me thinking about how the sport has changed in the intervening years.

I find it a little hard to comprehend that 1985 is now as distant as 1960 was when I went through the gates at Brands Hatch. Back in 1960, Formula 1 cars were cigar-shaped space-frame devices with less than 300 BHP on tap. Front engined designs were fast being made obsolete by the success of the Cooper and Lotus mid-engined chassis, but had not yet disappeared from the F1 grid and the cars still ran on skinny grooved tyres, much as they had done since the early days of the sport at the beginning of the century.

By 1985, Formula 1 cars were carbon-fibre monocoques with big, fat slick tyres and front and rear wings, bodywork plastered with sponsors' logos - and on a causal inspection, they really don't look so radically different from the cars which lined up on the grid at Suzuka last weekend. A bit stubby and simple, but the same basic shape.

In one way, the cars were considerably ahead of the modern F1 car. The 1.5 litre turbocharged engines provided by Honda and BMW were, in single-lap qualifying trim, capable of generating well north of 1000 BHP - a figure which today's rev-limited 2.4 litre normally aspirated V8s don't even come close to (although it must be said that an engine technician of 1985 would have found the idea of an 18,000rpm rev limit a touch unnecessary, given that nobody was pushing their engines beyond about 12,000rpm at the most, back then).

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the changes over the last 25 years have been immense. The really game-changing technical innovations - active suspension, traction control, continuously variable transmission - have all been and gone, falling foul of the regulators desire to keep costs, and lap times, under control (the last of these - continuously variable transmission, never raced, though Williams did head a significant way down to road towards developing a race-ready system before it was banned). Only the replacement of stick-operated manual gearboxes with the steering-wheel mounted paddle-change semi-automatic boxes, debuted by Ferrari in 1989, have remained.

Instead, the over-arching story of the last quarter of a century of race car development has been one of ruthless optimisation of a basic concept that, by 1985, had just about been settled upon. And to get an idea of just how successful this has been, look at the pole times at Monaco - the only circuit in use in 1985 which is still in use today, substantially unaltered (though the walls have gotten a touch further away). In 1985, Ayrton Senna stuck his Lotus Renault on pole with a 1.20.450. Earlier this year, Mark Webber claimed the top spot for Red Bull (also Renault powered, as it happens) with a 1.13.826. Nearly 7 seconds faster. And remember, that this leap forward has come in spite of restrictions on wing size, the imposition of control tyres, rev-limited engines that must last 2-3 complete Grands Prix and a slightly raised minimum weight limit. A senior engineer interviewed for Motorsport Magazine a couple of years back reckoned that, with today's knowledge, a car built to 1985 rules would be limited mainly by the ability of its driver to remain conscious through the quicker corners given the G-loadings that it would be possible to generate. The FIA's ever more restrictive rulebook has been, at least in part, a necessary response to the advances of designers and engineers, ensuring a degree of sanity is retained.

The really big story of the last quarter of a century of F1 car design has been the phenomenal improvements made in the understanding of how to generate aerodynamic downforce. While an F1 car of 2010 might have the same basic shape as its 1985 predecessor, it is a much more intricately sculpted machine - its form dictated by the cumulative knowledge generated by hundreds of thousands of man hours of some of the most talented aerodynamicists in the world. The increased use of first wind-tunnels, and later, computer simulations of wind tunnels, to refine the flow of the air over the car, making that airflow press the car down onto the ground, has led cornering speeds to spiral far beyond that ever seen during the 'ground effect' era of the early 1980s. And the sheer number of people involved in the design of a car has mushroomed since the days when a car could meaningfully be said to be the work of a single designer - something which was, just about, sort of, still the case in the mid 1980s.

There was a time, after all, when taking Eau Rouge flat in qualifying was a mark of supreme confidence. Now, in a good car, it's flat in the rain, and in the dry, it's barely more than a kink in the road. Other technological advances - not least the evolution of data logging and telemetry equipment to give teams far more objective information about what the car is actually doing on the circuit than could ever be provided by the subjective impressions of even the most technically astute racing driver, have all helped to drive this incremental improvement forward at a truly impressive rate.

But what of the next 25 years? Assuming I'm still around to see them, what will Grand Prix cars look like by the time I near my 7th decade? Perhaps the story will be the same - an onward march of small, iterative improvements to a basic design which had been settled while I was still in primary school. Maybe... But there are reasons to think that might not be the case. For one thing, how plausible is it that the racing car of 2035 will still be running on fossil fuels? And if it is not, what kinds of technological breakthrough might we see in engine technology over the next decade and a half. It could be an interesting ride...

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home