So how did 2012’s new Formula 1 cars end up looking so ugly — and why is the McLaren MP4-27 the odd one out? In fact it’s an interesting case study of how the FIA goes about defining the technical regulations, and how the teams will always seek any extra advantage.
The 12 teams have a hand in framing future rules via their involvement with the Technical Working Group, and the FIA is always willing to listen — after all, their collective engineering brains can very quickly pinpoint potential anomalies or discrepancies.
For 2012, race director Charlie Whiting was keen to address the issue of T-bone accidents by lowering noses to a maximum 550mm above the car floor or reference plane. This would literally bring them into line with the reinforced side intrusion panels protecting the cockpit.
The FIA’s original intention was that the front of the chassis would taper down to meet the lower nose, but the teams — prompted by Mercedes — pointed out that this would compromise suspension packaging. It would also have an impact on aerodynamics, because most teams have opted for a high chassis — and the airflow under it is fundamental to the efficiency of their cars’ overall aerodynamic maps.
The FIA duly agreed that the front of chassis would remain at its former height. When it was realised that, as written, the rules allowed teams to implement a square-edged drop down to the 550mm nose height, the FIA decided to allow the first 150mm of the nose to be used to make a smoother transition — this number represents approximately what is left of an F1 nose after a crash test, and could therefore (in theory) still be attached to a car after a T-bone collision.
Teams soon found that this step or ramp was not going to look good, and it was then suggested that they be allowed to place a bodywork panel over the ugly bump. However, since it was too close to the start of the 2012 season, unanimous approval was required, and that was not forthcoming.
“The height limit was introduced so that the crushable part of the nose was not higher than the side intrusion panels, which is fair enough,” Adrian Newey told Motor Sport. “And the regulation does that.
“Once it was realised by people that this would lead to ugly solutions it was discussed in the TWG that we would be allowed to use cosmetic panels. They would be non-structural, simply to bridge the gap styling-wise, and make the cars look somewhere more aesthetic. It was raised quite late in the day and unfortunately it was rejected, but it would seem to be the most obvious solution going forward.”
So why is McLaren without a step? Quite simply for years it has pursued a lower chassis/nose arrangement than its rivals, and the team could comply with the new 550mm limit without drama. This happy accident helped to encourage other teams to insist on keeping the higher chassis height, so that McLaren did not gain an advantage.
“I think for everybody bar McLaren it would have been a big philosophical change,” says Newey. “In fact it would have been quite a big redesign. I’m happy that the Mercedes proposal was the right thing to do.”
In reality, the nose issue will not prove to be a source of rancour between the participants. Of more interest at the first test in Jerez was exhausts designs. Blowing of diffusers is banned for 2012, and exhausts must now point away from any area where they may be deemed to have a direct impact on aerodynamic performance.
Of course teams are still looking to gain an advantage, and everyone is wary that some interpretations might be borderline in legal terms. Newey insists the potential gains are limited: “There is the possibility to find a small amount of lap time still, but it is very small. And if there’s something on the table then obviously people play around and try and find it. It’s a bit of a Holy Grail.”
Teams were experimenting with exhaust positions in the first test, and will no doubt continue to do so until the first race, and beyond. If someone hits the sweet spot, it won’t be that easy to copy them, since exhaust flows are notoriously difficult to model in the tunnel or via CFD – and it takes time.
“It’s not structural, so to try a new position is just an exhaust system and a set of bodywork,” says Newey. “Having said that, there is significant research and lead time. I doubt whether anybody will copy somebody else’s without testing it first, so by the time you’ve copied it, tested it then pressed the button to go ahead and manufacture it, you’re probably looking at something like six weeks.
“Whatever people turn up with in Australia is likely to be already in the system. It’s not likely to be a reaction.”