Overall, Sebastian Vettel’s second consecutive World Championship-winning season was rather less predictable than its outcome might suggest. Most races were quite close and exciting. They were, as Mr Ecclestone sometimes puts it, “a good advertisement for Formula 1”.
It’s only to the old lags, I suppose, that so many aspects of modern F1 lack interest and charm, not least with more petty rules and regulations than a 1960s motor sport subversive will ever happily accept.
Fines, drive-throughs, grid penalties many for little more than elbows-out proper racing have served to emasculate what used to be a man’s sport Now enmeshed with more girly rules and regulations than an EU electro-plater, it’s hardly surprising that some of us despair, or succumb to no more than resigned passing interest.
I still enjoy the technicalities of the cars and do not care one iota if Lewis and Felipe have just had another spat behind the bizjet shed. And while rules and regulations have closed off too many avenues of F1 development, those same restrictions have also driven ever-more ingenious ploys to gain advantage. Recently a veteran Fl design engineer still in harness admitted to me that, “Of course there are a whole host of things we are no longer allowed to do. So basically current road cars are much more advanced than race cars…” Then he could have added “but there is an up side”.
Imposed uniformity is now more stringent than at anytime in Grand Prix history. Any old-time pretensions to an effective ‘box-Formula’ in which almost any technical ploy was allowable within a proscribed cuboid of airspace are long gone. Such relatively common road car features as four-wheel drive, anti-lock braking systems, an entire catalogue of alternative engine types, systems and configurations are all completely verboten. This regrettable situation is only understandable if you accept that without such restrictions modern F1 car development would have priced most manufacturers into withdrawal, performance would have outstripped all venues save perhaps the Bonneville Salt Flats, and g-induced loss of consciousness would have written off most of the trained apes rash enough to conduct such missiles.
But if you consider the technical innovations not banned by the present morass of petty regulation there’s still a pretty impressive range in the F1 designers’ locker.
Not in any particular order these include (deep breath): Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS), composite suspension members (wishbones, pushrods, track rods), mechanical power-assisted steering, suspension systems with roll and heave springing separated out, electro-hydraulic thrattles, electro-hydraulic clutches, hand clutch systems, carbon-fibre clutches, electro-hydraulic differentials (which save messing around with Salisburys, ZFs, Torsen etc), even ultra-lightweight batteries.
And then we should add lightweight, ultrastiff composite gearbox casings, the capability to make safe clutch-less almost instantaneous gear changes, exhaust-enhanced bodywork designs, high-pressure fuel systems, position-sensitive dampers, frequency sensitive dampers, dynamic brake balance, quick-shift brake balance systems, brake ducts doubling as aerodynamic and tyre performance enhancers, and of course movable rear wings (Drag Reduction System DRS).
For the hard-worked human in the hot seat permitted advances have included those ungainly yet ettective HANS devices, built-in driver’s head protection butters, monocoque crash and anti-penetration panels and the tethering wheel-retention systems.
In manufacturing terms, Computer Aided Design (CAD), Finite Element Analysis (FEA), Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and the colossal evolution of assorted aerodynamic solutions to meet (to the best advantage) continuous regulation changes have resulted in some of the most exquisitely well-built racing machinery our world has ever seen.
And in structural terms metal-matrix composites, aluminium-lithium materials and very high-temperature composites are all at the cutting edge, together with stereo lithography component construction (oh, look it up on Wikipedia).
My interest in racing car technicalities lacks currency, but J-dampers or Inerters’ have been a little publicised success story since McLaren initially adopted Cambridge Professor Malcolm Smith’s suspension-control concept in 2005 when Kimi Rӓikkӧnen’s Spanish GP-winning McLaren-Mercedes ran the system. Ferrari and Renault developed their own inerters, which later featured in the sad McLaren/ Ferrari ‘Spy-gate’ affair.
Looking like a third shock absorber the inerter accepts suspension jounce loads at each end, which it converts into spinning-up a flywheel as an energy store device, like a spinning top. Its effect alters the suspension system’s ride and stiffness qualities, enhances ultimate mechanical grip and can open ditterent avenues of car set-up.
So while we can bemoan the diminution of ‘our sport with all these pettifogging regulations, we can also be happy with its increasing though largely hidden technical sophistication. Motor sport at every level has always been a matter of gamekeepers vs poachers. And neither faction can currently feel too smug about which one is really ahead of which…