The appliance of F1 science

John Barnard tells us in this issue that he “probably couldn’t operate in today’s Formula 1”. The days of the maverick visionaries such as Barnard, Gordon Murray and Gérard Ducarouge – names once whispered in reverence – are over. Today, team structures such as McLaren’s ‘matrix’ prevail, where the individual is swallowed into a team of aerodynamicists, designers and engineers to hone a strictly defined concept.

Generally it works because F1 has slowly strangled the big innovations, as regulations become more restrictive to combat the growing power and influence of aerodynamics. The devil is now indeed in the detail, from F-ducts to alleged ride height systems that do or don’t exist, from rear-view mirrors on stalks that drivers can’t use to the shape of sculpted double diffusers. Not exactly sliding skirts, sucker fans or six wheelers, but fascinating in their own way – and true to the spirit of pushing for the unfair advantage, no matter how small and intricate.

Of course, there is an exception to the rule on visionaries in today’s F1. Adrian Newey, along with Patrick Head, is the last of the old breed of design masters still working at the cutting edge. It would be wrong to claim the Red Bull RB6 is the work of one man, but its genesis was certainly born in the mind of a perfectionist who still prefers a drawing board to a computer. Newey has long admitted to eyeing a horizon away from F1 for new inspiration – just like Barnard. But it’s heartening that the sport still holds him in its grasp, despite the limitations of its modern rulebook.

So will Newey continue to be inspired when the new regs are announced for 2013? As you can read on page 52, ‘efficiency’ will be key to a greener, turbo-charged F1 in three years time (although surely that’s always been the case). Here is an opportunity to secure the future of Grand Prix racing, to make it a better sport, more relevant to pioneering technology and attractive to the car manufacturers. As ever, in-fighting and self-interest could blow it all, but if the Formula One Teams’ Association can speak with one voice to a stable, less politically-driven FIA led by Jean Todt, they might – just might – get it right.

It won’t be easy though. Even our panel of experts in this issue don’t have definitive answers. FIA advisor Peter Wright and Williams lynchpin Head know a thing or two about innovation, while McLaren’s Paddy Lowe served on the FIA’s Overtaking Working Group (whose theories were torpedoed by the double diffuser legality row last year). They all talk sense – but they don’t exactly speak as one. Like everything in F1, the ideal solution to the rules debate has many shades of grey.

We asked them for their opinions because many of you wrote to us and posted on our website to voice how disillusioned you had become by F1 after the dreary Bahrain season opener. Since the desert race we’ve been treated to some exciting action, influenced by the weather either in qualifying (Malaysia) or the races themselves (Australia and China). But the fact remains that on dry days at F1’s dullest circuits, we’ll probably be in for some boring races. Then again, hasn’t that always been the case?

As you can read in Nigel Roebuck’s Reflections, Motor Sport remains optimistic that a season which promised so much will deliver on that potential. The stories are brewing nicely – Button vs Hamilton, Alonso vs Massa, Vettel vs Webber, Schumacher vs Rosberg, and so on. Meanwhile behind the scenes F1 is preparing for the vital next step. GP racing is a science and the right formula will be complex. But it will be down to individuals to translate that science to find the best route. Maybe there’s still room for the visionary in F1 after all.

Damien Smith, Editor