Some years ago I wrote a column outlining the case against wind tunnel use in F1, pointing out the horrendous amount of energy they consume, all essentially devoted to making racing less entertaining.
I suggested we switch ’em off. It was an idea that found no traction at the time, but if you wait long enough it’s funny what comes around. Today it’s being seriously considered – and the suggestion this time is coming from an ostensibly surprising source: the boss of the team that has ruled the aero roost to the tune of four consecutive world championships. Christian Horner has seriously proposed a ban on the technology that his resident genius Adrian Newey has used to dominate the sport.
To get it into focus, you need to stand back and see it in a different context. As part of the wider picture of what’s happening in F1, it makes perfect sense that Horner is the one suggesting it. Behind the scenes, there is a lot of pressure being applied to render the sport’s current governance structure null and void. The F1 strategy group that decides policy is effectively locked into dysfunction with no one person able to unlock it. The FIA has been deprived of its former power as part of the agreement that secured it a big income from F1 to spend on other projects, such as road safety and mobility in the third world, subjects close to the heart of president Jean Todt. Intertwined with the broken economic model of the sport – essentially it’s way too expensive for what it offers and the money that’s around is distributed in a way that’s guaranteed to put several teams out of business – it’s guiding F1 towards the rocks. There has been a growing acknowledgement of this from within in the past few months and now, with various parties applying the pressure, there is the prospect of European Union law being invoked to neutralise the damaging agreements.
To ward off possible EU investigation, the big teams are coming under increasing pressure to make serious concessions to smaller rivals. Handing over a greater share of the income is not a good option for them, given that the sizes of their facilities and employee base are formed around that income. So they are looking at what else they might be able to surrender. They cannot agree on what this could be, but Red Bull’s suggestion is wind tunnels. Switching to full CFD design would be cheaper, would enable a swingeing cut to the cost bases of the financially pressured smaller teams – and might give F1’s arguably most intuitive aerodynamicist, Newey, renewed scope and motivation.
Ferrari’s James Allison is against the idea, saying: “We do our best as teams to take our technical budgets and turn them into lap time. Aerodynamics are a huge part of car performance and you need to be confident, when you’re spending that budget, that you’re going to deliver to your investors and your team the performance you hoped you would do. At the moment you wouldn’t find too many aerodynamicists who would recommend developing using just CFD. It’s too error-prone and you need the wind tunnel to keep dragging you back to reality. Without that you’re at very high risk of spending your investors’ money foolishly and not delivering.”
I’m sure he’s right. But, as a sport, do we care about the investors’ return? Do we care if one team gets it badly wrong and another spectacularly right – creating competitive volatility unconnected with budget? That might be quite interesting…