Forward thinkers

The next generation of F1 and Indycars must balance green technology with better racing. It’s a challenge that renowned engineers John Barnard and Mario Illien have been contemplating for years
By Gordon Kirby

For years the racing world has talked about introducing sweeping new technical rules, and last spring both the FIA and the Indy Racing League announced separate initiatives to create new technologically-interesting ‘green’ Formula 1 and Indycar regulations for 2011. Many of us are hopeful that these moves will help reinvigorate the sport, but it won’t be easy to properly reinvent either formula and to achieve the goals of creating technically interesting but competitive and entertaining racing that appeals to the masses – not just to engineers, manufacturers and the cognoscenti. After all, most modern forms of racing, from the original Can-Am and Group C sports cars to F1 and Indycars, have failed in this quest.

To gain some perspective on what the right way forward might be, I talked at length to John Barnard and Mario Illien, two highly accomplished racing engineers who are no longer directly involved in Grand Prix racing. Barnard was one of racing’s greatest designers of the late 20th century, producing ground-breaking Formula 1 and Indycars, while Illien designed race-winning F1 and Indy engines for Mercedes-Benz and Chevrolet respectively. Ilmor co-founder Illien believes the focus for motor sport should be on improving fuel mileage and efficiency, while achieving additional performance and spectacle. “This could be a fantastic challenge for both the racing and the road car industries,” he says.

Illien is not a fan of F1’s current homologated 2.4-litre V8s, which most people in the sport have acknowledged are essentially spec engines, all of them producing about the same power. “I personally like rules that are challenging and interesting from an engineering point of view,” he says. “I regard what we have today as a bit boring. There’s not much excitement technically. You still have differences in the cars, but all the engines are more or less the same because they’re over-regulated. The performance difference is really in the cars, not the engines, and there are no synergies with road car technologies.”

As Illien is well aware, costs will rise if the rules are rewritten or opened up, but he also sees potential returns. “Everybody talks about costs but I guarantee you some people will spend as much, or more, than they have done before. The biggest costs in racing are always from rule changes, whether useful or not. This time there is a great opportunity to make the most of a rules change to bring long-term benefits – and in a big way. If the money is spent on new technologies that can be transferred to production cars, then there is a return for that investment and we can see some benefits from racing activities on a bigger scale.”

Illien has long been a proponent of hybrid engine technologies – he designed and built a hybrid which was banned before it was ready to race. “I’ve been lobbying for hybrids for many years,” he says. “Back in 2000 we had a system almost on the track, but then it was forbidden.”

He’s enthusiastic about the FIA’s plans for a new ‘green’ Formula 1 and hopes it will produce some interesting hybrid solutions. Illien believes fuel efficiency should be a keystone to the new formula: “The additional performance of the race car will come from fuel efficiency of the engine and from the energy recovery systems on board. This will open a catalogue of systems and technologies to improve the overall performance of a car with a fixed amount of fuel.”

The traditional internal combustion piston engine converts approximately one-third of the total energy of the fuel it consumes into mechanical energy, one-third into heat energy and one-third into exhaust gas energy. “Currently, we are using the mechanical part only,” says Illien, “so there is big potential to extract additional energy from the exhaust and the heat of the engine to turn into propulsion.”

He also believes in the FIA’s idea of pursuing regenerative braking power. “To recover some of the kinetic energy of a vehicle during braking makes a lot of sense. There is an economical amount of energy we can store in a racing car because the size and weight of any such system will influence the optimum performance and therefore will be self-regulating. To recover a significant amount of energy from a race car during braking is difficult because the duration of the braking is very short and the available kinetic energy very high. But if 10 per cent of this energy could be recovered it would be a good start.”

There are some interesting technical challenges ahead for the teams when it comes to best harnessing regenerative braking power, says Illien: “To recover this braking energy effectively the system would have to tap into the front wheels, as they do the majority of the braking. Rear-wheel braking is limited, and offset with engine power to balance and stabilise the car during braking. To make best use of your hardware, would you now feed the recovered energy back through the front wheels or as a combination of front and rear wheels?

“Racing car rules with this kind of flavour would be very interesting for engineers and manufacturers and could speed up the development and effectiveness of any such system for road car use, as well as make more use of the fuel and reduce the strain on our environment.”

He argues that a limited blend of 15 to 20 per cent ethanol would be the best racing fuel for the future, for both practical reasons and the best overall ecological benefits. “The use of an amount of ethanol mixed with petrol would be sensible,” he says. “Such a ratio could be realistic and supported for road cars on a big scale combined with the energy recovery systems.”

Barnard, the designer of ground-breaking Parnelli and Chaparral Indycars as well as successful McLaren and Ferrari F1 cars, says: “I do think the first step is to avoid wasting energy, but the problem is that so much is wasted. The energy expelled during braking, for example, as well as the heat expended by the engine.”

He is frustrated that the technology to convert waste energy into power or electricity is becoming more common in road cars, yet remains untouched in racing. “You’ve had electronic retarders on lorries for donkey’s years and there’s all sorts of stuff like that which could be incorporated,” he says. “Just now, BMW have launched the 1 Series which has got stop-engine technology for city driving so that every time you stop, the engine stops. I think it’s got electronically-clutched alternators so that they only generate when you’re braking. So when you’re trying to lose energy they are producing energy into the battery.

“That’s just coming on road cars now and where is it on a Formula 1 car? Nowhere. That’s terribly wrong. Racing should be pushing the limits on all those technical issues. If they’d done that I think these technologies would have accelerated much faster.

“Most of the technical people would have done it a long time ago. In F1 in about 1996, when there was a chance of an engine rule change, certainly nine out of 10 technical people would have gone for it then. There was talk of an engine change to 2.4-litre V6s, but again, politics came into play and that went out the window. Those sort of things could have happened, which I think would have borne fruit for the whole ethos of saving energy.”

Illien, a long-time supporter of green fuel technology, has some very clear ideas about where F1 should be heading with the advent of a new formula for 2011. He has no doubts that the existing piston engine will continue for many years as the prime source of power for both racing and road cars, but is extremely sceptical of how hydrogen fuel cells might be adapted to racing. “The hydrogen fuel cell is a long way away. We will have reciprocating engines with beautiful sounds for many years to come,” he says.

Barnard, like Illien, believes the internal combustion engine still has a lot of life left in it. He thinks fuel cells will provide the best answer for road car manufacturers, but again, like Illien, he sees another 10 or 20 years passing before the relevant technologies and delivery system infrastructures are in place to make fuel cells a practical alternative.

“I don’t buy into the electric car because they still haven’t solved the battery problem,” Barnard says. “Ultimately you’re probably looking at fuel cells as the real energy source. In Europe, I wouldn’t mind betting it’ll start coming along in 10 to 15 years. In places like the States, where the infrastructure required would be huge, it might be 20 years. But there’s a lot of pressure around the world for politicians and the industry to do something.”

Audi’s turbo diesel R10 has created a buzz at Le Mans and in the American Le Mans Series, and surely the message from its success is that other forms of racing need to focus on creating new formulas. Barnard hopes the arrival of first Audi’s car and now one from Peugeot is a harbinger of more green technology: “The diesel cars at Le Mans are, I guess, just the beginning because I don’t think anybody in racing is using any of the energy-saving technology. As I say, you’ve already got BMWs out there with alternators that only work under braking conditions, and I should think you could almost bolt that on a racing car tomorrow. That’s only a very small thing, but there are all sorts of elements like that.”

Certainly the arrival of the Audi and Peugeot turbo diesels has created more interest in Le Mans and the ALMS, and Barnard hopes that will infiltrate other categories. “I know car companies are doing lots of development with the diesel,” he says. “Even small outfits like Judd are doing diesel development. It’s all there to be done – it just comes back to the governing bodies embracing it and making it happen.”

In theory, by bringing green fuel technology to the forefront of racing, it would help focus the debate as well as research and development on the subject in the automotive industry. But Illien also believes that many new businesses would come into racing if hybrid technologies were adopted by the FIA or any other frontline sanctioning body.

“There’s an awful lot of electrical and electronic hardware required to recover energy and store it in this challenging environment,” he says. “Everybody in racing wants an advantage to be able to win. Therefore you must move fast and you have to be creative and innovative to get that unfair advantage.”

Barnard agrees: “The sport would benefit because companies would start using their R&D budgets to go racing – and that’s because there’s nothing like racing to get you an answer quickly. As we’ve always said, it’s the next best thing to going to war in terms of making people have to do it.”

Aerodynamics is by far the dominant factor in modern race car design and there doesn’t appear to be any way to limit that influence other than banning the use of wind tunnels – which is not about to happen, even if the FIA is planning to enforce limits on their use. Over the past 20 or more years all forms of racing have been infected by the increased influence of aerodynamics, and a steady reduction in the cars’ abilities to race closely and pass freely has been the result. It is critical that the aero packages for the F1 and Indycars of 2011 are right so that the cars can race and pass, allowing us to enjoy a show of driving. But is this an achievable goal?

It’s equally important to have a method of controlling aero packages as they evolve and improve with time and development. All this is much easier said than done. Ten years ago, Barnard was asked by the FIA to formulate a package that would cut downforce in half and encourage closer racing and passing. Drastically reducing downforce would result in much increased straightline speeds, so Barnard’s recommendations included cutting horsepower by an equal amount and increasing drag.

“I started looking at drafting some rules whereby the overall size of the [design parameter] box was increased and all these bargeboards were eliminated,” he says. “One of the things we thought we had to do was increase the tyre size, so you were back to running enormous rear tyres like we did in the ’80s. You would get some grip back from that but you’d also add drag, because one of the problems in knocking all this downforce off is you lose drag with it.”

“Today, engines are rev-limited to 19,000rpm and how fantastically impractical is that in terms of applying it to road car technology? If you’re dealing with half the horsepower there’s a lot you can’t do aerodynamically. You can’t drag around these barn door wings and bargeboards and so on. It’s a combination of attacking all areas. But the problem you get thrown back at you when you talk like that is people say the fans come to listen to a screaming 3-litre 10 or 12-cylinder. If you make it a six-cylinder coughing out a meagre 400 horsepower then nobody will be interested. But again, it’s just how you sell it, isn’t it?”

FIA president Max Mosley has recently talked about moving to 1.5-litre, four-cylinder F1 engines producing around 400bhp for 2011.

“I can’t see that happening in one jump,” says Barnard. “But again, I think 1996 could have been the start of bringing it down, step by step. Maybe you get to 1.5-litre screamers, who knows? I have no idea. Maybe you go back to turbochargers or superchargers to get the efficiency up. It’s all about efficiency.”

He harks back to his days with McLaren in the mid-80s, with Lauda, Prost and TAG/Porsche turbo engines. “We were running more efficient racing cars then,” he says. “When we were winning races at McLaren with the turbo engine it was all about using the fuel the best way. You had variable boost and fuel. They have variable fuel maps now, but it was much greater then because of the boost.

“You could run a different race from the beginning to the middle to the end. You had boost that you could literally wind up just to pass somebody. It was all about efficiency because we were only allowed a certain amount of fuel. Now, they’ve gone completely away from that, which is wrong.”

Most F1 teams like to boast about how much they’ve improved their CFD (computational fluid dynamics) programmes in recent years and Barnard says there shouldn’t be any problem in using this technology to design a workable and effective aero package which would produce good racing: “You’ve got your computing capability now and it must be possible to sit down and create a package that has enough drag to avoid tremendous top speeds, together with reducing downforce so that your cornering speed comes down.”

Last year the FIA appointed an F1 Overtaking Working Group to look at how to encourage more passing. The FIA’s committee comprises McLaren’s Paddy Lowe, Renault’s Pat Symonds and Ferrari’s Rory Byrne, and their initial recommendations included wider front wings, narrower rear wings, steeper diffusers, the abolition of flaps and winglets, and a return to slick tyres – not unlike Barnard’s suggestions from a decade ago.

Today, Barnard’s motor sport passion revolves around motorbikes. “I did a stint working with Kenny Roberts in 2003, heavily involved in MotoGP, and I just think it’s fantastic,” he says. “To be frank, I don’t watch F1 anymore. I watch MotoGP. Anytime I get the chance, I go and see it. It’s great! Those guys earn their money. They fall off all the time – not just the bad ones – and from one race to the next you don’t know who’s going to win it.”

It will be fascinating to see if the FIA, or any other sanctioning body, can rise to the challenge of solving motor racing’s great 21st century riddle – how to introduce relevant technology to the sport that also makes for more exciting racing. In attempting to find a solution, one would hope that before making their momentous decisions the sport’s leaders give some credence to the ideas and concepts of thoughtful people like Barnard and Illien.