Shape of things to come

Racing in the real world is changing fast. New concept images give a glimpse at Formula 1’s future, and we predict what could happen in other disciplines

The revolution won’t be televised. It will be leaked on social media first. On the eve of the Singapore Grand Prix, images began circulating on Twitter that gave F1 fans the clearest view yet of the radical future being planned. The images had been snapped from a private pre-race event hosted by Ross Brawn, the director of motor sports, and appeared genuine. But with no official word from F1 or Liberty Media, the owner of the commercial rights to the sport, it wasn’t clear how seriously to take the pictures.

The answer came hours later when F1 released official images which it said showed that it was “working on a design for a future car that will increase the chances of great fights, all the way down the field, every year.”

The aim of the project was to start working on new designs ahead of the regulation overhaul in 2021. On the evidence of what we can see, that overhaul is set to be far more radical than the technical changes in 2017. He also spelled out some of the guiding principles of the changes. “When we started looking at the 2021 car, the primary objective was to enable the cars to race well together. What we established early on in our research is the cars we have now are very bad in following each other. Once the cars get within a few lengths of each other, they lose 50 per cent of their downforce. That’s a substantial amount of performance. So we set about understanding why that was and how we can improve it. I’m pleased to say we’re at about 80 per cent.

“Another of the primary objectives was to make great looking cars. We want cars that look better than what you see in a video game, cars that kids want to have up on their walls.”

These are clearly laudable aims. But how successful have Brawn and his team been?

We asked two of Britain’s leading racing car designers to cast their eyes over the designs and give their verdict.

JOHN BARNARD AT first appeared nonplussed: “They talk about making it easier to overtake, but my first thought is, ‘Where is the ground effect?’ Why can’t we have a bit of that back? Why can’t we get rid of these ridiculous front wings?

“Whichever of the three concepts they adopt, by the time the aero teams get stuck in the front wings will be sprouting flaps and all kinds of things. How many times at starts do we see bits of someone’s front wing spread all over the track? It screws up their race straight away. If they want to improve overtaking, they need to reduce all the silly stuff around the front wings, allow a little underbody ground-effect – maybe limit the width of the tunnel so you don’t get too much downforce. That’s an easy fix. I recall the days when we ran without any front wing and balanced the cars using only ground effect and the rear wing. That must be better for overtaking.”

He was more complementary about the look of the cars: “The drawings look great and the cars look very racy. Bigger wheels and lower-profile tyres, great – put those on tomorrow as far as I’m concerned. The things they’re running at the moment look ridiculous, like oversized rubber doughnuts.”

He noted the better integration of the halo and the aero development around the wheels: “If I were in charge I’d probably cover the wheels completely, although I suppose we are looking at open-wheel racing cars so that probably wouldn’t be allowed. I would like to see more aero development around the wheels, though, front and rear. We used to run front-wing extensions that ran inside the front wheel to direct airflow – they made a huge difference to performance, but is that going to improve overtaking? I don’t think so. They talk about losing performance when the cars get close, but a big part of that is surely governed by these horribly complex front wings.”

STEVE NICHOLS, WHO succeeded Barnard as head of design at McLaren, echoes the theory that F1 should consider closed wheels: “I’d fair in the wheels completely. All of these complex front wings and bargeboards are there to direct air around those terribly disruptive wheels – and a lot of that helps the car in front but disturbs the air for the one behind. If you had a car that was more slippery, with less drag, it would reduce the wake and enable drivers to get closer. People might say, ‘Oh, but F1 cars have always had open wheels’, but I don’t think that’s as important as having modern, aero-efficient cars. And besides, GP cars haven’t always been the way they are now – remember the Mercedes W196 streamliner in the mid-1950s?

He’s unconvinced by the proposed designs. “I think they’ve missed the boat. A few years ago they did what Ross [Brawn] called a minor study and now they’ve done something more intensive. The minor study reached several conclusions, one was that a narrower, taller rear wing would be less disruptive to the car behind – so for a few years that’s what they had, but now they’ve gone in the opposite direction and that doesn’t make any sense.”

He is also disappointed that the new designs don’t address the problem of excess wings: “I’d want smaller wings and a little bit of a shaped underbody. People seem to panic at the idea of ground-effect cars, but they are effectively generating ground effect anyway, whether the bottom of the car is flat or shaped. I’d like to see more downforce generated from the body of the car rather than the wings, because that wouldn’t be as badly affected by the disturbed air. With smaller wings and more underbody downforce, cars would be able to run together more closely.”

And – like all good engineers – he is suspicious of any attempt to hem in the design with layers of regulation. “I’d like to give engineers more freedom to do their jobs properly – and if they did that I’m sure they’d come up with cars that were more raceable.”

It is a problem of which Brawn is aware. Despite the furore around the images, he stressed they were illustrative only: “It’s critical this development achieves its objectives, but why shouldn’t we have great-looking cars as we’re evolving? F1 is the pinnacle and the car should look sensational.”