'Agricultural' cars to bring random results at start of F1 season? — MPH


The ingredients look to be in place for a volatile start to the 2022 F1 season, with porpoising cars that are more physical and tougher to drive, writes Mark Hughes

F1 cars locking up in Bahrain 2022 F1 testing

The behaviour of this year's cars is more agricultural, says Mark Hughes

Getty Images/DPPI

With just two days of testing left, there is less readiness from teams than would be normal at this point. The Bahrain circuit is inducing more extreme porpoising in the cars than did Barcelona and it poses the question of whether the ingredients just might be in place next week for an old-fashioned race of attrition, a random set of results with which to kick the season off.

Some teams look in a better state than others, but all the cars, to a greater or lesser degree, are suffering the violent aerodynamic phenomenon which aside from making things unpleasant for the driver, surely threatens reliability. The rear of the floor takes such a battering as the oscillating resonance is triggered, it seems unfeasible they could withstand 57 laps of it. But that’s only when the cars are running the sort of low ride heights which generate the ultimate lap times.

It’s relatively easy to cure – but only by raising the ride height by enough that you lose a lot of performance. The lap time is tantalisingly there, so naturally the teams are chasing it. But around Bahrain in particular that’s a very narrow window on many cars.

The wide underbody venturis are extremely stall-prone when the bodywork is close to the ground. The extent to which the cars have to be set up around that trait is fraught with complexity which the teams are still getting their heads around. There will be a critical threshold of ride height, on one side of which the car will be relatively untroubled and on the other a bouncing monster. But what that threshold ride height is with just a few kg of fuel in the car for qualifying will be quite different when loaded with 100kg of fuel. Parc fermé regulations mean the ride height cannot be changed between qualifying and race.

Although these cars are generally more elegant than what we had before, their behaviour is actually more agricultural. Drivers are instead manhandling and dancing between understeer and oversteer, reacting to what the car is throwing at them. But paradoxically they need precision to avoid the kerbs – as these cars are way less tolerant of them than the old ones and lose a massive amount of downforce. When they let go they take more catching but in driving them so they don’t do that, they need precision. Max Verstappen and George Russell in particular look as if they have adapted their style to this.

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The aerodynamics through long corners are no longer connected up in the way that they were; the complex barge boards are no longer there and they don’t have the nice suspension tricks, the hydraulically-assisted mechanical computers which had evolved, to help. Just basic torsion bars, heave springs and dampers. They are a more physical, less refined drive despite their big high-speed downforce.

The front tyre is less powerful relative to the rear than before. So it’s actually got a better balance than before. Last year it was all about trying to keep the rear tamed from the responsive front and therefore smooth steering and delicate weight transfer was a core skill. But now, although the front is weaker, when the rear steps out it is more of a problem, as there is less grip there to help – in slower corners at least. They are more difficult to drive despite the better balance.

They want to understeer in slow corners, when the centre of aero pressure doesn’t move forwards as much as before and there is nowhere near the same suspension leverage as before to pull down the front ride height at high steering angles. That load trait means the front wheels are easier to lock and the drivers are reporting that the new bigger tyres give less feel on the brake pedal than before. If the car is bouncing on its suspension under braking, the locking is even easier to induce – and is more difficult to unlock. Add into that a bumpy and gusty track like Sakhir and the set-up equation is immensely complex.

Charles Leclerc locks up his Ferrari F1-75

Leclerc locks up in the Ferrari F1-75

Lars Baron/Getty Images

The crucial part of getting control of the porpoising is preventing the rear corner of the floor from making a total air seal in the venturis, because that suddenly massively increases the downforce, then immediately stalls it. But it’s a very tricky thing to make the floor – it is effectively a cantilever  – stiff enough. So in testing teams are beginning to use stiffening rods. Ferrari has in addition put a small cut-out in the floor edge so that even when the floor physically touches there is still a supply of air – and it is the Ferrari which, at the time of writing, looks the most consistently competitive car.

But pretty much every one of these cars is sure to be a long, long way from their development potential. So the chances of a volatile formbook in these early stages of the season as everyone grapples with a new set of problems, look very good.