Atlas F1 F1 Technical Regulations: Where Now?

  by Ewan Tytler, U.S.A.

The World Motor Sport Council of the FIA recently met and decided that "All (Formula One) engines will have 10 cylinders at least until the expiry of the current Concorde Agreement, on 31 December 2007." The FIA, in conjunction with the Formula One Administration (FOA), has also set up a think-tank to discuss the Formula One technical regulations and try to find a consensus within Formula One teams concerning the future development of Formula One. The important issues of safety, competition and costs are being discussed.

1999 was a fair year for safety in Formula One. Four drivers sustained broken bones during the year but no one suffered career-ending injuries. Part of this was a consequence of the stricter technical regulations but there was also an element of luck. Improvements in the design of the safety-tub and cockpit of Formula One cars since 1994 have saved lives. Jacques Villeneuve, Ricardo Zonta and Pedro Diniz all had serious accidents in 1999 that could have been crippling or fatal if they had been driving 1994-specification cars.

The grim reaper visited the American Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series twice in 1999 and the first serious accident of 2000 in the Indy Racing League (IRL) has left Sam Schmidt paralysed from the neck down. These tragedies in CART and the IRL are reminders to the FIA and the FOA that they cannot be complacent about safety. We can only hope that the Formula One constructors can learn from the investigations of these accidents and continue to make Formula One safer.

During 1999 there have been a chorus of complaints from Formula One drivers about the technical regulations. The complaints included the cars being too twitchy, too sensitive to winds and too difficult to overtake. Constructors have been frustrated by increased costs from damage due to spin-offs and increased component failure in the narrow-track cars that were introduced in 1998.

Therefore, the items on the agenda of the think-tank are:

1. How to limit the speed of Formula One cars. The aim is to maintain lap times at 1999 levels.
2. How to improve the quality of the races by increasing overtaking.
3. How to contain costs.

There are several variables that could be changed to reduce the speed of a Formula One car and although this is quite a complicated issue, the whole debate about the future of Formula One boils down to the following simple equation:

F  .N

The force (F) that can be applied to a tyre before it slips is less than or equal to the coefficient of friction () multiplied by the load (N) on the tyre. The coefficient of friction () is the so-called "mechanical grip" (the term "mechanical grip" is not scientific since "grip" or traction is mechanical by definition). Aerodynamically-derived downforce (the so-called "aerodynamic grip") increases the traction by increasing the load (N) on the tyres.

The higher the "F" value - the more acceleration, braking and cornering forces can be applied to the tyre before it slips. On a slow circuit, like the Hungaroring, a high "F" value will increase the average speed while on a fast circuit, like Hockenheim, where air and rolling resistance are big factors, a lower "F" value will increase the average speed.

There are several alternatives to how Formula One can reduce the speed of a car, but as with all technical changes, each of these will be a compromise:

  1. Modify the traction of the tyres. With the return of Michelin to Formula One in 2001, a decision on the specification of Formula One tyres will have to be made soon to give Michelin and Bridgestone enough time to prepare for the 2001 season. Have the grooved tyres, that were introduced in 1998, had their desired effect on accidents and safety? The logic behind the use of grooved tyres sounds a bit like "Alice through the Looking Glass": Imagine the Red Queen saying to Alice, "We will have to make the cars a lot more dangerous before they are truly safe." The grooved tyres reduced the coefficient of friction but Formula One designers increased downforce to compensate for the loss of traction. Using fastest laps as a benchmark, and excluding wet races, the effects of grooved tyres has been variable.

    Grooved tyres have had the desired effect at Melbourne, Catalunya, the Hungaroring, Monza and Suzuka where lap times have steadily increased since 1997. In contrast, grooved tyres have had the opposite effect at Monaco, the slowest, "high-down-force" circuit, where new lap records were set in 1998 and 1999! Lap records were also set on grooved tyres on the fast, "low-down-force" circuits of Montreal in 1998 and Hockenheim in 1999. Fastest laps on most of the other circuits have gone up and down since 1997. In 1999 there was an increase in the number of spin-offs and crashes during races. At the end of 1998, FIA President Max Mosley suggested further reducing the coefficient of traction by having "all-weather" tyres. A more attractive alternative might be to increase lap times by abandoning grooves tyres in favour of slicks and reducing downforce.

  2. Restrict the surface area of wings to reduce downforce. Decreasing the surface area of wings would increase lap times and would reduce the speed around high-speed corners. Pros: In theory, this is safest thing to do. Reducing the spin-off speed on high-speed corners should result in the biggest reduction in serious injuries. This should also level the playing field as teams with smaller budgets should not be at such a big disadvantage.

    The aerodynamic effects of components such as under-car diffusers discourage closer racing and overtaking; banning these components could improve the quality of races. Cons: The surface area for advertising would be reduced which might make the sport less attractive to sponsors. Martin Whitmarsh, the Managing Director of McLaren International, expressed dissent, "We do have a lot of power and it is wrong to keep trying to contain performance by bodywork restrictive regulations." Since McLaren have the best aerodynamic team in Formula One, it is no surprise that they are reluctant to give up their advantage. Unfortunately, enforcement of aerodynamic regulations is difficult as we witnessed after the 1999 Malaysian Grand Prix.

  3. Increase the weight of the car. Increasing weight would slow Formula One cars down by reducing acceleration. Pros: Additional weight could be incorporated into strengthening the safety-tub around the driver. More weight would also make the cars less sensitive to wind. Braking distances would be longer, perhaps providing more overtaking opportunities. Cons: Additional mass has an undesirable effect from the safety point of view. The momentum (mass x velocity) of the car would increase, making it more difficult to slow down when it leaves the circuit and more momentum would be transmitted to the driver on impact. CART cars are heavier than Formula One cars and perhaps the additional mass of these cars was a factor in Gonzalo Rodriguez's and Greg Moore's fatal accidents, but we will have to wait for the results of CART's investigation of these accidents before any conclusions can be made.

  4. Decreasing the capacity and number of cylinders on the engines. In a way, the FIA's decision to only permit 10 cylinder engines in Formula One is a futile ruling as the Formula One teams themselves had already concluded that the V10 is the optimum cylinder configuration for a 3 Liter engine. Nevertheless, this ruling restricts variety in Formula One and has stopped the rumoured development of V12 engines by Honda and Ferrari. McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh suggested that the capacity of Formula One engines should be reduced to perhaps 2.4 liters in a 6 cylinder block. Whitmarsh concluded that, "High revving six-cylinder engines would still sound great and it would be a packaging challenge." The flaw in this argument is that within a few years someone might find a way to manufacture a V6 engine that produces 800 bhp and we will be back to square one.
  1. Limit the fuel that the cars can consume during a race. Banning refueling and thus restricting fuel has be suggested by the 1997 World Champion, Jacques Villeneuve and by four-times World Champion Alain Prost. Pros: Villeneuve argued "Think how different it would be if drivers started the race laden down with enough fuel to reach the end and had to nurse their tyres and heavy cars through the early laps," he continued. "The drag on the straights would be so great that all drivers would have to run less downforce. In one swoop you swap aerodynamic downforce for what the critics are crying out for: Mechanical grip." Villeneuve added, "Refueling stops carry inherent risks every time we fill the cars."

    The worst fire of the 1990s happened in the Hockenheim pits when Jos Verstappen's Benetton was being refueled during the 1994 German Grand Prix. Eliminating refueling would eliminate this fire risk. Cons: The risk of fire on the circuit would increase if the fuel load in a Formula One car is doubled. Also we encounter the dangers of increasing the total mass of the car: more momentum, higher impact speed and momentum. A new question arises, "Do we really want to see Formula One cars running out of fuel?" Attrition in Formula One is high already without reintroducing this additional factor.

In the final analysis, it is a question of "Vision". Mosley recently stated, "It's a question of where you want to do it and how you want do it. It's assumed that there is insufficient overtaking in Formula One. I'm not convinced about this." A mischievous thought spring to mind: Mosley must have missed the 1999 Spanish Grand Procession.

Seriously, though, Mosley should be praised for making Formula One a safer sport by introducing a quasi-scientific analysis of the safety of Grand Prix cars and circuits. The assumption in the FIA's analysis that the spin-off speed on a corner will determine the severity of the accident is correct-the force of impact on a Formula One driver is directly proportional to the momentum of the vehicle in which he is traveling.

However, this has to be balanced against the likelihood of going off and sustaining an impact. Also many serious accidents are the result of component failure rather than simple spin-offs. Shouldn't the goal be to design Formula One cars that are more forgiving, stable and thus less accident-prone in high-speed corners? This could be achieved with high traction and low down-force but will be difficult to achieve with low traction and high down-force. Will the think-tank come to the same conclusion and, if so, will the FIA and the FOA accept their findings? As Alice said, "Curiouser and curiouser."

      Related Articles:

Making Plans for the Future
(May-21th, 1996)

The Wind of Change
(Aug-27th, 1996)

Trick Or Tread?
(Apr-30th, 1997)

1998 Rules: Pros and Cons
(Jun-18th, 1997)

The 1998 Regulations Debate
(Nov-12th, 1997)

Where Safety Means Danger
(Sep-2nd, 1998)

A Tyre For All Seasons
(Jan-13th, 1999)

The Case for Slicks
(Feb-10th, 1999)

The Case for Grooves
(Feb-10th, 1999)

Slickes, Definitely Slicks
(Feb-17th, 1999)

Stop The Pitstops
(Mar-17th, 1999)

Mosley's Equations
(Apr-28th, 1999)

Ewan Tytler© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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