Renault, in looking to join the Formula One scene in style, will be taking over Benetton to create a team intended to rival Ferrari, running both engine and chassis. On their way in, the team are looking to gain every edge possible and maintain those already established.
Since leaving the sport, Renault have maintained a low profile, using Supertec as a contact point to F1. Building up to a full return, they have continued to develop the unit, though never really getting on the pace of the front runners, but appear to be jealous of what progress was made in that time: Renault are suggesting that Williams took concepts from the Supertec engine to develop their BMW unit for 2000.
Of course, Patrick Head is famed for his ability to talk on a technical level with engine suppliers, and through their association, his contact with Renault then Supertec helped to keep the team compatible. His influence is thought to be significant at BMW, keeping them on track for integrating properly with the car. Ironically enough, during the first year of Supertec, Benetton famously benefited from Williams experience, as the parts developed to extract the best from the engine found their way from the Williams team, via the engine supplier, to Benetton. Williams were upset at the time, but could do nothing more than moan – the damage was done, from their viewpoint.
Come the end of 2000, it's Renault that are claiming Williams took secrets to BMW. Particularly so, when the results for the two manufacturers are compared: BMW's engine, whilst superficially carrying the hallmark of the Supertec (i.e., over size and reliablity, compared to the competition), is fundamentally a different animal. Emphasis on power and drivability made it something the team could really use to advantage in races, and BMW thoroughly trounced Supertec as a contender all year.
Accusations of spying are hardly new in the paddock. For example, McLaren's third pedal in 1998 was famously unmasked by a reporter sticking his camera into a stricken car, only to be accused by Ron Dennis of espionage for Ferrari. Beyond that, parc ferme has been the basic source of inspiration for many a late season feature, as teams inspect the cars lined up for post-race scrutiny.
Some teams even go to trouble to ensure 'fans' with long lenses on cameras are placed opposite the garages of the competition, on the off-chance that they can pick something up from a careless moment. And, of course, hiring key personnel from successful teams is a long established shortcut down the development path...
As the sport develops, the spirit of camaraderie – which has seen in the past Ferrari 'lending' key components to Minardi to help them out – has been replaced with suspicion and fighting on every front. Any hint of process or material is removed from the pits as the teams leave – even the slightest drop of fuel is spoiled or removed to prevent it being copied. Procedures are followed to stop information being mislaid and security guards are on the door whenever the pits are open to the public.
Modern Formula One is highly competitive, requiring all the players to look after each advantage they have worked to gain. Therefore, accusations of industrial espionage are only going to become more common.
As the FIA fights to reduce aerodynamic effects in Formula One, the teams naturally work hard to regain their advantages and are constantly seeking new ways to exploit the air-flow over and around the car.
Sauber are experimenting with curved fins, looking at the effect of vortices and how they can be used to generate extra downforce from areas that are normally in a wind shadow. Their research has shown significant potential for the technology on computer simulations, but the effect of crosswinds and corners has their technicians looking for the answers to some very difficult questions the drivers would be asking – particularly, "what happened to all my downforce as I turned in to the corner!"
Williams and McLaren are both thought to be looking at similar concepts in surface technology, but with two completely different approaches. Those familiar with golf will be aware that the balls all have dimples, which in fact improves the air-flow around the ball in flight; it has lower drag than a smooth ball.
McLaren are exploring manufacturing technology that should allow them to generate a surface with dimples. The idea is not new, but the last time a team tried it, the production costs were very high for a product that rapidly filled with oil and dust, becoming ineffective. However, modern reliance on aerodynamics shows that a measurable performance improvement could be gained from using a dimpled surface on key components.
Williams, however, appear to be trying a different way of achieving the same effect. They reported to have tried a number of paints which have a dimpled finish – similar to Hammerite, a well known commercial paint. The effects have been remarkable aerodynamically, but at substantial cost: the increased mass of the paint (something over 10kg, according to early reports) all over the car actually means it was a net loss of performance.
With Ferrari also working on something new, the odds are high that an aerodynamic breakthrough is just around the corner.