ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 5 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Taking the Lid Off F1

Formula One Technical Analysis

  by Will Gray, England

Last year, Atlas F1 ran a series of articles that investigated the technical areas involved in design, development, and construction of an F1 car. Now, a year later, Will Gray picks up where he left off, and dives deeper into the technical analysis of Formula One.

Part A4: "Team Timing: Schedules in the Design Process"

Testing never stops in an F1 factoryThe life of a Formula One car begins many months before its first race, but its development won't stop until the final wheel is turned at the end of the season. The team will begin to consider the new car during the middle of the season before it will make its debut. Just after the mid point in the Grand Prix calendar (and sometimes even before then), the team will group, and along with members of the engine design team, will discuss the major points of the car - such as suspension and engine mounting points, chassis design theories, and any innovations. Usually, the car is simply a development of its predecessor, and its life will begin in the wind tunnel when the aerodynamic department splits their test schedule between the current car and that of the next model. A member of the team will be moved from working on the modification of the current car to head up the development of the new one, and one of the wind tunnel models (teams will usually have around three of them) will be assigned to become the 'interim' car which will be modified from that moment on into the team's next championship challenger.

The main areas of consideration for initial work are the chassis, floor and diffuser. This is because these are the parts which take the longest time to make, and as they form the main body of the car, they are the hardest to modify during the design process. Once the engineers have developed the interim car as much as possible, the first development model of the new car will be built by the model makers (or at least some parts of the interim car will be replaced by development pieces). This will often consist of a significant amount of wood, which allows the team to carve and shape major sections, such as the chassis, in a way that could otherwise not be done.

Meanwhile, the mechanical engineers will be designing areas such as the suspension and gearbox, and the electronics engineers will be modifying and developing their programs to create the next phase of car control. Packaging is important in the design of the car, and constant communication ensures the whole team knows of the modifications. It is especially important for the aerodynamic engineers to know the constraints within which they must design - it's no good designing a nice slender engine cover if, when the engine, gearbox and radiator are installed, it won’t fit over the top! Often in initial designs, dimensioned areas are defined for components to fit within, but these can be modified during the development procedure - for instance, the originally defined suspension pick-up points will rarely remain in the initially planned position.

Once the aerodynamic team is happy with the chassis and floor design, the materials engineers will design the lay-up plans, and the parts will be signed off to be manufactured - usually around October or November time. Development will still continue on other areas of the car as different parts are sent for manufacture, and once the finished 'tub' (main part of the chassis) is completed by late November, each piece to come on line will be bolted on as the initial car build takes shape. This is done in great secrecy, and is often even screened from the view of everyone but the specific people who have been assigned to build it, such is the sensitivity of the moment.

There is little time for fun and festivities as the car builds up throughout the Christmas period (although the team does get some time off!), and the final product is usually completed by the start of January. There is also crash testing to be completed, and although the designs have been done much before the end of the year, it is difficult to run the tests in this time, and a car will often be launched before it has passed the FIA rules. However, these tests will be done during the early part of the year, and if a re-design is required (as is often the case when engineers try to hit the limits and minimise weight), it will be rapidly completed.

An F1 chassis in its first stagesSome teams have been known to bring a car out before Christmas, and the advantage of this is in the amount of extra testing that can be done before the start of the season. However, the team then miss out on the extra month of development that can be done on the chassis early on - there are merits for both. The car will have its commercial launch and its shakedown test around the same time: The high profile, sponsor-pleasing launch is one thing, but for the engineering team, the big day usually takes place at a deserted circuit in the depths of winter, some time in January or February - the all-important shakedown test is a truly nerve-wracking day for all involved. Watching and waiting, engineers crowd the garage to hear the first roar of the engine, hoping the clutch will engage and the car will roll out of the garage to attack the track. Sometimes the day is spent struggling with niggling problems, and it an embarrassed crew who end the day with the car still to set wheel on the circuit...but it has happened! More often than not, however, the day is successful, and is the beginning of a long series of pre-season tests where the car is honed into its final shape before the first race of the season.

But the development doesn't stop there. From the start of the season, the wind tunnels continue to blow, test rigs continue to test, and engineers minds constantly buzz with new ideas. If a top car finished the season as it began, it would probably be three-quarters of a second off the pace by the end - such is the development required in modern Formula One. By mid-season, hardly before the new car has grown up, the engineers are already split between the creating the one for next season and continuing to develop this one. Then, when the old car is laid to rest at the end of the season, all engineers are back onto the one job, and striving to better their previous performance - the modifications never cease, and the fun never stops for the Formula One factory team!

Next Week: "On Track: Track team"

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Will Gray© 2007
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