The Chinese Grand Prix is the fourth race in six weeks, all of which have been in long-haul destinations. But in the two weeks since Malaysia, some teams have been able to produce a host of technical updates to the cars, while others are saving up their work for one substantial upgrade in Barcelona in three weeks time.
Here, in layman’s terms, is a look at some of the tech stories from this weekend in Shanghai.
Shanghai has gone F duct crazy
The rear wing concept known as the “F-duct” or “drag-reducing rear wing”, pioneered this season by McLaren, has really caught on now and three other teams are running with their own version of it this weekend in Shanghai. Sauber, Ferrari and Mercedes are all chasing those vital three to four tenths of a second it brings.
Meanwhile a fourth, Williams, have the parts to run their version but they are currently in transit to Shanghai.
The drag reducing rear wing is one of those classic F1 tech stories, where someone makes a breakthrough, everyone questions its legality, then is forced to copy it so it ends up with the competitive advantage being neutralised because they’ve all got them. In the mean time McLaren will enjoy an advantage, which has certainly helped Lewis Hamilton in particular, make plenty of great overtaking moves thanks to his extra speed on the straights.
Sauber introduced theirs in Melbourne (left). It takes air from an inlet duct on the left sidepod and channels it down the fin to the rear wing. Mercedes tried one today, which takes the air from a small hole in the monocoque, previously used for ventilation.
Ferrari have the long fin fitted to the rear wing, down which the air passes, which then exits through a slot in the rear of the wing. It is fitted only to Alonso’s car, but we are told that they have not been able to work on it today, due to the loss of Alonso’s engine in first practice and the need to work through other programmes in the time available this afternoon. Interestingly the Ferrari was still only 1 km/h slower on the straight than the McLaren today at 311km/h.
Interestingly Ferrari’s air intake is above the driver’s head, at the side of the fin. The clever part of these wings is that they are only switched on when needed – ie on the straight, so the question arises of how Ferrari’s drivers will activate the switch, possibly with some hand control which pipes air down the fin.
McLaren invented the idea of blowing air out of a narrow slot the back of the wing (left) to separate the airflow which passes underneath and behind the wing, in order to separate that airflow, which normally causes drag. By doing so, they shed drag and get a straight line speed advantage of around 5 to 6km/h. On a circuit with a long straight, like Shanghai, that can be a significant advantage, up to four tenths of a second.
Although everyone is rushing to copy it, McLaren Engineering Director Paddy Lowe said this week that his staff have already reached all the benefit you can get from this technology, it is certainly not a technology which has much more to come from it.
The great ride height debate
Another major technical talking point which has dominated the first few races is the legality of adjustable ride heights to allow the car to run low to the ground in qualifying, but then raise up by as much as 3mm before the race, to allow for the extra 160 kilos of fuel weight. Rival engineers suspect that Red Bull has such a system, but the team has strenuously denied it. After the last race in Malaysia, the FIA issued a clarification stating that “Any system device or procedure, the purpose and/or effect of which is to change the set-up of the suspension, while the car is under parc ferme conditions will be deemed to contravene art 34.5 of the sporting regulations.”
Any change to the suspension in parc ferme (which is between qualifying and the start of the race) means that the driver must start from the pit lane. Other teams have worked on systems which attempt to find a loophole in this rule. One team invented a system which quietly rose up by 3mm in the garage all by itself during the night, but decided not to run it on the car this year because of legality concerns.
You can see why the teams would want to do it. It’s potentially worth 3 or 4 tenths of a second per lap in qualifying and the engineers tell me that they have worked out that every 1/10th of performance you gain in qualifying is worth 4/10ths in the race, because it gives you better track position. The no-refueling rule has stretched the value of grid position to such an extent, because it is so hard to overtake now in the race without refueling strategy.
Renault gets stabilised
Renault have had two strong races in a row and Robert Kubica is only nine points off the championship lead, mainly thanks to a pair of fantastic starts in Melbourne, where he went from 9th to 4th and Malaysia, where he went from 6th to 4th.
However there is more to it than that. The Pole’s lap times from the first race in Bahrain and the ones which followed in Australia and Malaysia show a strong development from Renault, as they move closer to the pace of the front runners.
Bahrain – Quali = – 1.7 secs (slower than fastest lap)
Race = – 2 secs
Melbourne – Quali = – 1.3 secs
Race = – 1.2 secs
Race = – 1 sec. ( Quali was wet)
The team is catching up after a tough winter with uncertainty over its future, before it was bought in December by internet entrepreneur Gerard Lopes.
And in China they have come along with a further front wing update. Kubica used it in second practice and said afterwards that it “improved the front-end stability.”
They have also brought a new floor, but he says that this hasn’t proved its worth in practice today and it is to be taken off the car.
Compare this with the photo above. A lot of work has gone into the curvature of the upper front element and particularly into the detailing of the end plates. The new ones feature (1) a shorter and less vertical fin than the Melbourne wing and (2) a squarer end to the upper element.
As we explained last time, the front wing has a bigger effect on the overall aerodynamics of the car under the current rules than previous rules, and the “outwash” wings replicate some of the work channeling dirty air away from the back of the car, done previously by the bargeboards which sat behind the front wheels. The front wing is not just about creating downforce to stick the front of the car to the track, it is about channeling air to the floor and to the diffuser and helping the overall downforce level of the car.
Here what we are seeing, according to F1 engineers canvassed for this article, is a wing development which is not primarily about adding front downforce, but rather is about cleaning up flow to the rest of the car and crucially, adding stability when the front wheels are turning through a corner. These tiny details on the front wing are working for that and it seems to be working.
The 3.3km Shanghai circuit is quite hard on brakes. According to brake manufacturer Brembo, 13% of the lap time is spent braking. Although the track features 16 corners, there are just eight braking events per lap, the harshest being at the end of the long straight for Turn 14, where the cars decelerate from 313km/h to 73 km/h in three seconds – a braking distance of only 140 metres.
The drivers also dab the brakes for 0.8 of a second into Turn 1, a similar amount for Turn 3, then shed 200km/h in 2.6 seconds at Turn 6. They give them the smallest of dabs in the 212km/h Turn 8 and another longer dab at Turn 9. Then comes the all important set up for Turn 13, which starts with braking for Turn 11, from 278km/h to 93km/h.
After the big stop for Turn 14, there is a tricky little stab on the brakes in the final corner onto the pit straight, lasting 0.8 sec, to get the car down from 249km/h to 177 km/h.
Brembo supplies six teams with brakes; Ferrari, Mercedes, Sauber, Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Hispania.