The Spanish Grand Prix, round five of the F1 world championship is the first European round after the flyaway races and as such is always an event where all the teams bring updates to their car to a greater or lesser extent and this year is no exception.
What we are seeing this weekend is in most cases not as extreme as last season, when many teams were trying to catch the Brawn team by copying the double diffuser, but there are some quite significant and eye-catching changes on many cars.
Perhaps the team with the most eagerly anticipated changes is Mercedes. Last year’s champions – when they were called Brawn – have had the slowest car of the top four teams thus far and always targeted Spain as the race where they would bring in big changes.
Mercedes has two obvious updates here, one is the angling forwards of the front suspension, to help with a weight distribution problem and the other is the air intake, which is so radical a solution that many aerodynamicists I’ve spoken to say they’ve never even thought of trying it in a wind tunnel.
Instead of a hole above the driver’s head, the Mercedes has two air intakes lower down on either side of his head with a short fin to give the car the required height dimensions. This solution also helps the airflow onto the rear wing.
What makes this very interesting is that if you look carefully the driver sits quite high in the car anyway, probably in order to see over the very high front of the cockpit on the Mercedes. This isn’t perfect as every millimetre your driver’s backside is above the floor is raising your centre of gravity, which is a bad thing. The air coming off the driver’s head must be affecting the flow into the air intakes. Today the drivers were experimenting with plastic flip-ups on the top of their helmets to see if it improved that.
The front suspension is angled forwards on the Mercedes in order to lengthen the distance between the front and rear wheels and this has the effect of moving the weight backwards. They have done this because the drivers were complaining of the car pushing straight on in the corners, or understeering. Weight distribution is the most critical thing when it comes to tyre temperature and balance and this is clearly what Michael Schumacher was struggling with in China. The new narrow front tyres don’t grip like last year’s or like the ones he was used to in 2006. Judging from his strong performance in practice today, this fix seems to be working.
A lot has been said about this problem, but engineers tell me that angling the front suspension is the lightest solution, indicating that it was not a major problem, more a characteristic which needed addressing. Of course in moving the front wheels forward they have had to move the front wing forward too. This will have a negative effect on the aerodynamics so there is a loss to be swallowed before the gain you get from the improved weight distribution, but they must be happy with that trade off to have gone ahead with the change.
(Incidentally look at the small orange ring on the underside of the monocoque. That wasn’t there before and appears to be for adjusting the ride height during pit stops.)
Doing all of this will have eaten up much of their resources at a time when teams need to be well into the design of next year’s cars. There is a big rule change next year with the banning of double diffusers, so Mercedes will be worried that they are falling behind on that.
Ferrari and McLaren front wings
Many teams have new front wings here. The more complex they are with flaps to add downforce the more it indicates that the team has also added downforce at the rear of the car via the rear wing and diffuser and need to balance it out at the front. Judging from the McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari front wings there is a lot more overall downforce on the cars and it shows when you watch them on track. They look nailed to the ground.
It’s interesting to contrast the McLaren and Ferrari front wings. The McLaren is an elegant cascade, like the Red Bull wing, whereas the Ferrari is more classic with more detailed work on the endplates. It’s striking how different they are.
New longer Virgin car
Virgin has brought a new chassis for Timo Glock this weekend, which is longer than the original model, still being used by Lucas di Grassi. The fuel tank was not large enough to complete the Grand Prix distance and the team was given special dispensation to change the monocoque, which is a homologated part. The Virgin team has used the opportunity to introduce some other bodywork changes, such as a fin engine cover, which is in vogue at the moment and a large exit hole for cooling which is straight out of the Red Bull design textbook.
A big cooling exit like this has a cost in lost downforce, but it gets all the hot air out of the engine bay in one go and in Red Bull’s case is the most efficient system given the extremely tight packaging of the rear end of the car. Virgin doesn’t appear to have such packaging issues, but has gone for the exit hole anyway.