The first test of the 2011 season is only two days away and soon we will all learn a lot more about how the biggest rule change for this year, the adjustable rear wing, is going to affect the racing.
The purpose is to create more overtaking, clearly, but what could prove controversial is that it may make overtaking itself rather predictable.
The simple concept of this change is a pivot in the rear wing which allows it to open up a gap from 10mm to 50mm, thereby shedding downforce and increasing straight line speed – rather like the F Duct did last year. Drivers can use this to trim the cars during practice and qualifying and will certainly do so on the straights- some inevitably making more use of it than others.
As it is a downforce shedding device, it acts against what most engineers are seeking, which is more downforce. As we saw last year with teams incorporating the F Duct, get it wrong and you harm your overall downforce level and thus competitiveness.
Engineers I’ve spoken to say that a system that is correctly used by a driver should be worth over 0.5 sec a lap.
But unlike the F Duct (which is now banned) it cannot be used anywhere on the track during the race. It can only be used after the first two laps and then only in a pre-determined section of track and only then by a car which is within a second of the car in front. And this is where things get a little more vague and are still under discussion.
The wing’s functionality is controlled by a proximity system using electronic loops around the circuit, which allow the system to be armed on each car. It is up to the FIA to decide where those loops should go around a track and they will control its use. Once a car crosses the first loop the system will either be armed or it won’t depending on whether the car is within passing range. The driver will be notified by a light in the cockpit and he will move the wing using a control on the steering wheel. The driver can manually return the wing to its normal level or hitting the brakes will achieve the same result. If the system fails, it defaults to the high downforce setting.
The car in front will not be allowed to use his wing to defend. This sense of feeling like a sitting duck might lead some drivers wanting to ‘weave’ to block or shake off a tow, although the rules on that were tightened up last season.
As of the end of last week the FIA’s Charlie Whiting had not yet specified the section of the Bahrain or Melbourne circuits the device will be used on. It seems to the teams that the FIA is taking the view that they will announce where it can be used as they go along on a race by race basis. The advantage of doing it this way is that they can make adjustments race by race if the concept isn’t working or if it’s far too easy to pass, in other words make the ‘overtaking zones’ longer or shorter depending on how it’s going. They can also adjust the time interval between the cars to make it work better. It looks like we will start with the simplest interpretation and then refine it from there, which makes sense.
It’s not too hard to guess where some overtaking zones might be placed – usually coming into an area where there is a long straight. But quite a few tracks have more than one straight, like Monza or Sepang. One knock-on effect of this will be to place a real premium on grandstand seats in the ‘overtaking zone’ !
One thing this new device will definitely change is that it will place less emphasis on qualifying. If a faster car is outqualified by a slower one because of conditions or driver error, it will make it easier for the driver of the faster car to get the place back, because he will have no problems getting to within a second of the car in front.
This will also mean that in a race like last year’s Malaysian GP, for example, where the McLarens and Ferraris started at the back of the grid due to strategic errors in the wet qualifying session, the fast cars will be able to come through the field very easily.
With a wide range of devices now under the drivers’ control, including KERS, there will be a lot to operate and a lot to remember, and some drivers and engineers have voiced concerns. It is quite common, when stepping into the unknown, for F1 to ask whether it is doing the right thing, but experience tells us to give it a few races and then take a view.
According to Fernando Alonso, “The only difficulty…will be buttons on the steering wheel and a very short time you have to make some decisions, to react to buttons and still drive the car, so in some of the cases in wet races, poor visibility, things like that, we need to check.”
Race Photo: Darren Heath, Illustration: Paolo Filisetti
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