Of the new teams in Formula 1 it looks as though the radical Virgin Racing car is probably going to be the fastest, once it hits its stride, but preparations for the season have been undermined somewhat by reliability problems in testing.
The car has been unable to hold on to its hydraulic fluid and during its first test a front wing fell off. This has been a little embarrassing for technical director Nick Wirth, who has staked his reputation on a car which has never been anywhere near a wind tunnel, but instead was designed only using CFD or Computational Fluid Dynamics, a highly sophisticated 3D computer system.
Yesterday I went to the headquarters of Wirth Research to find out more about the reliability problems and to look more closely at whether Wirth’s plan of doing a CFD-only car will work.
The whole Virgin team is operating out of Wirth’s premises on an industrial estate in Bicester at the moment. The race team will shift to the Manor team base in Sheffield after the Chinese Grand Prix, but for now the cars are being built up at Wirth, which makes sense with the tight turnarounds before the first race.
Currently spread across six buildings, Wirth Research also needs more space and in the enforced summer F1 shutdown period will be moving to a new base where all departments can be under one roof.
There are many familiar faces from other teams, a few ex Renault engineers, David Coulthard’s number one mechanic from Red Bull days, all experienced pros.
Wirth employs 120 people and the F1 programme is only part of what they do here, he has research and development contracts with Honda, Michelin, FIA and Porsche, who came to to them after being beaten by Wirth’s Honda car in ALMS. One of the recent programmes was to solve an aerodynamic problem for the IRL to prevent cars from getting airborne, which has now also been applied to sports cars.
Wirth’s pitch is that he has been focussing on the technology which makes a difference, particularly in the simulation world. He has two simulators here and I was allowed in to see the new one. It’s the first time I’ve seen a 3D F1 simulator up close and it looks a but like those ride simulators you find at the Science Museum or at shows – a pod on top of hydraulic rams, standing six feet off the ground. Both Timo Glock and Lucas di Grassi were there when I visited, correlating data from the recent Barcelona test and testing the Bahrain update kit.
The pod pitches and bucks as the car goes round the virtual Barcelona circuit. When the driver hits the brakes at the end of the main straight, the nose goes down probably a metre, it’s pretty violent. I noticed the rear end twitch in the high speed Turn 3. The virtual front wheels are visible on the screen, but there are no wishbones connecting them to the pod, which is the only thing that does not look 100% realistic – the rest is just spooky. Thanks to his work with Michelin, Wirth has devoted a lot of time to modelling tyre performance, which is the hardest thing to simulate.
I also tried on a virtual reality headset and standing in an office, was able to walk around the car and nose around the cockpit, as if I was standing next to it in the pit lane. It was uncanny. Even the wing mirrors worked!
Wirth’s plan for CFD-only design came from witnessing years of wastefulness in windtunnels, where £30,000 worth of 60% scale models are routinely built, tested and then thrown away every day. Many teams employ 140 people including model makers to do windtunnel research and Wirth decided that it could be dispensed with when he developed the 2008 Honda LMP2 car. The Eureka moment was when he realised that the CFD numbers were more accurate than the wind tunnel. Honda are convinced by it. He claims that the Virgin F1 car track data is closer in reality to the CFD numbers than any car he’s built before.
The Virgin car is around 4 seconds off the pace of the front running cars at this stage. In his view, the car lacks aerodynamic refinement compared to the Ferraris and McLarens because it is the first product from the design team, “We just lack experience compared to the fantastically clever people out there” – not because of the limitations of the CFD process. And just as the team at Force India has designed a much more aero efficient car with each passing year, so will Wirth’s designers. They have an aggressive development programme for this season so it will be interesting to see how far they are off the pace at the end of the season.
The design of the monocoque was frozen in June last year, probably three months earlier than the top teams who have greater resources and experience in manufacture. The team has a strict budget of €45 million all in and so far has hit all the deadlines it set itself. It will travel to Bahrain with two cars and a spare monocoque as well as five sets of spares for most parts. Wirth says that the troublesome differential, which has been causing the hydraulic leaks and destroyed their Barcelona test, has been fixed. There were quality control problems causing it to crack. But new spec ones are in short supply, so the drivers had better not crash into the barriers backwards before the race..
The front wing collapse was a “design error” by his drawing office team, for which he puts up his hands and accepts full blame.
“The drivers know that underneath them they have quite a good car,” he says. “Timo hopped out of the car and said ‘It’s doing what you said it would do.’ We have an exciting development programme, we should be able to bring a lot of performance to the car. We have a big update for Bahrain and more for Melbourne. There is a healthy development budget.
“I would like to show during the course of the year that we can close the gap on the weakest of the existing teams and show that this way of designing cars represents a way forward, ” he said.
Photos by Pip Calvert