The FIA has responded to lobbying from McLaren and Mercedes in particular and has decided to beef up the tests they carry out on the flexing of front wings.
On the face of it this will oblige Red Bull and Ferrari to stop their wings from flexing as much as they do now and this will cost them lap time. But let’s look more closely at this and establish how much we think this will slow the cars down relative to the opposition.
Current rules allow the tips of the wing to flex by 10mm when a load of 50kg, which is 500 Newtons, is applied to them. But rival teams estimate that Red Bull’s wing is flexing by up to 25mm at high speed and on board TV footage at the weekend in Budapest clearly showed the wing rising up at the end of the straight when the driver braked.
The FIA has indicated that it is likely to double up the test load, with up to 100 kilogrammes onto the wing – and it will only allow a linear increase of deflection up to 20mm, which would appear to rule out the current Red Bull wing.
Now, the key to this is what the FIA technical delegate, Jo Bauer, is physically going to do in Spa to test the wings. And in all likelihood the answer is that he and his boss Charlie Whiting won’t tell the teams what the test will consist of before Spa scrutineering, they’ll have to guess and beef up their wings accordingly.
This theory was given some added impetus when Sebastian Vettel’s wing snapped in practice at Silverstone.
This theory goes beyond grabbing a bit of extra downforce from wing endplates being close to the ground, it brings a gain of lowering the front of the car, which is very attractive under the 2010 rules.
So it will depend on how Bauer tests the wing as to how much it slows down the Red Bull car. How will Red Bull respond? They will look again at the rule and will have to think through whether the new test will be on the wing itself or the wing relative to the chassis, in which case they may have to do more.
With a two week compulsory shutdown, Red Bull will struggle to make anything up for Spa, so although they are likely stiffen the current wing when time allows, a short term fix might be to go back a step or two on the front wing.
But the new FIA test loading extra weight on the wing isn’t necessarily going to catch the whole of what Red Bull’s wing is doing.
Most teams, when they think up some brilliant new device, run it past the FIA’s Charlie Whiting first to get a view on whether it’s legal. It’s the way the FIA like things to be done and the Brawn double diffuser and the McLaren F Duct are examples of that.
But Red Bull Designer Adrian Newey doesn’t tend to work that way and neither did Rory Byrne on the winning Ferraris of the early 2000s. Newey puts things on the car and then waits to see if they get picked up. Whiting tends to like to keep things out of the public domain and so when he and Bauer pick something up, he marks a team’s cards that he doesn’t want to see it again at the next race. In this way Newey’s cars can have a few wins under their belt before something is spotted and has to come off.
There is a belief among engineers that some of the “all nighters” the Red Bull mechanics have done this year have not been simply due to adding last minute parts flown out from England, but because Bauer and Whiting have knocked them back on some new device. The modification to the slot on the blown diffuser, spotted by McLaren’s Paddy Lowe, is a case in point, but there are likely to have been others.
But even if he does go conservative, which is not in Newey’s nature, rival teams are kidding themselves if they believe that any new flexi wing test will bring the Red Bull within striking range.
Frank Dernie, the veteran aerodynamicist observed to me this week that “The difference in performance between the Ferrari and the McLaren, is probably mostly down to the front wing. But the difference between the Red Bull and the Ferrari is elsewhere.”
The Red Bull in Hungary was another full second faster than the Ferrari, which is therefore about far more than the front wing.
One of the secrets of the Red Bull car is the interaction of the front end aerodynamics of the car with the rear end and how they work together. No other car comes close to balancing out the front and rear so well and in generating overall downforce and it seems that the other teams are still scratching their heads about how it works.
Looking at – and even copying – something like the front wing in isolation isn’t going to give them the answer. To match the Red Bull they would have to replicate the way the aero devices work with each other and that will take a long time. By the time they’ve figured that out, next year most likely, Red Bull will be well on with the next thing.
They have built an advantage it will take far more than a flexi wing test to cut down.
But if Adrian Newey has a weakness, it is that he cannot resist the temptation to add extra little things to the car to boost performance – hence the “all-nighters” – and it is often these things which lead to reliability problems.
There will be factions within the team, race operations people most likely and hopefully Christian Horner too, who will now be arguing for Newey to play it more conservative in this respect in the final run-in to the championship and not take risks with too many trick new parts. They have a big advantage and no doubt some more major upgrades coming, so it is vital that they just harvest maximum points from now to the end of the season and this will bring them both the Constructors’ Championship for the team and the Drivers’ title to one of their drivers.
They have dropped quite a few points through some unreliability niggles, especially on Vettel’s car (although not necessarily ones which have stopped the car) and through driver politics. These remain the two areas where the team can still lose both championships.