On a technical level there were some interesting innovations on the cars this year as the F1 teams and engineers worked hard to get around regulation changes.
The most significant change was the governing body, the FIA, wanting to restrict the practice of exhausts blowing into the diffuser area of the floor. During 2011 teams had adopted increasingly extreme solutions and this had resulted in huge gains in down force. Red Bull was dominant in 2011 because it optimized this practice.
For 2012, engines were not allowed to be mapped in such a way that they continued to pump out exhaust gases at high pressure when the driver’s foot lifted off the throttle (“off throttle blowing”). And the exhausts were also required to exit higher up the bodywork and further back from the diffuser.
But the aerodynamic gains from blowing into the diffuser are so attractive, that teams worked out various ingenious ways to make up for the lost ground. Although no-one got close to the levels of down force seen in 2011, teams still got good results.
One innovation, which several teams adopted, was utilising the Coanda effect, whereby channels shaped into the rear of the sidepods, acted as a slide, to lead the gases down to the diffuser. The Coanda effect uses the principle of a jet of air being attracted to a nearby surface, to ensure that the gases are channeled into the correct part of the diffuser. McLaren led the way on this thinking.
To maximize this effect, the designers needed to reduce the back of the sidepods and it was the Sauber team that led the way with this innovation from early in the season. In many ways the Sauber was one of the most innovative teams in 2012, as they also had some ideas on the front wing, which other teams copied, including the top teams.
As well as finding new ways of creating down force to allow the cars to travel more quickly through the corners, the F1 teams are always keen to minimise drag, so that the cars will travel more quickly along the straights. The rules in 2012 allowed teams to use a Drag Reduction System on the rear wing, which opened the top element of the wing on the straights, giving a speed boost of around 15km/h, which serves as an overtaking aid.
This year there was quite a bit of innovation around boosting the DRS effect, to get even more straight-line speed, with Mercedes, Lotus and Red Bull particularly active. Red Bull’s introduction of its innovative DRS-booster system in Singapore was one of the cornerstones of its late season fight-back to claim the world championship.
Whereas several teams got caught up trying to engineer something complicated, Red Bull went for a simple solution, which is switched on when the DRS wing opens. This opens a small duct (shown in yellow above left). Air flows through it and down through the side of the wing, known as the endplate and is then ducted into the lower beam element of the wing, where it is allowed to blow out over the central part of the diffuser.
The gain here was that it gave Red Bull higher top speeds without needing to reduce the down force levels. Red Bull has traditionally run its car for maximum down force and has paid a price for that in straight-line speed. With this device they could have the best of both worlds. Sebastian Vettel used it to win four consecutive races in September and October and clinch the drivers’ championship for the third time.
From the start of the season Mercedes designed its car to incorporate a secondary Drag Reduction System, but one which channeled the air all the way along the car and out through a flap in the front wing. The idea was to reduce drag from the front wing, to improve straight-line speeds. It worked in China, where the team got its first F1 victory. But it proved something of a barrier to development and the team subsequently fell behind.
For 2013 new FIA rules outlaw devices which have a secondary DRS effect when the DRS is activated. So it will be interesting to see what passive devices the teams come up with to replicate the effect. As it’s worth a few tenths of a second per lap it is something the teams will be chasing.
There are no significant aerodynamic change and that means that the teams which led the way at the end of 2012 will probably pick up where they left off at the start of 2013.
During 2013, engineers say we are likely to see more innovation around the exhaust-blowing area as well as new ideas for shaping the sidepods. But as always in F1, someone will think of something truly innovative and the rest will have to quickly engineer their own versions.
With a major rule change set for 2014, including a completely new engine, teams will be hard pressed to divide their resources between developing the 2013 cars and making sure they haven’t missed the obvious magic bullet on the 2014 design.
The 2013 field is likely to be as close or even closer than this year, but the new rules in 2014 will spread it out again as the better resourced