The new generation F1 cars are improving at a faster rate than their predecessors and by the end of the season will be up to four seconds faster than at the first race.
Alongside the normal development on aerodynamics, the rapid improvement of the new hybrid turbo engines is contributing to the leap in performance of the cars. The phenomenon was pointed out by Pirelli’s Paul Hembery, who observed that the the company has to cope with the significant gain in speed in its tyre specifications.
According to JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan, the normal pattern with a refined set of regulations such as we had last season is for teams to find 30 points of downforce across a season, which equates to around a second.
But when you have a new set of regulations, such as there were in 2009 and particularly this year, the gains are bigger and come more quickly. This year Gillan forecasts a gain of 60 points for the leading teams, despite reductions in wind tunnel time due to cost saving measures. “This will decline over the next three years down to about 30 pts a year, as you get the inevitable diminishing returns,” said Gillan.
With new aerodynamic regulations such as we have this year for example, which initially caused significant reduction in rear end downforce, the gains are more significant. It is particularly in the rear end of the car where the teams are finding the gains at the moment, leading to the cars becoming more stable at the back. This should help drivers like Sebastian Vettel, who needs a stable back end of the car to utilise his particular style of driving.
Another important area for the aerodynamics is the closing off of the bodywork, as the teams become more confident on cooling. Ferrari, for example, has tested tighter side pods and engine covers in the past two F1 weekends, with significant gains in performance, as seen yesterday with 3rd fastest time for Alonso.
‘This “shrink wrapped” bodywork helps to energise the floor, where most of an F1 car’s downforce is generated and stabilises the rear wing,’ says Gillan.
But Ferrari has so far proved cautious in using these new parts in qualifying and the race due to worries about cooling. Once that has been sorted the Ferrari will be a lot more competitive in the race.
At the same time major gains are being made on the power units; this is where much of the other two seconds will be found this year.
The manufacturers are improving their engines all the time through modifications which are supposedly to improve reliability. But they are also fixes for teething issues and optimising the units to deliver to their full potential. There are also big gains coming on fuel from the likes of Petronas (Mercedes) Shell (Ferrari) and Total (Renault).
This weekend for example, Total is providing a new fuel for its Renault engined customers as the development race continues on all levels.
With such big gains being made, correlation between the wind tunnel and the track is at even more of a premium this year. This is an area where McLaren and Ferrari lost ground in recent years for example.
Williams has seen impressive results from its aerodynamic updates this season. Most of what they have produced in the wind tunnel has translated into performance on the track, as witnessed by their strong performances here and in Canada.
It is vital to have good correlation because the wind tunnel is typically working six weeks ahead, so if things aren’t working now, you cannot look forward, you have to solve today’s problems first. In that lag, a team loses ground against its rivals in the development race and drops a few rows on the grid.