Inside Line: 2017 is Back to the Future!

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After three years of stagnation where Formula 1 has been dominated by the Mercedes works team, winning all but eight races in the period, many race fans will delight in the shakeup of the rules for this year.

New rules, new chances.

The token system that prevented the other engine manufacturers from making up for their inferior design choices is gone. Tire degradation will be less of an issue with their increased size. And the cars will be faster… five seconds per lap faster according to teams’ estimates.

But how?

A wider body and wider tires add drag. Lower rear wings will produce less downforce. A heavier car will accelerate less fast. What makes it faster, then?

First of all, the engines. While the hybrid engine formula is already three years old, their development and power is increasing more rapidly than before, with HCCI combustion, better turbo design, better energy stores, etc.

Fuel consumption limit has been raised somewhat to 105 kg per hour, that is helpful too and follows the F1 pattern of constant technological improvement.

However what really makes the difference are the dimensional changes.

Wider tires will provide more grip, allowing for shorter braking distances and a higher speed through the corners, which increases the downforce the aerodynamics provide, again raising the speed, shortening the braking distance yet again.

Fatter brakes will allow more stopping power, or more likely, just fail less often when asked to provide maximum braking power – as braking is always limited by grip, not brake properties – unless they fail!

Most important though is the diffuser. Twice as big as before, it will produce a lot more downforce.

All these measures were tested and tried in the past and banned because they made the cars too fast.
Instead of conjuring up yet another new gimmick F1 took no risk and looked at what did work 20 years ago.
It was decided we now need more speed and ‘old’ technologies are back.

The teams estimate that the whole package will produce about 25% more downforce.

But here is the catch: the diffuser is twice as big and accounts for more than the 25% increase on its own!
Hence the rest of the aero must produce less downforce than before.

All aerodynamic measures come at a cost: drag. The more you angle a wing, the more downforce it produces – and also more drag.

But drag and downforce do not build up linearly. On wings at a very shallow angle the drag may be less than 10% of the downforce but it will build up quickly when the angle grows, to a point where it eliminates any gain that could be had from the extra downforce.

The diffuser though uses ground effect. It creates a low pressure area that cannot be filled by air flowing up from below, like on wings, because there is tarmac instead of free air below it. So it does not create a massive updraft like a wing would – and it does not consume the power needed to cause that updraft, too – it has a very good downforce/drag ratio.

As the diffuser provides the lions share of the downforce required, the sidepods, wings etc. can be optimized for low drag rather than high downforce.

When the teams expect the cars to have 25% more downforce it only makes sense to assume they already have lower drag than before – otherwise it would be beneficial to sacrifice some downforce to top speed. That 25% more downforce is the result of that equation – so there must be less drag, despite the wider tires and body.

More downforce and less drag. That is what will make them five seconds per lap faster. This will have an effect on overtaking, of course. Less updraft behind the car means less turbulence, so it will be easier to follow close behind.

Gian Paolo Dallara was worried that the higher speeds would make it harder to overtake – that would be true if the cars were the same as last year, but they definitely aren’t.

On the other hand DRS will be less effective. The rear wing will produce less downforce than before, so there is less to gain to be had from having a section of it fold down. A good thing, as the following cars would be closer anyway.

It will be very interesting to watch how this all works out on the low downforce tracks, like Baku and Monza. Seems like the diffuser produces all the downforce needed for those. The wings will be set very flat indeed.

Then there is Monaco where you simply cannot have too much downforce.

Where last year the majority of tracks were approached with almost Monaco like wing settings, those will now be reserved for the principality – and I bet the gain on downforce will be much more than 25% there; the potential extra downforce from aggressive wing angles left untapped for most tracks, as the diffuser will provide that more efficiently, will be utilized in Monte Carlo’s tight bends.

The cars will be absolutely brutal; we may see drivers drop out from sheer fatigue.

Faster, wider, more aggressive looking and demanding cars, better overtaking – what can possibly spoil it now?

Inside Line Opinion by Bart te Molder