TechTalk: Why is the Williams FW41 so slow?

What is so interesting and fun about Formula 1, and racing in general, is this: no matter how much you talk up a new car’s design and its expected success, or how much funding the team has, or how famous and successful the leadership is, you still have to ultimately go to the track and have your speed recorded against the competition.

In the end the proof is in the lap times. Period. End of story.

For the Williams team, as everyone on the planet knows, this year has been a disaster, but what everyone is asking is: What happened to make things go so wrong with a team with such a history of success and such a deep knowledge base?

Let’s explore some possibilities. Intertwined within this short analysis are facts and theories. The facts are just plain rules of nature, recorded performance such as lap time deltas and visual evidence. The theories are based on the use of these facts combined with common sense. You be the judge and have at it to proffer your own conclusions.

To get our heads around what we are talking about when we examine lack of performance, a tenth of a second on an average length F1 race track is equal to about 20 feet, or 6 meters per lap. So, if a certain car was a full second slower than the top speed, that is ten tenths or 200 feet. Two seconds off and we are talking about 400 feet. Every lap, the slowest teams lose approximately 400 feet to the leaders in many races.

How does that happen? The speed through the turns mostly dictates overall speed on most race courses. Speed gained or lost here is carried all the way around the track. If all else is more or less equal, if the Williams cars power is similar to say, Mercedes which it is because they use Mercedes-AMG engines, then we can assume most of the deficit is turn speed. This is a simple deduction. They say the same thing. So, why?

Wind Tunnels

Here are some interesting facts. One, F1 cars are designed using CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) design software and scale models tested in wind tunnels. You cannot track test or tunnel test a full-size car that hasn’t been built yet. It’s very similar to aeroplanes, you ultimately have to ‘fly’ the car.

Wind tunnels do not replicate what happens with a race car, or an aeroplane for that matter. That is because in the real world, air does not flow at high speed over a race car that is sitting still. A race car drives at a high speed through relatively still air. The difference between the two is substantial. Moving air has a lot of energy, still air has none

CFD software seeks to replicate or correlate, what happens in the wind tunnel versus what happens at the race track and that is very difficult to do accurately, even for a top NASA engineer. And, every different shape, and they are all a little or a lot different in F1, produces different results. Each CFD programming must be tailored specifically to each shape.

Perceived parity

In the engineering of Formula 1 race cars, nearly everyone involved in the design and setup had the same or similar education. Every team tries to hire well educated, experienced and knowledgeable personnel, including Williams.

So, when we see such a huge difference in performance, we have to ask, is the education flawed? Is something missing? If there were so much perfect knowledge and complete engineering education, then wouldn’t all of the cars have nearly the same performance?

There are two things that make a race car go fast. One is power, and we already noted that Williams have title winning Merc-power at their disposal.

The other thing is mechanical grip, something we don’t hear much about in most discussions on F1 engineering. In fact, I would speculate that most mechanical engineers in the top flight are outnumbered 100 to 1 by aero engineers.

If aero depends on higher speeds to make more downforce and grip, and the speed difference we see is mostly associated with the slower speed turns, then can aero be the culprit, or is there a problem with mechanical grip?

The fact is, there are some things missing in the current level of university teaching about vehicle dynamics. Even among the few mechanical engineers tasked with the job of perfecting mechanical grip, most, if not all, of them lack the essential tools they need to get the job done. It is generally known that all, or most, of the budget is spent on aero development.

Professed problem

Williams claim that a problem with the new car is that the aero doesn’t work well when the chassis is in yaw. Let’s examine that for the moment.

How much actual yaw do we see in a Formula 1 car? Not much. The tires and wheels are turned to the air much more than the chassis and those are turned more in a tighter, and slower, turn than a wider faster turn. Is the aero design that sensitive?

What if Williams has a problem with mechanical grip? Do they even have the resources, or knowledge on board to first of all recognize they have this problem, and secondly, do they have the personnel and tools to fix it even if they know about it?

Limited opportunity

Here is the sad truth. A race car, like the 2018 Williams FW41, is probably… make that: precisely… designed for maximum aero efficiency. Once the car is designed and produced, there may be little the engineers can do to correct a mechanical grip deficiency due to lack of space and/or parts designed into the structure itself.

That could also be true of a chassis shape that is designed wrong for aero. The wings, no problem, they can be changed at will.

If there is no mechanism to correct the problem, then the team has to wait until the following year and produce a new chassis that can provide the design that will fix the mechanical grip or aero problem or a combination of both. And that is taking the huge leap of assuming they have identified the real problem(s) with this car.

Is it really Aero?

For those hanging on the word of Williams that it is an aero deficiency, then I say, modifications were supposedly made to aero components just before the summer break and after that break that had little or no effect whatsoever. The car was still mostly bottom of the speed charts all year. There was been little or no improvement.

Some may argue that there is a lack of talent with the 2018 Williams drivers’ abilities. That may indeed be a factor, but Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin made it into F1 by having success at lower levels. They didn’t arrive on the scene out of nowhere.

Even considering the ‘buy-in’ or pay-driver factor of having millions of dollars in support, they still had previous experience and success in the lower leagues. They didn’t just start learning how to drive. [Note: Stroll did a good job in his first season with the team in 2017 when they had a reasonable package.]

In my opinion, even Lewis Hamilton would have difficulty driving the Williams FW41 anywhere near as fast as he drives his Mercedes W09. Even a known fast driver like Robert Kubica couldn’t make it work.

And, if anyone still thinks the driver is a big influence in F1, then Alonso would be a good argument against that line of thinking. As hard as he tried, he could not reach the podium in a car that was just not capable.

What not to talk about

A long-held tenet in racing says that a team never talks about the part of the car that makes it fast, or slow for that matter. If you win because you really have more power, then you talk about how much downforce you have. If indeed the car is faster through the turns, you talk about how much power you have. This has rivals searching in the wrong places for improvements. An old ‘tactic’ well used in just about every racing category.

If Williams spoke of and defined the real source of their problems, would not every one of the backmarker teams then re-evaluate their car designs in that same way?

It is indeed smart not to talk about exactly what makes you fast or slow, only time will tell if it is the former or the latter for Williams in 2019.

The Big Question: Can Williams identify the problems they have and can fix it for the next season? 

About Bob Bolles

Bob is a U.S. based avid Formula 1 fan and race car engineer who reached out to this me to shoot the breeze, after an hour long phone call about everything F1 related ( and that was not long enough) and along the way we agreed my site could use some technical input. I agreed but for me to understnad too! In other words: TechTalk for dummies.

For the record, Bob is a long-time race car engineer, consultant, inventor, author and manufacturer. He began his racing career in the early 1990’s and a lot has happened since that time.

He has consulted with racers all over the world through the use of his racing setup software he developed in 1996, from 2002 to 2018 as Senior Technical Editor of Circle Track magazine, through his books on racing technology, and now as a contributor to Speedway Illustrated.

He has personally helped to redesign and setup just about every type of race car including every division racing on circle tracks as well as hybrid formula road racing cars.

Through his long career, he has educated literally thousands of racers in the art of race car engineering and setup. His inventions and methodology have improved the knowledge base for all of racing.

Bob’s banner to his courses appear at the foot of posts and I hope to convince him to contribute on a regular basis. Meanwhile, be nice because engineering (like most arts) is a contentious subject and let’s together grow the technical reportage and discussion on this site. In other words, hopefully going beyond Techtalk for Dummies!