Features - Technical
FEBRUARY 1, 1996
The future design trends in Formula 1
BY JOE SAWARD
As the 1996 new cars arrive and we see that they all look very similar because of the laws of physics and the way the regulations are phrased, one is left to wonder the kind of cars which Formula 1 engineers might be building today if the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile allowed them more freedom.
We would have turbocharged engines capable of perhaps 2000 horsepower and engine response would be instantaneous. These would be mated to Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) systems, capable of putting all that power onto the road in a completely efficient manner. The CVT would act as a highly-developed traction-control system. If the driver put his foot on the accelerator pedal, the car would react in a stunning fashion. Conventional tyres would not work for long and so super-grippy would have been developed.
With such speeds and forces power-steering, power-assisted braking and ABS would be essential. There would also be lasers reading the road just ahead, preparing the cars for every bump so that the full ground-effect aerodynamics would suck the cars to the road in the corners - probably with the use of a fan to create a vacuum under the car. These would be computer controlled so that they did not cause excessive drag on the straights.
The art of driving would have entered a completely new sphere in which the brain would play a larger part. Cuckooned inside this machine in a pressurized G-suit, similar to those used by astronauts, the driver would find himself thinking more about tactics to overtake than about keeping the car on the road.
Yes. It's a lovely idea, isn't it? But completely impractical. Where would the races be held? Today's tracks would have become dangerously outdated unless it was possible to incorporate hundreds of metres of run-off - and imagine what the conservationists of Monza or the Ferrari owners of Monte Carlo would make of that...
There would have to be a completely new generation of racing circuits and, because of land prices and environmentalists, these would have to be located far away from the big cities. This - and the fact that run-off areas would be so huge - would dissuade even the keenest fans from attending the races. Television would be the only way to follow the action...
It is perhaps understandable that the FIA has chosen to restrict the performance of the cars. Whatever the case the restrictions have gradually wiped out any chance for designers to leap from one technological breakthrough to another. In the past Colin Chapman and Gordon Murray able to let their minds wander but today F1 engineers work to develop rather than to find a breakthrough.
You might think that the design of F1 cars has not changed much since the Tyrrell 019, but if you take a look back at some old pictures you will be surprised to see just how cumbersome the machinery appeared to be in those days. Progress has been subtle, ideas being refined.
In the jargon-filled world of the design office these days the buzzword is "optimization" - getting the most out of what one is allowed. The basic architecture of a F1 car is dictated by the rule book. The fuel tank must be behind the driver and in front of the engine. The gearbox hangs on the back and the radiators are condemned to the sidepods. Wings are severely restricted. Aerodynamicists will tell you that they can produce interesting ideas like the McLaren "mid-ship wing" seen this season but that these do not actually gain a great deal. They produce much the same downforce as normal wings. There only real purpose is that they grab headlines.
Most electronic systems are banned, although there remain "grey areas" because the rule states only that the driver must drive the car "alone and unaided".
So what can the bright spark designers do in the future?
For one of the big manufacturers involved in F1 there is no such thing as a definitive engine. Improvements are built in to each unit which rolls off the production lines. Bigger changes are made by way of a new phase engine - most manufacturers have Evolution 2s or Phase 3s - which traditionally begin to appear in the mid-season. Engines grow constantly smaller and lighter, the centre of gravity gets lower and the running speeds higher. With the current materials available the only way an engine can rev faster is if everything is made smaller and lighter. But when you consider that the engines now have around 250 revolutions per second and connecting rods are subjected to loads of 3 tons on every single rev you can see that conventional materials are not always able to cope with the strains. Ford last year worked out that if a connecting rod let go of its piston at maximum speed there would be sufficient energy for the piston to travel upwards for over 100 metres!
As a result of this, a great deal of engine research is focussed on new materials. Engine manufacturers are unwilling to talk about what they are doing but there are more and more exotic metal matrix composites and ceramics.
Metal matrix composites are advanced alloys. Metals are mixed with one another and with other materials to create lighter but strong parts. Unstable metals such as the featherweight lithium can thus be tamed, despite the fact that it is extremely unstable in its purest form.
Ceramic engine parts offer enormous potential advantages over metals. They are light, strong and enormously heat resistant. The problem with ceramics is that they have traditionally been brittle and difficult to shape. As a result they are prone to sudden stress failures
Research into different ceramic powder mixes is never-ending; while there is parallel work on ceramic-coating of carbon composite materials; ceramic-matrix materials (which involves mixtures of ceramic, metal and even such exotic things as gemstones). The problem is that such research is time-consuming and hugely expensive.
In theory, if a suitable ceramic can be found, an engine might no longer need the same cooling as is now necessary and, in F1, a reduction in radiator size could offer considerable advantages to the aerodynamics - and thus the performance - of a car.
At the moment, however, this work is too expensive for anyone other than F1 giants such as Renault - and even they only do the work in technical partnership with specialist companies such as Aerospatiale (advanced materials) and Messier castings.
At the moment engine internals are subjected to a variety of heat or vacuum treatments which improve their performance. One such treatment - now commonly used - is the implantation of nitrogen ions in the metal - which hardens the metal without the kind of distortion which heat treatment can cause.
In the sphere of engine electronics there are still many gains to be found, particularly in terms of the speed that computers can operate. If, as many believe, superconductors can speed up electronics, engines can develop further.
With the size of fuel tanks now being free there are two distinct schools of thought about rear end aerodynamics. A short transverse gearbox keeps the overall weight of a car down, but reduces the effectiveness of the rear wing as the airflow is not being used as effectively as it might with a longitudinal gearbox. A long gearbox makes the car heavier and more prone to chassis twisting, but it allows a much better airflow. With aerodynamics being so important many teams are switching to longitudinal gearboxes in 1996 and are looking at composites materials to make the casings light and stiff. The internals of a gearbox could be made in other materials, but the costs and difficulty involved for the weight saved - particularly now that the weight limit has risen - is simply not worth it.
The other decisive engine auxiliaries are the radiators. These can only handle so much air at a given speed and thus must be designed in such a way as to slow the air. A lot of research into this is currently being done using Computational Fluid Dynamics - computer modelling which offers an quick and easy insight into air flows patterns which a few years ago were only possible to get with endless track testing.
The more effective the radiators, the more effective the sidepods can be to produce all-important aerodynamic downforce.
HIGH-SPEED HYDRAULICS AND ELECTRONICS
Although a lot of the electronic systems are now banned, the F1 engineers know what is possible using traction control and active suspension - such systems are still tested by the teams on occasion. They use data from these tests to set targets at which to aim with similar systems which do not utilise banned electronic inputs. How can one have traction-control without wheel-speed sensors or active suspension without being able to measure to movement of the wheels over bumps in the road? The answer is that one can study data from tests and then programme certain patterns into onboard computers so that they do not need external input to give the driver a significant percentage of the ideal performance. This is real "grey area" work because it is very much a matter of opinion as to how far one can use such systems before the driver is no longer "alone and unaided".
Most of the current F1 engineers seem to agree that this is the area in which we can expect most development in the immediate future as they optimise systems and move gradually towards the theoretical limits. The FIA is doing a good job to police this sort of thing but there is still opportunity for the less scrupulous to hide away illegal systems in their software.
So we can expect to see such interesting systems as mechanical active suspension systems, which react not to data from the wheels but from the onboard electronics. The Hydrolink suspension tried unsuccessfully this year by Tyrrell is moving along that path. It will be back.
Traditional suspensions are not likely to advance very much as teams can already build entirely composite suspensions. This is complicated and with the raising of the weight limits is not as vital as perhaps once it was.
The older engineers argue that there is a lot more to be gained by matching the chassis with the tyres. At the moment tyre development is not necessary as Goodyear supplies everyone and to improve the tyres too much would only add to the costs. Some teams, however, are beginning to talk to other tyre companies and if a tyre war begins the current equilibrium will be gone, tyre costs will sky-rocket. The FIA is already considering appointing a single tyre supplier to avoid the leap in lap times which would occur.
All the top F1 designers agree that there are possibilities of development in aerodynamics, because of the extremely complex nature of air flow under the cars. They are split over how this should be achieved. Some argue that teams need bigger and better - and more expensive - windtunnels, while others are beginning to doubt the wisdom of trying to design and service such facilities, believing that they have enough to do to design and build racing cars to have to worry about such exotic projects as 100% windtunnels with rolling roads. They argue that these are too expensive and too complicated to be worth the trouble and say that it is better to find technology partners in aerospace who have good tunnels and help them to modify them to meet F1 specification.
Other engineers feel that there may be more that they can learn about aerodynamics from Computational Fluid Dynamics, using computer models and known information to test new ideas. This is a lot faster and cheaper than building and running half-scale models. Whatever the case any computer testing would have to be verified later in windtunnels.
The understanding of what F1 chassis actually do is another area where many engineers think they still have a lot to learn and that they may find answers with Computational Fluid Dynamics. If one understands how a chassis reacts, they argue, one can find improvements. As a result some of the top teams have established research departments with theoretical vehicle dynamicists using enormous amounts of data they have gathered to better understand the dynamics of the cars and dream up ways of simulating the effects using computer models.
Another area of improvement in chassis work has been the improvements in recent years in quality control and proper lifting of parts. Some designers like Ferrari's John Barnard believe that the best way to improve reliability is to design as few parts as possible, combining the functions of different parts. This is an interesting philosophy but tends to make production difficult and complicates day-to-day maintenance.
A lot of work has also gone into analysis of composite stresses and strains with a new profession - the Finite Element Analyst - coming into F1. This is part of a trend which is expected to continue as more and more research scientists move into the sport and fewer and fewer of the old mechanical engineers are needed as every department becomes increasingly specialist.
WATCH OUT FOR THE RULE MAKERS
It is inevitable that as engineers make progress, so the governing body will have to dream up ways of stopping progress, defining "grey areas" and closing loopholes in the regulations. If the engine manufacturers make breakthroughs with ceramics and the performance leaps forward, there are bound to be restrictions placed on engine development - currently an area where there is still relative freedom.
Some of the technology now being investigated is ground-breaking and will find a use in the automotive world, but most of it is already known, handed down to the F1 engineers by the automobile companies or aerospace boffins.
As a result the most relevant F1 research for car makers today is being done in the realms of safety. That is perhaps worth reflecting on when F1 crows that it is the most advanced form of motor racing in the world...