MAY 10, 1999
...and thinking big
FORMULA 1 engineers often dream about running their cars in full-scale windtunnels but such ideas are enormously expensive and to date only Ferrari has the capability to do that - although there is expected to be a 100% rolling road windtunnel at the new McLaren factory.
Aerodynamicists argue that the larger the scale of the tunnel the more accurate the development work can be and there is no doubt that one of the big advantages enjoyed by Williams in the early 1990s was that the team had a 50% scale windtunnel while the other teams were using 33% or 40% facilities.
In theory using a full-scale windtunnel is cheaper than testing in a scaled-down version because it does away with the need to build expensive models. There is also less need to do validation testing. On the other side the costs of running a full-scale windtunnel are huge. One or two of the F1 aerodynamicists argue that windtunnels are soon going to be out of date with the arrival of new computational fluid dynamics software in the years ahead. This will enable engineers to test all their ideas on computer models rather than having to run them in windtunnels.
It was interesting, therefore, that last week Prost Grand Prix took one of its AP02 chassis to the center d'Essais du Fauga-Mauzac, to the south of Toulouse, where the car was put into the F1 windtunnel. In this case, the name F1 is unrelated to the sport. The facility - which is operated by Prost partner ONERA, the French national aerospace research organization - boasts three windtunnels: two "low-speed" tunnels called F1 and F2 and a hypersonic tunnel known as F4.
The F1 windtunnel is usually used for aircraft and is a vast piece of equipment, boasting a test section of 530 sq. ft. in a chamber 11ft high. It can be run at speeds up to 200mph. While this is interesting for F1 engineers, its actual value is limited unless there is a rolling road beneath the car to simulate the complex - and vital - interaction between the car and the track surface.
So why did Prost bother? If it was a public relations exercise it is unlikely that both technical director Bernard Dudot and chief designer Loic Bigois would have been present, so the most likely explanation is that Prost is considering investing in a rolling-road for the tunnel...