Are Aerodynamics really F1’s big problem?

I’m just watching a fantastic Australian Grand Prix, at the moment Lewis is chasing the Renault of Robert Kubica to try and make it a McLaren 1-2 finish.

And yet there’s been a lot of worry about the ‘sceptical’ of F1 being diminished, particularly after the dull season opener in Bahrain.  One of the things you’ll hear is that the blame lays squarely with the aerodynamics of a modern F1 car.

The argument is that the aero components of the cars provide so much downforce that the cars performance is completely reliant on it.  What’s more, with the car’s taking so much of it’s performance from the airflow, the wake of disturbed air that the car’s leave behind them then destroys the efficiency of the aero of any car following behind.  These two things conspire to make it that much harder for cars to run close to each other and give us all the close running and overtaking that we all enjoy.

But I’m not so sure… of course the aero parts make a huge contribution to the fantastic performance of modern grand prix cars, but I’m not so sure it’s the sole cause of the problem. 

A couple of weeks ago Frank Dernie the ex-Toyota aerodynamicist posted some interesting thoughts on James Allens blog about this very problem.  He offers a counter argument that the lack of overtaking is more to do with the mechanical grip of the tyres and the lack of mistakes by the drivers.  And I think he has a point.

“None of the facts in the last 30 years support the theory that grippy tyres and low downforce promote overtaking. If reducing downforce was the answer, then 1983 would have shown it, since we lost 80% of the aero efficiency in the 1983 rules, ” he says. “But there was no more overtaking than in 1982.

“Here’s the proof – if downforce prevented overtaking, historically the races with the fewest overtaking manoeuvres would have been the wet races, where maximum downforce settings are used… Why anybody still thinks a reduction in downforce is the solution when faced with the facts has been a consistent mystery and frustration to me.

“Too much difference in grip between on and off line is a major factor, caused by sticky tyres (lots of mechanical grip)

“Braking distances into slow corners are far too short, caused by sticky tyres (too much mechanical grip).

“The other reason why it is hard to overtake in current F1 is that the fastest cars are at the front with slower ones behind, so there is no reason to expect overtaking unless a driver makes a mistake.

“In this case overtaking will only ever happen following mistakes, which are rare nowadays with super sticky tyres, big runoff areas and semi automatic gearboxes.

“A few things have worked in the past.

– One set of tyre for the race worked, but Michelin’s tyres were much more suited to this than Bridgestone, so it was changed since Bridgestone were to become the only supplier.

– Single lap qualifying. Often fast cars qualified out of pace order, making overtaking likely. It was unpopular since it was “not fair”.

“When there was overtaking in the past it was mainly due to the low grip of the tyres leaving a wide racing line and long braking distances combined with cars much more difficult to drive due to low grip and manual gearboxes, hence more mistakes.

“We will never fix it whilst so many people ignore the facts and fixate on long held views which are completely at variance with the data.

“The problem is that quite a few influential people, like drivers and ex-drivers in the media, do not want the changes which certainly worked in the past. The drivers hate hard tyres, despite them probably being 50% solution, and the engineers love semi-automatic gearboxes, the other 50%…

Most overtakes took place in the past when a driver made a mistake due to poor grip or missed a gear.”

It may not be a popular point of view, but you only have to look at todays Grand Prix – a very good race by the way! – to see that all the interest has come from either mistakes by the drivers or from peoples tyres giving different levels of performance through the race and changing weather. 

Whilst I don’t think there’s a single fix, the tracks themselves have a good part to play as well for example, I can’t see why the pundits have this fascination with aerodynamics being such a huge problem.  As Frank says, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support it.

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