Both Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso have been lamenting publicly lately that the title race is all but over. Sebastian Vettel’s commanding win seemed to put the championship hopes of his rivals even farther out of reach. Perhaps the FIA was of a like mind when they first got the notion of revising (or “clarifing”) the rule on off-throttle exahust blown diffusers, which will be banned, for all intents and pruposes, beginning with the next race meeting at Silverstone.
A number of teams on the grid this year have approached the off-throttle exhaust concept with varying degrees of ingenuity. It’s widely thought that the most effective designs have been deployed by Red Bull and Renault. Renault’s version is the most radical, using front mounted outlets which channel hot gas from nearly the front of the car’s sidepods back towards the diffuser. The channeled air manages to create a significant amount of added downforce.
Of course, even with their exhaust system, the Renault is still off the pace of the front runners. The pace continues to be set by the Red Bulls, which is to say, the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel. Has the FIA made an early projection that Vettel is about to wrap up the title before the season is half over?
Such dominance tends to make the latter part of a season anti-climactic, and, let’s face it, part of the rationale of the rule changes of the past couple of years has been to encourage more parity between teams. So it’s not unheard of for the FIA to tweak the rules to help the show. On the other hand, they usually wait for the season to end, and enact the changes for the following year.
Red Bull’s design guru Adrian Newey seems rightly peeved at this turn of events. Said Newey to the BBC, “We’ve got a regulation change, let’s face it. How that is going to affect us compared to the others is difficult to tell. Lotus Renault, they’re the ones who have clearly designed their car around the exhausts, so they I would imagine must be concerned. We designed our car around the exhaust in as much as we had the exhaust solution that you see on the car from very early on in the research of RB7.”
Newey was referring to the fact that the FIA have claimed that they’re not changing the rules, but are merely implementing a “clarification.” Right.
Newey has also revealed, in part, why Red Bull’s deployment of the off-throttle exhaust system has been so successful: because it’s integral to the design concept of the car, rather than just being an afterthought upgrade. That’s the standard Newey modus operandi.
Will the removal of the system seriously impair the performance of the Red Bulls and the Renaults? Said Newey, “We’ve never taken it off before and we don’t know how that is going to affect us compared to our direct competitors. I think probably that Ferrari and Mercedes will be less affected than we are, McLaren may also be less affected. We designed and develop the car around it the others fitted it basically for the first race.”
Naturally, with no in-season testing, it’s difficult to assess the effect of the changes until they’re actually deployed for the upcoming race. This highlights one of the basic problems of the current in-season ban on testing.
“We’ve done some simulation,” said Newey about the running the car without off-throttle exhaust, “but we haven’t actually run it on the track yet and we don’t know how much it will affect the balance of the car. That’s where simulation tends to fall down as you need a real car going round a real track with a real driver.”
Personally, I’m against implementing rules “clarifications” mid-season, unless it’s for safety’s sake. On the other hand, if the FIA insists on tweaking (i.e. changing) the rules this way, then they should repeal or revise the in-season ban on testing, so that the teams can have sufficient chance to work out solutions to the technical issues that result from the changes.
As for the complaints of Hamilton and Alonso, considering that a wild card awaits all the major teams at Silverstone, it might be too early to be planning a concession speech just yet.