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Will New Rules Bring a Return to the Close Racing of the Early 1990s?

Senna, Prost and Schumacher in 1993

Many of the recent technical rule changes enacted by the FIA have been designed to aid an aspect of Formula 1 racing that has grown rather anemic in direct proportion to the aerodynamic sophistication of the cars.  I quick search of YouTube will yield a number of clips from the early 1990s showing the likes of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Michael Schumacher engaged in very close racing indeed.  While the cars they drove were considered slippery in their day, they look positively primitive from an aero perspective now.

As designers have become increasingly adept at finding downforce, the “dirty air” created by the cars’ various wings, winglets, barge boards and diffusers has likewise increased.  Dirty (i.e. turbulent) air, of course, is toxic in an aerodynamic context.  If one car follow another too closely going into a turn, the trailing car will lose downforce on its wings when it encounters the slipstream of the car ahead.

Naturally, losing downforce (and its counterpart, drag) is a big benefit on the straights.  It’s this slipstreaming effect that allows for effective overtaking maneuvers as cars approach braking zones at the end of long straightaways.  But as is generally the case on a racing track, what works to your advantage on the straights can work against you in equal measure in the turns, and vice versa.

To work towards a compromise, and bring back the days of close racing, the FIA has experimented with some rule changes over the past few years. They’ve mandated a decrease in downforce; they’ve introduced KERS; they’ve brought back slick tires; they’ve reduced the size of rear wings; they’ve allowed double diffusers; they’ve outlawed double diffusers; they’ve widened the wheel base; they’ve narrowed the front wheels; they’ve allowed front wings that can be adjusted by the driver during the race; and they’ve outlawed the movable front wings, allowing movable rear wings instead.

Have any of these changes made a difference?  Yes, to an extent, thought not so much that the FIA feels the rules are no longer in need of tweaking.  The movable front wing seemed to have a negligible effect.  The FIA now hopes that the movable rear wing will do the job.  By regulation, the rear wing may only be adjusted when a car is in an overtaking situation.   When a trailing car is within one second of a leading car, the driver of the trailing car may reduce the camber of his wing flap to reduce downforce.  The leading car may not do likewise.

Clearly, this is designed to give the overtaking car an advantage.  The boost given by the KERS system will accentuate this advantage, making the trailing car decidedly quicker for a brief period.  If it seems like a case of stacking the deck, remember, it’s also a case of “what goes around comes around,”  since theoretically all cars will have an equal opportunity to make use of the new system.  More accurately, it’s simply a way of overcoming the side-effects of the inherent aerodynamic efficiencies of a modern Formula 1 car.

There are probably cheaper, less complicated means of achieving the same end.  I, for one, agree with many of the sport’s current crop of drivers, who insist that the best way to create close racing would be to allow a return of ground effects.  Indycars used to employ this technology in a simple way, by allowing venturi ducts in the floors of the chassis.  As I recall, at least 30% of the downforce of the cars came from these venturi ducts.  The beauty of the design was, their efficiency wasn’t much impacted by dirty air, nor did they create much drag.

Since the introduction of the wooden skid plank on the underbodies of F1 cars, however, in 1994, the FIA has maintained a rigid stance against using that part of the chassis as an aerodynamic device.  Perhaps they should give this a rethink.  I rather doubt they will do so in the near future, however.  Given a choice between a simple solution, and a complicated one, the FIA generally eschews simplicity.

There has been much talk about the new golden era of racing, with so much top flight talent currently at the top of the grid, but in my mind it still pales in comparison with some of the battles fought by Senna, Prost, Schumacher, Mansell and Piquet nearly 20 years ago.  Take a look at the embedded clip from 1993, as a random example.

Prost was cool and professorial in the dominant Williams that year, but Senna was nothing short of brilliant in a substandard McLaren.  Both McLaren and Benetton were relegated to using the underpowered Ford V8 that year, at a time when the Renault V10 was the engine to have.  Even so, both Senna and Schumacher generally flattered the McLaren and Benetton, respectively.  The opposite might have been said for Prost that year, in the Williams.

By the way, to Schumacher critics such as Sterling Moss, who insist that the German only appearead to be dominant during his prime because he was generlly paired with inferior team mates, a persual of clips from his Benetton years would be reminder of how quick Schumi was in relation to greats like Senna and Prost, when he had no distinct advantage in equipment.

The Benetton really didn’t come into its own until 1994, but Schmaacher seemed to be a constant fixture on the podiums in 1993.  In fact, when he didn’t finish on the podium it was because he didn’t finish at all.  Remarkably, he had seven DNFs that year, as well as three 3rd place finishes, five in 2nd place, and one win.  It’s no wonder that paddock pundits were already calling him a possible successor to Senna.

While it’s quite possible that Schumi has lost some of his youthful edge, some of Moss’s recent remarks, which I’ll probably address again in another blog post, would seem to be symptomatic of memory loss.

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