Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Risk of Innovation

Tyrrell 019, photo by Sibo
F1 has a lot of nuance to it whether you are talking strategies, driving styles, off track politics, or technical development; and that technical development is mind blowing ; it is an arms race for gaining time. More and more the technical side of F1 has been about aerodynamics. Teams spend vast sums of money to improve car performance in this area. Even items that are not logically geared towards the aerodynamic performance, are in fact geared towards the aerodynamic performance of the car.

Since work on other components like engine development have virtually been eliminated, aerodynamic performance is the be all-end all of F1 performance. Hence, a very large factor in Red Bull's current dominance has been their iconoclast designer and renown  aerodynamist, Adrian Newey.  With engine development frozen, DRS and KERS still in their infancy, spec tires, you have to have top notch aero. This chase has lead to some teams to some interesting concepts, some successful, others not so successful. However, it is the price of looking to be innovative and chase those ever elusive tenths of seconds. We have seen these innovations take root, or be banned from competition or just flop.

Innovation can pay off or it can cost you. When we think of the most recent noteworthy technical innovation, the exhaust blown diffuser, it is not widely talked about that this innovation was pioneered in 1983 by Renault and Jean Claude Migeot. It became the standard in F1, then fell out of favor completely a decade ago with the advent and development of periscope exhausts, before being revived by Adrian Newey in an effort to maximize the downforce generated under the car; the place where most downforce is generated. A huge payoff for Red Bull.  

Then there is the story of Tyrrell (the genesis of the current Mercedes team), a championship winning team with a history of innovation. Tyrrell is probably most remembered for their 6-wheeled F1 car, the P34. However, they had several innovations that have carried over to contemporary F1. Generally speaking, they were all aimed at aerodynamic performance because they were lacking in the areas where the bigger teams dominated: engines and horsepower.

Tyrrell 025, photo by Rainer Nyberg
Before the days of engine freezes and standard engine designs you could overcome some aerodynamic deficiencies via horsepower, and you could be rather competitive this way. However if you did not have a good engine, you had to look towards other avenues to increase your performance...i.e. aerodynamics. In 1990, Tyrell and legendary Harvey Postlethwaite (whom Newey worked for) and Jean Claude Migeot introduce the world of F1 to raised noses, a concept that has been the standard design to varying degrees since 1996. Some of the other innovations from Tyrrell: aerodynamically shaped wishbones (again the concept is standard) in 1996. the notoriously ugly yet effective X wings in 1997 (banned by the FIA in 1998). The payoff was for other teams following the innovations. The Tyrrell name disappeared from F1 after they were purchased by British American Tobacco.

Williams FW26, photo by BMW AG
In 2004, Williams introduced a walrus-nose shaped F1 car, the FW26. This was a different and radical take on the raise nosed concept. The car was an acquired taste visually, but the aim was the same: achieve more airflow to the underside of the car to gain that aerodynamic advantage. However, Williams had what teams like Tyrell did not have, one of the best engines of the V10 era, the P84. Williams and driver Juan Pablo Montoya were favorites for the title. However, the design turned out to be a flop. The concept proved to be more heavy then anticipated, which led to instability and to car setup issues. They went with a more conventional design later in the 2004 which culminated in the team's sole victory at the end of the season. Williams took a risk with a innovative design after nearing winning the driver's championship with Montoya in 2003 and they failed. Williams have never been the same since. 

In late 2005, Renault introduced the Tuned Mass Damper (TMD), a movable weight in the car that helped the car perform better over bumps and keep a consistent contact with the track, improving grip and aerodynamic performance. The development of this technology helped them secure the 2005 title as well as being an important component to their 2006 championship winning car the R26.  This technology was banned in controversial fashion in 2006. However it's performance was subsequently replicated by the J damper, a standard arrangement in F1 introduced by McLaren.  

In 2010, McLaren introduced the "F-Duct" on their MP4-25. The design used a small snorkel mounted in front of the driver that channeled air through a duct in the cockpit and towards the rear wing. Changes in the pressure in the duct reduced the aerodynamic drag of the wing allowing for an extra 6 mph on a straight away, a poor man's but very ingenious DRS.  Although a legal component, it was banned for 2011. McLaren had a very competitive package but could not capitalize to a win the title. 

Now to go full circle with exhaust blown diffusers. In 2011, Renault introduced a radical front exit exhaust (FFE) on their R31. Instead of a "traditional" periscope or exiting into the diffuser, the exhaust exited below the sidepod inlets. The aim was to blow exhaust gases under the floor and around the sidepods.Where Red Bull got it right, Renault admits they go it wrong. They admit they could not really develop it as the season progressed and it was too complicated for them to consistently generate downforce at all the tracks. Renault even experimented with going to a more traditional layout (like Williams in 2004) but they could not make that work either. After a very promising 2010 season, they put a lot of effort in 2011 and came up snake eyes from a design point of view. 

Nevertheless all of this gets us to the point. Sometimes you get it right and it changes the way the sport operates and moves it forward. Sometimes you innovations get banned because it is too clever or just plain illegal. Sometimes you just get it wrong and you have a terrible and useless design. However, in it's purist form, isn't that what innovation is all about; taking risks, trying to be quicker, advance the technology? I much rather see teams try something innovative and bump up against the rules or truly make an technological advancement than the push towards standardization.   

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