Formula One introduces its most major changes yet. Is the series ready for it?
The green flag is officially being waved as the 2014 Formula 1 season gets underway in Australia. With it comes more questions than answers, as teams continue to struggle with barrage of aero and mechanical puzzles brought forth with the new regulations.
The first preseason test at Jerez was an opportunity for teams to test the design and powerplant/drivetrain changes, but as we saw, there was an insurmountable amount of work that the four days just couldn’t solve. Teams that were typically putting in over 100 laps in previous seasons were having trouble getting out of the garage. At the end of the first day, Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen logged the most laps (31) with a fastest time of 1:27.104. In total, just 93 laps were completed by all teams combined – none at competitive speeds. Comparatively, in 2013, Paul di Resta drove his Force India to a fastest time of 1:20.343 over 89 laps.
More alarming was four-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel’s output of just 11 laps in his Red Bull Renault RB10 over that same four day period.
Bahrain testing was notably more positive as teams were able to solve crippling reliability issues, and the Mercedes and Ferrari powerplants showed their strength over the defending champion Renaults. German-powered cars took the top spot in all eight rounds, followed by Ferrari with seven top-three finishes. Renault struggled once again with performance woes, finishing among the top five only five times, including a lone finish in third.
If anything made itself clear, the new V6 turbocharged engines were proving to be more difficult than teams originally suspected.
Engine configuration changes are not uncommon in the sport. There was the exclusion of turbocharged powerplants in 1989, then the drop from 12 cylinders to 10 in 2005, followed by the latest eight-cylinder engines in 2006. The KERS Kinetic Energy Recovery System brought electric power to the fray in 2009, and two years later the Drag Reduction System, or DRS, was introduced.
This season encompasses the technical challenges of each those changes and more. We may be witnessing the wildest revamp the sport has seen perhaps since Colin Chapman’s introduction of aerodynamics on the Lotus 49B in 1968.
Engine and Transmission
The new V6 turbocharged units have undergone development for close to two years. Dropping two cylinders is an immense challenge in itself, but the rev limit has also been reduced 3,000 rpms to 15,000 and overall output has dropped to 600 horsepower from 750 last year. Adding a turbocharging unit requires a total redesign of the interior componentry due to the change in heat, fuel/air and compression ratio and the added torque that passes through the entire unit, which now includes an eight-forward-speed gearbox compared to the previous seven. The result is an engine of equal performance, but one that is also harder to tame from the driver’s perspective, which will make for a greater number of challenges on corner exits.
The number of engines per season has also been reduced from eight to five, while gearing ratios for all eight cogs must be determined prior to the season, with one adjustment allowed during the championship.
Energy Recovery System (ERS)
The previous KERS system has been essentially redesigned from the ground up. It still utilizes energy regenerated from brake friction via an MGU-K unit (Motor Generator Unit-Kinetic), but the 2014 ERS also adds a heat-powered exhaust turbine (MGU-H for Heat) for 160 extra horsepower for 33 seconds around the track - up from the six second, 80 horsepower boost from last year. The entire unit must weigh no less than 145 kg, and the larger, heavier battery pack sits within the 100 kg fuel cell, which is approximately 60 kg smaller than last year to maximize fuel efficiency.
A game-changer in itself, the new ERS unit will no longer be controlled by the driver via his steering wheel. Instead, the team behind the pit wall will strategically enable the system during each lap at their discretion.
Weight and Aerodynamics
Because of the increased weight of the engine and drivetrain, the minimum weight of the car has also been raised from 624 kg (1,375 lbs.) to 690 (1,521 lbs.).
What’s more, aerodynamics – said to be F1’s most valuable and determining component to success – have also been reduced. Starting up front, the wing loses a dramatic 15 cm in width to sit lesser than the spread of the front tires, which reduces downforce while increasing drag.
From an aesthetics perspective, nose design has been a great deal of debate in recent years, and this one is no different. Some might argue it has reached its peak this year. Engineers have been forced to work around a regulation that sees maximum nose heights fall from 55 cm to just 18, primarily for driver safety in the event of a side-on collision. The result is a vast interpretation of designs aimed at minimizing the aerodynamic costs and overall performance of the car. Among the variations, three main nose designs have emerged:
The ‘anteater’ design appears to be the most popular among teams. From the nose, a small extension stretches downward and beyond the front wing. The general idea is that the extension meets safety and height regulations while reducing the negative aerodynamic affects from the added material.
The ‘vacuum’ nose appears on the Ferrari F14 T and Mercedes W05 and uses some aerodynamic aspects of the previous step-nose. It covers the most real estate in terms of material, making it completely active in terms of downforce compared to the other designs.
Lastly, the “twin tusk” nose design, most evident on the Lotus E23, is the most radical interpretation of the new regulations. The middle of the nose is essentially empty, allowing air to pass straight to the floor and ground effects for maximum aerodynamics. The wing is held up by “tusks,” which extend from either side of the main nosecone and downward to meet regulation height requirements.
At the rear of the car, aerodynamics have also been influenced. Previously, the exhaust was placed on both sides of the bodywork to optimize downforce via exhaust-blown (Coanda) diffusers. The 2014 regulations stipulate a single exit exhaust at the mid tail of the car, and any diffusers have been deemed illegal. The spoiler’s lower support beam has also been removed to eliminate exhaust effects, while the DRS slot gap has been flattened and increased for additional slip when the system is engaged.
In total, aerodynamic downforce is reduced by as much as 20 per cent, which will likely have a negative effect on cornering speed, but alternatively, should translate to straight-line speeds faster than previous years.
The cause-and-effect relationship of each of these new components with one another have challenged engineers to find the best performance with no reference from which to draw. Each reaction could have a completely unknown set of consequences, as we saw during testing. There is still concern of high failure rates at this first race in Melbourne, and those threats could easily carry on through the first few rounds as teams continue to understand the technology. The results could make for one of the most exciting and unpredictable F1 seasons in years.
Surely, the double points prize at the final round in Abu Dhabi will be an exclamation point on the season, which makes a strong start to 2014 that much more vital.