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Red Bull mechanics push Sebastian Vettel’s car during the final day of pre-season testing at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, Sunday, March 2, 2014. (Hasan Jamali/AP Photo)
Red Bull mechanics push Sebastian Vettel’s car during the final day of pre-season testing at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, Sunday, March 2, 2014. (Hasan Jamali/AP Photo)

Motorsports

F1 teams face an uphill battle with decreased downforce Add to ...

Although there has been much talk about the loss of downforce on Formula One cars due to the new regulations introduced for 2014, the changes won’t have a big impact on the drivers.

Essentially, the guys behind the wheel still work with the tools the engineers give them. Their job every year is to drive them on razor’s edge at dizzying speeds.

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“I think that’s always the case,” said Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg.

Although the drivers will push as hard as they can, it's obvious that they will have less to work with this year after the new regulations took away about 10 percent of the downforce available.

“You’re always looking to drive to the limit of the grip you have available. The change for this year is that our potential maximum grip level has been reduced, because of the loss in downforce and also the changes to the tire compounds.”

Finding out who has the right stuff in 2014 begins Sunday when the 19-race F1 season gets underway with the Australian Grand Prix (1:55 a.m. ET on TSN). The cars will have lower noses, smaller front wings and fewer aerodynamic elements at the rear, as well as a new exhaust note thanks to the 1.6-litre turbocharged V-6 engine introduced this year.

There’s no doubt the lower downforce will make it tough to find grip and match last year’s pace. The biggest reduction in downforce comes at the back of the car with the loss of blown exhaust and the seemingly insignificant “beam wing” between the upper wing and diffuser low down.

With the beam wing gone in the middle, the diffuser and the two-element wing are now too far apart to work together as a team.

“Each of them produced downforce in their own right; however, if you could get the airflow from each of them to influence each other and them all to work together you had a much more powerful unit producing more overall downforce,” said Gary Anderson, former F1 technical director with Jordan Grand Prix, Stewart Grand Prix, and Jaguar Racing.

Add the banning of “blown exhaust,” where the hot gas coming from the engine was directed through the diffuser to create downforce, and things can get tricky when drivers are looking for rear grip to accelerate.

“There has been a big change in downforce levels at the rear of the car with the loss of exhaust blowing,” Rosberg said.

“This is most obvious when you get back on the power, because this is when the exhaust blowing was most powerful and we have much higher levels of torque this year.”

At the front, the new lower nose changes the way the air flows through the car, which has a knock-on effect all the way to the rear of the chassis.

“The most important thing on the front of an F1 car is to have as little blockage as possible behind the front wing to allow the front wing to work efficiently and to get as much mass airflow travelling as fast as possible underneath the chassis between the front wheels,” Anderson said.

“This airflow is then presented to the leading edge of the underfloor allowing the diffuser at the rear of the car to do its job and pull the airflow through under the car. In doing this, the airflow is again speeded up creating downforce.”

Behind the nose, a 15-centimetre narrower front wing was brought in to help reduce the risk of it touching another car’s rear tires, which is great from a safety point of view. On the other hand, the smaller wing makes managing the airflow, especially channelling it around the tires, more difficult.

To make matters worse, all of this gets magnified when the wheels are turned as a car takes corners.

But again, it’s the same for everyone and the outfits that can figure out a better solution to the new regulations will give their drivers a car that manages the airflow in a way that helps the front bite into corners while allowing the rear tires to get the power down as early and efficiently as possible when the drive exits the turn.

“Ideally the centre of aerodynamic pressure – the point on the car where all the aerodynamic forces meet up and push down on the car – needs to move slightly forward the more steering lock is applied,” Anderson said.

“All the teams strive to get an aerodynamic balance that moves slightly rearwards as the speed increases. This gives the driver more front grip in low- and medium-speed corners where the cars normally understeer [when the front of the car wants to keep going straight] and it promotes a slight understeer in high speed turns which gives the driver more confidence that he knows what the car is going to do – very few drivers like high-speed oversteer [where the back of the car wants to swing around].”

Technically Speaking

Getting air to go around the front tire – and not back onto it – is important for two reasons. Airflow over the top of the tire creates lift – the opposite of downforce – and making it go around reduces the amount of turbulence coming off the front wheel that can disrupt the clean air flowing under the nose and between the wheels.

As the season progresses, the teams will likely be working hard on finding ways to manage the turbulent airflow created by the open front wheel and tire by focusing on areas such as the outer part of the front wing and the front wing end plates, and the turning vanes on the outer front corner of the sidepod.

By the Numbers

While the changes to the cars removed an estimated 10 per cent of the downforce from the cars, determining the effect on the cornering force that helps keep the car on the track in turns is a bit more complicated. That’s because downforce does not increase in a linear manner, so the amount changes as the driver stomps on the accelerator.

Essentially , if you double the car’s speed, the downforce increases by four times. So, the total vertical force on the car is the sum of the varying downforce plus the weight of the car. Anderson offered the example of an F1 car that weighs a total of 700 kilograms.

If the car travelling at 120 kilometres per hour created 300 kg of downforce, it would have a total 1,000 kg vertical load (300 kg downforce plus car weight of 700 kg), while the same car at 240 km/h would see the force on it increase 1,900 kg (1,200 kg downforce plus car weight of 700 kg). A 10 per cent reduction in downforce in these two cases for the same 700 kg car results in a loss of roughly three per cent of the vertical load at 120 km/h (270 kg + 700 kg = 970 kg) and about six per cent at 240 km/h (1,080 kg + 700 kg = 1,780 kg).

Quote of the Week

With a new engine format and energy recovery system in place for 2014, reliability will be a key to success this year. Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg put things in perspective when it comes to reliability: “We started from a blank sheet,” he said. “It’s quite a challenge to have complete control of approximately 3,500 components [on an F1 car]. The slightest error or bad luck – like a plastic cap which pops off due to vibration – can derail a weekend of racing.”

The Last Word

Although drivers are pushing as hard as possible, fans will notice that the lap times in testing were markedly slower than last year. The aerodynamic changes and different tire compounds, plus a move from a normally aspirated V-8 engine to a small turbocharged V-6, are the reasons. The fastest lap put up in the final pre-season test earlier this month was a 1 minute 33.258 seconds by Williams driver Felipe Massa, an effort that was almost a second slower than Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg’s pole lap for the Bahrain Grand Prix last year. It looks close, but Massa’s time was on a new set of extra grippy supersoft tires whereas Rosberg took pole in 2013 on the harder mediums. In reality, the true gap between the 2014 car and last year’s model is much more than a second.

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