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Tech Spec
Will Davies

Since before he can remember Will^ has watched F1 – he would always be sat down to watch the start before going out and continuing to follow on the radio. His first F1 memory is of his parents snoozing to what they considered the soporific tones of Murray Walker. Having lost touch somewhat during the years at university, Will^ has now reconnected with the sport and is a bigger fan than ever; often combining his interest for the more technical aspects with his love for maths for some 'interesting' results.

A modest improvement or the vanity of others? // Weighing up the benefits of fast and ugly against slow and beautiful

Published

There are not many differences to the aero-regulations between last season and this so there are only minor changes that teams have made to the looks of their cars. It seems that most cars are moving towards one or other configuration of a Coandă exhaust (but that is a topic for another time). The main aesthetic difference between the 2012 and 2013 cars is the introduction of the modesty panel (referred to by some as a vanity panel). If you ask me, both names make it sound a little ridiculous, and ironic that they are somewhat contradictory sounding.

Jenson Button in the McLaren garage during testing
Credit: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

Why was it needed?

For the start of the 2012 season cars had their maximum nose-tip height lowered from the monocoque height of 625mm down to a height of 550mm. The reason for this was that with a nose tip at the same height as the top of the cockpit side any T-bone incident could be quite horrendous – either launching one of the cars or threatening the health of the driver being crashed into. Lowering the nose would ensure that the side-impact crash-structure would be utilised, and guarantee better protection of the driver.

Due to the monocoque height being kept at 625mm, so the noses had to transition down 75mm within a short distance, and thus the scourge that blighted the looks of most of the 2012-spec cars was born.

Different teams found different ways of dealing with it: from McLaren with their low-chassis solution, avoiding the step all together; through those teams with slots to try to redirect some of the flow; to Ferrari, and the car that looked like its designers had built the front end out of Lego, or at least based the design on that little model of theirs.

Despite the steps becoming less noticeable, as the season progressed and eyes became accustomed to the shape of the cars, sponsors remained less convinced – not being sure that their names and brands were on attractive looking ‘advertising boards’ anymore. I feel that they were partly a driving force behind this switch (maybe by applying some pressures on the contacts within the teams), but regardless of who played their part in changing the rule, the fact remains that teams are this season allowed to add a cover to their noses, so that it can form a more aerodynamic and attractive solution.

What is the choice?

The option the teams have available to them is to cover the existing lower nose (and low crash structure) with a thin, light panel so that the step is disguised and the body-work is smoothed. It is worth noting that any cover is non-load-bearing and thereby any forces from a crash are still directed along the level of the lower nose – the panel would purely splinter into carbon shards in such an event.

With all things in Formula 1 there are benefits and drawbacks, and this is no different. Teams will have spent a good hour-or-two in the off-season designing, debating, CFD-testing and experimenting in a wind-tunnel to decide whether covering the nose-step is a good idea and worth it or a waste of resources.

The possible elimination of any hindrance could be the key to victory

The benefit of a panel is that it smoothes the airflow over the top of the nose, which then flows into/over the sidepods and down towards the diffuser – meaning less disturbed airflow over the rear bodywork (i.e. rear wing, beam wing, brake ducts, diffuser), creating a better overall aero-profile of the car. Additionally, having a surface that is not so steep when it is being hit with fast-moving airflow would create a pressure build-up on that part of the car; it would by no mean do much in the grand scheme of things to the car, but would go some to knock a mph or 2 off a top speed. In a battle that so often comes down to thousandths of a second, the possible elimination of any hindrance could be the key to victory.

On the other hand, the disadvantage with this solution is that it moves weight from lower on the car to higher up. Even though this weight may be in the region of only a few hundred grams, the placement of weight is of premium importance. All the heaviest parts of the car are placed as low-down as possible and any excess ballast that is required is placed similarly (usually behind the driver’s bottom). The lower the weight is, the less side-to-side rolling momentum is generated during cornering, and the more the suspension can concentrate on optimising the ride of the car. This, if you hadn’t guessed yet, is how to make fast cars faster.

At the end of the day it comes down to whether the aero-genius behind each car determines the benefits outweigh the sacrifices.

Who's chosen what?

There seems to be 3 grades of nose-design:

  1. The teams that have stuck-to-a-step are Caterham and Lotus; although the Enstone team have a shallower slope to theirs compared with last year’s version.
  2. A couple of teams are running a hybrid system which involves sloped sides running down the outside edges of the nose, disguising the step to onlookers, but with a channel cut out running down the centre forming a step. Sauber have sides that run to completely disguise their shallow step, whereas Red Bull have a similar step hidden by short sides (but notably without last year’s slot in the step).
  3. The rest of the teams are currently ‘wearing’ a panel of one profile or another, making their noses more streamlined and much nicer looking than most of their 2012 counterparts. (Although looking at the Marussia it seems to also have a lower chassis than the other cars on the grid.)
Multiple F1 nose overlay

I’ve tried comparing pictorially the differences between all the teams’ noses, but it gets far too busy and far too confusing far too quickly. The best I’ve come up with is this representation showing the nose-profiles of the likely main players (and the most extreme examples that the grid features: Williams (dark blue), Ferrari (red), McLaren (maroon), Lotus (black), RedBull (royal blue) and Caterham (green). Any grey represents generic bodywork.

This is up to the end of the second Barcelona test, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the top teams changing designs or experimenting with/without a cover for their noses somewhere down the line – that is so say if they are lagging after the first part of the season, might we see a change of philosophy come the European rounds. Or will it be a different part of the car that becomes this year’s must-have ‘gadget’?

Nosing around other tech

One of the main disadvantages to the flatter-style noses that some cars are sporting (in addition to the possibly increased severity of accident as discussed by Steven in his recent article) is its underside reaches the front of the monocoque-crash structure (red box below) before another step appears. The issue here is that as the air flows over the nose cone it hits the steps top and bottom and creates zones of high pressure, sending off shockwaves behind it, as well as shedding turbulent flow. Disturbed airflow below the car would seriously reduce the efficiency of the under-floor, from the tea-tray all the way to the diffuse, which in turn reduces the down-force generated.

F1 S-Duct

The 2012 Sauber had a unique solution which has been carried over to this year’s car, and so far (I think) only Red Bull have copied it. There is a small slot placed below the nose and connected to it an S-duct so air is routed up and out of the top of the nose behind the step. It helps calm the flow under the chassis by sucking in some of the boundary layer flow; and has the added benefit of smoothing out the flow over the top of the step as well as further down the top of the cockpit by helping the air flowing over the top to stay attached to the surface. Both results together go a long way to reduce the main issues with having steps in noses (while keeping the benefit of having weight as low as possible).

The Ferrari also has an in-duct in this area, but no out-duct on top. It looks like this is the position of the cockpit cooling duct as there isn’t an opening on the tip of the F138’s nose. So Fernando and Felipe can thank their cool feet for the benefits this brings them. I’m sure there is at least one other car on the grid with an in-duct in this area, but I’ve not seen a picture yet (or can’t remember that I have). These are not the type of design that can be copied easily, as it would take a redesign of the chassis and a probable need for another FIA crash-test – not beyond the wit of man, but unlikely to be done for something that might provide only a very small (in the grand scheme of things) gain.

Looking forward to 2014 and the maximum nose height is due to be reduced to 185mm – so we could be in for cars who’s front ends resemble something closer to that of the cars of the early 1990s – a golden era for good-looking cars if you ask me (especially if teams choose to go the whole hog and join the nose directly to the front wing, à la the McLarens or Williams of that era). However, this could be up in the air somewhat, so we’ll have to see what comes, hopefully it does go through.