Every new season we are on the lookout for the next great innovation in F1 and without fail teams clever engineering manages to deliver. In 2009 it was Brawn’s double diffuser, in 2010 Mclaren’s F-Duct, so what about 2011. Innovation is the essence of Formula One, as teams pry for loopholes in regulations and test out new groundbreaking ideas to get their cars to the top. Pre-season testing there was much buzz about which solutions teams would come up with following the ban on double diffusers, and much of it would thus necessarily be focused on how teams would develop their exhaust systems and maximize airflow to the rear. In part 2 of my blog posts on the development race, let’s look at the 2011 constructors that chose to take a radical development approach to their 2011 cars and see how they fared.
2. Revolution: Renault, Mclaren, Williams, Team Lotus, Toro Rosso
Arguably Renault grabbed the first headlines of year with their radical forward exiting exhausts (its effect seen beautifully in this fan made vid on the wet Friday practice session in Turkey). There were many rumours abound prior to the car reveals that many teams were looking at this kind of solution, yet Renault are the only ones that have made it to work. This is no mean feat, as the complex exhaust layout and heat management issues posed a serious challenge. It is testament to Renault’s engineers great skill that they have managed to deliver an efficient and reliable exhaust solution which totally sets them apart from the rest of the field. Because of the huge complexity of this design and the effect it has on the whole packaging of the car’s systems in the sidepods, it is unlikely other teams would able to copy it at short notice if they desired to do so, something which hurt Mclaren’s innovative F-duct as within a few races other teams had their working versions of it ready. While a very interesting and well implemented concept, it is not clear whether this layout is superior to more conventional exhaust designs. What is clear is that the Renault team have taken a significant step forward and started out the season with arguably the 3rd best car on the grid. However their innovative exhaust design is one thing, Renault now needs to keep pace with development as the Chinese and Turkish Grand Prix have seen the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes getting in close competition with them for 3rd best team. In 2010 the team has proven to have great development potential, will they be able to unlock it in 2011 as well?
When the Mclaren car was revealed the stange shape of its sidepods was immediatly apparent to all, contrary to Renault’s exhausts which remained a mystery for quite some time. The L-shaped sidepods are also unique in the field and were designed to maximize clean airflow to the rear of the car, in Mclaren’s attempt to recapture the downforce lost with the ban on double diffusers. While visually setting them apart from the competition, as discussed by Scarbs, a very knowledgeable blogger on all things technical in F1, it is not necessarily an innovation that will give them a significant performance advantage. Mclaren went one step further and struggled all pre season testing trying to get a radical ‘octopus’ exhaust solution to work, only to revert back to a Red Bull style solution mere weeks before the first Grand Prix in Australia. Despite their preseason worries, Mclaren’s bold approach has payed off and put them in the position of being the main challengers to Red Bull. Mclaren has proven their development prowess in 2009 but were quite disappointing in this respect in 2010 as it seemed every time they brought new upgrades it needed at least two grand prix weekends to get it to work. Mclaren will need to be on the ball with every update they bring this year if they are to have any hope of catching the Red Bulls which seem to have a good half second ahead on them on average.
3. Williams, Toro Rosso, Team Lotus
In preseason testing two other teams stood out with their agressive designs, both bringing innovations in finding the best way to improve airflow to the rear. Williams have perhaps come up with the most technically interesting solution by developing the paddock’s smallest gearbox, leaving them with a rear end so tight it would be the envy of any supermodel. Toro Rosso dusted up the old concept of a double floor and made it work on a 2011 car. As discussed earlier though, innovation does not guarantee improvements, and Williams’ dismal performance in the first few races was definately not what people were expecting after a good showing in preseason testing. With their flotation on the stockmarket in mind, perhaps their preseason performance was more due to glory runs rather than actual pace in the car. The innovators that brought this agressive design to the car will be out of a job with Williams at the end of the season, a clear indication of how bad the performance has been. Toro Rosso is becoming a Q3 contender so their revolutionary design has indeed moved them up the grid. As for Team Lotus, one can not really speak of revolutionary design in itself although compared to the other new kids their car design has markedly changed during the off season, but the revolution that came to this team is mostly due to acquiring technology and parts from other teams. They have switched from Cosworth to Renault engines and are now using the Red Bull transmission and gear box. While still at the back of the grid, a continued development push might well indeed see them push into the midfield and pick up their first points.
Conclusion: Evolution vs Revolution
There are winners and losers on both ends of the spectrum so neither design approach is inherently superior and there are risks and benefits associated with both approaches. The road of evolution minimizes reliability risks and if there was already a good base, a well thought out evolution will near guarantee improved performance. However, and this is where the strength of revolutionary designs lie, it will be harder (though certainly not impossible) to find areas of untapped performance with an evolutionary design so the improvement in performance might not be enough to retain your position in the constructor’s ranking as other, more bold teams might leapfrog you. Revolutionary designs entail more risks, as first of all the design must be sound for it to work, and second it will be harder to get reliability sorted out since there are so many new elements to factor in. This approach does have the added benefit of having more potential to unlock if the design teams keeps getting the upgrades right.
Leaving theory aside, where do the cards lay for this year’s development race in my humble opinion? Red Bull have obviously got the quickest car again this year after evolving their WCC winning RB6 into the dominant RB7, leaving the other teams to play catchup. With Mclaren still very much learning about their new design (after all the first time they tested this spec car was in the Australian Grand Prix after their testing debacle), they have a good chance to catch Red Bull at some point in the season. It was a blow to them and slightly remeniscent to last year that they did not get to put on all the upgrades they had planned to in Turkey. They need to turn this around quickly if they will indeed have a chance to beat Red Bull on pure pace. I am more pessimistic about Ferrari’s chances to catch up though they will be strong enough to challenge for podiums. Their risk averse designing and strategizing will continue to hurt them throughout the season unless they make a change in direction. Renault have proven to have development power yet their relatively weak driver line up compared to their competitors, and the fact that they already seem to be slipping down from 3rd best to 4th – 5 th best will face them with a very big challenge to stay in touch with the front runners. I have a tough time putting the finger on what’s happening at Mercedes. With Rosberg they have a driver at the peak of his talent and with Schumacher and Ross Brawn they have a wealth of championship winning experience. From a very poor early season showing they have clearly found more pace in their car, whether it will be enough to challenge the Bulls and Mclaren remains doubtful. Williams is a team in shambles but they did manage to turn around a weak car into a points contender in 2010, so it is not unimaginable for them to do the same this year. Toro Rosso should be solid midfielders, as will Sauber. Force India has shown over the years that they struggle to develop a car in season and seem to lack a general sense of direction, so I would see the team going backward from their decent early season performances. Team Lotus is a team that clearly does have this sense of direction and drive to go forward, and I definately see them scoring some points by the time the season is over. Virgin and HRT need to do some serious soulsearching to improve from their poor positions.