Sexy! No No No…

In 2004, I was lucky enough to represent my school in a Gravity Racing competition, where you fundamentally sit in a box with wheels and go down a hill. It was fantastic. But although the car had raced at Goodwood, I wasn’t sure about it. It had a steering bar, not a steering wheel, that had to be held at 40° in order to go straight, the wheels at the front pointed in at each other far too much, and it had the aerodynamics of a brick. The front of a car is so important to get right as it is the first part that comes into contact with the air, and therefore dictates how it will flow over the vehicle. I always thought it was a very ineffective design, but with the new contenders for the 2012 F1 crown being released, it seems that I have been proven wrong.

In 2012, we will see some of the ugliest Formula One cars ever made take to the track, and the vast majority will have a step in the middle of the nose, making them look slightly brick-ish. The reason for this is that the rules have been tweaked slightly in this area, whereby the teams are not allowed to put bodywork a certain height above the reference plane. Put simply, a Formula One car has a number of ‘boxes’ around it where no bodywork can be placed, such as over the sidepods, and the FIA has put another ‘box’ on top of the nose. They certainly do like their ‘boxes’. The FIA have done this for safety reasons. Back in 2010, Mark Webber proved that Red Bull really can give you wings, especially when you launch it off the back of a Lotus. The accident happened for two reasons; firstly, Webber wasn’t expecting Kovalainen to break when he did, and secondly, the nose on the Red Bull was quite high up. As a result, it struck the top of the rear crash structure and sent the Australian high into the air. The new ‘box’ is designed to stop that from happening by making sure the front of the nose is below that height. Most of the teams have gone for a step in the nose of the car, going literally around the box. Although it may look hideous, there is logic behind it. With the nose sitting higher before dropping around the box, the suspension and chassis can sit higher, meaning that the airflow under the car is cleaner and greater. The floor and sides of the car dictate most of the aerodynamic performance of an F1 car, and have a great impact on the diffuser, as well as on the rear wing to a lesser extent. Theoretically, the performance gain is considerable, but there has to be some questions about how the air will come into contact with the rest of the car, right back to the rear wing. The one thing we do know is it helps create some seriously unsightly machines, even if Daniel Ricciardo thinks his Toro Rosso is ‘sexy’. Still, compared to a HRT, I guess it probably is…

Most of the cars have been launched, and out of all of them, there can be no doubt that McLaren have created the best looking; certainly the only one you would want a model of on your desk. They have gone down a more conventional route with a smooth and elegant nose, resulting in a lower chassis. Whilst it may look quite pretty, I’m not convinced it will be so quick. The airflow over the top of the car will be better for sure, but it’s around the sides and under the car that is more important. If their system does turn out to be the fastest, there won’t be a huge amount the other teams can do to copy it due to the chassis shape and height. On the other hand, if McLaren have got it wrong, they’ll be the ones in trouble, as they will struggle to copy everyone else. One place where Jenson and Lewis will almost certainly have an advantage will be visibility, but the others shouldn’t struggle too much.

It’s at this point that I should be talking about the times coming from Jerez last week, and explaining who will win the championship based on them. But the fact is the testing times mean absolutely nothing in the real world. Some teams will be sandbagging by driving slower than their maximum pace, some might be putting in quasi-qualifying times, whilst others might be doing long runs to see how their cars perform and react over race distances. The only time I can think of when a team has ever shown their hand properly in pre-season testing was in 2009 with Brawn GP, and they did it simply because they didn’t have enough time before the season to sandbag. Looking at the fastest (unofficial) times from Spain shows that Rosberg, in the 2011 Mercedes, is faster than all the 2012 cars, followed by Grosjean, who has just got back into F1, then Schumacher in last year’s car, and Alonso fourth, having been way down the timesheets right up until the last day, when he was quickest. Button in the McLaren put in his fastest lap some 3 seconds slower than Rosberg, with Vergne, the new boy at Toro Rosso, a second faster than the Brit. When all the cars have been unveiled (and in the case of HRT, passed its crash tests), and after the other two pre-season tests, we may start making predictions about where the trophy will be come the end of the year. Even then, it will still be guess work. The first time we will know anything will be at the end of Qualifying in Australia.

Until then, the ugly cars will set times in Spain, but it won’t help us one little bit.


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