Many older Formula 1 fans remember “the good old days” when F1 teams would turn up each season with cars featuring wildly new ideas: there were fan cars, surface-cooling, ground-effect, “skateboards”, twin-chassis and so on. In those days aerodynamic development was still exciting. The teams all invested in wind tunnels but slowly the excitement faded away. The aerodynamicists would work night and day looking for advantages, but over time that simply meant that the cars began to look more and more alike because good aero is good aero and one solution is usually better than another. As a result everyone ends up with the same thing, while pushing into tiny detail to gain further advantage. There are occasional break throughs, such as the double-floor concept and later the blown-exhaust but these are exceptions to the rule. The problem with near-identical aero packages is that once cars are running nose to tail those behind become less stable and so overtaking becomes almost impossible. Thus, it is fair to say that aerodynamics, while being the key to performance, are firstly of no use at all to the world at large and secondly, not good for racing. The FIA twigged this and so the DRS was developed to create the same basic effect as slip-streaming in the old days. This helped, but the important thing was to shift the focus away from aero, which was what happened with the new engine formula last year. Wind tunnel work was also restricted, hoping to push F1 toward developing better computational fluid dynamics (CFD) systems, which do have a use outside the sport.
The conclusion from all of this is that while the big teams still spend fortunes on their aerodynamic programmes, with as much running as they are allowed and huge sums being spent on building exquisite scale model F1 cars that accurately predict how a car will behave, it is all rather pointless for everyone apart from the men in the wind tunnels. Most people cannot afford to buy supercars and in an awful lot of societies it is a pointless exercise as traffic (and traffic laws) mean that they cannot use them. If you buy a super car, it is largely for show these days, because you need to go to race track to use its performance.
If Formula 1 is to remain the top motor racing series in the world, it must look to new technology. That is what gets fans excited, what makes the sport different. Some argue that the best way forward is to give everyone the same machinery, but we have seen that happen in various championships and the result is usually that the biggest teams dominate and the opposition slowly dies out. The sport does need to be a balance between technology and show, but going too much one way or the other messes things up. At the start of the sport, more than 100 years ago, the manufacturers went racing for two reasons: to develop their products, and to sell them. And that has not really changed. If you give manufacturers what they want, they will come racing. F1’s new engines were a step in the right direction, but some manufacturers were put off by the way the sport is run. If one looks at the product lines of Mercedes and Ferrari, both are incorporating the latest technology into their road cars and intend to use more in the future. Energy recovery is important, to reduce the consumption and CO2 emissions of the vehicles and to meet the stringent standards that are coming. Renault is going through a period of angst, realising that it has not been very successful in using its on-track success to its advantage. The success of the Vettel/Red Bull years was not used by the Renault marketing people. Nonetheless, it makes no sense to leave the sport given the huge investment that has been made in the new engines. Renault’s strategy is to sell premium cars in the stagnant European markets, while developing mass market machinery in the developing markets of Brazil, China, India and Russia, where F1 is a useful marketing tool. If you are trying to sell aspirational machines to the public one needs to tap into the passion of the fans of the marque, which means that Renault should be concentrating on two things: making better F1 engines and finding some better marketing people. Going back to old engines might keep some teams alive for a while but it would be bad for the sport.
One interesting suggestion in recent weeks has been the idea that wind tunnels should be banned completely, thus lopping off a huge chunk of budget. Obviously, the big teams would find new ways to spend their money if they are allowed to do so, but it would mean that more investment would go into CFD, which might be useful for the world at large. For those who do not know, CFD is the simulation of fluid flows around objects, using complex calculations and algorithms, to predict what happens. By analysing the results one can come up with more efficient ways of doing things, without the need to build expensive models and run them in vast wind tunnels. CFD is faster and cheaper, if one has the computing capacity required.
As Williams has proved this week, CFD can be used in lot of different areas, notably air flow in refrigerators to reduce cold air leakage.
Cutting back on aerodynamic development and forcing engine manufacturers to find more and more efficient engines is a logical way for the sport to go forward. Formula E is another choice and perhaps one day it will find that it has become the answer. Perhaps a Formula N will come along to showcase and help develop hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Toyota last weekend showcased the 2016 Mirai at the NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Richmond, the first hydrogen-powered pace car to be seen in the sport.
For the moment we don’t really know which form of fuel will be the future, just as at the start of the sport there was a discussion over whether the future was the internal combustion engine, steam or electricity. At the time all three competed against one another until the answer became clear. That might be a rather radical step for F1, but the sport needs to follow the industry trends (and predictions) if it is to remain relevant. The owners of the commercial rights want to squeeze every drop of money from the sport, but if they go on pushing the sport into becoming more of a show, they will kill it.