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Monday, January 26, 2009

Surprise! The New F1 Cars Aren't Ugly

By Tony Borroz Email


Grand Prix auto racing is the pinnacle of motorsports. Nowhere are the cars so technologically advanced or success so dependent upon talent, bravery and money. Lots and lots of money.

Hundreds of millions of dollars flow into the hands of some of the best engineers and designers this side of the aerospace industry, then runs head-on into the FIA. The Federation Internationale de l'Automobile are the Draconians who think up rules even Melvin Belli couldn’t get around and enforce them with such zeal a Catholic school nun would shake her head at the injustice.

So here we stand at the cusp of a Formula 1 season that has seen some huge changes in the rules. What happens when the clever and the quick run into the convoluted and unjust, and what does it mean for the cars we'll see on the grid?

First, a quick-and-dirty rundown of the biggest changes for 2009. If you want more, get all the detail you can handle by downloading the FIA's F1 regs here.

First up, KERS. Kinetic energy recovery systems capture some of the energy generated during braking and stores it - either electronically in a battery or capacitor or mechanically in a flywheel - for use at the driver's discretion. Often called "push to pass," the driver could opt to use the added power to accelerate out of a corner or on a straight to pass another car.

KERS is part of FIA boss Max Mosley's campaign to make F1 technology more relevant to road cars. But it's proven such a bear to develop that teams have the option of running it this year. It will be mandatory next year. Or not. The FIA keeps waffling on that. The problem is KERS is bulky, hard to package in the tight confines of an F1 chassis and so far works about as well as Windows Vista. When BMW first tested it in public, it shocked a mechanic hard enough to knock him on his ass. Ferrari says the technology's proven more expensive than expected, and it remains to be seen how many teams run it this year.

This year also sees significant changes to the tires, which arguably are the most important component of any car. This year we say hello to slicks - again - and goodbye to grooved rubber. The FIA banned slicks in 1998 but brought them back this year to improve safety. Slick tires put more rubber on the road, which increases grip, which makes it easier to slow down should things go pear-shaped. It also makes it easer to put down power making for better acceleration and, potentially, more frequent passing.

But the biggest changes have been to aerodynamics. Gone are all the bits and bobs tacked on to the cars in an effort to increase downforce. By the end of last season, the cars had so many winglets, exhaust stacks and other baubles they looked like something that might wash up on the beach. They're all gone this year, as are the barge boards.

What's left is significantly smaller, starting with the rear wings. They're a hell of a lot narrower, and, frankly, look ridiculously out of proportion. At the other end of the car, the front wings are bigger and deeper, yet simpler.

When the rules were announced, everyone feared the resulting cars would be ugly. Turns out they were wrong, based upon the three teams we were able to get photos from.


Look, for example, at the McLaren MP4-24 above, the car Lewis Hamilton will use to defend his title. Although that dinky rear wing throws the balance off, the car's overall shape is quite pleasing. The clean, flowing lines of the sidepods are gorgeous, and the entire body appears to be shrunk-wrapped over the components underneath. The same is true of the Renault R29 shown below.


Renault has the distinction of having a "shark fin" trailing from the air intake. The fin, like the slick sidepods, is all about smoothing the airflow to the rear wing. Smaller wings generate less downforce, which as a general rule is a bad thing, so the aero engineers do everything they can to maximize what they've got by making airflow to the wing as smooth as possible.


Note the simplicity of the front wing of the McLaren. Not nearly as complex as in the past. That same simplicity can also be seen on the BMW F1.09 shown below.


Somewhere under the BMW's bodywork is the kinetic energy recovery system. BMW seems to have worked out the bugs and plans to run the system this year at it makes a run for the championship.

We've gotta say the naysayers were wrong. Oh sure, the rear wings are absurdly small, but we like the leaner, cleaner look of the '09 cars. Bottom line? They're pretty freakin' hot.

More photos that, like all others, are courtesy of the respective teams.