Modern Formula One cars are a bit like those wonderfully weird birds-of-paradise: utterly bizarre, but born of relentless evolution and perfectly adapted to their environment. Every feature is a result of endless evolution and relentless pursuit of a goal.
With the 2016 F1 season set to begin next month, the public just got its first good look at the latest in that unending, not quite natural selection process. The teams have revealed their cars and started testing them in earnest. The cars are but the first iteration, and will almost certainly change—perhaps radically—between now and the start of the season on March 18 at the Australian GP. That process will continue through the season, with the very best teams revising and refining their cars through the final race. As in nature, evolution is constant, because if you aren’t getting better, you risk extinction.
From what we’ve seen in the first wave of pre-season testing, 2016’s cars are variations on last year’s theme. Mercedes, the defending champions, updated its rear wing. Second place Ferrari switched to a short nose design to improve airflow under the car. McLaren whipped up intricate aerodynamic adjustments in an effort to climb out of the basement. Manor, which scored zero points in 2015 (about 703 short of a championship) built an all-new car to go with its recently acquired Mercedes power unit in a bid for “respectability and competitiveness.”
All these pieces are just the embodiment of a desire to create flow structures which you can’t see. Mercedes engineer Paddy Lowe
To find out how this kind of evolution happens, we met with Paddy Lowe, the head of all things technical at Mercedes AMG F1. Mercedes is far and away the best team on the grid right now, having won the constructors’ and drivers’ championships two years running. Simply put, the past two seasons have largely been processionals, with everyone trying to catch the Germans.
There are plenty of ways to make an F1 car faster. During the offseason and between races, teams look for ways to increase power, limit fuel burn, and improve reliability. That cars’ engines, gear boxes, and electronics are constantly surveilled for possible improvements. And of course, it’s key to keep your drivers in shape and fully prepared for the intricacies of each track.
Shaping the Wind
But if you want to know why F1 cars are motorsports’ birds-of-paradise, you have to look at aerodynamics. The key to that borderline black art lies in balancing the competing objectives of reducing drag and increasing downforce. Minimizing drag makes a car faster in a straight line because it cuts through the air more efficiently. Maximizing downforce increases grip, allowing the driver to carry more speed through corners. Every race is a constant compromise between these two things, with a track like Monza favoring minimal drag and a track like Monaco demanding maximum downforce.
Further complicating things, F1 cars work best at speed, when their fluids and tires and brakes are hot and there is enough air moving over them to keep the engine cool. Meeting all of these requirements explains why the cars so often resemble George Lucas’ idea of spaceships, what with their elaborate wings and vanes and vents.
“We play with incredible complexity,” Lowe says. “All these pieces are just the embodiment of a desire to create flow structures which you can’t see.”
Every time you improve one area, you find fresh opportunity in another area. Mercedes engineer Paddy Lowe
Then, there’s the occasional stroke of revolution. Lowe points to the bargeboard, a body panel near the nose of the car that cleans up turbulent air flow from the front wheels and shapes it to generate extra downforce. In the early 90s, “Somebody [McLaren] came along and invented the idea.” Then it was back to evolution, as the idea spread and engineers played with variations.
Like in natural evolution, there is no end point here. Mercedes has dominated the past two seasons of F1, but that doesn’t mean it considers its car perfect, or even good enough. Throughout the season, the team’s engineers, led by Lowe, are constantly thinking up new ways to change how air moves over the car. They run computer simulations, wind tunnel tests, and put the cars on the track wearing aero sensors that look like the automotive equivalent of orthodontic headgear. The goal is to experiment with tiny changes that could give the car even the slightest edge over its competitors. These refinements happen throughout the season, with bigger changes typically following midseason breaks for extra testing.
By the time we met with Lowe at the US Grand Prix in Austin in October 2015, three quarters of the way through the season, Mercedes had already reworked the floor of the car—which you’d think would just be flat—five times. Mercedes doesn’t let you crawl around the floor of its paddock, but considering how crucial the car’s floor is to creating downforce, it’s clear Lowe and Co. pay mega attention to the ways in which air is funneled under the vehicle.
And every change, no matter how minor, creates new challenges, because air flow over and under the car must be considered holistically, Lowe says. “Every time you improve one area, you find fresh opportunity in another area.”
There’s one more factor to consider: the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile. As F1’s ruling body, the FIA lays down the rules within which teams can work, and those tend to be extremely specific (the 90 page document even specifies that the number Pi be defined as 3.1416). Every few years, those rules change dramatically, demanding a new type of engine, or banning popular aerodynamic styles.
The 2014 season included maybe the biggest changes in the sport’s history. The 2.4-liter naturally aspirated V8s engines were replaced with a hybrid system that uses a 1.6-liter turbocharged V6. The FIA also restricted fuel use, lowered the front of the chassis, and axed the lower rear wing. That sort of shakeup is rather like a reset button, an asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs and putting everyone on an even playing field again.
The next major rule change is scheduled for 2017, when the FIA will call for wider, heavier, and faster cars, which will also come with a new way to protect the driver from loose debris, though the final design hasn’t been selected yet. The changes for 2016 were relatively minor: A change to the exhaust system will make the cars louder (addressing a major fan complaint), and the cockpit will be nearly an inch higher, to better protect the driver.
But that doesn’t mean Lowe and his engineers, nor any other team on the tarmac, will be slowing down their efforts to make the current design as evolved as possible before it’s time to start over again.
“You go around the car,” Lowe says. “It never ends.”