Analysis: Active suspension, sparks, and glowing brakes – The F1 Strategy Group’s proposals to spice up F1
Winners medals, shortcuts, sprinklers, reverse grids, aggregate qualifying, and double points. Over the last 10 years or so countless new rules or gimmicks have been proposed, all with the intention to improve the spectacle of Formula One. This week saw revelations over the F1 Strategy Group’s plans to make grand prix cars “visually spectacular”. Dan Paddock and Will Tyson take a look at the proposed changes on the table.
As revealed by AUTOSPORT on Thursday, the F1 Strategy Group, in its effort to map out a future direction for Formula One, has turned its attention to spicing up the spectacle of the sport. These plans come on the back of complaints from teams, who argue that the recent changes in design principle have robbed of F1 of its spark and flavour.
The thinking is that the following proposals could revive the exciting image of the sport from the 1980s and early 90s, while all helping to reduce spending as a part of the Strategy Group’s cost-cutting measures.
One proposal that the Strategy Group will look to carry out is the removal of the ban on active suspension. Active suspension, last seen in the sport in 1993, is in effect a suspension system controlled by software, rather than mechanical means, to eliminate roll and pitch variation, and provide greater degree of car handling.
Despite first appearing in Formula One in 1983, and playing a prominent role in Ayrton Senna’s two race wins for Lotus in 1987, active suspension became most prominent in the early 90s, when the system – coupled with a number of other technical aids – led Williams to back-to-back drivers’ and constructors’ championships in 1992 and 1993 with the all-dominant FW14B and FW15C, before it – along with ABS brakes and traction control – was banned for 1994.
The belief is that the reintroduction of active suspension would reduce the costs associated with the development of the current mechanical-only suspension system, while the present control ECU run by all teams would eliminate any risk of the use of illegal driver aids.
However, doubts over the impact of the system have already been raised.
Martin Brundle, who played a part in the development of the all-conquering Williams active system back in the early 90s, fears that rather than cutting costs or increasing excitement, the return of active suspension would do the polar opposite, driving up the cost of suspension development and leading to ‘Scalextric’ style racing, with cars glued to the race track.
Aside from Brundle’s concerns, it is also key to point out the potential dangers inherent with active suspension when the system goes wrong. You have to look no further than Alex Zanardi’s violent accident at Eau Rouge in practice ahead of the 1993 Belgian Grand Prix, after a hydraulic failure caused the Italian’s suspension to bottom out, sending the Lotus directly into the inner wall. The Lotus was obliterated, but Zanardi survived with a mere concussion.
One of the defining images of Formula One remains the sight of Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna running wheel-to-wheel along the start-finish straight at the Circuit de Catalunya in 1991, sparks flying as the Williams and McLaren skated across the track.
Yet, since 1994, and the introduction of mandatory skid blocks on the underside of the cars, to prevent cars running dangerously low ride heights in the wake of the deaths of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola, sparks – caused by the titanium floor of the cars bottoming out – have all but disappeared from Formula One.
One only needs to look at the positive reaction to the wealth of sparks seen at the initial Singapore Grand Prix, back in 2008 – as a result of the bumpy nature of the street circuit – to understand that fans want to see a return to the spark fests of the 80s and early 90s.
It therefore comes as no surprise that the reintroduction of sparks is top of the F1 Strategy Group’s agenda.
Unlike active suspension, a move to artificially reintroduce sparks is not likely to interfere at a sporting level, nor significantly push up costs, and is likely to only serve to please fans.
In another move to increase the visual appeal of the sport, the F1 Strategy Group is to propose that vapour trails, or vortices – seemingly ever present at the rear wing tips of Formula One cars in the 90s, but which have disappeared in recent years as teams have found ways to reduce the pressure that leads to their build-up – be made more visible.
As RichlandF1’s resident tech guru Will Tyson explains: “Vapour trails are the visual consequence of the formation of vortices in the presence of condensation.
“Although these can still be seen extending from the rear wing tips, and occasionally from the Y250 region of the front wing, a lot of research and development has gone into downsizing vortices to reduce drag, thus increasing top speed.
“Vortices are still artificially induced by vortex generators to improve downforce but their formation is more efficient and their size significantly reduced to those we have seen in the past.
“Creating these vapour trails is inefficient,” adds Tyson. “So it is of great surprise that the FIA are willing to backtrack on all their hard work when enforcing the new regulations for this year.”
Glowing brake disks
The proposed move away from the current complicated brake ducts is intended to both cut costs, while also ensuring that the public see the discs glowing under braking, as was common before the introduction of aerodynamic developments to the braking systems in the later half of the last decade.
For our man Will Tyson, the F1 Strategy Group’s proposal comes as a surprise, considering the fact that the FIA had intended to ban tyre warmers from 2015 onwards.
“Housing the brakes within the “cake tin” hubs is far more aerodynamically efficient than a bare piston/disc layout as air is channelled to specific regions in one flowing system.
“Heat generated by the brakes has quite a large influence on how the tyres behave in terms of retaining their core temperature. The modern hubs allow brake temperature to be maintained, which keeps core tyre temperatures up.
“So with an old-style brake assembly, where heat is lost more easily to the surroundings, we then have to question tyre warmer ban from 2015 onwards – again, the FIA are not thinking through their strategy for the future.
The final major proposal set to be pushed for introduction by the F1 Strategy Group is a move to 18 inch (457mm) rims, from the current 13 inch (330mm) rims that have been mandatory in the sport for the last two decades.
The proposal comes a year after Michelin turned down the opportunity to become an official tyre supplier to Formula One, the French rubber firm affirming that it would only be interested in supplying tyres fitted on 18 inch rims, as is the case with its deal with the World Endurance Championship and Formula E.
The introduction of 17 inch rims, which would come in 2017 if the proposal is made a reality, goes hand-in-hand with the return of active suspension as Will Tyson explains.
“In today’s formula, the tyres have large sidewalls which act as the primary shock absorber, coupled with small dampers inside the car.
“Utilising 18 inch wheels would encourage the return of active suspension as teams wouldn’t want to fill up already-cramped suspension housings with larger dampers, as more travel would be required due to the lower profile tyres.
Alongside these technical proposals that have already been mentioned, other, more fundamental changes to the sport are also expected to be discussed by the F1 Strategy Group over the coming weeks, with reports that standing starts after safety cars, a potential reduction in race length, as well as a green light to introduce new advanced technologies to cut pitstop times, could all be set for introduction in the future.
Ultimately, these proposed changes to create “visually spectacular” grand prix cars comes from a desire to pump back some of the excitement that has been lost from the sport in the last decade or so, as a result of technical innovations and rule changes.
Active suspension, cars sparking and glowing brake disks all conjure up the romantic images of Formula One’s past.
Yet, with F1 now entering a new era, does it pay for the sport to look backwards in a hunt for artificial nostalgia, or should the focus of the sport now be turned to building on this new era, which has started so brightly, with some great racing?
Expect to find out over the coming weeks just how the F1 Strategy Group intend to shape the sport in the future, which is likely to feature just a few subtle nods to the sports past.
Images courtesy of Williams F1 Team, Scuderia Toro Rosso and Pirelli Media
Dan Paddock and William Tyson