Already in 2014 we have witnessed several heavy crashes, including two barrel-rolls, which has excellently showcased the leap in the sport’s safety throughout the last twenty years. During just the first eleven races of the year the likes of Esteban Gutierrez, Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa and Marcus Ericsson have all walked away unscathed after serious accidents.
With two drivers being tipped into perilous barrel-rolls, should Formula One adopt IndyCar’s wheel pods in a bid to prevent wheel-to-wheel contact which has been the catalyst for both Gutierrez and Massa’s separate barrel-rolls at Bahrain and Hockenheim? The small pods which guard the rear wheels of IndyCars have since lowered the amount of wheel-to-wheel contact in the IndyCar Series, with cars being violently speared into the catch-fencing on ovals and street courses alike for many years.
Prior to the 2012 IndyCar season, sole chassis provider Dallara unveiled a new model which would replace the aged IR-05 design which had been part of the Series since 2005. Named the DW12 in honour on the late Dan Wheldon who tested the new chassis only several days before his fatal accident at Las Vegas behind the wheel of the IR-05 after wheel-to-wheel contact led to a disastrous multiple-car pile-up.
In a bid to eradicate a repeat of such incidents, which saw the likes of Marco Andretti, Dario Franchitti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway all become airborne after contact with another car, Dallara introduced wheel pods for the new DW12 chassis which essentially encased the rear wheels and only permitted face-on contact with another wheel.
Admittedly the debut season for the new chassis included several airborne incidents once again, most notably when Andretti flew over the top of Graham Rahal at Long Beach and Conway almost flipped over at the Indianapolis 500 in an incident involving Will Power, but the wheel pods in question certainly did their job in preventing a recurrence of the perilous airborne shunts of the previous few years.
However, last season Dario Franchitti had his IndyCar career cut short after a ferocious incident with Takuma Sato around the streets of Houston, when the former multiple Champion was catapulted into the catch-fencing after running into the rear of Sato’s A.J. Foyt car on the final lap. Although there have been several big crashes in the IndyCar Series so far this season, no-one has been flipped upside down with four races remaining including two ovals at Milwaukee and Fontana.
Having IndyCar style wheel pods would significantly change the aero structures at the rear of the car. However because there would be no pods on the front tyres, unlike the FIA Formula E cars, the teams will still have difficulties tackling front tyre wake and vortices in this region.
The sidepods and subsequent vertical vanes that flank each side of the car would have to be redesigned to suit the rear tyre pods. The vanes offload tyre wake away from the sidepod’s leading edge and undercut towards the rear suspension. Since the tyre pods would introduce bodywork between the rear tyres and the sidepod’s coke bottle area, a lot of work would have to be done to manage the effects of front tyre wake as it passes back along the car.
The extra bodywork would also leave teams less chance to push airflow down the top of the sidepod (downwash) and towards the top of the diffuser. Gurney flaps and other devices on top of the diffuser utilise this airflow to create more rear downforce. With the rear tyre pods installed this becomes problematic. The effects of rear tyre squirt impinging on the diffuser would also continue.
The big question is whether we would see a drag reduction as a result of the pods. Whilst the pods would create a better aerodynamic surface and reduce drag from the rear tyres, the larger sidepod area would create more stagnant airflow which induces lift. However these areas can be dispersed using vortex generators. However, with the roll hoop of current F1 cars proving to be incredibly resilient during barrel-rolls, are wheel pods a necessity in modern F1?
“Well, tyre pods would give a new dimension to aerodynamic development which is what a lot of designers want as the current regulations have reached their peak,” explained Richland F1’s technical expert, Will Tyson. “But I’m definitely a purist and I wouldn’t like to see them in F1. The roll hoop crash test procedure is remarkable and it has to take a huge amount of loading for it to pass. Cars flipping are always a possibility in single seater racing and the drivers are aware of that. The cars’ safety standards are very, very high anyway so I see no real benefit in jumping on this bandwagon.”
As stated above it is entirely feasible for Formula One teams to introduce rear-wheel pods in a bid to eradicate wheel-to-wheel contact and prevent barrel-rolls of the type we have seen twice so far this season. However, such an introduction does have it flaws. Should a wheel pod in question work its way loose after minor contact or even after a clumsy pit-stop, the thought of it flying straight into the cockpit of a pursuing driver is quite disastrous.
Overall the idea of wheel pods has been relatively successful in the world of IndyCar racing, where airborne incidents always appear more violent due to the nature of oval racing. However, with Formula One adding incredible emphasis on the safety of the roll hoop, which was integral in preventing Felipe Massa in particular from sustaining a serious injury at the start of the German Grand Prix, the current breed of F1 machinery is not yet in the desperate need of such a device, unlike the IndyCar Series was at the end of the 2011 season.
Picture(s) Copyright © Chris Jones & Jef Richards/IndyCar Media Service & Sauber Motorsport AG.