Will Gray

Gray Matter: Why ugly noses are a lesson for F1

The debate is raging over whether this year’s cars are F1’s ugliest ever and while the discussion has unearthed some REAL honkers from the archives, this year’s are certainly up there with the worst.

The reason this happened is that the rulemakers wanted to lower noses to reduce the risk of cars becoming airborne by riding over the back of another in a collision. However, a loophole in the rules left a major discrepancy between the stipulated size and height of the front chassis and the reference plane that confines the area and height of the front of the nose. It was spotted, and warnings raised, right in the early days of the design process – but nothing was done to address it.

And so the quest for ideal aerodynamic performance has allowed the minds of engineers in the different F1 design offices to explore this open door and come up with a host of different solutions to the same set of rule restrictions.

None of them are pretty. But far from being a bad thing, it’s a perfect demonstration of what F1 could offer if its design teams were given a little bit more freedom.

There are four main designs that have been created – the platypus (Ferrari, Mercedes), the teardrop (Red Bull), the tusk (Lotus), and the more common but varied types of anteater (all other teams).

It’s all about finding the best way to get as much ‘clean’ (non turbulent) air through to the underside of the chassis as possible as this helps create more rear-end downforce – the whole reason why the raised noses and drop-down wing pillars developed in the first place.

The lower nose position effectively puts a blocker in the way of the airflow – which is why most teams have created protrusions to meet the letter of the law while trying to maintain as high and open front area as possible.

However, as with all F1 design, it is a compromise, because the nose (and in some cases now the wing pillars) contains the crash structure, which is quite heavy and would ideally be as low as possible to lower the car’s centre of gravity.

The platypus is the lowest of the nose solutions, but as it is wide and flat it still has a gap to allow air to flow through cleanly to the rear. The Mercedes solution is perhaps the prettiest of all, while Ferrari has kept the nose extremely low before a sudden ramp upwards to meet the front chassis position requirements.

This solution, which is closest to what the law was aiming for, has the benefit of positioning the crash structure low down but perhaps does not deliver as clean airflow as other solutions.

The anteater, the most popular of all, delivers a neat solution that in some cases – Sauber most notably – still leaves a huge open area for the airflow to get through underneath. However, it does mean that a lot of the structural weight is much higher up and also some anteater noses are quite bulky and square edged, which is not good for airflow. The airflow through the section where protrusion meets the bigger nose section and the wing pillars also could cause turbulence.

Lotus, instead, has come up with a clever solution that sees the protrusion split in two to create ‘tusks’ that point forwards. One is shorter than the other – because only one area can be defined as the nose – but it creates a completely clear gap through which the air can flow and is then shaped to help steer it under the floor. However, the tusks are bulky and again position the cash structure quite high up.

Several teams claim to have considered this design, but the complexity required to pass the crash tests and the disadvantageous positioning of the heavy structure was seen as too negative. If Lotus can make it work, however, it will be a massive coup.

Last but not least, unsurprisingly Adrian Newey’s design team have come up with a clever solution with their teardrop design. The main crash structure is positioned high, allowing a large flow gap between it and the front wing, but instead of an anteater they have an aerodynamically shaped teardrop pod dropping straight down at the front of the nose.

This creates quite a frontal blockage itself, but the way it is shaped allows the air to flow neatly around and reunite in a smooth flow as it is steered down to the floor. It also has a u-shaped duct that feeds some of the front-on air into the cockpit, which also helps the air flow around the pod.

The interesting thing is that although these all look very different there is quite possibly only slight differences between them in terms of performance.

I recall working with a design team that was asked to test eight different noses – some of which were quite radical – and the wind tunnel results delivered little deviation between them all.

It may be that we see a convergence of ideas as the season progresses, but it is more likely that each team has already tried out the different ideas during concept development and having settled on their solution will probably continue with it, as the flow regimes around the rest of the car will be based on having that particular nose at the front.

The FIA have issued some concerns about safety of these new noses, but if that is cleared then what this does show is that it is possible to create rules that allow an area of flexibility while still maintaining boundaries of control.

And if F1 can use these noses as a lesson to find more ways to open up the rulebook a little, the drawing office could become a far more interesting place to be...