Will Gray

Tech Talk: The new cars – Part 1

The leading F1 teams have now revealed their 2013 cars – so what are the trends amongst the front-runners and is there any team that might have stolen a march on their rivals?

The first new challenger to be unveiled was the new Lotus, revealed by web last Monday. McLaren’s live launch event came next, last Thursday, then it was a busy run of unveilings through the weekend to take us to the start of the opening day of pre-season testing today (Tuesday).

This launch season is unusual because, with relatively few changes to the regulations, there are limits on how much can be done and how much can be changed – so much so that some teams even admitted they had considered retaining their basic chassis design for 2013.

Despite this, some of the top teams appear to have thrown caution aside and pushed through on some significant changes – and some of those changes that could turn out to be crucial.

Last year saw intense in-season development and with that comes diminishing returns. Every design has its limits, and as designers reach those limits the small advantage gains become harder to find.

The importance for this year is the ‘developability’ of the cars – and initiating a concept change, while risking a possible step back, could reap returns in the long run.

That is why McLaren have opted to go for a significant re-design rather than keep true to the old model – in the hope that the new design will allow their creative engineering teams to explore more new options through the season.

Their new MP4-28 has a notably higher nose and chassis (a significant move as they have traditionally gone low at the front end) and with it comes an equally significant switch to a pull-rod front suspension.

This moves follows Ferrari’s lead from last year – and it offers the benefits of a slightly lower centre of gravity (which combines with weight reductions in upper structures like the roll hoop to offset the higher nose) while also improving the aerodynamics as it angles the wishbones more in line with the airflow from the front wing.

This will give McLaren plenty of new opportunities to explore the airflow in this frontal area, which will also have a knock-on effect all the way down the car to give more potential at the rear end.

Further back, the front of the sidepods has been moved rearwards to also improve airflow and they have been more heavily sculpted at the rear to allow better flow to the rear diffuser.

The new Red Bull, in contrast, has been described by technical director Adrian Newey as ‘evolutionary’ and ‘in transition’, with a focus on detailed development to neaten certain areas of the car.

So far it certainly appears less aggressive than McLaren – although the most noticeable design element, the retention of a stepped chassis, is an important demonstration of Newey’s thinking.

New optional ‘vanity panels’ have been introduced this year to try to ‘beautify’ the cars but as the panels give no advantage in performance Newey decided there was no point adding extra weight, however small, just for looks!

Expect this kind of approach and attention to detail, minimisation and packaging to be key for Red Bull this year as they fight hard in what will be a fierce development race this year.

Also, keep an eye out for the team’s ability to create and introduce an innovative solutions like the passive DRS system, which Newey admitted has “certainly been investigated” and could be important in replacing the loss of their highly effective but now illegal double DRS system.

Ferrari, meanwhile, will be pinning their hopes on the decision to develop their new car entirely in the Toyota wind tunnel in Cologne – ditching their own unreliable tunnel while it is fully refurbished.

They have used this tunnel to sculpt a much neater rear end, which should improve important rear downforce, and have also sculpted the sidepods much more aggressively ahead of this, to try to steer the airflow through to this area smoothly.

They will be hoping that this time the numbers from the wind tunnel correlate with those they see at the track to allow them to develop fast – and if that is the case they may finally hit the ground running, which is vital for their campaign this year.

Finally, the two teams clinging to the coat tails of the lead trio are Lotus and Mercedes – and both also revealed some interesting elements to their designs on their launch days.

Lotus have followed Red Bull’s direction in maintaining a stepped nose and also appear to have taken their approach to the rear end – with bodywork to guide the exhaust flow down into the gap between the diffuser and wheels.

Mercedes, meanwhile, hope may not have revealed a car that looks particularly different but team boss Ross Brawn says his team have some innovative aerodynamic concepts that are hidden deeper than early analysis has so far revealed, and some that will only be put on the car in the coming days and weeks.

One of the most important elements for them to improve upon from last year is the rate of tyre wear at the rear – so a need to focus on creating a more stable car aerodynamically - but that challenge will have been made more difficult because the tyre specs have changed again, so Mercedes will have to hope they work as expected.

It’s important to remember that this is just still stage one – as many new developments will be revealed in the coming 12 days of testing.

But while Adrian Newey appears to feel the similar regulations offer little scope for anything more than the usual development progress, others like McLaren may prove that by taking a more radical approach to concepts can open the door to more development and bigger success.