Today’s Formula 1 technical regulations are more restrictive than at any time in the sport’s history. In a seemingly never-ending quest to limit performance (to increase “competitiveness”) and cut costs (to encourage investment), the FIA has consistently and continually tightened restrictions on the options available to car designers. Excluding the new-for-2007 engine freeze regulations (a tragedy in itself, and categorically different from earlier regulations), the current rules represent just another iteration of the FIA’s un-winnable war against the very essence of the sport.
The trend of late has been towards creating increasingly specific restrictions. The FIA’s legislators precisely define acceptable form factor, wing heights, layout, weight, engine displacement, drive type and materials. Current F1 rules specify, to the millimeter, the developable areas of the cars’ aerodynamic pieces. Race car designers have responded to the strictures with ever more specialization, creating extreme development within the few remaining avenues.
Even a cursory look at the differences in bodywork between the late 80’s cars and this season’s automotive missiles provides a perfect example of the advancements made to conform/exploit the sport’s legislative framework. Senna and Prost’s McLaren MP4/5 looks positively crude compared with its 2006 contemporary, the MP4/21. While the basic aerodynamic layouts are quite similar, the degree of development evident in the latter is clear evidence of the increasing specificity of the regulations.
Limiting development is of course a natural and necessary part of maintaining a formula series. Assume for a moment that F1 regulations had been frozen in the 70’s. Today we’d likely see 3000hp, turbo-fed engines strapped to ground-effect chassis laden with extremely effective aerodynamic pieces, assisted downforce, and active, computer-controlled suspensions; all controlled via two-way telemetry.
While technologically exciting, this high-tech, no-holds-barred alternate F1 universe would not create a viable foundation for the sport. Overtaking would be nearly impossible, as braking distances would be dramatically shorter even than they are today. Cornering speeds would also rise spectacularly, necessitating the further separation of the cars from their trackside spectators, significantly damaging the eyewitness experience.
In such a world, human limitations would likely be the deciding factor in the cars’ performance envelope. For example, today’s F1 pilots are in absolute peak physical condition, enduring intense training regimens and possessing extreme strength and endurance. In the unregulated F1, the rise in cornering speeds would likely produce lateral loads of over 6 Gs, significantly increasing the rigor of completing a race distance and greatly increasing the chances of fatigue-related accidents. Reaction times would need to drop significantly, in tandem with speed increases. The dynamics of today’s F1 vehicles pushes performance right to the ragged edge of the drivers’ potential. Any further demands might finally cross the boundary of control.
But there is one constant in the regulation of F1: no matter how broad, how specific or how restrictive the FIA chooses to write the technical regulations, designers have always succeed in circumventing them, in looking around the regulations, rather than within them. This is the kind of “outside the box” thinking that produced those instantly recognizable (if short-lived) innovative F1 race car designs.
Perhaps the most famous of these was the six-wheel Tyrrell P34. In an effort to decrease frontal area (an essential component of aerodynamic performance), car designer Derek Gardner chose to replace two large-diameter front wheels with four 10-inch diameter wheels. While the P34 had only passing success– with Jody Scheckter piloting it to its only win in the 1976 Swedish GP– it is significant nonetheless. While design problems limited the competitive potential of the P34 and its descendant the P34B, the concept is indicative of the sort of creative design and engineering that the FIA has worked so hard to suppress.
The BT46B, is another example of a truly radical design that lives on in F1 history. Gordon Murray (later of the McLaren F1 road car fame) designed the BT46B for the then Ecclestone-controlled Brabham team, in response to the dominant ground-effect Lotus 79. The BT46B utilized an extremely powerful fan mounted just below the rear wing to extract air from underneath the car, dramatically increasing downforce. The Brabham team of course avoided the “no movable aerodynamic devices” regulation by telling the FIA that the fan’s primary purpose was cooling, rather than downforce enhancement. The so-called “fan car” won its only F1 start, and was banned immediately thereafter.
These designs serve as an exemplum for the sort of innovation that keeps the FIA on their toes. Surely the cars’ respective designers considered the technical regulations too restrictive, much like their contemporaries today. But these designers fought on, finding a way past the regulations to produce thrilling race cars. And just as the Tyrrell and Brabham emerged despite/because of the FIA’s meddling and its ever more restrictive technical regulations, I predict we haven’t seen the last radical race car design.