From the outside, a Formula 1 team’s design department would appear to be a very rational environment, where logic rules, and careful decisions are made based on science and research.
You might believe there is no place in this world for dogma or blind faith. But you would be wrong.
I am a senior aerodynamicist at a current F1 team. I cannot reveal my identity, for reasons previously explained, but I want to help you understand some of the key issues around the biggest performance differentiators in F1 design.
In reality, some decisions we face as F1 car designers are just too complex to be taken back to first principles and investigated. Teams simply don’t have the time or resources to assess them fully.
As a result, some aspects of car design are taken as articles of faith, and the rest built upon them. In these situations, we look to the demigods of aerodynamics for guidance, and uppermost in the current design pantheon is Adrian Newey.
Newey is the chief technical officer of Red Bull, and his multitude of world championship trophies won with Williams, McLaren and his current team have rightly given him the status of one of the greatest designers in F1 history.
Newey’s area of expertise is aerodynamics and his standing has meant features he has pioneered on his cars have been adopted by other teams. Often – because of the limited time created by the high-pressure demands of the job – without full scrutiny and investigation.
The thinking is simple – Newey’s car features a specific design characteristic; Newey’s car is fast; therefore that design feature must be the right one for another team to adopt.
One example of this, and of Newey’s continued influence in F1, is the high rake angle employed by most teams up and down the grid.
What is rake?
When we talk about rake angle, we mean the difference between the ride height at the front of the car and the back. A low rake angle means the floor of the car is sitting very flat, a high one and the back of the floor is raised a long way off the ground.
What’s particularly interesting is that, in current F1, Mercedes employ one approach – low rake – while Red Bull, Ferrari, and to a large extent the rest of the grid, go for high.
In some ways, then, this year’s title fight is a face-off between Newey’s high-rake design theory and Mercedes’ low-rake one.