Is F1 ‘Technology Doping’?

The issue of technology in Formula 1 is a double-edged sword. The arguments against the CFD designed cars that cause enough dirty air off the trailing edge of the rear wing to prevent pursuing cars to follow closely is usually met with an equal refrain that F has always been about technology.

In truth, I could argue both statements because both are true. Therein lies the problem, when is there too much technology enablement and when is there not enough or when is technological advances being thwarted?

I was thinking about this conundrum today as the news regarding the 2021 regulation changes swirls around and other such granular topics hover over the sport like speech bubbles in a graphic novel.

Then it popped into my head.

You have to go back to the 2008 Summer Olympics with the introduction of the Speedo LZR Pro and Eilte suits were introduced. In Beijing, 94% of all swimming races won in the suit and 98% of the medals were given to swimmers using that suit. In total, 23 of the 25 world records were broken and by 2009, 93 world records had been broken by swimmers wearing the LZR suits. Eventually FINA banned the body-length suits.

So what was going on with these suits? It boiled down to the same technology used in Formula 1, Computational Fluid Dynamics or CFD software development. In the case of the swimsuits, the designers focused on three key areas with heir suit design:

  • Pressure drag is reduced by compressing a swimmer’s body into a more streamlined shape
  • Viscous drag is reduced by providing a textured surface (as in riblets for yachts and shark skin)
  • Buoyancy is aided by trapping air within the swimsuit which enables a swimmer to be higher in the water and therefore focus their effort on horizontal propulsion

The suit hugged the body 70 times tighter than other suits and could take up to 15 minutes to put on. At £320, the suits weren’t cheap and they were out of the price range for athletes from developing countries. Regardless, in Beijing, Speedo gave away 3,000 suits to swimmers who wanted them.

What did Speedo say at the time about the controversy? Head of development, Jason Rance, said:

‘It is the swimmer, not the suit, that breaks world records,’ he says. ‘When you look back in history there has always been controversy. In 1928, when Speedo went from woolen swimsuits to silk swimsuits, there was moral outrage because it was skin-tight material. When we created the racer back to help Arne Borg [Swedish world champion in the 1920s] to swim faster, that caused outrage because you were showing the naked shoulder. Similarly when we removed the skirt from the female suits, which created huge improvements in performance.’

Do you see a familiar refrain here? It’s the evolution of the technology in the sport, right? The development included a wind tunnel at Nasa, NDA’s signed and testing done early int eh morning under the shroud of secrecy. There was a corset for the main body to strengthen their core.

The fact is, the suits begat a term that became synonymous with not just swimming in the Olympics but the Javelin and other disciplines. The term is “Technology Doping”.

‘It’s part of the evolution of the sport,’ Rance says, ‘and it’s really exciting for swimmers. They say they feel like Superman.’

It may be but the bigger question is, is it really necessary for the sport and in the case of Formula 1, is it improving the entertainment value? Certainly the swimming suit increased entertainment because they were smashing records like breaking windows at the Old Granville house. But then, we’re doing that in Formula 1 aren’t we? Six titles on the trot with no real competition until this year and then only briefly.

Is F1 technology doping or are we still comfortable in suggesting that technology has always been a part of F1 and we should never restrict the evolution of the sport? To be fair, some technology is banned in F1 like ABS, adjustable ride height and other road car tech that we take for granted every day. F1 has limited the amount of CFD that can be done and yet the sport has become nearly unsustainable when Mercedes is complaining of spending $40m on their program with the rest covered by prize money and sponsors. Spending $40m on a $300M program and the brand and marketing ROI has manifest itself into terrific road car sales?

Where is that fine line? The current technology in F1 is becoming so expensive that only the manufacturers can afford to participate at the sharp end. That is why F1 has designed a cost cap system for 2021 and perhaps, unlike FINA, Formula 1 can’t ban their proverbial swimsuit but maybe they can make it impossible for the design teams to test their swimsuits in wind tunnels, design 24/7/365 on CFD and limit the fabric they make them from. Time will tell.

Hat Tip: Guardian on LZR story

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I remember this controversy and I also remember the underlying issue on how much these suits costs for the Olympics participants. While they were available to anyone, few could afford them and that put less financed Olympics teams/participants at a disadvantage. Hardly the Olympics ideal. In F1, this argument on unlimited and unrestricted technology comes up every off-season. This sport had had technology doping for decades. I think a knowledgeable F1 fan could draw parallel situation from F1’s history to one like the Speedo incident in the 2008 Olympics. I don’t see the cost cap being the device to stop… Read more »