RBR, Ferrari ‘Flexi’ Wings have Mercedes, McLaren stumped


Leading up to the Hungarian Grand Prix this weekend, the talk was mostly centered around team orders but Friday’s practice pace set by Red Bull had effectively pressed that controversy to the simmer plate as all new allegations of illegal use of flexible front wings had taken center stage.

Red Bull and Ferrari are alleged to have a front wing that flexes under load which increases the performance of their cars. The new wings made their debut in Silverstone this year at the British Grand Prix. Although the FIA gave the wings the “all-clear” after the German Grand Prix, it seems that McLaren and Mercedes GP would like some clarifications on the regulation after Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel vaporized the entire field by setting a pole position lap nearly half a second faster than his teammate Mark Webber and over a full second quicker than rival Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari.

Emotionally speaking, there has been a shift in fortunes for Ferrari as of late and Red Bull, while daunting all year long, have upped their game considerably while points leaders McLaren are slowly moving backward even with an aggressive development campaign as I mentioned here. Technically speaking, it is perhaps not difficult to suss if McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh is correct in saying a flexible front wing would be worth a second or more in lap time.

FIA technical regulation 3.17.1 states that “bodywork may deflect no more than 10mm vertically when a 500N load is applied vertically to it 800mm forward of the front wheel centre line and 795mm from the car centre line. The load will be applied in a downward direction using a 50mm diameter ram and an adapter 300mm long and 150mm wide”. The remaining question is how much flex is allowed when over 500 Newton’s are applied?

While absolute “rigid” parts are impossible to create, the drama may just be in regulation 3.15 regarding Aerodynamic influence:

With the exception of the cover described in Article 6.5.2 (when used in the pit lane), the driver adjustable bodywork described in Article 3.18 and the ducts described in Article 11.4, any specific part of the car influencing its aerodynamic performance:

• must comply with the rules relating to bodywork
• must be rigidly secured to the entirely sprung part of the car (rigidly secured means not having any degree of freedom)
• must remain immobile in relation to the sprung part of the car.

Any device or construction that is designed to bridge the gap between the sprung part of the car and the ground is prohibited under all circumstances. No part having an aerodynamic influence and no part of the bodywork, with the exception of the skid block in 3.13 above, may under any circumstances be located below the reference plane.

If a wing conforms to the 10mmm @ 500N test, is it good to go? If it does flex under more than 500N, is that up for interpretation? The FIA does go on to say that they can change the parameters of the test at any time should a part be deemed suspect and perhaps this was added to quell the rigidity at 500N but flexibility at anything greater than 500N. That’s splitting hairs but it is a sport of inches and seconds.

Then spirit of the regulation versus the letter of the regulation I suspect. Perhaps the same approach and crafty engineering that saw the creation of the J-dampers, movable floor, dual diffuser and F-Duct. McLaren’s Whitmarsh says he is unclear of the methind being used and that is perplexing to him but a clarification is certainly needed:

“I think the FIA has got to take a view now of what is acceptable, and if it is acceptable, to get the endplates down. Every millimetre is about one point of downforce at the front, although it also improves the rear. So 25-30mm of vertical lowering of the endplates is one second [per lap], so it is fairly substantial.”

“We believe that the extent to which our bodywork is flexing is permissible. If we believed at the beginning of the year that such gross movement of the bodywork was permissible we would have done that.

“Progressively we have seen some teams’ bodywork has become much more flexible – but maybe they are right, maybe they have got the right interpretation, maybe we have to be hard on ourselves that we have not been as brave, as creative or as diligent in this area as some of these teams.

“If anyone who just looks at the regulation 3.15 (of F1’s technical rules), which says bodywork must be attached rigidly, then goes to look at endplates that ought to be 90mm off the ground and sees them touching the ground, then I think a lay person would be surprised that that is permissible.”

Mercedes boss Ross Brawn would like a clarification so they can move full force toward a similar wing. The caution is that this development will cost money and the team don’t want to spend it if the FIA is simply going to change its mind later. He told AUTOSPORT:

“I think observation on the videos and stills show that Red Bull is the prime case, but Ferrari partially, has managed to set their cars up to run the front wings a lot lower to the ground than perhaps ourselves or McLaren have been able to achieve.

“I think probably what we are asking is, before we all go off and have a massive development programme, is Charlie [Whiting, FIA race director] going to change the rules before we get there?

“When it is demonstrated to you, you look at all the ways that you can achieve it and I think for the latter part of this year, and next year, we will all be doing the same. We just want to make sure that Charlie is comfortable with it and is not going to change the rules when we get there, because it will be an awful waste of effort.”

Depending on your point of view, the “flexi” wing is either an F-duct type of brilliance or a violation of the regulations. I am not an engineer and did not stay and a Holiday Inn Express last night so I have no dog in this fight from an intellectual stand point but if the FIA have looked at the wing, approved it and moved on, I sense it is an F-Duct style innovation that McLaren shouldn’t be too upset over. They owned everyone’s backside earlier this year with an innovative and creative interpretation of the regulations just as Brawn GP did last year with their dual diffuser.

If you believe in absolutes, then the regulation gives measurement that it is not to exceed and a test parameter that will be used. IT also provides a caveat that the test parameters can be changed and that implies that developing rigidity at 500N that doesn’t exist when pressed beyond test parameters is a clear indication that it should not have a dual nature beyond testing parameters.

Ferrari’s Stefano Domenicali defended their wings saying:

“For me, it is not a matter of opinion,”

“We need to rely on the governing body that is doing all the checks that they want.

“They did, at least I can say on our car, so it is a matter of respecting the regulations and really that’s it.

“There are certain tests that you have to do with the front wing as you can do with other parts of the car, and you have to respect the loads and the tests that are connected to that part specifically – and if you pass that, then that’s done.”

Red Bull’s Christian Horner was no less defensive of their position and even added some polemics to spice up the action:

“It is interesting where the emphasis moves,”.

“So far this year we have had active ride height, we have had suspension, we have had diffusers looked at. We have had front wings.

“As always there is never a silver bullet.

“The performance of any car comes down to how design philosophy and a combination of components work as opposed to any one particular component.

“There are stringent tests. I am happy that our car complies with all the regulations and take it as a compliment to our engineers when a fuss like this is sometimes made by rival teams.”

This all depends on how the FIA views the regulations it wrote and perhaps FIA technical boss Charlie Whiting has rendered a judgment on the issue. He offered a judgment on the F-Duct this year only to conceded it and then ban it for 2011. He offered a judgment on the dual diffuser only to allow it in 2010 but ban it in 2011. I suspect the “flexi” wing will meet a similar demise in time.

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