TBEN is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s greatest Formula 1 title with a 1991-themed special issue of the magazine. The full impact of Adrian Newey at Williams wouldn’t be realised until 1992 but, as the aerodynamics guru told GIORGIO PIOLA in the 11 July 1991 issue, the key principles of making cars go quickly have changed little
Keeping up with the technology of Formula 1 is extremely complex. The series, after all, is the leading edge of automotive technology and, in the hyper-competitive world of grand prix racing, people are keen to hold on to their secrets. There are many highly specialised areas that only the technicians involved truly understand: fuel chemistry, tyre compounds and constructions, advances in electronics – and aerodynamics.
Today, the F1 aerodynamicist is among the most important members of a design team. It is he who evolves the concept design of a car, around which mechanical designers work. Aerodynamics, according to the TBEN dictionary, is ‘the science of the physical effects of winds and wind velocities’. In the most simple terms, the modern F1 car is one large aerodynamic device. It is designed to cut through the air in the most efficient manner.
Generally speaking, the fastest car through the air will be the one that channels air flow in a smooth way, minimising drag and maximising downforce, taking into account such complex effects as the distribution of air pressure around a car in motion.
In order to achieve these goals, F1 designers employ specific devices: elegantly-curved sidepods; front wings with sculptured end-plates and rubbing strips; rear wings with different chords and profiles; complex rear diffusers, and most recently raised noses with under-chassis air-splitters.
These devices will differ from race track to race track, depending on the circuit layout. If you compare an American Indycar running at Indianapolis with an F1 car at Monaco, you will see a huge difference in the rear wing size.
Aerodynamicists talk a great deal of interaction, of the need to see individual changes as part of an overall aerodynamic package. Dramatic breakthroughs are rare and improvements come from endless development and hours in windtunnels.
Aerodynamicists have all manner of restrictions that make make their jobs more difficult. There are complicated regulations to be adhered to, the series’ governing body constantly changing the rules to slow down the cars. At the same time, mechanical engineers need certain minimum dimensions in order to fit in all the necessary components: engine, gearbox, driver, radiators and so on.
Aerodynamics in F1, therefore, is a science of compromise, of finding a balance between what one would like and what one can have. Until recently, aerodynamicists have been faceless boffins locked away in windtunnels. Today, Adrian Newey is one of several emerging from the shadows.
“I find that, when looking at other cars, I try to understand what they are doing. I don’t see any point in copying things if you do not understand them” Adrian Newey in 1991
At 32 years old, Newey has an impressive track record. After gaining a first class honours degree in aeronautics and astronautics at Southampton University, he joined the Fittipaldi F1 team in 1980. This was followed by a move to March Engineering where he worked as a Formula 2 race engineer with Johnny Cecotto before moving quickly through the ranks at March to become Indy project engineer by 1985.
In 1986, he joined Carl Haas’s team and, after a brief F1 foray with FORCE, he went back to March in 1987 to mastermind the technical side of the company’s return to F1. He became technical director of Leyton House Racing after it split from March, but in the summer of 1990 he left to join Williams-Renault.
For the past 12 months, Newey has overseen the progress of the Williams-Renault FW14. After years when engine technology ruled F1, the importance of aerodynamics has increased since turbos were banned. The most dramatic change came at the start of 1990 with the introduction of the high-nosed Tyrrell 019. The 019 caused many teams to re-evaluate their designs and this season there are a wide variety of raised-nose F1 cars. According to Newey, these are not copies.
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“The thing is to understand what you are trying to achieve,” he says. “We certainly never built a Tyrrell model. If we had had more time we might have done it, but as it was we did not. We progressed the aerodynamic developments based on our ideas. Obviously, you could say that there are slight bits of Tyrrell in the car, but it wasn’t a case of starting with Tyrrell.
“I find that, when looking at other cars, I try to understand what they are doing. I don’t see any point in copying things if you do not understand them. I think the Jordan is obviously the most different new car this year. It is the most interesting one to look at in terms of being different. I couldn’t really single out one car and say that looks a good car. I think you have to look at little features in different cars and these may spark ideas.”
So, why have aerodynamicists gone for raised noses?
“Basically,” explains Newey, “it is to clean up the airflow to the back of the car. You see how the air gets to the back of the car and then you try to smooth that out. That’s where all these underside steps started evolving. Quite a long time ago, Ferrari had a little very square step. Then on the 1988 March we started going a little further, and then Tyrrell went a little further. It has gradually evolved.”
But why the dramatic differences in noses this year?
“All the different noses are aiming to do the same thing,” says Newey. “They have taken different approaches to the same problem. I wouldn’t like to say which one is the best or worst. I haven’t had the time to test other people’s approaches. We’ve taken our own routes and tried to refine those.”
Almost all the designs, however, feature an underside air-splitter. How does that work?
“Most of the air goes around the sides of the splitters, some of it then goes into the sidepod intakes and the rest goes around the sidepods,” says Newey. “Anything you can do to discourage the air from going underneath the car is an advantage. Obviously, what you would like to do is put skirts down the sides and encourage the air to come from the front, but we’re not allowed to do that.”
The regulations are tough, but the aerodynamicists are clever. This year, FISA introduced new rules aimed at reducing aerodynamic efficiency by narrowing the front wings, reducing the rear wing overhang and insisting that front wing rubbing strips be raised so that from the front of the car to the front axle centreline no part was closer than 25mm to the ground.
“It is actually quite a big change to overcome,” explains Newey. “It needed some fairly big aerodynamic changes. We’ve reduced the losses, but certainly, were we able to go back to the original rules now, we would be a lot quicker.”
Newey saw a loophole in the new regulations and, in the best traditions of aerodynamics, exploited it to the full. He introduced front wing end-plates that extended backwards to the rear of the front wheels. Between the front axle centreline and the rear of the tyre, he placed a rubbing strip. It meant that air flow could be partially controlled in such a critical part of the car.
“Basically, there is a lot of dirty air coming in from underneath the wing end-plates and you are trying to throw it outwards and deflect it in behind the front wheel to control the flow of air around the front wheel” Adrian Newey in 1991
“It was just a matter of reading the regulations and spotting that between the front-axle centreline and the back edge of the front wheel was not covered,” he says. “We were taking advantage of that.”
Was it a big difference? “I’d rather not quote percentages,” he says coyly. “But it was a small gain…”
Clearly, other aerodynamicists agreed. Since the start of the year, these have been developed frantically with complex sculpturing of end-plates.
“Basically, there is a lot of dirty air coming in from underneath the wing end-plates and you are trying to throw it outwards and deflect it in behind the front wheel to control the flow of air around the front wheel,” says Newey.
By channelling this air behind the front wheel, the drag is lessened? “Yes,” explains Newey. “A little bit. It is all about trying to control the vortices that are created from the underplates and get the mess air controlled.”
So what happens when the air gets to the back of the car? What is the theory behind the sweeping rear diffusers?
“In the old days it was to try and get the air to go to one side or the other and get low pressure behind,” he says. “It’s not efficient. The best you can ever hope for is to get the same pressure under the car as would be at the back of the car.”
Is the angle of the upsweep of the diffuser important?
“It’s all down to the fundamental law of aerodynamics,” says Newey. “The air flow will come up to a certain angle and will then separate. You have to keep just below the angle at which it will separate.”
Aerodynamic research is a costly business. How much windtunnel time did the FW14 get?
“We didn’t have much time,” he explains. “Effectively, we didn’t start windtunnel testing properly until the middle of August last year and, with the new regulation changes, it has been a quite intensive development.
“The windtunnel we use at the moment is at Southampton University. It is a 40% tunnel. The team is building a new tunnel which will be either 40% or 50%. They haven’t decided yet.
“Obviously, you did as much work in the windtunnel as you can. On the FW14 a lot of the work was done very quickly. I didn’t join the team until the beginning of July and the only windtunnel testing slots we had at Southampton were once every six weeks. We did the bulk of the car in about 20 days. That isn’t ideal, it would be nice to have had longer.”
Did it cost a lot? “You basically pay by the day and it’s about £1000 a day, which means that on FW14 it was about £20,000,” he says. “That is fairly cheap. Obviously, you have to have your model makers and so on, but the cost of the model is basically the time.
“There are virtually no material costs, so it is down to paying the salaries of the model makers. We have three model makers and a few bits are made in the machine shop. So, let’s say you have four people working on it. So it is the cost of their salaries.”
“I’d say that with simulations we are getting fairly good now. The consistency between the windtunnel and car has been very encouraging” Adrian Newey in 1991
And how much work takes place in the windtunnel once the season has begun?
“Because we are using Southampton, it is still about once every six weeks,” Newey says. “We do five days at a time, so it’s about five days in six weeks. At the moment we are limited. Once we have our own tunnel, theoretically we can test seven days a week if we wanted to.”
How advanced is F1 windtunnel testing these days?
“I would say that the aerodynamics of the cars are still not sufficiently refined to need to test things like dynamic movements of the cars,” he adds. “I have heard rumours that some people are looking at that, but it is a difficult problem. To do that, a model would have to be made to bounce much faster than the real thing and it’s difficult to actually do that. Also, you would have to ask if that is sufficiently important.
“I’d say that with simulations we are getting fairly good now. The consistency between the windtunnel and car has been very encouraging. When I was at Leyton House last year we had a lot of anomalies between the model and the real car. That threw us in the wrong direction.”
What about Leyton House? It was not a particularly successful time for you…
“To be honest, you have to be fairly phlegmatic about it,” Newey admits. “This 1988 car went quite well. The 1989 car had a lot of problems, but it was quick at times. It was not consistent. Really, as an engineer, you have to try to forget what people say and continue to evolve the ideas, understand the problems and build on that.
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“In the middle of the 1990 season, we began to understand the problems a little bit more and came up with new stuff for Ricard – but by then I wasn’t happy there anymore. For me, Williams was a very interesting opportunity because I had felt for some time that in F1 now – as an engineering exercise – there is too much for one person to take charge of the whole car. You have to divide the car. It’s the same thing with aircraft. They take a team of engineers.
“Working with Patrick Head and the other design engineers at Williams has been good for me, because I can concentrate on the areas in which I feel best qualified to concentrate on.”