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Nature_Science in the Fast Lane

Nature_Science in the Fast Lane

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Published by mcjsa
Article from Nature, October 2004 on engineering formula 1 race cars.
Article from Nature, October 2004 on engineering formula 1 race cars.

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Published by: mcjsa on Dec 19, 2011
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C
hristine Lear’s secret is out.As a prac-tical girl,she chose a practical careerpath,one that suited well her univer-sity training in mathematics:she went intocomputers.Yet something didn’t feel right.From an early age Lear has been fascinated by cars.And not just any old cars.Lear’s once-secret obsession is with Formula 1,the pin-nacle ofhigh-octane motor racing.“Working in Formula 1 has always beenmy dream,she now admits.But even whenshe got a chance to fulfil that dream — aresearch position in a university aerodynam-ics group with close ties to the racing-carindustry — she kept her secret to herself.Convinced that it was just wishful thinking,she did not dare confess her hopes,and pur-sued a PhD investigating ways to reduce thehazardous airflow patterns that form in anaircraft’s wake.Or,as she puts it,“how to landmore planes at Heathrow”.But she never lost the excitement she feltduring Formula 1 races whenever the com-mentator referred to ‘new aero packages’andother tantalizing revolutions in car perfor-mance.She had always wanted to know whatlay behind the jargon,and rather than regretnever having tried,she finally decided topursue her childhood ambition.Lear now has the job ofher dreams.In May she joined the Switzerland-basedSauber-Petronas team,with prime responsi-bility for developing key aerodynamic com-ponents on its Formula 1 car.“There was arunning joke in the office about my very first job with the team,she recalls.“‘Take awoman and give her the mirrors’.”But havingproved her worth,she now has a new secret tokeep — in this highly competitive industry she is not allowed to divulge the details of projects she is working on.Academic research has its highs and lows,but there is always some comfort in knowingthat the laws ofnature underlying your workare likely to be fixed,just waiting to berevealed.Ifit can be considered a race at all,then it is simply a race to be the first touncover these inner workings.The pressures ofresearch in Formula 1are very different.The laws ofnature may be unchangeable,but not so the laws ofthesport.The rules under which the teams oper-ate alter from season to season,motivatedby a desire to keep car speeds within safe lim-its while making the cars unpredictableenough to keep drivers — and spectators —on their toes.The performance ofa car that ishard to handle at speed ultimately dependson the skills ofthe person behind the wheel,which is why Formula 1 has champions,notmere drivers.
Rapid reactions
The car designers,ofcourse,have a very dif-ferent goal.For them,their machine needsto go as fast as is physically possible.It needsto handle like a dream,glued to the road inthe tightest ofcorners.And it needs to win.Whereas an academic may view the idea of abandoning a cherished line ofenquiry withconsiderable dismay,the same is not true forrace engineers.“Rule changes are never a set-back,says Peter Bearman,director ofaero-nautics at Imperial College London andmentor to Lear and numerous other Formula1 recruits.“They relish the challenge.Willem Toet,senior aerodynamicist withthe BAR-Honda Formula 1 team,agrees.Back in the spring of1994,car performancehad reached an all-time high and,over onerace weekend,tragically culminated in thedeaths oftwo Formula 1 drivers — Austriannewcomer Roland Ratzenberger and Brazil-ian champion Ayrton Senna.In their bid toimprove car safety,the rule-makers imposeddrastic changes to the design specifications,giving the teams only two weeks to comply.By restricting the dimensions ofcritical aerody-namic components,their aim was to reducethe ‘downforce’(and hence speed) that thecars could sustain under race conditions.Toet remembers the ensuing flurry of activity well.He and his colleagues resortedto cutting away chunks ofthe finely honedbodywork oftheir car to crudely bring it intoline with the new specifications.The down-force ofthe butchered machine immediately dropped by 30%.But within a matter ofdays,redesign and tweaking ofthe downsizedcomponents helped them to recover halfof the lost performance,maintaining the car’scompetitive edge.“Extreme physical andmental work was required — a true intelli-gence test,”says Toet.This high-pressure environment may 
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VOL 431
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 With the rules of the game changing before everyseason, Formula 1 engineers often have a matterof weeks to redesign their car before it is testedon the track. Karl Ziemelis and Charles Wenz join the race to the start line.
Science in the
FAST LANE
Crash course:engineering teams have significantly improved safety in Formula 1 — even during accidents — and with data from cars on the racetrack (right),they have also boosted performance.
P.CROCK/AFP PHOTO
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help to explain why Formula 1 recruits heav-ily from academia.“My last three PhD stu-dents all went into Formula 1,”says Bearman,whose department has now provided about40 engineers for the industry.One ofhis cur-rent students,Jonathan Pegrum,is clearabout what attracts him to Formula 1.“I wantto use what I have learned,says Pegrum,“inaerodynamics,it is hard to think ofanotherindustry that is at the cutting edge.“Many ofthe people we employ on theengineering side come straight from univer-sity,says Nicholas Tombazis,chiefaerody-namics engineer at the McLaren-Mercedesteam.Tombazis especially values the solidunderstanding in aerodynamics that aca-demic training provides,and his team cur-rently supports two PhD projects inBearman’s group.But this has not always been the case.Although there is now genuine admirationin the engineering community for the tech-nical achievements that underpin a Formula1 car,in the early days ofthe sport it wasviewed with more suspicion.“Cowboys play-ing with fire,”according to Brian O’Rourke,chiefcomposites engineer at the Williams-BMW team.
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Rewind to the early 1970s.Recognizing itslack ofaerodynamic expertise,the Formula 1industry approached the aeronautics groupat Imperial College to help solve a naggingproblem:cooling.The cars ofthat era had afront-mounted radiator,the air from whichwas funnelled up through the nose ofthe carand — inconveniently — out through thecockpit.The result? One driver,medium rare.Solving this problem resulted in a funda-mental rethink about the positions oftheradiators themselves (they are now side-mounted),followed by a redesign ofthe car’snose into the now-familiar,and more aero-dynamically efficient,pointed shape.
Taming the force
This was also a time when wind-tunneltechniques underwent rapid development— most notably the introduction of‘rollingroads’.The flow ofair around a moving cardepends not only on its shape,but also oninteractions with the road underneath.Tocorrectly mimic a car moving at speed,theunderlying surface needs to move in pacewith the flowing air,rather than stayingmotionless as was previously the case.A deeper understanding ofthe interac-tions between car,air and road led to newways ofexploiting aerodynamic effects.Instead offocusing mostly on drag reduc-tion,engineers discovered that you couldmake tremendous gains in performance by using aerodynamics to stick the car to theroad.This downforce is essentially thereverse ofthe ‘liftthat keeps planes in the air,and is the main role ofthe ‘wings’attached tothe nose and rear ofthe car.In the 1970s,Lotus engineers realized thatthe entire car could be made to act like a giantinverted wing ifthe underside was suitably contoured.This concept became known asthe ‘ground effect’,and led to the introduc-tion ofvarious devices — including road-hugging skirts — to exploit it.Most werethen predictably banned.Despite all the rulechanges,the combined downforce andground effect on modern cars would be suffi-cient,in theory,for them to drive upsidedown on a ceiling at high speed.
Plane sailing
But even with these aerodynamic principlesfirmly in place,designing cars remains achallenge — when it comes to controllingairflow around the chassis,racing cars havea decidedly nasty shape.And the cars havedifferent aerodynamic needs depending onthe track conditions — meaning specificfeatures change from race to race.So newaerodynamic ideas will continue to featureheavily in Formula 1 racing,and the teamsall now have highly qualified aerodynami-cists devoted to the task.It has been said that a modern Formula 1car has more in common with a jet fighterthan an ordinary road car.But few would
AFP PHOTOSAUBER-PETRONAS
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