In the 3rd year of the current V6 regulations, any threat to Mercedes has failed to materialize. However as Ferrari showed in 2015, the Silver Arrows are supreme but not infallible, hence the emphasis on the chassis in the current engine dominant era is not lost.
Following their 2015 success, Ferrari is widely speculated to take the competition to the German team but with strategical blunders the opportunities have not yet been converted into a win while the other team that can do so is Red Bull with their strong chassis equipped now with an upgraded Renault engine that has closed down considerably the gulf in the performance.
But away from the battles on the front, McLaren has fallen to the lower rungs of the grid since it decided to pair with Honda in 2015. From being dead last the team has crawled back to the midfield on the basis of gains made in the chassis area while the engine gains have been slow.
This prompted me to dive into the technical analysis of these 3 teams as they represent a great deal of variety. While Ferrari makes its own engine and chassis, Red Bull works in a close nexus with Renault to produce its cars and McLaren having a dog of an engine in Honda is pumping everything it has into its chassis to be competitive.
Come 2016 Ferrari didn’t have to do much more to catch Mercedes, yet at the start of the season, Ferrari introduced plenty of changes on the SF16-H including many ideas seen elsewhere in the field.
Buoyed by their progress from 2014 to 2015 triumphing the mighty Mercedes thrice in the process, Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne gave a coded warning to his team stating that should the team go ten years without winning a title it would be ‘a tragedy’. The last addition to their trophy cabinet was eight years ago, so the clock is ticking. But looking at how the year is panning out, heads are expected to roll at the Italian table, come the year-end. But that does not discredit the raft of changes introduced to this year’s challenger.
Ferrari’s SF16-H (H for hybrid) is a wholesale departure from its predecessor in many areas. Ferrari has made huge progress since the disaster of 2014 and last year’s car had no obvious flaws, other than lacking the last ounce of outright pace against Mercedes.
Fundamentally, what Ferrari has done with the latest car is to revise the under-nose airflow and repackage the rear for aerodynamic benefit.
Changes at the front were widely predicted, and the nose and suspension layout bring Ferrari into line with the rest of the field.
The nose has been shortened considerably, following the Williams-esque wedge shape, with a protruding thumb at its tip.
As rumoured during the off-season, Ferrari ditched the long nose philosophy they stuck to throughout last year and switched to a short, thumb-tip style snout. With the crash structure now scaled back to hang just over the trailing edge of the front wing main plane, there is now more room for the aerodynamicists to play with.
Another effect of the front aero clean-up is the switch from pull rod to pushrod actuation for the suspension. Now the rod goes from low down near the wheel to high up near the monocoque. This is not to cure the understeer that many associate with the Ferrari, but is an aero lead solution. The team has stated that aero was the primary reason, followed by weight and lastly kinematics.
The repositioned pull rod means the wishbones are revised, with the lower wishbone still being a conjoined design as first seen on the Mercedes and copied by Ferrari last year.
Although closed off, the front axles and brake ducts are the blown type as raced for most of 2015. The large diameter wheel nuts are the clue to the oversized axle hiding an internal duct to blow air through the open end for an outwash effect on the airflow passing around the front tyre.
Around the cockpit, small changes have been made. The higher, stronger cockpit sides and rear-facing FIA safety camera are regulatory changes, while the roll hoop inlet is slightly different to last year, losing its distinctive triangular shape for a more rounded one.
Behind the roll hoop, the mid wing that has been fitted to the Ferrari for over a year remains, but its inverted shape is more pronounced and the spine of the engine cover is cut away to allow the aero effect of the mid wing to work on the airflow passing towards the rear wing.
Ferrari has retained their angled radiator layout for 2016 and still managed to shrink the side of the side pod inlets slightly. This cuts drag and improves the quality of the airflow passing around the side pod undercut that travels back towards the rear diffuser.
It appears the side pods are an evolution of last year’s compact design, with near horizontal radiators placed inside the bodywork aided by slats and louvers to improve efficiency at the radiator cores. This keeps the side pods low and sleek.
At the front, the vanes around the side pod fronts are revised, It’s obvious the rear bodywork is narrower due to the bulges to clear the engine and gearbox. The side pod outlets then widen and encompass the top rear wishbones – this streamlines the suspension and keeps the rest of the side pod’s tail super-narrow.
More power unit changes have manifested themselves in the exhaust area. Last year Ferrari had a sizeable wastegate mounted over the gearbox and its tailpipe merged into the exhaust’s main tailpipe.
Now the rules demand separate wastegate pipes and the Ferrari has two pipes running below the main tailpipe. The wastegate has clearly been repositioned as the old cooling inlet on the spine of the engine cover has been removed.
Rumours suggest the MGUs have been repackaged from behind the engine to further forward it, with the trademark turbo intercooler in the engine’s ‘V’ repositioned to make space for the MGU-H here and to allow a large inlet plenum with variable length inlets inside. This can only be guesswork for now, as again for the third year running Ferrari has released no engine imagery – a strange practice for a team normally so proud of its engines.
Such a wholesale change in aero and power unit set-up is a double-edged sword. Yes, the design is now far more conventional compared to the rest of the field so the ideas are well-proven, but equally with change comes risk in pace and reliability something that has been more than apparent for the Maranello based squad this year.
McLaren has introduced aerodynamic and mechanical developments for 2016 into its MP4-31 but the key to McLaren’s 2016 performance lies beneath that tightly-sculpted ‘size zero’ engine cover. Honda has promised fundamental changes to its RA616H power unit in pursuit of the 200bhp-plus gulf which separated the team from the front runners last year and results are beginning to show for themselves as the team has started to inch closer towards getting into Q3.
McLaren’s aerodynamic department, in its second year under the direction of ex-Red Bull man Peter Prodromou, has clearly worked extremely hard on developing the short nose concept which the team embraced halfway through last season. The mounting pylons for the front wing have been heavily twisted and elongated as far rearward as possible within the regulations to guide airflow onto the splitter region. The shape of the nose itself has also been heavily sculpted too, with the pylons forming an aggressive arch to meet the thumb-tip extension in a similar way to what Toro Rosso did last year.
The nose also retains the S-duct seen in 2015, with the same split-outlet design integrated neatly with the pivot tube/telemetry stack. Having the S-duct cleans up the airflow that would otherwise be disturbed by a step in the underside of the chassis and McLaren’s layout is arguably the tidiest seen so far.
The brake ducts are an evolution from last year, featuring their unique clam shell-esque design as well as an additional inlet sitting on top. Despite the aerodynamic devices around the cockpit area remaining unchanged over the late specification MP4-30, the bodywork thereafter is a strong evolution of the ‘size zero’ philosophy for 2016. Although the size of the inlets has actually increased for this year – hardly a surprise considering the reliability issues they ran into in 2015 – the overall shape of the side pods is much cleaner and more fluid.
They follow a similar design to that of the Red Bull RB11 in that the side pod profile slopes towards the outside of the car in places to conjoin the frontal and rearward sections of bodywork. The tidier design will help improve the rate at which airflow is fed towards the rear of the car, which will further enhance the capabilities of the diffuser and rear wing.
A key area of interest is the engine cover. Around the roll hoop area, the MP4-31 features a traditional airbox with a smaller upper inlet accompanied by the larger lower one. At the beginning of last year, the upper inlet was used to cool the ERS radiator which was mounted above the engine which meant that the engine cover had to be enlarged to clear it. However, this was sacrificed towards the end of last year as the radiator was moved to a more traditional place within the side pods, making way for a shark fin on the spine of the car.
So it is interesting to see the new McLaren again features a rounded engine cover, suggesting that the ERS cooler is once again back above the power unit. The big question from last year was whether the improved aero benefits outweighed the higher centre of gravity. The MP4-31’s rear wing appears to be a complete departure from its predecessor.
The long, slatted end-plates which hung down towards the diffuser are gone and in their place is a cut-off design with just two vertical slots at their base. This is very reminiscent of what Mercedes have been doing for the past couple of years as it generates a greater upwash effect at the rear of the car to improve rear grip. Above these are no fewer than four slots cut into the endplate just beneath the main plane of the wing itself. Their job is to transfer air from the outside of the endplate to the inner, reducing the pressure across it. This is done to decrease the intensity of the wing-tip vortices that build up as the speed of the car increases and thus reducing drag.
After adopting Ferrari’s upgrade from Singapore, McLaren has retained the multi-slotted floor ahead of the rear tyre to reduce the effects of tyre squirt. Like the ones on the Ferrari SF16-H, they are orientated so that they produce a vortex that displaces any turbulence generated by the rear tyre heading into the diffuser region. By diverting this turbulence away from the diffuser, the low pressure that is pulling the car into the ground is less disrupted and the diffuser can be worked harder.
Like every other car we have seen so far, McLaren has adopted the inverted ‘Mickey Mouse’ exhaust layout – two wastegate pipes sitting both sides and just beneath the main exhaust outlet. The rear wing’s central pylon is akin to that which Toro Rosso used last year, passing through the main exhaust itself before mounting to the gearbox case.
The rear wing pylon appears to have a mount ready to accommodate a monkey seat winglet above the exhaust. The winglet acts as a linking device between the diffuser and rear wing, generating an up washing effect on the airflow whilst also allowing the rear wing to be run at a higher angle of attack.
The MP4-30 was widely considered to be one of the better chassis from a grip and downforce point of view last year. The MP4-31 looks set to build on that strength.
Although Red Bull’s shortcomings were mostly on the power unit side last year they also had problems with their handling at the beginning of the season, something which was largely cured by a mid-season upgrade.
Therefore it was little surprise to see the team reveal a largely evolutionary RB12 at the Circuit de Catalunya. The deficiency in the performance of its TAG Heuer-badged Renault engine and Restrictive rules making it harder for teams to make up for poor power unit performance with superior aerodynamics, if any team is going to find a way it’s this one.
As usual Red Bull completed the crash testing of their car very late. However this wasn’t just because they were pushing the limit of what could be achieved: the team only settled on an engine supplier late in 2015, the decision to remain with Renault at least meant less disruption to their development process than if they had switched, as sister outfit Toro Rosso has.
The front end of the car is outwardly very similar to what the team raced at the end of last season, albeit coated in their sleek new matte finish. As usual Red Bull have pointed the way for their rivals in aerodynamic philosophy. Having been one of the first teams to adopt a steeply sloped nose with a ‘thumb tip’ – and having developed a particularly aggressive implementation of it – they have produced an evolution of the design for this year. Red Bull have always orientated their chassis design around getting a high volume of flow underneath the car, so don’t expect them to follow the Mercedes-style low and thin nose anytime soon.
In the third year of largely stable aerodynamic regulations, F1’s best-resourced teams are seeking gains in ever-smaller areas. Brake ducts are one of them. While their main function is to cool the brakes, like every external surface they can also be used to shape the car’s airflow and ultimately improve cornering performance.
Red Bull have further refined their 2015 set-up with subtle adjustments to the front bell mouth inlet and more major changes to the rear layout. More extravagant turning vanes and flick-ups have been used to capture air and use it to do work on the tyre. The rear ducts have a series of small winglets rising up the back of them to generate further downforce, which is all the more effective for being transmitted directly to the tyre, avoiding the suspension.
Red Bull started off the winter testing period using the blown front axle. This is when the air is channeled through the brake duct inlets but instead of cooling the brakes it is bypassed into a hollow front axle before exiting out of the open wheel nut face. This helps the front wing push airflow out and around the front tyre and frontal area of the side pods for use further back.
Some minor alterations have been made to the seedpods over last year, with the bodywork pinching slightly tighter to the internals. The advantage of the Renault power unit is its thermal efficiency, despite their troubled start to the hybrid era where overheating was a big problem. This means that there is only so much Red Bull can do to close up the bodywork to improve the aerodynamics.
Further rearward, new apertures have been made into the bodywork to accommodate the new rear suspension geometry, although the central rear heat outlet remains largely unchanged from its predecessor.
The airbox is more circular for 2016 as Red Bull appear to have made the transition away from their elliptical designs during their peak of success. Beneath it is another large inlet just behind the driver’s head that is responsible for cooling some of the ERS components.
Again Red Bull have not opted to shrink-wrap the engine cover around the internals and have instead gone for a more rounded look similar to the McLaren MP4-31. Although it is surprising, it clearly works with how the airflow is fed towards the rear wing and is perhaps not as sensitive as a proper shark fin.
Perhaps the most interesting feature on the RB12 is the change in rear suspension geometry. Last year Red Bull made big changes to the front suspension kinematics and it appears as if they have followed this up with further adjustments to the rear end. The inclinations of the wishbones are far less steep, quite flat actually.
The floor has been by far the biggest change to the Red Bull for 2016, featuring a new diffuse and tyre squirt slots. The top of the diffuser is completely straight across its entire length, whereas previously there was a small decline at its centre around the rear crash structure. Red Bull have also ditched the L-shaped slots in the floor ahead of the rear tyre and followed the direction Ferrari have taken by installing a series of smaller slits to control tyre squirt.
Red Bull’s exhaust design is intriguing as it has two wastegate pipes in the form of the inverted ‘Mickey Mouse’ shape but the factory Renault team has a single wastegate pipe even though the teams share exactly the same engine. Perhaps Renault’s original layout was composed of a single wastegate but Red Bull had the option to develop it and add an additional one. Two wastegates provide better control of boost pressure but the single pipe has a marginal aerodynamic gain as the bodywork can hug the car tighter.
The focus of the work has been the turbo and on combustion, two areas where all manufacturers had some catching up to do with Mercedes, that has been the benchmark under the new hybrid turbo rules since 2014. And at Monaco, Renault finally brought in the upgrade that drew it at par with Ferrari.
In an interview, Remi Taffin, Director of Operations at Renault Sport, affirmed the progress the French marquee has made with its V6 unit.“The power unit we have used since the first race in Australia was really a continuation of the work started in the ‘Spec-D’ power unit we introduced at the tail end of 2015,” said Taffin. “We explored some concepts in that earlier iteration and the 2016 unit took them further, for example in the turbo. This new spec goes even further down the line and also includes significant modifications to the combustion system. It will make the ICE more powerful but also efficient, leading to a gain of around half a second per lap. We’ve used a small proportion of our token allocation for this upgrade.”
And Renault’s progress is vindicated by Red Bull’s pole position at Monaco and strong results during qualifying even on power hungry circuits.
With 13 races yet to go, the squabble behind Mercedes is set to become even fiercer while further down the grid McLaren is getting even closer to the midfield mix. Although 2017 has promised to close the gap on the engine front by eliminating the token system amongst other things but as far as this year is concerned overcoming the Mercedes Mountain looks out of reach, however, the closer the teams get the more of it is bound to translate into 2017 success. And with a host of circuits still to come up that might present the opportunity to rival teams, it’s the chassis that’s set to play the crucial role for victory.