What did we learn after the first Formula 1 race of the year? Big speeds produced by big tires and big wings rarely translate to big passes. The Australian Grand Prix featured record-breaking lap times thanks to the wide new slicks from Pirelli and a regulation change that permits the use of bigger wings, but once qualifying was over, the entertainment all but came to an end.[contentlinks align='left' textonly='false' numbered='false' headline='Related%20Story' customtitles='The%20New%20F1%20Cars%20Pull%20Nearly%208g%20in%20the%20Corners' customimages='' content='article.33043']
Scuderia Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel (shown above) scored a popular win as Mercedes polesitter Lewis Hamilton struggled with tire degradation and handed over the lead after pitting for fresh rubber on Lap 17. And that was, in a nutshell, the 2017 Australian GP.
Vettel stayed out, built a modest lead, stopped for new Pirellis on Lap 23, emerged in front of Hamilton, and cruised home with 10 seconds in hand over the Mercedes team. There's every reason to look forward to qualifying lap records falling at many of the 19 F1 events that remain, but if you're hoping for thrilling passes made among the leaders, the Aussie race highlighted a problem that will require another raft of aero regulation changes in 2018.
F1's Technical Working Group (TWG) can look across the pond to Speedway, Indiana, for the roadmap to solving its key issue: an overreliance on topside downforce. The Verizon IndyCar Series encountered the same problem when it introduced custom aero kits in 2015. The bespoke IndyCar bodywork (below) made by Chevy and Honda—littered with a zillion wings and flicks and aero contortions—gave its drivers enormous downforce, but also generated sizable wakes filled with turbulent air.
IndyCar's silly downforce levels in road and street course trim--reaching upwards of 5500 pounds at many tracks--is produced with the same kind of huge topside aero found in F1. The wing-driven grip makes passing a significant challenge as the turbulent air creates instability over the front wings of any car following close behind. Recognizing the negative effects, IndyCar started down a road in 2016 to invert its downforce production in order to reduce its turbulence problem and improve passing.
The long development process, which came to light on Wednesday with proper renderings, has resulted in new bodywork that will replace aero kits in 2018. The "universal" aerodynamics, which includes new front and rear wings, new sidepods, a new engine cover, and the removal of the ungainly rear wheel pods, will complement IndyCar's efforts to shift more downforce production to the Dallara DW12's underbody.
IndyCar has also taken the opportunity with its 2018 aero revamp to cut overall downforce figures for road/street courses and short ovals. The superspeedway wings (above), meant for the Indy 500, are comparatively tiny due to the upcoming downforce relocation. The higher downforce road/street/short oval wings are depicted below.
This specific exercise—in looking to the underwing to glue cars to the ground—is the obvious path for F1 follow, and the TWG is fully aware of its effectiveness as it's an old, proven method that got its start in grand prix competition. From Mario Andretti's championship-winning 1978 Lotus 79 to Keke Rosberg's title-winning 1982 Williams FW08, ground effects were employed with impressive results as underwings grew in size and power while front and rear wings shrank in stature and importance.
A return to the gargantuan wing-like ground effect tunnels contained within the sidepods isn't required for F1 to solve its passing problem, but the general premise of dialing down the bad aero and amplifying the good downforce should be a no-brainer.
Catch the thoughts of former F1 mechanic Steve Matchett and his NBCSN F1 colleague Leigh Diffey on this topic and more of the good and bad to come from the Australian GP below.