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STRAIGHT TALK Enough is sufficient Innovation and the death of downforce. Hopefully P

rogress stagnates without innovation, and without progress economies stagnate.

Even where innovation is present, it may become circular, in the sense that it supports only itself. Aerodynamic downforce, perhaps like Tamara Ecclestone’s TV show, is famous for being famous, but serves few needs outside its own small circle. The era of wings has been

great fun, but enough is more than sufficient. After nearly 50 years of ‘aero this’ and ‘aero that’, motor racing has surely wandered sufficiently far down the pointless cul-de-sac that is downforce. For readers of tender years, one should mention that before the mid-1960s aerodynamic research was aimed at reducing drag – useful work that led to road car improvements in function and style. Consumer car manufacturers realised they could make better looking cars with lower fuel consumption and quieter noise signatures by paying more attention to aerodynamics. Following the discovery of

downforce, however, racing engineers parted company with volume car-making engineers, who had no use at all for downforce. The racing engineers then rushed headlong down what has become one of the most pointless design paths in engineering history. The original downforce genie

was let out of the bottle by the 1966 Can-Am Chaparral 2E which, with its monstrous rear wing, cast a long shadow that still hovers like a pall over most classes of motor racing. Worshipped for their innovation, which was nevertheless to become as evil an addiction as heroin, American citizens Hall, Mrlik, Musser and Winchell, under the protection of General Motors, filed the definitive US patent, entitled ‘Aerodynamic Spoiler for Automotive Vehicles’ in 1967.

Nearly five decades later,

zillions of dollars have been spent on super-computers, wind tunnels and mathematical modelling to make cars stick to the track with downforce created by derivatives of those early ‘Aerodynamic Spoilers’, but it was not only aerodynamics they spoilt. For the fans, increasing

downforce has meant less interesting racing. Cars cannot approach each other, let alone overtake because they lose front grip in turbulence from the car in front. The Formula 1 situation became so bad that driver skill was substituted by the goal of

enough to warrant additional downforce, for safety or any other reason. In Formula 1 the madcap rush

to achieve pointlessly faster lap times, including the double whammy of a secondary cul-de-sac development in the form of downforce generated by ground effect, came at the expense of recognisable competition, and so caused the FIA to search for a solution. Mr Ecclestone helpfully suggested artificial rain to reduce grip, but the FIA eventually decided on the now familiar Drag Reduction System (DRS), where a rear wing

“one of the most pointless design paths in

engineering history”

more downforce for better lap times. For what purpose? No one cares about lap times. People pay to see sport entertainment from close competition, not a line of cars hoping to overtake at some artificial, rule-induced pit stop. Every penny and every second

of the work on ‘negative lift’ has been wasted, as no consumer car gets to travel on public roads fast

on a following car can be flattened to decrease drag and increase speed sufficiently to overtake the car in front. Crucially, however, the leading car is not allowed to use DRS to defend against the move. So pernicious an evil has downforce become then that motor racing has stooped to adopt an asymmetric sporting rule that only applies to a

following car, whereas previously the FIA has taken pains to ensue sporting rules apply equally to all cars. To compound matters, the DRS antidote has no useful road car equivalent either, although its inverse – raising a wing to create drag for emergency braking – is being seriously researched. The wider problem with

downforce development is that it is a converging field of interest only to motor racing, and not to the wider business community from which motor racing receives its cash. The best motor racing developments are those with divergent possibilities that help spawn widespread business activity. McLaren has a spin-off business using composite skills and Williams has a transmission spin-off business, but few, if any, outside of motor racing will want to buy ‘downforce’ as a product. In refreshing contrast, the

energy conservation systems of KERS / ERS have already taken root and caused widespread non-racing investment at firms like Flybrid, Ricardo and the like. These are fruitful development areas that can seed new UK firms to help the economy, conserve energy and hopefully re-kindle a technical engineering interest in motor racing that seems to have been drained by the search for, aptly named, down-force. It is no surprise that the king

The downforce genie that started it all – the 1966 Can-Am Chaparral 2E

of downforce, Red Bull’s Adrian Newey, is thought by many to have compromised his own 2011 Formula 1 KERS system in order to make a better aero package. It is moves like that which cause the author to fervently hope that the legacy era of Mr Newey et al, brilliant though it was, is now drawing to a close. The future of motor racing needs to be about competitive performance, driven not by a plethora of wobbling wings that other cars keep tripping over, but by the most intelligent team and driver application of primary energy.

January 2012 • 7

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