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Red Bull Gives You (Flexible Front-) Wings…

April 15, 2011

Alas, the flexible front-wing debate rumbles on. Rivals spent a sizeable chunk of last season complaining that Red Bull were gaining an unfair advantage through the use of a front-wing that flexed more than was allowed, a complaint that has arisen this season too. Do they, don’t they? Here is what’s known on the subject…

At the crux of the matter is that fact that Red Bull have been producing cars demonstrably faster than their rivals. They won both titles last season, and have claimed both pole positions and race victories thus far this season. Central to this dominance is the fact that the Red Bull is capable of generating more downforce in the fast corners than their rivals, allowing higher cornering speeds and therefore quicker lap times.

Almost all attribute the success to field-leading designer Adrian Newey, in particular to his blown diffuser which utilises the car’s exhaust gases to improve air flow to the diffuser ‘increas[ing] the overall quantity of air feeding the diffuser suck[ing] the car to the track at high speeds.’ However, RBR Team Principle Christian Horner believes the benefit earned from a blown diffuser to be worth ‘only about two or three tenths’ per lap. Furthermore, this concept has since been adapted by many of Red Bull’s rivals, thereby reducing their comparative advantage.

An area where Red Bull’s rivals are struggling to catch up on however is the concept of a flexible front-wing; a wing that passes the minimum ride-height tests under load-testing when stationary, but somehow flexes to a lower height at speed helping to generate more downforce and therefore higher speeds in the quick corners. It does not account for all of Red Bull’s comparative superiority, but would certainly contribute significantly nonetheless.

Horner has attempted to play down the presence of such a device on their cars for 2011, even citing ‘a high rake angle’ as an explanation for why the front of their cars might appear lower. This, however, has failed to convince many of those associated with the sport, rivals and fans included. McLaren driver Jenson Button recently remarked, ‘I know a few people that I have spoken to say it flexes more than what they expect is correct,’ whilst fan forums (such as this one on f1fanatic.co.uk) are awash with mutterings and photographic evidence on the subject.

Furthermore, onboard footage of RBR driver Sebastian Vettel at the 2011 Melbourne Grand Prix appears to show his front-wing flexing considerably throughout a lap of the circuit:

FIA front-wing regulations and load tests stipulate that a ‘front wing must be no lower than 75mm above the reference plane’ and allow for up to 20mm of movement under a 100kg load. In the image below (a comparison between a Red Bull front-wing and a McLaren front-wing in Melbourne last month), it is clear that at the same point on the track, the front-wing of the Red Bull has moved a considerable amount more relative to the reference plane [green line] than the rules permit (certainly more than the legal McLaren) to the point that their front-wing is almost touching the ground.

As to how RBR achieve this flexing, the answer comes courtesy of a clever tie-up with MSC Software which started in 2009 and involves the maximisation of aeroelasticity from specifically engineered carbon composite materials. It is a complex process, explained in far greater depth and accuracy here, but it essentially involves manufacturing the wing (and nose) from a material that can withstand static load-tests in parc fermé but is able to deform under the aerodynamic influences experienced whilst racing. Thus a flexible front-wing is born.

Although such a device is technically illegal, it is governed by regulations that are enforced by static load-testing, and it would appear RBR have found a way of negotiating these tests. The FIA’s load tests are static and one-dimensional, involving the application of only vertical load, which completely ignores the very obvious fact that a car travelling at speeds approaching 200mph will be under the influence of significant horizontal loading too, for instance.

Therefore, whilst Red Bull’s front-wings will comply with the static tests away from the track, once on the track they behave very differently and technically no longer comply with the rules. However, until the FIA can implement a more substantial testing process – or indeed utilise software to monitor in-race wing flexing – then Red Bull (and the teams that will eventually follow suit) will continue to be ‘legal’.

In short, the current testing process is not robust enough to eliminate the ability of competitors to manipulate the rules, which is why it is stated on the official F1 website that ‘despite controversy about their ‘flexible’ front wing, Red Bull have passed this [load] test, leaving their rivals striving to develop similar solutions.’ The car passes the load tests, and is therefore technically legal. It is now up to their rivals to catch up.

Indeed, Ferrari managed to copy it last season, but were unable to recreate it this season, according to their technical director Aldo Costa, due to ‘the new, more stringent test.’ For now, it seems, the advantage is entirely Red Bull’s. As Mercedes chief Ross Brawn stated the other day, ‘Red Bull obviously pass it [the load test], so that’s all there is to say about it.’ He continues, intriguingly, ‘If that’s the reason – or one of the reasons – for their level of performance […] then you need to consider going that route yourself.’ It is little wonder therefore that having seen Red Bull’s successful manipulation of the rules, rivals Ferrari aim on following suit and ‘will do a flexible front wing soon.’ In time, the entire paddock will follow suit.

And that, perhaps, is a sad state of affairs for Formula One. Whilst we should remember that F1 is at the pinnacle of technology and innovation – so yes, RBR’s technical ingenuity should be praised – we should also remember that the regulations are there to ensure a level playing field for all. Although ultimately it falls on the FIA to enforce their rules, to accept such rule-bending is to effectively endorse cheating. Afterall, a hurdler who lowers his hurdles by a few inches would be said to have gained an unfair advantage over his rivals and duly disqualified.

Ayrton Senna once said that ‘being second is to be the first of the ones who lose,’ and for that reason alone, no team is ever willing to stand still in F1. It might be against the spirit of the sport perhaps, but whilst Red Bull are able to flex their wings without repercussion, it is an inevitable shame that other teams will be forced to copy.

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