F1 Design: A Question Of Philosophy

Like any other sport in the world, developing the equipment in motorsport is an effective route to getting ahead of the competition. As with other sports, typically, technical convergence occurs as understanding increases. However, the 2022 Formula 1 season hasn’t seen the convergence some expected before this era started. So, how does such a physics-driven problem create so many different design options? Could the answer be philosophy? More specifically, could it be the philosophy of those that guide the technical groups and their relationship with the physics at play? I spoke to the technical directors of a few F1 teams to find out.

Scuderia AlphaTauri‘s technical director Jody Egginton spent much of his career as a mechanical design engineer and race engineer before he moved into management. Early in the 2022 F1 season, Egginton said, ‘We drew several dramatically different cars in the concept phase of designing the AT03, particularly regarding the bodywork and the floor’s details. The floor is one of the biggest aerodynamic performance differentiators, but the devil is in the detail. The bodywork has its authority, but it’s also a function of what you do with the floor and the power unit integration. Following the design phase, the sensitivity of specific parts differed from what we expected. My philosophy was to design for flexibility and development scope of the car and package protection to give us as many opportunities for manipulating the car as possible, particularly in the sidepod packaging. We haven’t used much of that package protection yet, but we felt like it was the right way to develop it. The worst thing you can do is to develop a fantastic aerodynamic platform and have to redesign a lot of mechanical bits underneath them and shift them around to realize your dream.’

James Key, McLaren‘s technical director, is of the opinion that, ‘Your engineering background and expertise definitely influence how you view a car and your technical philosophy.’ Key studied a Bachelor of Engineering degree, mainly mechanical, which included a whole range of engineering disciplines. He started working in Formula 1 in 1998 at 26 and became Jordan’s technical director in 2005, aged 33, which made him one of the youngest to hold that position in the sport. “What influenced me most was that I started working trackside,” he says. ‘When you see the sharp end (trackside) as your first understanding of what Formula 1 is, that’s an illuminating place to learn. You learn how the tires are behaving, your control systems, your aero balance, where the driver is on track, your mechanical setup, and the track condition; put it all together in your head and see the more comprehensive picture.

Suppose you went to Formula 1 technical direction after working in specific subjects like aerodynamics and vehicle dynamics or as a design or control systems engineer. If you’re an aerodynamicist, you see a set of surfaces, and regardless of what’s inside it, you want to optimize that to the nth degree. Anything that gets in the way of that, like a wishbone or something else, becomes a pain. Those wishbones are fundamentally important if you’re a mechanical person. With that background, you sometimes carry that focus on, and it doesn’t always render well in the context of the whole car. My technical directing philosophy focuses on optimizing for the car on the track and configuring the team to operate at the track level.’

Unlike some of his contemporaries, 2022 marks technical director at the Alpine Formula 1 team Matt Harman‘s first year in this position in Formula 1. Before taking on the role, Harman spent half his Formula 1 career designing power units and half designing chassis. He said, ‘I think my background allows me to be quite critical and understand a lot of compromises and the trade-offs we need to make on the car in many detailed engineering areas. Over the years, I’ve taken responsibility for lots of different areas of the car, and I’ve gained quite a lot of understanding of those sensitivities. My philosophy is to consider the harmony of systems, particularly in some of the areas like powertrain integration, for example, where things can often feel faster because they improve in a unit of kilowatts but actually, at the end of the day, once you’ ve added up all the parasitic losses, we could end up with something that’s not quicker.’

MercedesMike Elliot, an aerodynamicist through and through, looks at the physics of a Formula 1 car very differently compared to some of his colleagues. He explained, ‘When you look at a Formula 1 car as an aerodynamicist, you immediately see that the dominant features of the aerodynamics are the front wheels. The front wheels generate a tremendous amount of wake, and how you deal with that is the key to performance. Our philosophy for the W13 was to bring the bodywork in the central chassis of the car as tight as possible to the driver cell and around the power unit to have a minimal effect from the front tire wake.’

As can be observed in the cars throughout the Formula 1 grid, an F1 technical director’s philosophy can generate a particular design direction for the car as a function of the weighting they place on the various performance elements and physics as play. Once you have a philosophy, much of the design stems from it and forces you down a particular route to deploy it effectively. As such, despite the multitude of tools available to the talents in Formula 1, the nature of the technical personnel’s knowledge, relationship with physics, and experience, when considered in the context of the car’s environment, remain a considerable influence on the resulting machine.

Leave a Comment