Formula 1 arrives at its first race of the year with more uncertainly than ever before. With far reaching rules changes - the most radical since 1983 - the field has been shaken up. Every team has come to its own conclusion as the best design route to maximize use of the new slick tyres, simplified aerodynamics and KERS.
From the few tests that have taken place since the end of January, no one is quite clear who has the pace or reliability to succeed in 2009.
Adding more interest will be the potential for the cars' designs to be protested in Melbourne, particularly the 'double decker' diffusers which have split opinion and may see the excitement of the new season soured with courtroom drama.
The switch from the tyres with four grooves to slicks has been a fairly straightforward task, certainly less of a problem than the switch from Bridgestone for the Michelin teams in 2007.
By removing the grooves, the front and rear tyres have gained an equal amount of extra rubber. However, as the front tyres are narrower than the rears, they gain relatively more grip. This means the front tyres remain to be the dominant factor in the car's set-up. Since the Bridgestone sole supplier regulations started two years ago, the relatively weak rear tyre has needed to be treated with care, while, conversely, the front tyres performed better the more load they were given. This load comes from both aerodynamic downforce and the static weight distribution.
So with the new slick tyres, teams need to add even more load over the front wheels. They have found the new front wing is powerful enough not to be a restricting factor. So the issue has been how much weight can be moved forwards in the chassis. This is a factor of both the car's layout (wheelbase, engine and gearbox length/position) and how much ballast the car carries.
This latter factor is very much compromised by the teams needing to take as much as 30Kg out of the cars' ballast to run KERS. Although all teams will run cars to the minimum 605Kg weight limit, their ability to run the ideal weight split front to rear will be compromised.
Should teams struggle to load up their front axle, then they will be missing out on potential grip, but more importantly they will overload their rear tyres. Already seen in testing, the rear tyres are very quick to degrade if they aren't treated carefully.
Bridgestone has chosen to make the prime and option tyre compounds more different from each other for each circuit this year. Thus many teams may be affected when running the softer tyres, that won't last on a car already punishing the harder tyres.
Another factor in ruining the new tyres is the very different way they create their grip. The grooved tyres raced since 1998 liked to be run with a lot of camber, the tyres giving their best cornering grip with the slicker edge of the tyre. Now with a wide groove-less contact patch, the entire tyre's width can be used for best grip. Thus static and dynamic camber will be different.
Already most cars exploit very different suspension geometry, utilising longer wishbones for less side scrub, more unequal wishbone lengths to encourage camber change.
There will be a lot to learn on how the tyres behave over the weekend and through the race. Some teams may need to radically alter their set-up or even develop new suspension geometries to cope with these tyres through the course of the year.
Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) have been grabbing the headlines as the new technology in F1, yet most teams' devices are still shrouded in secrecy. In simple terms, KERS is a system that absorbs and stores braking energy as the car slows, then releases it when the driver needs a boost around the lap. By effectively aiding the rear brakes, the system can deliver 80hp for 6.6 second per lap, but as the technology is still in its infancy, this boost might not be available every lap, while some teams have still to have this technology ready to race for Melbourne.
There are two technical solutions racing in F1 this year: electrical batteries and a flywheel battery. The electrical system is far more commonly used, as it is quite simple in its layout. A Motor\Generator (MGU) is fitted to the front of the engine and sits inside a niche moulded into the back of the monocoque. This two-in-one component provides both the charging for the batteries and also the motor to provide the boost.
The MGU then sends its DC power output to the Power Controller (PCU) which manages the switching between motor and generator functions and also send the power on to the batteries. The battery packs are known to be arrays of 50-60 lithium ion cells within a single casing, effectively mobile phone\laptop-like batteries they provide the very high rate of charge\discharge needed to store the energy from the MGU. The braking\charging phase is automated and controlled by the FIA SECU, while the discharge phase is under the driver's control, from a button on the steering wheel.
The other KERS solution is Williams's flywheel\electric solution; this has been developed by its in-house Williams Hybrid Power. It effectively replaces the lithium ion battery packs with another MGU and a flywheel. Rather than storing the energy in chemical batteries, in the charging mode, the second MGU spins up the flywheel, then later takes its charge from the flywheel in the generator mode. While theoretically less efficient than electrical batteries, the maximum energy storage rules for 2009 do not encourage high efficiency hybrid drives, so the flywheel is a valid solution.
Storing and discharging all this energy produces a lot of heat, so the KERS components all need cooling, commonly via the engine's water cooling system. Also we often see extra cooling inlets on sidepods to send cooling air to the electronics. All this cooling will inhibit the car's aerodynamic efficiency: the more cooling a car needs, the more drag it creates.
While aerodynamic drag is an issue, the larger problem is the weight and packaging of the KERS components. An F1 car is already tightly packaged, having to add the MGU (approx 20cm long x 10cm diameter), the PCU (approx 10cm x 20cm x 30cm) and the batteries (approx 20cm x 20cm x 30cm) forces teams into some compromises.
They want the units safely mounted on the car, but equally want a low and forwards location for them. Some teams mounted the entire package underneath the fuel tank, forcing the monocoque to be larger to fit enough fuel. This is safer and also mounts the components very low. But they are stuck at the car's centre of gravity and hence do nothing to shift weight forwards.
Other teams place the PCU and batteries in the sidepods, sandwiched between the monocoque and radiators. This is 50mm higher than in the fuel tank, but does allow the components to be further forwards. There has been talk of batteries in the nose or front wing, but as yet there has been no evidence or admission of this practice.
Two small changes to the engine rules this year mean that the drivers have access to eight engines and a 18,000 rev limit is imposed, although eight engines seems a generous allowance for 18 races, compared to the four-race engine rule originally destined for 2009.
The engine allowance will include all running during the season, with testing and Friday sessions included.
Allowing more flexibility is the freedom to run engines in whatever sequence the teams like. Thus fresh engines could be fitted for consecutive races, or even after Friday practice, as long the driver doesn't consume more than the eight engines.
Should an additional engine be required, the driver will incur a grid position penalty for that race, and further penalties will be handed out for each additional new engine raced. A clarification has prevented teams swapping engines in between qualifying and the race. Although an engine failing in qualifying would be allowed to be changed, any pre-emptive or strategic changes are forbidden.
The reduction in the rev limit allows the engine's life to be extended and costs just 25BHP. Teams were allowed to re-tune the engine in limited ways to suit the new limit. Additionally, Renault was given dispensation to develop its engine along similar lines to its rivals in order to equalise power outputs. Aside from these changes, the engines remain a frozen specification, leaving just exhaust\airbox and fuel\lubricant development to gain additional performance during the season.
While the KERS may be a new field of technology, the aerodynamic changes are the biggest change to the cars this year. Thus the cars' shape may be the biggest differentiator between teams this year.
The rules were shaped around the work carried out by the Overtaking Working Group. This group conducted full scale and wind tunnels tests to assess the impact each aerodynamic device had on the car's wake and how they themselves behaved in another car's wake.
Their findings countered what most people would have predicted. They found that the front wing lost downforce when behind another car, but if the wing was lower or wider it was less affected. So the new rules create a wide front wing, with a FIA-mandated neutral section in the middle to keep the wing's performance clipped.
Likewise, the aerodynamic add-ons, such as bargeboards, chimneys and the like, were found to have a negative effect so they have also been removed. At the rear, the wing was found to create a better wake when it was higher and narrower, thus the following car did not lose as much downforce. To balance the car with the front and rear wing changes, the diffuser was reduced in height and length and moved back to the rear axle line. In testing, the new format cars shed 50% downforce and drag, but lost a far smaller percentage of this when following a similarly equipped car.
However, to help a following car to maintain downforce and balance when behind another car, the front wing can now be adjusted by the driver on the go. This move allows the driver to adjust his front wing flap angle twice per lap of up to six degrees. Whereas movable aerodynamics have banned in F1, this small concession should aid the following car to track the one ahead to open opportunities for overtaking.
We have ended up with quite unusual looking cars that your eye soon gets used to. But just as the new rules are set, the teams set about 'interpreting' them in the most opportune way.
The normal practice of creating boxed zones around the car to allow\disallow bodywork continues. Thus the rules unexpectedly create small pockets where bodywork can exist, even if the idea was to exclude it. We see this sort of area under the nose and raised chassis.
The rules demand no bodywork can extended outboard from under the car and even a small area 100-200mm high between the front wheels is excluded. But teams have found enough space to fit turning vanes and other devices to replicate the bargeboards, now banned from their conventional locations.
This extends to the front of the sidepods, which now must meet minimum radius and simple curvature rules. But pod wings on the fronts of the sidepods are allowed in an area not specifically banned for bodywork. But for 2009, the first big argument is going to be on the how the teams interpret the diffuser rules.
In spirit, the rules set out dimensions for a single diffuser volume, just 17.5cm high, 80cm wide and 35cm deep. The new diffuser should have had greatly reduced potential over the outgoing designs, but once the exclusion areas are drawn out, there remains space behind and above the diffuser that could be exploited.
The most controversial of these is the 'Double Decker' diffuser; this fits within the boxes allowed for bodywork between the rear wheels and facing the ground, but takes a vaguely worded section of the way the stepped floor intersects with the diffuser and exploits it.
Effectively the 'Double Decker' design feeds an extra channel above the diffuser from the vertical sides of the step under the car. This creates more diffuser volume and hence more downforce. The rules do not explicitly state that the floor and step are treated as one surface, allowing the interpretation that they can be treated as separate surfaces, as long as they individually form one continuous line.
With Williams, Toyota and Brawn all exploiting this wording and other teams not happy with their interpretations, protests were already launched in Australia on Thursday.
Team by Team
McLaren F60 detail © AUTOSPORT
It has slowly transpired during testing and ultimately admitted by the team that the car has aerodynamic faults. Early tests with the car showed pace and clearly the car is not a total disaster, but with McLaren's high standards the lack of pace is noticeable.
From its first day of public testing, the car ran with the more powerful 2008 rear wing, and subsequent tests showed McLaren running aerodynamic flow-viz and sensor tests. These could be forgiven for routine tests to prove the new for 2009 aerodynamics were working. At the Barcelona test McLaren ran a radical new floor, with a new leading edge for the diffuser created in a cut-out in the coke bottle area. It's not clear if this was a reaction to problems or part of the car's intended development path. The effect of the floor cut-out would be to move downforce to the rear.
But later that week the team admitted the car's diffuser was not working as it should and that the it would return to Jerez for a final unscheduled test.
It seems the car isn't producing the rear downforce that it was supposed to; this would be a problem between the wind tunnel\CFD forecasts and the reality on track. The extensive aerodynamic on-track tests have provided feedback into the car's development programme to help pinpoint the problem. It may be that the problem was apparent from its first private test in Portimao.
As the next day the 2008 wing was tested and soon thereafter the diffusers efficiency was pegged by an in-fill panel reducing the height of the middle part of the diffuser. This set-up was consistently run during testing, the odd combination may provided the car with the right downforce levels to allow testing to continue while the underlying problems with the car were looked at.
Latterly in testing the diffuser saw a major redesign with a lower central portion and flared lower edges on the sides. Above this was a revised beam wing now raised above the crash structure in the middle to make it more effective.
If McLaren's issues with rear downforce are not solved for Melbourne it will cause problems with rear tyre wear. The last test saw the car much faster compared to the limited number of teams they were testing with. For Melbourne we could expect to see a promising qualifying performance, but fading with tyre wear issues in the race.
Ferrari F60 detail © AUTOSPORT
We could take the F60 as the yardstick for F1 design in 2009; no particular features stand out, as its details are seen on other cars throughout the pitlane. Items such as the front endplate fin, the pod wings and a simple diffuser.
Like the other faster teams, Ferrari exploits the space under the raised chassis and fit two pairs of turning vanes: these aim flow around and under the sidepods.
As a team quick to divert development from 2008 to 2009 and as the only team to run a full interim car, BMW Sauber has been something of an enigma in testing. Its new car is a clear development of the test machine, with large sidepods and a substantial front wing. It has proven reliable, but never shown flashes of pace. Thus we can't be sure just how quick the car can be.
Through testing, the car has changed very little: the pod wing\mirror combinations appeared as predicted by technical director Walter Riedl at the launch, while a modified front wing also made a late testing appearance.
Renault R29 detail © AUTOSPORT
One of the gains with this car has been the revised engine spec. Renault had taken a literal approach to the engine freeze rules, while other teams sought out development loopholes, such as legal changes primarily for reliability also bringing performance gains, as well as an aggressive development to the engines, ancillaries or lubricants.
Toyota front wing © AUTOSPORT
Toyota has gone aggressive on design - its diffuser is the most complex, with both a double decker format and the narrow extra diffuser trailing behind it. To feed the larger diffuser with the right airflow, the team has raised the nose tip up and shortened it as much as possible. The space this creates allows a large pair of turning vanes to be fitted to the nose cone.
Whereas many teams' front wing endplates have been somewhat brutal in design, the several versions Toyota has run are all smooth flowing and latterly make use of a vent in the endplate to improve airflow around the front tyre.
Toyota was behind the curve on KERS development, partnering like so many other teams with Marelli and sourcing its lithium ion battery packs from Litec. To support the KERS set-up the team has different spec monocoques - it will necessary for the team to decide the benefits of KERS for each track before it sets if off.
Red Bull Racing
It will be hard to predict Red Bull Racing's fortunes this year. Last year the team proved far more reliable than in 2007, but was eclipsed on results by its sister team. This year the Red Bull Technologies-designed car, that shares most of its architecture between the Toro Rosso and RBR team, is a winner on design.
Its design, led by Adrian Newey, throws the book of conventions away, particularly with the treatment to the front and rear ends. The unusual rake of the nose and raised part of the chassis is to create better flow to the rear of the car; the unusual shoulders formed on top of the nose are probably both to manage airflow and also meet the cross sectional rules on the front of the chassis.
At the rear, the car's low line approach maximises flow over the diffuser and rear wing. By both venting the hot air from the sidepods in different locations and switching the rear suspension to a pull rod set-up, the car looks shrunken at the rear.
Such is Newey's confidence in the flow to the diffuser the rear wing endplates have been extended down to floor level and form the sides of the diffuser. Thus the diffuser is only 80cm wide and the maximum of 100cm. This loss in the exit area is made up for with the better sealing the rear wing endplates provide and the lack of disturbance from the rear wheels. Equally distinctive has been the re-appearance of the shark fin engine cover, now connected to the upper surface of the rear wing.
So although the car's promise has been proven in testing, when it has set the pace, it also has shown repeated technical problems stopping it out on track. Hopefully the team will not return to its previous problems with reliability.
Aiding to the car's novel design has been the Renault customer engine supply. RBR also benefits from the improve engine performance and the team will use Renault Marelli KERS solution, fitted underneath the fuel tank.
Scuderia Toro Rosso
Although effectively the same basic car as the Red Bull Racing car, Toro Rosso has gained more technical independence this year. As a team up for sale, this change in emphasis makes sense. By using the Ferrari instead of RBR's Renault engine, the team has had to engineer different internal packaging for the motor and its cooling. Externally the cars appear the same, but Toro Rosso has designed and made its own gearbox casing, while the monocoque has also been manufactured in-house for the first time.
But this development cost the team time and was amongst the last to run its new car.
Last year the team's canny strategic approach led to the string of results late in the season. By keeping the car's set-up stable and not chasing the ultimate pace from it, the team was consistent and was able to focus more on its race strategy. With a car at a lower state of maturity, this strategy might not be so rewarding. However, if the car can be reliable, then it has shown it has the pace to lead races.
Williams front wing © AUTOSPORT
By the end of testing, the diffuser has filled out the main lower deck to the maximum width of other team's whole diffuser, and then the upper deck adds further volume to produce more downforce. Feeding Williams diffuser is a novel take on the nose cone and turning vane solution. Williams has fitted a 'snow plough'-like device under the nose. This parts the air and sends trailing vortex of air towards the leading edge of the floor, keeping the diffuser fed with the right air pressure.
In addition to this novelty, the car has had a new front wing, sidepods and various formats of front wheel fairing including a McLaren-like extension and a version with a rear facing vent.
Whereas these parts are likely to be seen in the early race, the vertical fins near the cockpit proved too controversial. Known as 'skate fins', they were deemed to be a safety hazard and were dropped for the last test at the request of the FIA's Charlie Whiting.
As an independent team, Williams has created a sister company, Williams Hybrid Power, to develop its KERS solution. This uses a remote flywheel to store the energy, but quite where Williams place this bulky item is unknown. To aid weight distribution, it is possible that the flywheel could be in the sidepod or even mounted in the nose.
Throughout early testing the car had not shown outstanding pace, but then in the last test Williams was setting times to match those of the revised McLaren and Brawn. It may not be a threat to the leaders, but Williams has got a strong car to fight in the midfield.
In just its second year under the Force India name and after years of changes in ownership and management, more fundamental changes have gone on this winter. Now a deal to use the McLaren-Mercedes power train has been agreed and Simon Roberts from McLaren has joined as Chief Operating Officer.
At first this looks like the team is now a form of McLaren "B" team, but Force India remains independent. Its car, the VJM02, was already in design when the McLaren deal was announced in November '08. A few commonly copied McLaren design themes trick the eye, but the new car shares no parts with the McLaren.
However, to accommodate the new power train, the team had just 108 days to redesign the monocoque, suspension and cooling systems. Already the car has proved it can be fast and can be assured that the McLaren-Mercedes set-up in the rear will be reliable.
Also the team will benefit from its partner's KERS system when it is race-ready. This Leaves Force India able to focus on creating the best aerodynamics and chassis, something the team's more limited resources will be suited to.
Brawn GP BGP 001 detail © AUTOSPORT
Last year Honda stepped down development of the 2008 car early to focus on this year's major rule changes. Guided by Brawn's technical skills, the new car took shape and by the end of the season its future was shrouded is uncertainty. The open offer for a Mercedes engines and the option of a McLaren gearbox allowed the team to start the design work to adapt the car to a new engine, but it was decided against the gearbox.
Since the car finally took to the track as the Brawn GP 001, it has surprised everyone, both with its innovative design and most of all from its pace. Despite rumours to the contrary, the new car has been run legally at the correct weight and the laptimes have been fast even on longer fuelled runs.
So if the Brawn is genuinely fast, what makes it so? There appear to be two major factors; basic weight distribution and the aerodynamic design.
It is known that the Brawn will not race KERS, thus the 30Kg that the KERS hardware would have taken up can be used to create a more front-biased weight distribution. Should the team be able to place 30kg of ballast in the front splitter, then the weight would be shifted forwards by 1.5%, a significant gain with the new front slicks.
Secondly, the car's aerodynamics are quite innovative. Like Williams and Toyota, Brawn exploits a double decker diffuser. This in turn is aided by its own 'snow plough-like' device on the front splitter. This catches and spills air to the sidepods' undercut and under the floor towards the diffuser.
A tertiary reason is that the car has been built to far higher standards: the Hondas were known to have weak aerodynamics and lack of structural stiffness, but the new car is reportedly 205% stiffer and this makes the suspension work better and allows the car to respond to set-up changes.
If the car can repeat its testing pace in Australia and maintain its reliability, then wins could be possible for the team's first outings. However, the question mark over the diffuser design could see these races decided in a Paris courtroom.