Analysis: FIA's new limits on aero testing

Although it was the latest developments from the Renault and McLaren spy cases that grabbed the headlines after last week's two-day FIA World Motor Sport Council meeting in Monaco, something much more significant for the future of Formula One was agreed on in that meeting

Analysis: FIA's new limits on aero testing

In the latest effort of the FIA's long crusade to reduce costs in the sport, the governing body announced radical plans to severely limit aerodynamic testing - and in particular all teams' use of wind tunnel facilities.

It follows on with effective limits on tyre testing and engine development having been introduced from the start of the 2007 season. And with the importance of aerodynamics lying somewhere between that of tyres and engine power in improving lap times, such a limitation in aerodynamic research has been expected for some time.

So what does this mean for the teams and the fans?

The growth of wind tunnel use

Teams started to build their own wind tunnels in the 1990s in order to guarantee access to such facilities, which had previously only been part of either research organisations or aerospace businesses.

The use of wind tunnels has grown significantly with teams typically running them 24 hours a day and seven days per week. And even that has not been enough for some teams, with a few even commissioning second wind tunnels.

The costs for building and operating wind tunnels are significant. BMW Sauber's new wind tunnel cost a reported $55m (USD), but then on top of that you have to add the costs of staff and electricity. Added up, it can absorb a huge proportion of a team's revenue.

Equally, the increasing feasibility for parts to be designed entirely in CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) has led teams to invest in super computers or large clusters of high powered workstations.

While CFD programmes have smaller capital and operating costs compared to wind tunnels, they are still a huge drain on a team's finances.

This expansion in aerodynamic testing has not produced highly visible changes to the cars, rather a finer optimisation of the existing bodywork. It is this expenditure on detail, which the fans do not see or appreciate, that the FIA is acting to reduce.

The rules announced in draft form on Friday take a number of steps to limit what the teams can do with their facilities. The regulations are due to be discussed with the teams at a meeting in January, before being put into regulations from the start of 2008.

And with such an imminent imposition of the rules, the teams are going to find out very quickly just what a difference the lack of access to a wind tunnel will make.

Even though the general aero concept of a team's car has been fixed for several months already, resolving the detail and then the exhaustive mapping of the new car's shape is still a task completed in the last few months before the start of the season. This process could well handicap teams if it is introduced before the first race.

What differences will the new rules make?

The main rule is to limit the number and utilisation of teams' current tunnels. By demanding just one per team, several teams with two tunnels (McLaren, Williams, Honda and Toyota for example) will be left with a redundant facility.

For those teams (Honda and Toyota) who have only recently commissioned their second tunnels, it is likely that the huge investment made by the manufacturer is not going to be recouped by making them commercial facilities.

However, there are some obvious questions raised by limiting teams to the use of just one tunnel. Will those outfits that are operating what are effectively customer cars (Super Aguri and Toro Rosso for now) be able to run their own tunnel in addition to the main car supplier? And would Honda or Red Bull Racing therefore effectively benefit from having the data from two wind tunnels?

Tunnels can now only be used for one eight hour shift per day, whereas teams currently run three shifts to fully utilise the tunnel 24 hours per day. This will reduce the head count required in the aero department, plus the unpopular night shifts.

The impact of this is that will reduce a team's potential capacity for aerodynamic improvement to one third of current levels - or even one sixth for those teams who have been running two facilities.

In setting out the specification of the tunnel, the rules are broadly in line with current facilities. Most teams are already operating 60 percent models in unpressurised tunnels with air speed running at 50 metres per second. Thus no team will have to downgrade their tunnel or models to meet the new rules.

However, the banning of teams on using full scale models could affect everyone. Most teams do test their full sized cars in the wind tunnel, because this helps with the all important correlation of the model to real life. Williams, for example, run the full size car one week out of every six in their tunnel. Therefore, this specific rule will be a handicap for every team.

In addition to this, the proposals will limit to just five days the amount of dedicated aerodynamic track testing teams often carry out at straight-line facilities. Teams often carry out this form of testing, as it doesn't eat into the limited mileage they can accumulate between races.

In addition to the wind tunnel restrictions, the FIA realise that the teams' CFD programmes are becoming as important as the scale model testing. It was no coincidence that two of the biggest teams announced over the last 12 months that they were not going to invest in a second tunnel, but instead focus on major CFD initiatives in preference to a second tunnel.

BMW have had their second super computer, Albert II, running for one year now. Renault, meanwhile, are building an extension to their factory to house the enlarged CFD team headed by Dino Toso.

The new proposals will eventually be detailed to specify how many staff and what hardware the teams can use to run their CFD programmes. This will be as limiting as the wind tunnel restriction, because the major bottle neck in CFD is the computer processing time to resolve the model.

Finally, the announcement mentions planned restrictions on other types of testing and technologies. Such as rig testing, design and manufacturing, suspension and brakes, hydraulic systems, bodywork, weight distribution, circuit testing, and the number of personnel at races.

Who stands to benefit, then?

The net result of these changes will be a major reduction in costs to the teams, something that the FIA has pushed hard to do for more than five years now.

To the casual fan, the restrictions will be invisible. As mentioned before, the subtlety of aerodynamic design is such that no one will detect the slow down in evolution of a car's bodywork. Equally the rules will have little impact on equalising the field in the short term, or on overtaking - which the planned 2009-aerodynamic overhaul is setting out to achieve.

But with a limit on what the teams can test in advance of those far reaching 2009 aero rules, it seems that the lesser funded teams may have a an equal chance of getting their solution right - and that could just close up the field.

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Author Craig Scarborough
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