The International Herald Tribune
October 7, 2013
Designing the fastest racing cars in the world today, in accord with a set of labyrinthine regulations, involves vast teams of designers armed with computer-assisted drawings, computational fluid dynamics, wind tunnels and 3-D printers. Yet the car that has dominated Formula One for the last four seasons was designed by a man working with a pencil and drawing board.
But as the teams prepare for the South Korean Grand Prix in Yeongam this weekend, the fact that Adrian Newey, the designer of that Red Bull car that is leading the series for the fourth straight year, has maintained an old-school style is considered little more than indulgent eccentricity by some of his admiring colleagues.
''Adrian is a special case, and I think he has an army around him who digitize his pencil lines,'' said Paddy Lowe, executive director, technical, of the Mercedes team.
For others, such as the former Formula One car designer Gary Anderson, who is now a racing commentator on BBC television, part of Newey's edge nevertheless comes from his time-honored method.
''Whenever you do something with pencil on paper you have to think about it—you have to think about it three-dimensionally, because you are doing it two-dimensionally—so you have to think about it in depth as to what that flow will do,'' Anderson said. ''So from my point of view, drawing from a pencil you have a much deeper thought pattern to what you're drawing.''
''You can create something in 3-D on a CAD system,'' he added. ''But you're creating something and it's giving you a 3-D surface, you're not thinking why that 3-D surface should be there, you're not really creating the 3-D surface that is from an aerodynamicist's point of view what you want. You're creating the 3-D surface that the CAD system is spitting out at you.''
Most of Newey's competitors agree, however, that the success of his cars is the result of his ability to oversee and tie it all together in a homogenized whole.
''There are guys who are clever with some specific calculations, but then other guys, it's in the way they integrate everything and package it,'' said Xevi Pujolar, the chief race engineer at the Williams team. ''If you see someone like Newey, what ultimately makes the difference is how you put everything together.''
Whatever the case, the concept of a man standing at a drawing board is today only one small part of the whole design process of the world's most complicated racing cars. Formula One teams are made of hundreds of employees with teams of designers for every element of the car, since each team must build its own car to specifications set out by the International Automobile Federation, or FIA, the sport's world governing body.
In fact, Formula One car design today is not just about designing a car, it's about redesigning a car. From the beginning of the season to the end, each of the 11 teams' designers constantly redesign pieces for the car to improve speed and reliability. The design at the end of the year can vary greatly from what it was at the start, evolving through an ongoing process of refinement.
''It comes from what we see track-side, what we see working with the car in the garage,'' Pujolar said. ''Every week we have meetings with different design groups, and there are the designers and the track-side representatives, and people from aerodynamics. And the designer says, 'This is what I have done, what do you think?' and we say, 'That's O.K., but on track for performance we think we need to go in this direction.' And so everyone gives feedback and the designer does his progress for the following week, and the different groups also work together—the suspension with transmission, with engine systems, with aerodynamics.''
Unlike with road-car design, Lowe said, the speed of the development process is also extremely important.
''What's crucial is to reduce cycle times, because the prompt to design a new part are the results of the previous one, or things that you have seen on other cars that have prompted ideas,'' he said, ''so the faster you can take that input and convert it into a new idea, which you then test to see the performance, the quicker you start the process again and get the next one.
''You can come up with something in the wind tunnel perhaps,'' Lowe added, ''or an idea from a brainstorm, that you can conceive on a Sunday, draw it on a Monday, make it on a Tuesday-Wednesday, and race it on the following Sunday, delivering lap time that you've quantified, and that's on TV.''
Jonathan Neale, managing director of the McLaren Mercedes team, who oversees technical and operational strategy, compared it to what corporations do in business development terms.
''We are making an engineering change to our cars, most teams, every 20 minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, shifting for those small gains in performance,'' Neale said. ''We're looking for fewer operational mistakes, shorter and shorter time to market, all of the things that big business are looking for. High levels of innovation and slick execution, because it is not a very fault-tolerant process.''
When it comes to design, of course, there is no more frequently asked question than that of form following function, and whether esthetics enter into play in the design process.
''I have always prided myself in trying to draw a car that was esthetically satisfying because I reckoned the mechanics might give it another coat of polish, or they might find a body fastener loose that might fall off tomorrow as opposed to getting the cover on as quickly as possible because it was ugly,'' Anderson said.
''But the ugliness of the cars arises from the regulations,'' he added. ''The way the regulations are written dictate that the designers have to exploit the cars to the maximum to get the performance out of it. You could write the regulations to make sure that the cars look nicer. But I think the nicest thing is seeing your driver standing on the top of the podium holding up that cup: That's pretty nice, and if he is in an ugly car to achieve that, so be it.''
As Lowe pointed out, ''a car that is quick comes to look good - beauty is in the eye of the stopwatch.'' But at the same time, Neale said, ''Quick cars tend to be fairly beautiful; engineering is still about, 'if it looks wrong it often is.'''
Lowe said that if a designer is faced with an ugly design or a beautiful one and both have the same resulting speed, he will occasionally choose the better-looking one. But speed, or function, is really what it is all about, he said.
''The shapes of the car you see are actually only an embodiment of a desire to change the shapes of the airflow that you can't see,'' he said. ''It's not the shape you want of the part, it's the shape of the air you want.''
Still, according to Mark Webber, who, along with his world champion teammate Sebastian Vettel, drives that Newey-drawn Red Bull, drivers like beauty in a car.
''Yes, I do, I want it to look nice,'' Webber said. ''But Adrian's cars generally look nice.''
What of the future?
Neale said that there is still much work to be done to understand how to get the most out of car design.
''What we are finding is that even though mankind has been developing cars since the turn of the century—largely still a piston engine, fuel driven, but now we have hybrid technology—there are still great areas of vehicle design and performance that are unknown,'' he said.
But Anderson, who designed some of the more interesting cars of the 1990s and 2000s—such as the Jordan that Michael Schumacher raced in 1991 to show his talent in his first race in the series—said that the series risked going too far.
''Where does it go from here?'' he said. ''I think it has to go back just a little bit, otherwise I think it will out-sophisticate itself in a way that it will out-price itself and you have to be very careful with that.''
''You'll never stop technology taking you forward,'' Anderson added, ''but I think the regulations need to be written now to control it a little bit, to stop this huge stupid spend. Because as a sport, after all, we look at cars now in qualifying going around the track and doing a lap time, then at the beginning of the race they are seven or eight seconds slower, but we don't noticed that. It's just a group of cars together doing a job.''
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