The 2012 version of Formula 1 descends to the Land Down Under to open the championship season at the Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne, Australia. This event transforms the city’s waterfront park into a temporary race circuit, much like the Canadians do for their Grand Prix at the Île de Notre-Dame in Montréal. The circuit provides a very good measure of how the teams have managed the 2012 technical requirements.
Melbourne is 16 time zones removed from Austin. The race will be broadcast on SpeedTV at 12:30 a.m. CT, Sunday, March 18. That’s OK with me, I’m usually up well past that hour hanging out in dive bars and honkey tonks somewhere on the planet. I will take the party “to the house” and enjoy the event with my hard core F1 friends.
If you are new to Formula 1, the first thing you'll notice is how ugly the cars became this year.
Pre-season testing indicates that Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus, and Mercedes all have good speed and competiveness. Testing does not definitively prove too much as the test teams run many different testing regimes and “sandbag” a section of their fastest laps to obscure their true pace. But at one time or another during testing, the top five have been at the top of the lap chart.
Each of these teams has drivers that are former F1 world champions. This is unprecedented. Red Bull has the current champion, German driver Sebastian Vettel who is the youngest back-to-back champion driver in history; McLaren has two champs, both from Britain, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton; Ferrari has Spaniard Fernando Alonso, Lotus has the Finn Kimi Räikkönen, and Mercedes has seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, a German. The field also includes many drivers who have been very close to the championship in years past, as well as some very promising young drivers.
The precise technical details indicate that the height of the survival cell in front of the driver is 625mm above the reference plane, and the nose height must now be no more than550mm above the reference plane. The intent was to ensure that the nose is lower than the cockpit sides in order to protect the driver's head in the event of a 'T-bone' accident.
Some teams complained that lowering the car forward of the cockpit would force them into a radical aerodynamic redesign. As a result, it was agreed that the 550mm height would only apply from a point 1950mm in front of the rear edge of the cockpit template.
McLaren is the only car that does not have this “duck” nose. The team apparently has a different aero concept than the others.
If you look at the pics, you can see the big dip in the nose section ahead of the driver. The aerodynamicists that design the chassis prefer to have the front of the car well above the floor of the monocoque (the shell of the car body). The intent is to allow the air to pass under the floor with little obstruction from the front structures. The bottom and rear of the car is designed to use the flow of air underneath to produce downforce via the Bernoulli principle.
McLaren is the only car that does not have this “duck” nose. The team apparently has a different aero concept than the others. The approach to the floor is lower and achieves the required nose height without the step seen in all other entries. Only the racing will determine whether they have got it right or have made a huge mistake in their design.
The new technical rules also changed the way the aerodynamics are applied at the back of the car. Last season many teams, especially 2011 Champion Red Bull, used the concept of “exhaust blown diffusers.” The diffusers are the structures at the rear of the car’s floor that channel the air flow beneath the car to the rear aerodynamic structures. This flow was augmented by a precise placement of the exhaust pipes. The exhaust shaped and accelerated the airflow and improved downforce at the rear of the car.
The 2012 rules have mandated placement of the exhaust exits. As a result, the teams are experimenting with small aero structures to redirect some exhaust flow to preferred areas regardless of the exhaust pipe placement. The legality of these structures will be questioned during technical scrutineering before practice in Melbourne.
Another factor to consider is that tire manufacturer Pirelli has changed their compounds and have produced a tire that is different from those used last year. The engine and chassis are very important components of a fast race car, but only the tires make contact with the tarmac. The new compounds will provide an interesting wildcard in that the teams do not have a good understanding of how the tires will perform. The rate of tire degradation over the course of the race on varying fuel loads is not fully understood.
The driver lineups and the good overall pace of the top teams promises to provide a very exciting 20 race season. The new rules have created an environment where designers must be very clever in order to stay competitive. All in all I expect it to be a great year, and I am really looking forward to seeing them back on track after the long winter break.