Five problems F1 designers face in 2010

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Early design problems held McLaren back in 2009
Early design problems held McLaren back in 2009

F1 cars will weigh almost 100kg more at the start of a race this year compared to last.

That presents a host of challenges to F1 designers such as brake wear, ride height, weight distribution and tyre wear. Any team which doesn’t get a grip of the problems will find themselves playing catch-up like McLaren did in 2009.

We’ll find out what their solutions are when the 2010 F1 car launches start next week. How might they try to solve them?

The starting point for most of the challenges facing F1 designers this year is the banning of refuelling. Instead of having cars weighing up to 660-700kg at the start of a race and 605kg at the end, that variation will be more like 800kg to 620kg.

That has major repercussions for the design of the cars in several key areas:


Brakes will take an even greater pounding in 2010 as drivers will have to brake harder and longer in their fuel-heavy cars. And designers will have to get it right straight from the off as the first race of the season is at Bahrain, one of the toughest tracks for brake wear.

F1’s most notorious brake-buster – the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal – will be back later in 2010. And teams will return to Abu Dhabi where higher than expected brake wear caused problems for McLaren and Red Bull in 2009.

And they’ve got to cope with all that using brakes which are the same size as those they had last year:

11.3.2 All discs must have a maximum thickness of 28mm and a maximum outside diameter of 278mm.
FIA Formula 1 Technical Regulations 2010

In the second half of last season – particularly after the Surtees and Massa accidents – we saw the stewards crack down on teams to prevent them from running cars that were damaged or dangerous. We saw this in their reaction to Fernando Alonso losing a wheel during the Hungarian Grand Prix, and BMW being ordered to replace Robert Kubica’s damaged front wing at Monza.

When Mark Webber crashed with brake failure at Singapore, it was shortly after the team had warned him on the radio that he had a brake problem and should return to the pits. Teams who do not take that precaution next year are likely to face the wrath of the stewards.

Ride heights

Timo Glock, Singapore
Teams will have to watch their plank wear at bumpy tracks

Heavy fuel weights at the start of a race present another problem for designers. For optimum performance the cars need to run as low to the ground as possible. But as the fuel weight decreases the cars will ride higher because there will be less mass pushing down on their suspension springs.

In the last two seasons when refuelling was not allowed in F1 – 1992 and 1993 – many teams solved this problem using active suspension technology, which could be programmed to compensate for the ever-decreasingly fuel load by gradually reducing the ride height.

But two clauses in the 2010 rules prevent those kind of systems from being used:

10.2.2 Any powered device which is capable of altering the configuration or affecting the performance of any part of the suspension system is forbidden.
10.2.3 No adjustment may be made to the suspension system while the car is in motion.
FIA Formula 1 Technical Regulations 2010

The regulations appear not to rule out teams designing mechanical systems to adjust ride height during pit stops, but that may prove too complicated and time-consuming to achieve.

As has been the case since 1994, teams which run their cars too low are at risk of wearing down their skid blocks (also known as ‘planks’). This year will be the first season they’ve had to keep their plank wear in check while refuelling has not been allowed.

If you see pictures of cars in the pits without their nose cones on you may spot laser ride height sensors being used by the teams to check their compliance with the rules – especially during the forthcoming pre-season tests.

Fuel consumption

The Cosworth CA2010 engines Williams and four other teams will use
The Cosworth CA2010 engines Williams and four other teams will use

With refuelling banned the teams now have to fit an entire race-worth of fuel into their car. As Dominic Harlow of Force India explained recently, they begin by looking at the track which is the most demanding in terms of fuel consumption.

A rough calculation using Williams’ fuel consumption figures from last year suggests that will be the Singapore Grand Prix – 61 laps each using 2.533kg of fuel needing 154.5kg of fuel. But the real picture is more complicated than that.

To begin with, that figure of 2.533kg per lap will increase in 2010 because the minimum weight of the cars has gone up by 15kg to 620kg. Also, the cars will consume fuel at a faster rate at the beginning of the race due to the extra weight of fuel on board. That means they will need even more fuel in the tank to begin with.

Then we have to factor in the varying fuel consumption rates of different engines. Williams used the comparatively thirsty Toyota engine last year – this year they will have Cosworth engines whose performance is an unknown quantity. The FW32 is the first Cosworth-powered car we’ll get a look at, and the size of its back end compared to its rivals could give us an indication of how thirsty Cosworth’s CA2010 is.

The other engine users face the challenge of adapting their engines as to achieve better fuel economy within the strict engine freeze rules. This is a particular challenge for Mercedes and Ferrari, whose fuel consumption in 2009 was much higher than the likes of Renault (see this post on Gavin’s blog for more).

Weight distribution

The reduction in front tyre width combined with the enlargement of the fuel tanks means some tough calls have to be made on weight distribution.

Front tyres will be 25mm narrower in 2010 compared to last year. So while in 2009 designers aimed to move weight distribution forward, this year they’re likely to try to move it rearward.

This may also lead to a reversal in the trend towards shorter wheelbases we saw last year.

Bridgestone will be supplying more durable tyres in 2010 to cope with the increased wear.

Rear packaging

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Abu Dhabi, 2009
Red Bull had the quickest car at the end of 2009

One of the biggest technical stories of 2009 was the controversial double diffusers. Teams will be able to run them again in 2010 – but are looking to ban them in 2011.

They offer such a valuable increase in downforce it’s unlikely any teams will race without them this year. But the air flow around the rear of the car will be compromised by the enlarged fuel tanks which will require the radiators to be re-positioned and enlarged. Ferrari have already confirmed they will integrate the oil tank for their car within the gearbox case to give more room for the fuel tank.

Last year the Red Bull RB5 had low, tightly-sculpted side pods and pull road rear suspension. It will be harder to pull off that arrangement while meeting the demands imposed by the diffuser and the larger fuel tank. But if any designer is likely to spring a surprise it’s Adrian Newey. The team have already admitted the RB6 will not appear at the first test while it fine-tunes what could be the most radical design on the pit lane.

One other potentially significant change here is that no team will be running KERS. McLaren and Ferrari potentially have more to gain in this area compared to their 2009 designs which still had KERS installations at the end of last season.

Launch season

These are just the obvious changes we expect to see in 2010. What other, more radical ideas might F1 designers have up their sleeves?

Next week we’ll start to see the cars in their launch configurations but as usual the teams will wait until the later tests to finalise their aerodynamic packages for the first race at Bahrain.

Which team do you think will produce the strongest car for 2010? What other design problems do you expect? Have your say in the comments.

Read more: Will F1 cars lap quicker in 2010?