Atlas F1   The Ultimate Grand Prix Car
Why Performance Limits in F1 are Necessary

  by Brian Ward, Australia

Many Formula One enthusiasts imagine what the ultimate Grand Prix car would look like and how it would perform. Despite the popularity of this dream, however, F1 followers are unlikely to ever see such a car on the racetrack.

As each area of car design reaches a peak or plateau of performance, this performance is limited and controlled - even banned completely - by the F1 technical regulations to ensure that the cars do not become so fast and powerful that they become overly dangerous or even undriveable. The fundamental principle is that performance should not exceed safety standards and the limits of drivers' cognition and response times.

Each era in F1 has achieved excellence in one area of car design and performance. The late 1970s, for example, represented a peak in aerodynamic performance, where ground effect and side-skirted cars could corner at fearsome speeds. The mid 1980s was a peak time for engine power, where in qualifying trim the top cars were approaching 1500 bhp. With another decade of unhindered development, it is plausible to expect at least 2000 bhp in qualifying trim and 1500 bhp in race trim by the end of the 1990s.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a peak in terms of tyre performance, where wide slicks reached a pinnacle of grip and durability due to advances in materials and construction techniques. The early 1990s were also the peak of real-time computer enhancement, where interactive systems benefited the cars in a number of ways. In terms of engine performance and reliability, telemetry from the engine management systems could be analysed in real time from the pits and if necessary, data could be sent back to the car during the race to modify the engine's performance for reliability or fuel efficiency.

Active suspension was another factor in the technical sophistication of the early 1990s. With active suspension the cars could be held at a constant state of balance and ride height with the wheels in effect lifting themselves over curbs and bumps. It allowed the cars to maximise traction and downforce to improve speed, especially in corners. The late 1990s saw a peak in chassis design and construction, and it was necessary to make the cars narrower in order to limit balance and hence performance.

Now imagine if these various peaks of performance, from the various eras of Formula One, had not been systematically limited by the regulations and thus effectively separated from being used in conjunction with each other. Consider the performance of a wide bodied car with wide slicks running the relatively sophisticated yet unrestricted wings of the mid 1980s, with late 1970s ground effects and side skirts (and maybe even a rear fan!), in conjunction with a fully developed 1.5 litre turbo engine, active suspension, interactive telemetry and the other computer enhancements of the 1990s.

Potentially the most lethal combination of technologies would be ground effect and active suspension. The former relies on a very low but consistent even ride height to be maintained by the suspension in order for the air pressure effect to suck the car down onto the road. The latter is designed to produce a very low yet consistent even ride height to maximise the performance of the car's aerodynamics. The combination of the two would be more than just a sum of its parts. Straight-line speed would not necessarily increase, but the gains in cornering speeds would be tremendous and incredibly dangerous. The cars would barely have to brake before turing into a fast corner like the Parabolica at Monza.

It sounds great in principle but in reality it would be completely undriveable, and even Gilles Villeneuve would be intimidated by the performance. To even attempt to drive such a car, drivers would have to wear airforce-style pressure suits to avoid blacking out in 6 or 7 G-force corners. They would probably also have to take amphetamines to improve their reflexes and reaction times.

Special tracks would have to be built to accommodate the cars. These tracks would have to have the relatively simple design and layout of modern tracks, with only 12-16 corners, but with the immense length of the great tracks of the past. Basically, they would need to be stretched or magnified versions of current tracks. Straights would need to be connected to extremely long and wide corners to allow the cars to reach their potential in terms of cornering speeds.

The speeds and the danger to drivers and spectators would be overwhelming. The consequences of a car cornering at more than 300km/h and crashing would be catastrophic. It would be impossible for the driver to survive such an experience, and the resulting impact would probably result in the worst spectator accident in motor-racing history.

The reason for having such strict technical regulations in F1 is to deliberately limit performance, not to make the racing boring to watch or to participate in, but to make it safe for everyone involved. The real limit of performance in F1 is the human brain and body, which at this point in time cannot be tuned, retuned, modified, turbo-charged, strengthened with the honeycomb construction of composite materials, or otherwise sped up and improved to any significant extent.

The F1 technical regulations encourage the achievement of excellence in one area of car performance at a time. This allows F1 to be the pinnacle of car design and technology, thus making it the testing ground of choice of the major car manufacturers, while at the same time keeping a limit on what can be achieved so that performance gains are explored and tested gradually and safely. Once a performance peak or plateau is achieved, it is deliberately limited or banned, with the technology being passed on to other sectors of car design and production, so that F1 can move on to explore the next area of performance excellence.

Much of the technology developed in F1 filters down to the design and production of normal passenger cars, especially in terms of engine efficiency and performance, passenger safety cell design, the use of advanced materials, brake design and performance, and fuel and oil improvements. The car industry needs F1 innovation, but too much at once would not be economical in terms of the time it takes for racing innovations to be adopted in road car production, and in terms of the negative image of car racing and experimentation that would result from the insanely dangerous racing of unrestricted cars.

As F1 becomes the testing ground of multinational car companies to an even greater extent than it already is in the 2000s, the technical accomplishments of F1 will no doubt be even more tightly controlled. Environmental concerns will become more important in relation to racing, and the FIA's leadership in developing clean fuels for internal combustion engines and fuel and power alternatives for racing cars in the coming years will ensure that F1 has a future as a sport and as a technical exercise in the face of growing governmental regulations of emissions and other environmental concerns.

None of this will limit the spectacle or the charisma of F1. Its place at the pinnacle of automotive, and advanced technological materials and electronics, development, is not in dispute. Neither is its reputation as the most innovative, stylish and sophisticated form of racing. Ferrari, Mercedes, Jaguar, Honda, BMW, Renault - all we need now is the return of Porsche...

Brian Ward© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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Dr Brian Ward is a freelance writer and editor, who also works part time in academic publishing at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. He is an avid F1 follower and proud member of the Tifosi. In his spare time, Dr. Ward also enjoys riding his Suzuki GSXR-750.

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