Speed Limits

By Karl Ludvigsen, England
Atlas F1 Senior Writer

Those of you who were late for class may not recall that when commenting about engines last summer I set out two things that I think the FIA should do to improve Formula One racing, to make it safer and to help control its costs. Those two things are:

1. Limit engine speed to 17,000 rpm.
2. Reduce underbody-generated downforce to zero.

Most of you who took the trouble to write in were against the idea of limiting engine speed for a variety of reasons. You pointed out that each engine maker uses his own software, so it would not be easy to come up with an electronic rev limiter that would work for all of them. You mentioned that the Monk rev limiter used in Formula 3000 was not very consistent and that teams had found ways to cheat them. And you were just against the idea of limiting the speed of Formula One engines as a matter of principle, on the grounds that it would somehow "lessen" the premier racing formula.

I think I can counter most of these arguments. First of all, 17,000 is a heck of a lot of revs. That's pretty exotic by any standards, far in excess of the speeds that any other series are using. The closest would be CART, where the mandatory valve springs act - as Mario Illien put it - as a very expensive rev limiter. High revs are in use as well in motorcycle racing and in cars that use motorbike engines, but they're all a lot smaller than 3 litres. Thus we can see this kind of speed as a remarkable achievement, fully fitting our premier formula.

Especially since the banning of beryllium, engine speeds are rising only slowly. Some were said to have reached 18,000 last year for the first time. Osamu Goto, formerly with Honda and now Sauber's engine man, says that engine speeds are rising by only about 1.5 percent a year. That's around 250 rpm per year at the speeds they're running. Moreover, he said that he expects we will need eight years to reach 20,000 rpm with Formula One engines. My proposal is that they shouldn't bother trying.

There is no engineering value whatsoever in these higher speeds. Over the winter several engine men have been making the point that it's much more fruitful to concentrate on filling out the power curve so their drivers have useful power available through more than just peak revs. For years that was the success secret of the Ford-Cosworth V8. That's what engine developers would do to a far greater extent if peak speed were limited. And they would do it in ways that could start to be of value to the cars that you and I drive.

I agree that there are application problems, but I'm sure they can be solved. After all, the engines already have rev limiters. It's just a matter of getting them certified as set to the speed limit. As we know, engine speeds can be monitored from trackside by acoustic means as a cross-check. There'd be little point in trying to cheat, because engines and drive trains - gear ratios etc. - would be optimized to work best up to that speed but not over it.

One of my correspondents suggested that it would be better to go to 2-litre engines. This would not fly under the Concorde agreement, whereas rev limiting could be brought in under its terms. Anyway, the idea of a 2-litre size just doesn't appeal. Nor does inlet-air restriction, which smacks too much of lesser formulae and GT racing and would be of zero value as an encouragement of new ideas that would work for roadgoing engines. Catalysts in the exhaust pipes? I'm not altogether against them, but I don't believe that they could be applied with sufficient equality among the various engines.

My other suggestion is to reduce underbody downforce to zero. We've already taken a number of steps in this direction. The first was to ban skirts and the second was to eliminate long underbody venturi tunnels. Now the tunnels can only start at the rear-axle line, so they're less efficient than they used to be. Nevertheless they produce downforce in the ratio of five pounds for every pound of drag that they cause. This is double the efficiency of a rear wing. To put it differently, by eliminating underbody drag we will help top speed by half as much as we would if we lost a rear wing that gave similar downforce. I'm proposing that we keep the draggy rear wing and get rid of the half-as-draggy underbody effect.

We'd keep the front wings too, which as it happens are twice as efficient as the underbody in generating downforce. They can't take full advantage of this, however, because they essentially provide the front-end balance for the all-important rear downforce that holds the driving wheels against the road. First you get your rear downforce and then you add enough front-wing effect to balance it. Both front and rear wings need to be kept, in any case, to serve as advertising billboards.

Apparently the FIA has come out against a reduction in underbody downforce because the reduced drag would, it thinks, make the cars go faster. They are wrong. Speed on a straight depends on the speed at which you enter it. With less downforce cars will be cornering slower and so will be going slower when they commence attacking the next straight. And how many long straights do we have these days? Not very many! And designers will be trying to compensate for the lost underbody downforce by making their wings more draggy. We can even add to this, says an aerodynamicist, "by forcing the designers to incorporate a certain amount of 'thick-trailing-edge' to their wing designs." We can allow wings to be mounted higher as well.

Perhaps another time, class, we can talk about braking - going back to iron discs to lengthen braking distances, for example. But I think I'm already in enough trouble for today!

Or not quite: while on the subject of Formula One regulations I don't want to forget to comment on Max Mosley's statement a year ago that the racing cars would be electronically constrained to a slower speed during yellow-flag periods. He said then that this new technology would come into use in 2002, which fortunately has not occurred.

Why do I say "fortunately"? Because I think this is a wildly misguided idea that reeks of the worst of "Big Brother" nannying. At the time an FIA spokesperson said, "By demonstrating intelligent speed limitation, the FIA hopes to accelerate the introduction of this technology on the roads." We have since been hearing how the GPS satellite system can be used to monitor prevailing speed limits and force cars to stay below them. That's just as bad an idea.

There's nothing wrong with using these systems to give the driver much better guidance to help him keep his car at or below the limit. For example, if he were exceeding the limit the car's GPS-informed system could push back more strongly on the accelerator pedal, giving him practical feedback. Or instead of a speedometer, the car could have a panel gauge that showed how far under (green) or over (red) it was from the prevailing speed limit. An audio warning could also be provided. Such measures would be very helpful to the busy driver who has more to do in urban traffic than gawk at his speedometer. But force a limit on the car? Overrule the ability of drivers to act according to the circumstances they are facing? I call that "unintelligent speed limitation."

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Volume 8, Issue 7
February 13th 2002


The FIA's Court of Appeal: Part III
by Thomas O'Keefe

Speed Limits
by Karl Ludvigsen


Rear View Mirror
by Don Capps

Bookworm Critique
by Mark Glendenning

The Weekly Grapevine
by The F1 Rumours Team

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