Formula One 2009: Could It Be over Before It's Begun?
The start of the first competitive session of Formula One 2009 is only days away.
After months of speculation and guesswork, the world finally gets to see who is fast.
Excitement has reached fever pitch.
But could the competitive season be over not long after the Melbourne race is in the history books?
As is often the case in Formula One, much of the intrigue over the offseason and the in the run up to the first race revolves around how the different teams have understood, and so acted, on certain words.
These words are those in the Formula One technical rules and regulations, laying out what the teams are allowed, or not as the case may be, to do.
In 2009, these interpretations are even more important than ever, with F1 rules, and so cars, undergoing their most radical change in the last decade.
Sometimes whether something is legal or not is so blindingly obvious there are no problems. When Ferrari unveiled their 2009 car, it had exposed exhausts, something outlawed by the new regulations.
The exhausts were spotted by a number of teams on the still photos of the launch and their legality pointed out. Ferrari must have agreed as next time the F60 was seen in public the exhausts had disappeared beneath red fibreglass.
However, more often, whether a feature is legal or not depends on how exactly you understand the rules, and that in turn often depends on which Formula One team you happen to be working for at the time.
Into that category falls the debate about the diffusers of Williams, Toyota, and Brawn GP.
Along with most of the new aerodynamic changes, the rules on the diffusers for 2009 are designed to reduce the amount of downforce the car creates for itself.
The exact rules are incredibly technical, with the area to the rear of the car being divided into imaginary "boxes." In some of these boxes diffuser elements are allowed, in others they are not.
The end result is a diffuser that is both taller and further behind the rear axle than the 2008 designs, with the FIA expecting a more uniform diffuser across the teams.
No such luck.
In technical analysis published on autosport.com, both the Williams and Toyota designs have been studied. In both designs, it appears teams have got round the rules in a very interesting way.
What both teams have done is design parts of their integral rear crash structure to double as a diffuser. This gives them access to ‘boxes’ where single purpose diffuser elements are banned.
A number of teams, ever since the new designs were unveiled have doubted whether these designs were within the rules, and Red Bull, presumably adding Toro Rosso to the same complaint have made no secret of the fact they are planning an official protest about the diffusers in Melbourne.
Earlier this month, Renault boss Flavio Briatore also complained that he felt other teams were allowed to take advantage of grey areas in the rules.
Now, while I had a smart quip about it in the Power Rankings, Briatore’s emphasis that it allows other teams to take advantage is interesting.
Formula One teams are no strangers to stealing aerodynamic elements from other teams. For example, last year Red Bull appeared with a shark fin engine cover. By the end of the season. these fins had spread through most of the field, and every team had at least tested the concept.
If these "grey-area" diffusers are as crucial as they would appear, one Red Bull spokesperson is quoted as saying it “guarantees a five-tenths advantage per lap”, then you might expect the other seven teams to be falling over themselves to bolt new diffusers to their cars.
But they haven’t. Presuming that several teams don’t pull the covers off their Melbourne cars to reveal new diffusers only Brawn have come out with a "grey-area" design. Given the state of affairs at Honda/Brawn, we will never now whether this design was always intended or copied once the Toyota and Williams designs are unveiled.
But why haven’t the other teams copied the concept?
The first possibility is that they are so sure they are illegal they don’t want to waste time and money developing a diffuser that they can only test with before having to throw it away after only a few sessions.
The second possibility is that they can’t. Remember how the Williams and Toyota designs combined diffuser and crash structure?
Every F1 car is subjected to a battery of crash tests before it is allowed to race. How important is the crash structure when designing an F1 car. Does the nature and design of the structure change depending on the chassis floor plan, engine, gearbox, KERS, exhaust or any other aerodynamic elements?
If the answer to any of those is "yes", then the re-design of the diffuser could mean having to re-design the entire car from the ground up. Five-tenths is important, but...
Even if they can integrate the new diffuser into their current car, they are going to need to test it.
Another of the Formula One 2009 rule changes severely limits the amount of on track testing teams can do, with only the practice session during a Grand Prix weekend available.
I know that all the teams are going to have wind tunnels and computers to test parts on, but surely actual car-on-track-driver-in-car testing is the most important, and in a practice session where, especially this year, the main target has to be finding a good set-up, I can’t see many teams sacrificing sessions for R&D.
If during the tribunals and scrutineering at Melbourne and before Sepang these "grey-area" designs are given the OK, then the other seven teams have a large gap to make up. The extra speed may not decide wins, but could well decide poles, podiums. and points.
If that happens the Jenson Button may well be World Champion. (Or Jarno Trulli, Timo Glock, Rubens Barrichello, Nico Rosberg or Kazuki Nakajima (too far I’m sure you’ll agree)).
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