2009: A Racing Headache? How Spec Aero Will Hurt Front-Running Teams
More overtaking! Many Formula One fans have been screaming for years now that they want to see more overtaking, and they are tired of seeing what in their estimation amounts to a high-priced carousel ride for 60 or 70 laps around a track. The 2009 Formula One regulations have made overtaking a major priority, and placed many restrictions on the cars in an attempt to achieve more overtaking during a race.
The main changes to the overall 2009 packages are the readoption of slick tires but a significant reduction in aerodynamic grip. Front wings will have a spec midsection which will yield lower downforce than 2008 models, and the majority of winglets and other bodywork on the topsides of the cars will be restricted or removed altogether. A better diffuser will bring a bit of downforce back, but the cars should be creating less "dirty air" which fouls up a trailing car.
Is this all a good thing? There are many reasons to suggest that this may yield more overtaking, but not better racing. Additionally, staying competitive with restricted aero in F1 will likely result in even greater amounts of money being thrown at aerodynamics by teams, not the expected reverse.
I personally am not convinced that more overtaking is the thing to be clamoring for, or that it should be accomplished by heavily restricting the one thing that makes the cars different at this point. Look at the BMW F1.08 chassis, with all its winglets and protrusions, which was a very bold and risky step forward by the German team. It has certainly paid off so far this season, but virtually all those aero devices will be gone on the 2009 car. Teams will not be able to take bold steps forward with regard to aero, meaning that--especially with the engine freeze--you will likely see whoever has the strongest engine to be at the front, with the weaker-engined teams at the back. Renault, which has publicly admitted it has an engine that is down 20-50 hp on its rivals, will have a difficult time keeping pace with its rivals.
And ultimately, if you restrict 80% of aero development, the teams will spend just as much, if not more, on the remaining 20%. How else is a McLaren or a Ferrari supposed to maintain an edge? People argue that teams are spending too much money, but I feel that they forget that money goes to engineers who are busy 24/7 designing products with the sole purpose of beating their rivals eighteen Sundays a year. If sponsors are okay with throwing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars at the teams, what is the issue?
I was thrilled to see Adrian Sutil running so well at Monaco, because it meant that Force India had created a package which was actually capable of running against the heavy-hitters. To say for 2009, "It's okay, Force India, you don't have to work so hard, we're just going to handicap the other teams and bring them down to your level" denigrates the jobs done by the individuals working for Formula One teams. When Michael Schumacher won his titles with Ferrari, while it may have looked like a dog-and-pony show, a team of over one hundred personnel worked constantly to ensure that the team they worked for, Scuderia Ferrari, would win come Sunday afternoon. Pulling the top down to make the bottom competitive is not the answer.
This article started about aero, and I will make sure it finishes there. When McLaren adopted the horns aside the airbox, which they scrapped last season (but BMW has kept), when Honda adopted its rabbit-nose, or when BMW tried its ill-fated walrus-tusk front wing, these were all fairly radical attempts to get a leg up on the competition. By restricting the bodywork, not only do you force teams to spend on ever-diminishing returns, but you eliminate much of what makes these cars different and unique. It's already hard enough telling a McLaren apart from a Force India. I definitely don't want a Force India challenging a McLaren for the lead just because some fans wanted some overtaking. The teams put too much effort and capital into their cars to go unappreciated, and for those that want so much more overtaking, go watch NASCAR.
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