Virgin Ushers F1 in a New Era

Kunal ShahContributor IMarch 3, 2010

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 15:  Sir Richard Branson attends the media launch for the new Virgin Racing team at the Louise Blouin Foundation on December 15, 2009 in Notting Hill, London, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Richard Branson – there’s only one brand that pops out in my head when I hear that name, Virgin. Branson over the years has grown into one of the world’s most spoken-about and successful entrepreneurs. His rise to success with Virgin Music, to his victory over British Airways is well documented, not only by media globally, but also by the man himself – ‘Loosing my Virginity’ is an addictive read and I happened to finish my book only a few weeks before Branson announced his interest in starting up Virgin F1. While it surprised many, I only thought – what took him so long!!

Branson did taste F1 when he partnered with Brawn GP for a few races in F1 2009. While the association didn’t last beyond the first two races of last season, what Branson did do in his typically bold style was – start his OWN F1 team! Not much of an investment for a person who is in the top 20 list of richest Britons!

So what does it take for one to start up an F1 team? A good engineering and mechanical setup, an engine and gearbox supplier, 2 or 3 good drivers, a fully functional wind tunnel and if you’re Ferrari – a private testing track! Branson got all of that except for the wind tunnel! Very typically Branson – be different, break the traditional mould and the mindset and that’s exactly what he’s done. Yes, for the F1 geeks out there – the Virgin F1 2010 challenger has been built without the help of a wind tunnel! So the question now is – how has he built his racing car?

Computational Fluid Dynamics or CFD is an advanced branch of fluid dynamics that uses numerical methods and algorithms to solve and analyse problems that involve fluid flow. For the geeks again, air is actually treated as a ‘fluid’ while designing aviation systems. Super computers are used in CFD to perform millions of calculations to simulate the interaction of liquids and gases (air) with surfaces (F1 cars!).It is only after the use of CFD that F1 cars are put in the wind tunnel for further testing. However, Branson and his team of designers have decided to take a bold step – from the CFD drawing table straight to the race track – eliminating the step of wind-tunnel testing.

And why did I choose to write about it? Firstly, it’s oh-so-Branson to be different and its only fun when he decides to do so in F1 too. F1 otherwise is boring, teams are usually doing the same things – either by their own brains or by copying others! Here’s one man who is attempting to be different and is possibly trying to lead the era of F1 car design in another direction. But seriously speaking is he really?

F1 cars are built with highly complex and well crafted aerodynamics – fine tuned on the race track, but built and tested in wind-tunnels. A wind-tunnel is the single most essential tool to build a stable F1 car. So much so that till a few years back, Mclaren and Ferrari had wind-tunnels that would operate non-stop for 24hrs. What will surprise you on the importance of wind-tunnel testing even more is that in the last few years, the FIA has restricted not only the number of hours a team can test their race models in the wind tunnel, but also put a limitation on the model size. (For the geeks: scale models of 1:40 are permitted for wind tunnel testing!!)

So is Branson being foolish while being brave? Now that’s a tough one to answer! His pre-season testing hasn’t been too great to talk about, but what he does have is a team that has proved the worth of CFD in other forms of racing. Heading the Virgin F1 development team is Nick Wirth, who has successfully engineered F1 cars for the Benetton Renault F1 team. However, Nick shot to fame was when he designed the class-winning American Le-Mans Series Acura LMP1 and LMP2 prototypes using an all-CFD approach. While Nick has tasted success with his all-CFD approach, he does agree that is only an approximation – just like scale-model testing and the car does need on-track testing to be made race-worthy.

While the all-CFD approach hasn’t worked yet, Branson’s screw-it-lets-do-it approach and Nick’s wealth of knowledge in engineering F1 cars does give me belief that the VR-01 will be one hell of a race car to watch out for! And if they do succeed in their mission – could this be the next step in F1 car designing? Considering that F1 is entering a low-cost era and that the CFD approach is a much cheaper alternative, I wouldn’t place my bets elsewhere just yet!