A future of faster cars that can follow each other closely is very good news for Formula 1 fans, as Jonathan Noble explains
Formula 1 has been under fire this season for a lack of close racing at the front - with cars seemingly unable to follow each other close enough to have a chance to overtake.
It is one of the reasons that teams are working on regulations to make cars much faster and more challenging in 2017, although those moves have prompted fears that it could actually make the situation worse.
The common thinking seems to go that the more you ramp up downforce, the less chance there is for overtaking because cars will not be able to track each other closely enough.
But like most things in F1, things are not quite as simple as they first seem, and in fact the moves being planed for two years time should actually improve matters.
Wind tunnel research
F1 teams have long known that there can sometimes be a disconnect between making the cars better and improving the spectacle.
Ahead of the 2009 season, an Overtaking Working Group was set up to try to get a better understanding of what elements of car design could help boost the spectacle by making it easier to overtake.
Overseen by Pat Symonds, Paddy Lowe and Rory Byrne throughout 2007 and 2008, it delivered a much greater understanding of the elements that are important for allowing cars to follow each other closely
However, as Symonds explained, much of its work was negated by the decision of F1 to introduce DRS in 2011, which has made overtaking artificially much easier.
"We used a little wind tunnel in Italy which wasn't massively sophisticated," explained Symonds about the OWG work.
"We used a 50 per cent model and we had very little time in there to try to understand a little bit about overtaking.
"So, we did the best we could to produce a set of regulations that would mitigate some of the general problems.
"In reality, I am not sure how successful we were and it became to some extent irrelevant when you accept things like DRS, because it was way more powerful.
"It was totally off our scope, we were not allowed to do that and actually, the funny thing is we did discuss it – but it was an absolute no-no."
While DRS meant the OWG's recommendations were not so essential, there are still some key findings that are very relevant as cars are pushed to lose weight and have more downforce for 2017.
Mercedes executive director Paddy Lowe said: "We have still got some confidence in the generic lessons that came from the OWG study.
"Although the cars we have got at this moment are somewhat different to what was envisaged, some of the fundamental aspects in my view remain unchanged.
"It is especially true that the principal loss in the wake starts from the front end loss of performance in the front wing.
"This causes understeer, which means you can't stick with the guy in front at the corner exit to get him down the straight."
Wake flow details
The OWG study found that the area of the front wing that degrades first is the central section – which means if you can make that part neutral in terms of delivering downforce then it will ensure cars do not lose performance when following another car.
So if the current plan for a wider car comes to fruition – a wider neutral section of front wing would actually ensure that there is less performance loss than the current design when in another car's wake.
That will be especially true if the teams can ensure that the wake generated by the rear wing end plates is not allowed to disrupt the airflow either.
When asked whether there is any reason to suspect that the cars will be less able to follow each other from 2017, Lowe said: "I think there is some evidence to suggest that they may be actually better.
"Although I am not an aerodynamicist but based on aerodynamic experience and judgement, one of the features of the current cars is the front wing is used not only to create downforce at the front.
"It also is used to create important flow structures through the car, particularly to drive performance to the floor. Its function also is to counteract the losses that follow the front tyres.
"If a car is in the wake, then that function will also be disturbed as well as the loss of front downforce causing understeer.
"If we move to wider track and you widen the front wing, and also widen the tires and move them outboard, then the reliance on the front wing for not just downforce but also flow conditioning downstream, is much reduced.
"Therefore you would maintain floor performance much better in the wake as well.
"So the expectation, without having tested it, is that some of this direction should actually improve the following car's performance even if the absolute performance has gone up."
For F1 fans, faster cars that can follow each other better, is very good news.