It began in 1967, when Colin Chapman, head of Lotus, put a large aerofoil on tall stalks at the back of his Type 49 Formula One car. The science of aerodynamics was, by then, centuries old but Chapman was among the first to realise that a wing that lifts a "plane into the air could be turned around and used to push a racing car into the ground".
That push – downforce as it's better known – adds vast, almost incalculable amounts of extra grip and traction to a racing car. It has, in the five decades since, added so much speed to Formula One cars that even a sharp right hander, such as Copse Corner at Silverstone (where Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen had their recent contretemps) is taken at more than 280km/h, with right feet held flat to the floor.
As with most technological marvels, though, there is a dark side. All that air, being guided over bodywork and wings, leaves the back of the cars in a turbulent, messy state. That turbulence means that one car running behind another loses vast, huge amounts of its own downforce, as the messy air cannot be cajoled into sliding over its wing surfaces as cleanly. And that’s why racing, actual overtaking, is so hard in Formula One right now. It’s why Hamilton made that desperate lunge through Copse corner, the one that tipped Verstappen into that frightening accident – he knew if Verstappen got away, that turbulent air would put paid to any chances of getting back in front.
That could and should all change for next year. Just ahead of the race at Silverstone, Formula One (well, Liberty Media, the American entertainment giant that these days owns the rights to stage the Formula One World Championship) showed off its new car for 2022. Clad in a paint that, in normal light just looked white and red, but which turned into a rainbow-hued disco-fest when brought inside, the car as shown is not a racer. It will never turn a wheel in anger. It doesn't even have an engine. But it might be one of the most important racing cars of recent years. It might allow Formula One cars to race again.
The idea has been to come up with a new rule-set, one that redefines how a Formula One car generates its performance-enhancing downforce. The rule makers have, they hope, created a basic shape that draws more downforce from under the car (using ground-effect aerodynamics that were banned long ago, on safety grounds) with new front and rear wings that deflect the turbulent air upwards and away from a car running behind.
To do this, those rule makers have harnessed two critical things. They have used the almost-incredible computing power provided by Amazon Web Services (AWS), and they have employed some of the poachers turned gamekeepers. One of those is Rob Smedley, formerly a senior member of the Ferrari and Williams grand prix teams, and now the man in charge of making sure that those occupying his old seats on the pit wall can't work their way too far around this new set of rules.
“It’s always a fine balance of trying to define a rigorous rule set, which is going to result in opening up lots of what we call profit centres in terms of performance . . . which then causes a spending war, but also trying to make sure that we have 10 different looking, competitive teams on the grid” Smedley tells The Irish Times.
To help with that, Smedley and his team have been using Amazon Web Services' cloud computing systems to design the new rules package, without ever going near a physical wind tunnel. Computational Fluid Dynamics is the name of the game now – where each molecule of air that passes over a car can be simulated in a computer. For that to work, you need a vast, fast computer. Back in the 1980s, Nasa used the vaunted Cray supercomputer to simulate the airflow over the space shuttle at launch, but it was a long, slow process. Now?
“It’s incredible,” says Smedley. “You just couldn’t do it like this on a computer that you had to physically build. If you did, it would need a huge building and by the time you finished building it, it would all be out of date anyway. By using AWS’s we were able to run something like 14 different designs simultaneously, which is something like three billion cells – three billion points of design – at once. We’re way ahead of the teams. They use something like a 200-core computing system to simulate one car running behind another. We started with 190 cores, but eventually we were running something like 3,500 cores at one time. It meant we could work through an entire generation of car design in something like eight hours.”
Speed –as ever in Formula One – is critical if the rule makers are going to stay ahead of the teams and the clever, highly paid designers within those teams. For every rule, this is a grey area, an area that can be interpreted, and an advantage to be gained. Smedley's job – alongside fellow Formula One competitors Pat Symonds (formerly of Benetton and Renault) and Jason Somerville (formerly of Williams) – is to find those grey areas first and plug the gaps so that one team can't find an unassailable advantage.
“So we get to the end of the first loop of design,” says Smedley. “And we’re fairly happy with the design and the way it’s all working. So then we turn it over to Pat and Jason in aerodynamicists group and saying, ‘right, let’s see how you can circumnavigate all the rules and find the loopholes’. So it was probably a 50:50 split between the initial design phase and then the stress testing and the validation phase, and all of that fed back into changing the rule book again.”
This is not merely to be a spoilsport. This is about creating a playing field of rules and resources that means more teams can be more competitive more of the time. Mercedes, through simply spending more money than most, have annexed the top step of the Formula One championship for the past seven seasons. From 2022, aside from Smedley’s carefully crafted new aero regs, the teams will also have to abide by a cost cap, introduced this year, which seeks to regulate what each team can spend and keep it to a sustainable level. Combined, the hope is that more teams can win races, championships will be more exciting, races will be more thrilling.
“The management and governance of this has to be dynamic,” says Smedley. “Just to make sure that we’re always pointing towards the right thing, which [is] growing the fan base. It doesn’t stop here and AWS will play a big part in what we’re doing in the future as we continue to tweak the technical regulations and continue to tweak what the cars look like.”