Throughout the sports history there have been many examples of innovation where the designers have thought of some new way to go faster. While most were legal at the time they were introduced, they have usually had an impact on the rules as the regulations were re-written to ban future designers from trying something similar.
Mercedes returned to the sport that they had dominated in the late 1930’s in 1954. Once again they dominated, but still tried something new. At that time the circuits had much greater variation than we see nowadays. Silverstone for example was described as tight and twisty (this being before any of the recent modifications and was similar to the track that Keke Rosberg set his 160mph qualifying record on, just without the Woodcote chicane). Mercedes therefore decided to introduce a streamlined car for the faster tracks. This fully enclosed the wheels and so reduced drag on the straights. It did however increase the size of the car, and make it harder to place, and even a driver as great as Fangio managed to hit the corner markers at Silverstone bending the car. The regulations were soon changed and now all F1 cars are required to be open wheel.
While Auto Union had built rear engined racing cars in the 1930’s, these were very difficult to drive and very few drivers could adapt to their handling characteristics. The layout wasn’t seen to be a tremendous advantage over the more conventional front engined cars. Note that for the purposes of this discussion, all these cars are mid engined (i.e. the engine is between the wheels) the front or rear designation refers to its position relative to the driver. In 1958 Cooper decided to re-introduce the concept. They had been building 500cc Formula 3 cars this way for years, but that was determined simply because the engines and gearboxes used were motorcycle units, and having the engine behind the driver kept the chain short. Scaling this up to F1 did however have advantages, as the driver could sit lower in the car, so the cars were much smaller than their contemporaries. Even with an engine smaller than the 2.5 litre capacity limit these cars were able to win two races in 1958, in 1959 and 1960 Jack Brabham won the championship this time with a 2.5 litre engine. The writing was on the wall, when the innovation wasn’t banned, all constructors needed to change to this layout if they wanted to remain competitive.
Colin Chapman was the instigator of many innovations in F1. He was the first to copy the idea of fitting wings to the cars used extensively by Chaparral in sportscars. Chapman’s original idea was to mount the wings high up (for better airflow) and directly onto the wheel uprights (so the down-force acted on the wheels and did not simply compress the suspension). This worked well while the wings were attached and the cars were able to corner much faster, but he miscalculated the loading that would pass through the struts due to bumps in the track. The wings started to appear in 1968 and were copied by other teams, but by the second race of the 1969 season after several dramatic failures these high wings were banned. F1 designers are clever people, and soon the bodywork began to be shaped to replicate the down-force that these wings produced, this time however the down-force acted on the chassis of the car, and so the bodywork was protected from the bumps on the track by the suspension.
Another Lotus idea was to use a Gas Turbine. While the team had had some experience of this concept at Indianapolis in 1967 and ’68, they modified the Lotus 56 for F1 becoming the 56B and in 1971 entered the car in the Dutch, British and Italian races. While the car showed some promise in the wet, it proved too heavy and unreliable and was never competitive. Regulations now prohibit such an entry, but the change wasn’t due to this car in particular, more the general tightening of engine regulations to the limits that we have now, where virtually every significant dimension is specified in the regulations.
In 1976 Tyrrell introduced the P34 which is possibly the most radical of all the innovations to be introduced in F1. This car had six wheels, four much smaller wheels at the front in order to reduce the lift and drag produced by the large standard size wheels. For its first year it was successful, winning in Sweden, but in its second year the development of the bespoke front tyres didn’t keep pace with the standard large rear tyres and it became steadily less competitive. The idea of a six wheel F1 car wasn’t banned immediately and several teams event went as far as building prototypes. March, Williams and Ferrari though all put the extra set of wheels at the back. While all cars used the same size wheels and tyres as on the front, it would appear that March and Williams were trying to reduce drag from the standard large rear tyres, I have no idea why Ferrari tried their layout. None of these cars raced, all being shelved following a 1983 rule change which only allowed two driven wheels. Much later a rule change meant F1 cars can only have four wheels in total.
The Lotus 78 was the first F1 car to make use of ground effect (another idea used a decade earlier by Chaparral), but it wasn’t until the Lotus 79 was launched in 1978 that the full benefit of this approach was realised. To counter this, Brabham came up with an idea that had also been used by Chaparral, the BT46B had a ‘cooling’ fan mounted at the rear, which as a side effect happened to be very effective at lowering the pressure under the car, resulting in increased down-force. After Niki Lauda won on the car’s debut in Sweden, the team’s owner (one Bernie Ecclestone) voluntarily withdrew the car from future events feeling that its presence would damage the sport and no doubt his ability to sell the TV rights. The car was never actually banned, and the result still stands, however the rules have since been written such that a similar concept would be illegal if tried now.
In recent years the regulations have got much tighter, and there is no longer the freedom to come up with such radical design solutions. Innovations still happen, but most of these are under the skin and not so readily visible to the eye. They revolve around interpretations of the rules, when is a hole not a hole (double diffusers), what is a movable aerodynamic device (J-Dampers) etc. It is therefore refreshing to see Mercedes showing a slightly more visible sign of innovation with its decision to split the turbine and compressor of its turbocharger providing its customers with an advantage not only in power produced but aerodynamic packaging. F1 has always been about the engineering skill as much as the driving, that’s why Fangio kept moving teams, and Vettel hasn’t, top drivers want to be in the best car.