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In the early days of the F1 world championship cars were arguably more elegant.  Any aerodynamic consideration was along the lines of reducing drag for higher top speed.  These cigar shaped vehicles had plenty of ground clearance and could as a result be comparatively softly sprung to allow the wheels and tyres to stay in contact with the ground over the bumpy circuits that were common at the time.  As time went on, and F1 discovered the lap time benefit of putting wings on the car the suspension became stiffer, and the cars got closer to the ground.  Then once the full advantage of shaping the underbody of the car was realised, and sliding skirts introduced, all suspension movement was virtually eliminated.  This was uncomfortable for the driver and didn’t help with reliability.

The situation didn’t really improve when flexible side skirts were banned and a mandatory ride height of 6cm was introduced in 1981.   Teams soon devised ways to allow the cars fixed skirts to touch the track at speed, while being able to pass over the 6cm high test piece in the pit-lane.  Brabham had a speed sensitive hydraulic switch, to automatically drop the car above a certain speed, others had a crude driver operated toggle switch in the cockpit.  The net result was no suspension movement at all, if the skirts were to remain in contact with the ground for maximum downforce.

In 1983 the cars needed to have a flat bottom (between the rear of the front wheels and the front of the rear wheels) vastly reducing the underbody downforce, but leaving a sizeable diffuser area by today’s standards, which teams started to exploit.  This was critical as active suspensions began to be developed through the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  During this period, the cars attitude could be altered (the rear lowered along the straights for reduced drag, and raised in the corners for increased downforce).  During this time titanium skip plates were added to the cars as sacrificial pieces to allow the care to run as low as possible to the track without damaging the structure of the car.  It is from this era that cars were producing the showers of sparks that some want to re-introduce next season.

The banning of active suspension reduced the teams’ ability to run the cars so low to the ground, but it was the introduction of the wooden plank under the car and the raising of the front wing end plates following Imola 1994 that finally saw the end to the fireworks.  The plank starts ot at 10mm thick, and by the end of the race must still be at least 9mm thick.

My initial thoughts on hearing that teams were once again allowed to use titanium skid plates was that cars would be run closer to the ground, and although it may look spectacular, the reason the plank was there would be negated.  However, the FIA held a media briefing where Charlie Whiting answered some journalists’ questions, one of which were about these skid plates:

Q: (Andrew Benson – BBC Sport) Can you explain the substance and intent of the titanium skid block regulation please, including whether other parts of the plank will still have other kinds of material in the skid block?
CW: To explain: the plank is the long bit of wood, the skids are bits of metal within the plank. The skids have formerly been made of a heavy metal, which has been very resistant to wear, and they put the skids around the points in the plank where thickness is measured. Planks have to start off at nominally 10mm thick and they can’t be less than 9mm thick. However, we only measure them around certain holes in the plank. So they position the skids around those holes.

This metal is extremely heavy and when pieces detach they can be extremely harmful. We saw two punctures in Spa previously because of bits of this metal that lay in a kerb and caused damage. In a worst case scenario they could fly off and hit someone.

The purpose of making them out of titanium is threefold: Firstly, it’s safer, because if they do come off they are about a third of the weight of the existing ones. Secondly, the titanium wears some 2-2.5 times more quickly than the metal currently used. Thus cars will have to be run a little bit higher to manage wear and teams won’t be able to drag them on the ground quite as much as they have in the past. The third effect is that you will see a lot more sparks, which some people think will look a little more spectacular.

So, the rational is about safety, not just the ‘show’, that happens to be an incidental benefit.  I wonder who is responsible for drafting the press releases that give the impression that the changes are all about superficial nonsense rather than sound engineering reasons?

The full text of Charlie Whiting’s media briefing is worth reading as he covers issues about driving standards, ugly noses, noise and power unit development among other things.

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A long time fan of Formula 1 and grass roots motorsport, I am interested in the engineering aspects not only of F1 but the 'men in sheds' who develop homemade specials to take on the products of the big racing car manufacturers.