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In the high-octane world of Formula 1, where every millisecond counts, even the slightest technical alteration can set tongues wagging. Such was the case when Christian Horner, the head honcho at Red Bull Racing, found himself on the defensive, batting away questions about his team’s recent performance slump in the 2023 F1 season. The root of the issue? Suspicions surrounding the implementation of new FIA regulations concerning the flexibility of car wings, particularly in the context of the flexi-floors.
At first glance, the math didn’t quite add up. A flexi-wing, which is estimated to provide a mere one-tenth of a second advantage around the challenging Singapore circuit, seemed an unlikely culprit for Red Bull’s precipitous drop in pace. It became increasingly clear that other factors were at play, making the RB19 a hard nut to crack in terms of setup adjustments at the Marina Bay track.
Furthermore, the consensus within the paddock suggested that the FIA’s intensified scrutiny on flexi-wings wasn’t primarily aimed at Red Bull. It appeared that other teams had been pushing the boundaries in this realm far more aggressively. While it was tempting to connect the dots between the Singapore shuffle, where some teams outperformed expectations while others lagged behind, and the timing of the much-discussed flexi-wing technical directive (TD), it was another FIA document flying under the radar that piqued the curiosity of the engineers.
Enter the Plank Games
Around the same time that the FIA released TD18, which addressed flexi-wings, in late August, F1 Flow.com uncovered a revision to the infamous TD39. This directive had originally been introduced at the 2022 Canadian Grand Prix, aimed at eliminating the phenomenon known as “porpoising.”
Porpoising, a quirk of car behavior, was suspected to be linked to teams experimenting with flexible floors. Consequently, new rules were implemented in the previous season, targeting the stiffness of floors and plank measurements.
Some of the wildest theories at the time pointed to teams employing moveable skid block designs that could retract into the plank area, avoiding wear and tear when the car ran close to the ground, thus staying within the permissible tolerances. The key was that, at the time, only a small section of the skid block was scrutinized post-race for compliance.
However, to put an end to such practices, the FIA decreed that measurements would be taken around 75% of the skid block radius, effectively closing the door on these creative solutions.
A Return to the Plank
It seemed that the issue had been put to rest, but in 2023, it became evident that some teams were still exploring this territory and pushing the boundaries of floor flexibility. The focus now seemed to have shifted from the skid block to the plank, as teams exploited a tolerance within the regulations that allowed for slight deflection in the plank’s design.
Article 3.15.8 of F1’s Technical Regulations specified that bodywork within RV-PLANK could not deflect more than 2mm at two holes in the plank at XF=1080 and no more than 2mm at the rearmost hole during testing with the car, without the driver, supported at these positions.
This 2mm allowance, it appeared, was not viewed by some teams as a limitation but as an opportunity to gain an edge by introducing extra flexibility to enhance performance. One theory that surfaced in Singapore suggested that this could help create a downforce boost by allowing the plank and floor to get closer to the ground at high speeds, while the skid blocks remained static and unharmed.
In essence, skid blocks were once again vanishing from view, just as they did in 2022. However, this time, it was the plank itself that exhibited flexibility.
Putting a Stop to Flexing
This potential exploitation of floor flexibility has become the focal point of the latest revisions to TD39. The updated documents from the FIA stressed that teams must still adhere to the relevant bodywork dimensional constraints, even if their designs complied with deflection requirements.
Additionally, the FIA reminded teams that there should be a continuous surface on the reference plane and that designs must not utilize breaks in this surface to facilitate differences in vertical stiffness or differential motion.
To ensure that teams ceased any trickery, the FIA outlawed specific designs along the reference plane, which essentially refers to the plank. These included gaps, cuts, or joints in the reference plane near designated holes and skids, frequent or systematic damage to the surface of the reference plane or bodywork in these areas, the use of elastomeric or very compliant materials on the reference plane, and folded surfaces or bellows-type joints.
As the latest FIA flexi-wing saga unfolded, teams were once again required to submit their CAD designs and finite element analysis for the front skid block, along with drawings detailing any flexibility around the holes.
The Shake-Up and Speculation
Any team that had to abruptly change its approach to comply with the new stipulations would inevitably experience a drop in performance. They would also need to relearn crucial aspects, such as ride heights and floor positioning in relation to the track.
Yet, despite Red Bull’s apparent struggles with setup during a perplexing weekend in Singapore, their rivals remained cautious about attributing the performance dip solely to the TDs. Christian Horner himself vehemently denied any significant changes made to his team’s car in response to the technical directives.
McLaren’s team principal, Andrea Stella, echoed a similar sentiment. While he acknowledged the possibility of an effect from the TDs, he believed it wouldn’t account for the substantial performance deficit that saw Red Bull miss out on the top qualifying session.
For Mercedes, a team that had previously experienced a dramatic performance drop at the Marina Bay circuit in 2015, the Singapore Grand Prix had often been an enigma. Toto Wolff, the team’s boss, acknowledged the complexity of the situation, pointing out that a single race’s data might not provide the full picture. Only time and races at different tracks would reveal the true impact of the TDs on car performance throughout the grid.
The Road Ahead
As Formula 1 heads to Japan, with the iconic Suzuka circuit playing host, teams are on tenterhooks, eagerly awaiting the outcome. The Suzuka track, with its unique characteristics, should provide valuable insights into the TDs’ influence on car form up and down the grid.
If the season’s form book reverts to the status quo, it will quell rumors of teams exploiting gray areas in wing and floor designs for an unfair advantage. However, should the grid remain as shuffled as it did in Singapore, the intrigue in the world of Formula 1 is sure to ratchet up a notch.
In the ever-evolving world of Formula 1, where innovation and strategy are just as crucial as raw speed, the quest for an edge never ends. As the season unfolds, the plot thickens, and the drama continues to captivate fans worldwide.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Flexi-floors
What are flexi-floors in Formula 1?
Flexi-floors in Formula 1 refer to the practice of designing the underside of a racing car’s floor to be flexible, allowing it to slightly deform while in motion. This flexibility can provide aerodynamic advantages and impact a car’s performance.
Why were flexi-floors a topic of discussion in Formula 1?
Flexi-floors became a hot topic in Formula 1 due to suspicions that some teams were exploiting the regulations to gain a competitive edge. The concern was that teams were using flexible floors to enhance downforce, ultimately improving their lap times.
What is the connection between flexi-floors and the performance of Formula 1 cars?
The connection lies in the aerodynamics of the car. A flexible floor can generate more downforce, which improves grip and cornering speeds. This can significantly impact a team’s performance on the track.
What role did the FIA play in addressing flexi-floors?
The FIA, the governing body of Formula 1, introduced technical directives (TDs) to address flexi-floors and prevent teams from exploiting this flexibility. These directives included specific measurements and guidelines to limit the deformation of the floor.
Did the FIA’s actions resolve the issue of flexi-floors?
The effectiveness of the FIA’s actions is still a subject of debate in the Formula 1 community. Some believe that the directives have curbed the practice, while others argue that teams continue to find ways to push the boundaries within the regulations.
How did the suspicions surrounding flexi-floors affect Red Bull Racing in 2023?
Red Bull Racing faced questions and speculations regarding their performance decline in the 2023 Formula 1 season. However, the team’s leadership denied making significant changes to their car in response to the FIA’s technical directives on flexi-floors.
What impact did the suspicion of flexi-floors have on the broader Formula 1 grid?
The suspicion of flexi-floors and the introduction of technical directives added an element of uncertainty to the performance of various Formula 1 teams. Some teams believed that the directives were not the sole reason for performance disparities, while others awaited races at different tracks to assess the true impact.
What’s next for the discussion around flexi-floors in Formula 1?
The Formula 1 community is eagerly anticipating future races, particularly at different circuits like Suzuka, to gauge whether the technical directives have leveled the playing field or if the intrigue surrounding flexi-floors will continue to evolve throughout the season.