Noah Brier | July 23, 2020

Why is this interesting? - The Low-Rake Edition

On brake ducts, copying, and competition in Formula 1

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Noah here. In last week’s Stiffness Edition, you may have noticed a Brake Duct of the Day. Those brake ducts, pictured below, are the source of some controversy in Formula 1 currently. They belong to Racing Point, a team owned by billionaire Lawerence Stroll (whose son Lance, conveniently, is one of the two drivers). The team is what’s called a “customer team” as they buy their engine and several other components from a manufacturer, in this case, the rival Mercedes team. That creates an interesting competitive dynamic, as you have three “works” teams in the sport (Renault, Ferrari, and Mercedes) providing engines and parts for five of their competitors (Racing Point and Williams have Mercedes engines, McLaren has a Renault, and Alfa Romeo and Haas use Ferrari). Missing from that list are Red Bull and its sister team AlphaTauri, who are both owned by the energy drink manufacturer and get their engines from Honda, who don’t field a team.

The dynamic is particularly interesting because of the complexity of aerodynamics in the sport. (Discussed Previously: Once, Twice, Thrice.) Cars are designed with thousands of flaps, inlets, and curves that aim to direct air in just the right way as to reduce drag and/or create downforce (the opposite of lift, which helps stick the car to the track on corners despite the crazy speeds). When engineers and commentators talk about cars, they discuss the philosophy, which starts at the nose and works its way back through the rest of the car. 

The predominant design philosophy in Formula 1 right now is towards “high rake” cars, which mostly just means that the back of the car is raised above the front. The way the air moves under a car designed like this creates a low-pressure area that sucks the car to the track, helping to create the magical “downforce” that is what makes F1 magic. Up until this year, every team except six-time champion Mercedes opted for this approach. “The advantage of a low-rake car,” wrote F1 technical contributors Mark Hughes and Giorgio Piola in 2018, “is that its downforce will come with less penalty in drag (i.e. it is more aero-efficient) and its centre of gravity will be lower, which helps with both performance and tyre degradation. The downside is that it will need to be longer, and therefore heavier. This means there will be less ballast with which to adjust the weight distribution to suit any particular circuit.” 

Example of a high-rake design. Note how much higher the back of the car is compared to the front.

Whether you are a fluid dynamics expert or not, it was impossible to miss the fact that Mercedes has dominated the sport for the better part of a decade.

Why is this interesting?

This season one new team joined the low-rake club: Racing Point. Going into 2020, they decided to throw away their old philosophy and take a decidedly more Mercedes-like approach. Well, Mercedes-like might not be exactly right. Here’s how Racing Point’s Technical Director Andrew Green described the decision:

Green and his technical team chose to change direction around the 2019 German Grand Prix – and gravitate towards the design philosophy of champions Mercedes who supply them with gearboxes and outboard suspension components. ...

“Where do we start? Well we have a Mercedes power unit, a Mercedes gearbox – we’re running a 2019 Mercedes gearbox, which we’ve always run a year behind Mercedes on their gearbox supply.”

The fundamental change in the RP20, therefore, is an attitude change: Racing Point’s 2020 contender uses a low rake rather than the high-rake favoured by every team on the grid bar Mercedes.

“The suspension geometry of the Mercedes has always been [designed] to run a low-rake car and they weren’t going to change that for any money. So why don't we try and join them, go that route and see where it leads us? So we tore up everything about the high-rake car and started again, started afresh.”

The small caveat is that to start afresh, they took tons of photos of the Mercedes car and copied it as close as they possibly could. “What you see [on the RP20] is what people have drawn from looking at pictures of Mercedes,” Green explained. “We’ve utilised what we can see.” That’s actually not all that controversial: there’s a long history of copying in Formula 1. It’s not even all that controversial that Racing Point has taken it further than almost any team before them by nearly perfectly copying the 2019 Mercedes. Where the controversy comes in is over the brake ducts.

In Formula 1, there are “listed” and “unlisted” parts. The former (“listed”) are mainly aerodynamic elements and must be designed solely by the team (copying what you see is fine). The latter is lots of stuff under the hood like engines, gearboxes, and brakes, which can be bought (from another team or a manufacturer). Last year brake ducts were unlisted, which meant Racing Point was free to get them from Mercedes. This year, in an effort to create more competition, those were switched to “listed” meaning Racing Point must design them on their own. In the second race of the season, the Renault team filed a protest with the FIA, F1’s governing body, complaining that Racing Point was using someone else’s brake ducts. If they’re found guilty, they’d most likely lose all the points they’ve accrued this season. But mostly the question comes down to memory: if they had legal access to the designs last season, is it reasonable to expect them to have forgotten all that going into 2020? 

Comparison of the 2019 and 2020 Racing Point cars. Notice the difference in the nose and work your way backward.

Here’s how F1’s Technical Director (and former team owner) Ross Brawn described the conundrum:

There is not a single team in this paddock which has not copied something from another. I’d ask every Technical Director in the paddock to raise their hand if they haven’t copied someone else. You won’t see any hands. I have certainly copied others.

Last year, Racing Point had access to, and could use, 2019-spec Mercedes brake ducts because they were not a listed part. This year, brake ducts are listed parts, so you have to design your own.

However, Racing Point cannot forget the knowledge they acquired using the 2019 Mercedes brake ducts. I think it is illogical to think they can wipe their memory banks. It is a tricky problem and one for the FIA experts to resolve.

Of course, none of this would matter much if Racing Point weren’t so competitive this season. After finishing 7th in the Constructor’s Championship in 2019 (that’s how F1 refers to its teams), Racing Point is now pushing to the front of the pack. With Ferrari significantly off its game (a whole other controversy over whether they were doing illegal stuff with their engine in 2019), Racing Point looks like a legitimate competitor for a spot in the top three. All it took to compete was a thorough photographer. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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