Technical analysis: Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari

Craig Scarborough offers analysis of the very different approaches of Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari to Formula One's new technical regulations.

Whenever there are major rule changes in F1 there is an opportunity for the order to be shaken up, for the leaders to trip up and for new teams to come to the fore. Equally as an old set of rules remains in place, the cars converge in terms of design and any change to these rules opens up new freedom for new ideas. Under the new rules for 2017, Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari have emerged as the firm favourites -- even though each team has taken a unique approach to the regulations. All the cars on the grid are recognisably different from one another, but differences between the top three are even starker -- making early predictions from the first week of testing even harder. So, let's examine the differences in approach and detail among the top three cars and see what it tells us about the way each goes about designing a racing car.

Red Bull RB13

Red Bull has surprised us the most so far. The car is outwardly very simple and lacks the complex details of its two key rivals. This has prompted many fans and media to speculate that the team must have something amazing up its sleeve, but comments from chief technical officer Adrian Newey on the first day of the test suggests otherwise. While the RB13 is certainly going to see updates by the time the lights go out in Melbourne, the car we see race may still be the cleaner looking design we have seen in testing.

Keep it simple, stupid

There is a precedent for this. If we look back to last season, Mercedes were racing with slots and cuts in almost every body panel, with the famous 'picket fence' bargeboards sporting some 15 separate elements from the second test onward. Red Bull ended up being the closet to Mercedes over the course of last season, and while its Renault power unit lacked the output of the Mercedes, the Red Bull RB12 chassis was on a par with the championship winner. Yet, this 'fast' chassis did not have the overt technical details of the Mercedes -- it was clean and almost organic looking. Even through the season, while Red Bull were updating the RB12, there was not a step change in the look or sophistication of the car. So what we are seeing on this year's RB13 is a continuation of the minimalist theme of the RB12, which clearly worked last year and is likely to do the same again this season.

It seems the key aero philosophy on the RB13 is to create a single flow structure around the flanks of the car. Under the front of the chassis there is a very large turning vane package, these lead onto the main bargeboards, which are only split into two elements. Combined these create a powerful vortex that shapes the airflow around the car, feeding the underfloor with the right pressure distribution and helping to seal the large gap between the track and the floor, created by the high rake setup Red Bull have preferred since 2009. Such is the size and power of this airflow that the floor is cutaway behind where the bargeboards end to allow the air to spiral along the edges of the car.

That nose!

One of the more eye catching details of the RB13 is the nose treatment, much talked about on its launch. While this isn't a race winning difference, the open nose hole is a sign that Red Bull are thinking about the whole package and getting these new larger bargeboards to work hard. Since 2015 the rules have mandated that the nose tip meets two minimum cross sectional areas. For most teams this has led to the so-called thumb-tip design, where the nose shape is wrapped tightly to these minimum areas. Being at a fixed height, the nose tip therefore blocks the airflow and this impacts on the effectiveness of the turning vane package.

On the RB13 we can see that the nose has gaping hole in the front -- this feeds straight back out the rear of the nose tip, in order to keep air flowing to the turning vanes mounted just behind the nose. After three seasons of the nose tip regulations, no one else has gone with this design and this is because the rules also force another restriction on the nose shape, specifically to ban holes such as these and those raced by Ferrari back in 2008. But the Red Bull design team have found a work around with a series of fins inside the nose hole that are offset from each other to allow air to pass through. When viewed from the front no 'hole' is visible through the nose.

Running with rake

As mentioned above, the Red Bull set up philosophy is based around a steep rake angle, making the nose lower and the tail higher. For an F1 car this is a very effective aerodynamic set up, as the front wing is closer to the ground making it more powerful and the whole floor and diffuser are raised up, resulting in them acting like one very large diffuser creating more downforce. However, while this is great for cornering speed, on the straights the tall rear end creates drag and slows the car.

Red Bull have been able to combat this by setting the car's suspension up to allow the rear to sink at speed. With the increasing aero load pushing the springs down to squash the suspension, the car rides much flatter reducing the drag penalty. In order to do this and not suffer from soft suspension in the corners, Red Bull have a complex suspension setup using hydraulic links to keep the suspension stiff in turns and then soft on the straights. What's more, as the DRS opens and the rear force is reduced, the car does not spring back up, rather it stays compressed and only returns to its higher, stiffer setting under braking. This and other similar systems run by other teams have been the subject of much debate over the winter, such that a new clarification by the FIA will attempt to outlaw overt exploitation of the suspension for aerodynamic benefit.

Mercedes W08

Continuing in the theme started back in 2014 -- when the current era of Mercedes dominance began -- the 2017 season looks to have Mercedes' name written all over it. Having prepared for the change in chassis and power unit regulations years before 2014, Mercedes success has been rooted in a near equal advantage in their power unit, chassis and race operations. Having a winning streak offers compound benefits as you are not having to devote resources to catching up and can therefore focus on the details and the future. This year's rule changes, while very different, do not fundamentally change the direction of car development, so we do not expect Mercedes to lose much of the basis of their current form.

Aerodynamic complexity

So when the W08 was rolled out at the team's launch at Silverstone there was little surprise that the 2016 philosophy of complex aero with lots of hard-worked details continued -- indeed, the new car could be argued to be the most complex F1 car since 2008. While other teams have complex details, none show such thorough thought to every aspect of the car, as exhibited on the new Mercedes.

Key among these details is the turning vane treatment. The new rules this year have opened up the area to the side of the cockpit and ahead of the sidepod to aerodynamic development. This 'bargeboard' area was restricted back in 2009, in order to cut drag and complexity to boost overtaking. However, like much of the 2009 'overtaking' rules, the regulations in this area has been reversed and now the teams are free to use their simulation of aero in the wind tunnel or CFD to exploit the area to levels unknown back in 2008. So for the W08, the area between the front wing mounts and the sidepods features some 13 vertical aero elements shaping the airflow (probably nearer 20 elements in the horizontal plane).

It's clear this can create a powerful airflow used to get the rear half of the car's aerodynamics working very efficiently, but such complexity necessarily demands a detailed understanding of how it all works. For most teams, such sophistication would be unpredictable, making the handling of the car very sensitive, but Mercedes have proven through 2016 that such complexity can be understood, controlled and used to great advantage. This is a technical lead that other teams may struggle to catch up on.

Novel front suspension

Comparing the 2017 cars splits the designs into two camps; those that look like a 2016 car widened and with some new add-on parts and those that are clearly a new generation of car that look as though every previous concept has been discarded and completely reconsidered. Mercedes falls into the latter category and one area that proves that is the front suspension. Since the first days of motor racing, suspension has been a means to control the tyre on the track and lots of clever geometry and science can predict how this should be done best. But since the 2000s aerodynamics have proven to give better lap times than suspension design, so suspension has been compromised to find aero gains.

With the opening up of more aero development ahead of the sidepods, plus this year's wider tyres and thus wider wheels, the front suspension has been revised. Mercedes has raised the front wishbones on the W08, raising them clear of the front wing wake and therefore allowing more undisturbed airflow to go towards the turning vanes. Just how high they have been mounted is demonstrated by the top wishbone nearly being aligned with the top of the chassis. Aerodynamically this makes sense, but for the suspension designer, the geometry is compromised, not least as the top wishbone is now higher than the top of the wheel. Normally the wishbone ends inside the wheel to mount to the upright in order for the suspension to pivot and wheel to steer. But with tiny 13 inch wheels, there isn't the room with a high wishbone, so the mount has to go outside of the wheel on a goose-neck mounting reaching out of the wheel up to the the end of the wishbone. Mercedes are not alone in this idea as Toro Rosso arrived independently at the same solution.

Ferrari SF70H

It was hard to predict the direction Ferrari would take with its new car this year. The team's technical staff changed mid-way through 2016 and last season's campaign was far from a success on track. Fortunately for F1 it appears Ferrari have emerged from a difficult year with a car that has the potential to fight in the top three. Having forged its own design philosophy back in 2014, Ferrari went back to a contemporary design last season and looked to threaten the leaders, but a small gap in chassis and power unit performance relegated them to a lowly third position. This year's car has gone down the new generation route and well away from other team's ideas of convention. If Red Bull are taking the minimalist approach, Mercedes the complex one, then Ferrari have thrown their eggs into the sidepod basket.

Complex sidepods

With the SF70H, the car follows many design trends adopted by other teams regarding the front wing, nose and turning vanes, but the last section of bargeboard and the sidepod fronts then take an entirely new direction. Ferrari are gambling somewhat on this approach, but are able to leverage knowledge used in the past few seasons. Within the sidepods are radiators used to cool the engine, the hybrid system, gearbox and hydraulics, all arranged in a large panel of coolers. Air gets fed through the sidepod inlet and then has to find a way through the fin and tubes of the radiators themselves. Since 2015, Ferrari has micromanaged this airflow with a series of louvers either side of the radiator to help the air turn to pass through the cooling cores. This has allowed Ferrari to mount the radiators at some extremely flat angles and still get air to pass effectively through them.

This year Ferrari has taken this one stage further and moved the radiators higher and further back in the sidepod. Being higher means the sidepod inlets are also higher and that allows the air turned below them to pass around the car and towards the diffuser for more downforce. Being shorter means the space freed up in front of the sidepods can be used for vanes to further enhance the airflow being directed down and around them.

With this complex sidepod front, Ferrari have added large bargeboards which all work with the same airflow aims. Some of these vanes look quite brutal, especially the red painted vane mounted out wide ahead of the sidepods. This is a less intuitive layout of the vanes than its rival use, so it's possible Ferrari may want to backtrack on some of these ideas for more conventional shapes. But Ferrari's investment into the short sidepod with the high vaned inlet has forced some structural compromises.

Hard to change

Part of the car's crash protection are two spars that project laterally from the cockpit and protect the driver in a side impact. One of these is at floor level and the other one higher up -- normally at shoulder height and sitting inside the top of the sidepod front. For Ferrari to have their vaned sidepod front, this spar has had to be lowered to sit inside the vane forming the lower half of the sidepod inlet. This cannot be moved without a new chassis and if Ferrari want to go conventional with its sidepods then there will need to be a compromise in its design.