Although the new 2022 aero regulations are widely recognized as the biggest rule change Formula 1 has ever seen, the next two most significant were probably those of 1998 and 2009.
Curiously, each of these new sets of regulations sparked hugely innovative and influential designs from Adrian Newey, the McLaren MP4/13 and the Red Bull RB5 respectively.
With Newey still an integral part of the Red Bull technical team, it gives added anticipation to the features that may be revealed in the new RB18 when it is released on Wednesday afternoon.
For 1998, governing body FIA introduced a series of significant changes intended to slow down F1 cars, including grooved tires and a reduction in the width of the car from 2 meters to 1.8.
A narrower track meant a more sudden load transfer to the outside tires – which, because of the grooves, had less grip anyway. A larger, more impact-resistant chassis was regulated and this too was intended to limit the aerodynamic possibilities.
All other 1998 cars retained the previously fashionable high nose, maximizing underfloor capacity. McLaren felt that with the greatly reduced tire surface, mechanical grip was going to be greater than before and so lowered the nose to reduce the height of the center of gravity (which has a multiplier effect on load transfer ). It was already part of the concept when Newey joined Williams in August 1997.
What Newey added to the line of thinking that tried to minimize the increased load transfer to the outer tire resulting from the 20cm narrower track (the distance between wheels on the same axle), was a longer wheelbase.
Not only would this give a more progressive load on the outside tires, but it would allow the car to be packed lower, further reducing the height of the center of gravity and therefore the load transfer force to the outside tires.
Working hand in hand with Ilmor’s Mario Illien, the new Mercedes engine had a lower crankshaft and lighter cylinder heads, again lowering the height of the center of gravity.
But Newey’s piece de resistance was his interpretation of the new chassis shape regulations which spelled out a simple measure of width and depth, implying a rectangular cross-section. By placing a fin on the top edges of the chassis, regulation depth could be achieved much further off the ground, allowing for a V-shaped bottom that provided much more airflow space under the car than on the models competitors.
It was a superb car that got McLaren back to winning ways after seven years without a title. Despite a tough challenge from Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen was world champion, with eight victories. David Coulthard won at Imola and took third place in the championship.
Newey eventually left McLaren for Red Bull and got there in time for the 2009 regulations reset, changes that were again implemented in an effort to slow down the cars, but also – like the last 22 regulations – to make cars more racable.
A completely reconfigured set of dimensions was defined to limit the potential of the new cars. The front wing now had to be the full width of the car (previously it had stopped halfway the width of the tyres) and there was a 500mm neutral section in the middle which could not be in profile aerodynamic. The bargeboards were of limited dimensions. The rear wing was narrower and higher and the diffuser ramp could no longer start before the rear axle, so was less powerful.
Much like at McLaren in 1998, Newey’s lateral thinking sent Red Bull in a different direction from the others.
Although it missed the twin-diffuser trick, Newey’s initially single-diffuser Red Bull was close to the Brawn twin-diffuser in performance and faster than the other two dual-diffuser cars – from Toyota and Williams.
When the RB5 then got an upgraded twin diffuser from Silverstone, it became the fastest car in F1. So what was so different and effective?
As with the McLaren, its main innovation was in shaping the chassis. The regulations indicated a prescribed depth, varying along the length of the car. Just like at McLaren, Newey used fins on the upper outer edges of the chassis to meet the depth requirement, but only allowing the bottom of the chassis to be rounded rather than square.
This was critically important under the new regulations, much more so than before. Because the neutral section of the new front wing and where it transitioned into downforce producing elements created what became known as the Y250 vortex.
This traveled the length of the car and was very powerful in speeding up all the airflow around it – thus increasing the speed of the flow towards the deflectors, the ground and around the sidepods. The faster this flow, the greater the tracking force.
But a circular spinning vortex was not a nice mix with the traditional square bottom of the chassis. Because Newey had been able to round the bottom of the chassis with his fin trickery, this vortex was able to retain more of its energy when it spun the car than on rival cars.
At the rear, the car was wrapped in a way that allowed the body to taper to a tiny size just ahead of the rear axle. This accelerated the flow of air to the stretcher flap at the top of the diffuser, with the bodywork then flaring out again in a fishtail shape to pressurize the flow around the inside face of the tires, this which makes it more efficient.
Just as with the ’22 regulations, the beam wing continued the ramp angle of the diffuser and thus added to its effect. But with conventional pushrod suspension, the outer ends of the beam fender were compromised in the way they did by the suspension rocker arms being in the airflow.
Newey realized that with the diffuser now starting further back, there was room to put the low rockers out of the way by switching to a pull rod layout. In this way, the beam wing has become much more effective in improving the performance of the diffuser and that of the underside of the rear wing.
It was a series of cascading wins. By the following year, almost all cars would have pull-rod and fishtail rear bodywork, as well as hollowed-out chassis shapes. The RB5 was effectively the aero model for all F1 cars until last year.
Curiously, the ’22 regulations place the venturi outputs at a lower point than the previous diffuser – and it may well be time for the RB5-led convention to be overturned. Could the rear of the push rod now be the way to go?
The only blot of this Newey idea flourishing every time there’s a big regulation reset was 2017 and the advent of wide cars (reversing that 2 meter to 1.8 move from 1998).
The Red Bull RB13 started the season with a serious downforce deficit, resulting from the pollution of the wind tunnel numbers by what turned out to be the tunnel walls being too close to the now wider model.
But Newey did not lead this project. He was also engaged on the Aston Martin Valkyrie hypercar. He got his first look at the regulations, he said, as he took off for the first race in Melbourne.
This will not be the case this time. What could RB18 have in store for us?