Monday, May 03, 2010

The art of the Formula 1 racecar

The notion that Formula One cars can attain the status of artistic creations is hardly a novel one. If nothing else, John Barnard's 1990 Ferrari 641 has been on display in New York's Museum of Modern Art for some years now.

Nevertheless, photographer James Mann and journalist Stuart Codling's recent Art of the Formula 1 RaceCar is an interesting and distinctive piece of work. Mann has photographed eighteen Formula One cars in professional photographic studios against a black background, and the results are gorgeous.

Readers, however, may be slightly puzzled by some of the cars chosen, and one suspects that Mann and Codling were constrained by which cars were available, and at what cost. For example, the Ferrari 641 is missing, Adrian Newey's Leyton House CG901 is substituted in place of his wonderful March 881, and there's no place for either the Lotus 79 or the Brabham BT52.

The photos are accompanied by decent profiles from Codling, and a rather terse set of appraisals from Gordon Murray. In fact, Codling's introduction to the book is really superb, but there are also some disappointing factual inaccuracies. For example, on p108 it is suggested that Jody Scheckter was racing the Tyrrell P34 in 1976 at Spa-Francorchamps. Whilst the notion of Lauda, Hunt and Scheckter hammering flat-out through the Masta kink, is more than diverting, it is one which must sadly be relegated to universes parallel to our own.

The fact that Mann got so many historic F1 cars into photographic studios, makes one wonder if they could also be whisked into full-scale wind tunnels, and modelled in CFD, to understand exactly what their aerodynamic properties were.

For example, take the six-wheeled Tyrrell P34: the idea here was to reduce the lift and turbulence generated by the front wheels of a conventional car. However, it remains unknown to what extent this was actually achieved. Could the design have been more fully exploited with modern knowledge of front-wing aerodynamics? The nose of the P34 wasn't shaped as an inverted wing section at all; did it function as a ground-effect splitter, or was it exclusively designed to reduce drag?

Alternatively, what was the airflow regime around the front of the Lotus 72? Recall that Maurice Phillippe's iconic design had a very wide, wedge-shaped nose, with wing section spoilers protruding on either side. What was the interaction here between the front wing and the turbulent airflow generated by the tyres? Did the wedge-shape of the Lotus 72 provide any ground effect downforce at the leading edge of the nose?

So, there's plenty of opportunity here for further research, and one day, perhaps, an aesthetic appreciation of historic F1 cars will be paired with a sophisticated, retrospective aerodynamic assessment.

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