Saturday, September 03, 2011

Suspension camber in Grand Prix racing

Formula One's latest cause celebre revolves around Red Bull's decision to race at Spa with a greater degree of negative front-wheel camber than recommended by Pirelli.

Negative camber simply means that both wheels are inclined inwards at the top. The benefit of this is that the outer wheel generates greater lateral force on the entry to a corner (so-called camber thrust, similar to the way a motorbike rider generates lateral force by keeling the bike over), but the disadvantage is that the inner shoulders of both front tyres will suffer greater stress when the car runs in a straightline, and at Spa this caused both Red Bull drivers to suffer tyre blisters.

It's interesting to recall, however, that in the pre-war era of Grand Prix racing, the cars were actually set-up with visible levels of positive front-end camber. In other words, the front-wheels were inclined outwards at the top.

So why was this? Well, there seem to be at least two distinct reasons. The first was relevant prior to the mid-1930s, when cars employed what now look like rather primitive beam axle front suspension systems. Under the extra load generated by braking, the front axle would sag, and pull the front wheels inward at the top, as illustrated in this diagram taken from Matt Joseph's excellent 'Collector Car Restoration Bible: Practical Techniques for Professional Results'. Thus, a degree of positive static camber was necessary to offset this effect.

The eventual transition to independent, double-wishbone, ball-joint suspension, meant that wheel camber was no longer affected by the loads generated under straightline braking (or acceleration). However, even after the adoption of more modern suspension in the mid-1930s, the Mercedes and Auto Union Grand Prix cars continued to run with appreciable levels of positive camber. The primary reason for this appears to involve a concept called the scrub radius.

Now, when the front wheels of a car are steered, the wheels pivot around some axis. Originally, this steering axis was implemented with a physical rod called a king-pin, which was attached to each end of the beam axle. With independent, double-wishbone suspension, this king-pin is replaced by the line drawn between the upper and lower ball-joints at the outer end of the wishbones. This axis is also the line along which the weight of the car is projected down to the ground. The distance between the point where this line intersects the ground and the contact patch of the tyre, is called the scrub radius.

As Joseph explains (p261), a non-zero scrub radius causes several problems: it puts large forces into the king-pins; it acts like a lever, thereby putting large shocks into the steering; and it makes it harder to steer a car. Positive camber was the common solution devised for minimising the scrub radius. If the wheels are inclined outwards at the top, then the contact patches will be placed directly under, or at least closer to, the point where the steering axis intersects the road surface.

There's just one more complication to consider. Under the chassis roll generated by cornering, a double-wishbone suspension system will experience a positive camber increment on the more heavily loaded outer wheel, and a negative camber change on the lightly-loaded inner wheel. By setting a car up with a degree of positive static camber, this will result in the outer wheel acquiring an even greater degree of positive camber during cornering, while the inner wheel reaches a more vertical inclination, as nicely demonstrated in the photo of the Mercedes above.

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