A Nose For Safety – Full Story
Much of the early-2012 season Formula One chatter swirled around the design of nosecones and their aesthetic (de-)merits. It was a noisy debate focusing on the look of the ‘blade’ or ‘stepped’ nose now favoured by 10 of the 12 teams, and it threatened to drown out the real issue – greater safety.
Above – Pre 2012 Spec
Below – Post 2012 Spec
As the evolution of Formula One car design raised the nose tip ever higher over the years for aerodynamic reasons, so the danger it posed to other drivers was also raised. That’s why the regulation tweaks for 2012 have enforced the lower, flatter – some would say uglier – stepped noses you’re seeing on the starting grid this season. They’re the result of the conflict between superior aero and better safety. Whether or not they’re pretty is a side issue – not the issue itself.
The reprofiled front end will sit more sympathetically with the car’s other safety features, and help to ensure that in a T-bone accident the lower tip is less likely to ride over another car’s survival cell. FIA technical delegate Charlie Whiting notes: “We just want the nose to be compatible in height with the side of a chassis.”
Over the past decade F1 cars have proven that they can withstand enormous accidents, protecting their drivers as they do. Yet nose design has been an aggravating factor in several enormous shunts, such as the nose-to-wheel contact between Mark Webber and Heikki Kovalainen at the 2010 European Grand Prix in Valencia (leading to Webber’s terrifying flip and flight through the air, from which he emerged shaken but unscathed); and the Force India car of Antonio Liuzzi riding up over the nose of Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes in Abu Dhabi the same year.
T-boning incidents are rarer, of course, but the consequences of a high-speed nose-to-cockpit-side impact can be stark to the point of horrifying. When Champ Car driver Alex Tagliani struck the spinning similar car of Alex Zanardi at the Lausitzring circuit in 2001, the front chassis of Zanardi’s car was sliced away and the helpless driver lost both lower legs.
In Formula One a year later, Takuma Sato was lucky to escape injury at the 2002 Austrian GP, when Nick Heidfeld’s out-of-control Sauber T-boned his Jordan. Fortunately, Sato was helped by the specific nature of that impact; it was the rear of the Sauber that hit the side of his Jordan, not the more aggressive nose. The rear crash structure is not only blunter, but also fixed at a lower height and has a minimum cross section. So Sato was less imperilled than he would have been had Heidfeld’s Sauber speared the Jordan nose-first.
Two major safety features are now built into an F1 car to protect a driver in the event of a T-bone impact, these being the minimum cockpit height and the anti-intrusion panel bonded to the side of the chassis. Cockpit surround dimensions are fixed by the technical regulations to a minimum height of 550mm, while the padded area around the driver’s head is 105mm higher. Additionally, the anti-intrusion provisions spelled out in article 15.46 of the FIA technical regulations stipulate that a zylon panel must be bonded to the sides of the chassis, in the cockpit area. Until this year, the panel had to reach a height of 500mm.
But, also until 2012, rules allowed designers the freedom to run their nose cones as high as 625mm – a height that clearly enabled them to ride above the survival cell and in a T-bone collision.
In order to reduce the potential of a disastrous side- impact accident in which a high nose impacts a car at speed, and above 550mm, the F1 Technical Working Group (comprising FIA and team representatives) proposed the following, as described by Charlie Whiting: “Some teams felt it made more sense to ensure that the part which remains when the impact
is carried out should be no higher than 550mm. This would ensure minimal disruption to chassis designs. We agreed to this suggestion and it went through.”
This rule change was framed by article 3.7.9 of the 2012 technical regulations as: “No bodywork situated more than 1950mm forward of the rear face of the cockpit entry template may be more than 550mm above the reference plane.”
In effect, that means the removable nose cone section cannot sit higher than 550mm. Hence, 2012’s rash of low noses. With this measure in place, in tandem with the height of the anti-intrusion panel being raised to 550mm (from 500mm), the FIA hoped to ensure the nose would always stay lower than the protective structure of the survival cell.
The FIA probably also envisaged the whole front of the chassis forming a smooth transition from nose tip to the front of the cockpit opening. But the rules still allowed for a higher chassis from the rear of the nose cone to the cockpit opening, and 10 of the 12 F1 teams have exploited this extra height for aerodynamic reasons (the exceptions being McLaren and HRT).
F1 aerodynamics focus on making best possible use of the underfloor and diffuser, as their profiles combine to create the most downforce for the least drag. Part of that process involves raising the nose, as this feeds more air over the turning vanes, which in turn direct the ideal airflow towards the floor’s leading edge. The importance of this under-nose airflow is what first encouraged teams to raise noses in the first place. Indeed, it’s so important that they decided to keep the front section of the survival cell as high as possible when they added the mandated nose cone, thus creating the ‘step’ that became such a talking point when the first 2012 chassis were unveiled.
The presence of this 75mm step between nose and chassis top was clearly an issue for both the FIA and the teams, and Whiting recalls that the likely aesthetic demerits were raised at a TWG meeting in October 2011. “At one point in October last year the potential ugliness of the noses was discussed,” he says.
The teams had pointed out that the obvious aerodynamic outcome of the regulation change would be a stepped nose and that it wouldn’t be a pretty sight. Alternative suggestions to enforce a straight line from nose tip to cockpit were quashed because that would require a totally new monocoque and front suspension design, and by this point last year those items had already been signed off for 2012 manufacture.
An alternative suggestion was to add a purely cosmetic panel above the nose to fill in the step. However, any such component could well come loose in an accident, so the idea was vetoed.
The final compromise for 2012 allowed for a small (120mm) length of nose to smooth the transition between nose and survival cell. However, most teams have chosen a stepped nose to maximise space under the chassis to the benefit of superior aerodynamics, using a variety of solutions to enhance the transition of air flow from the nose cone over the step and towards the cockpit. Only McLaren, among the leading teams, has designed a lower overall height, so avoids any steps.
This current set of regulations governing nose height is scheduled to remain unchanged until 2014 when the next stage in nose design will be introduced. New, more complex rules will then bring the nose height down to below 500mm, and the tip no higher than 185mm. That will not only further improve safety in T-Bone accidents, but will reduce the likelihood of take-off in nose/wheel contact.
Once again the regulation change is likely to produce cars that look significantly different. And, once again, the aesthetic change will, as it must, play second fiddle to greater safety.
Note: Latest ‘Aesthetic’ Developments for 2013…
(see Regs Below)
Without compromising safety or the significant research and development that has led to the ‘duckbill’ noses, this stepped nose look could disappear in 2013, thanks to a change in the FIA’s technical regulations allowing teams to cover them with a dedicated fairing.
The revised 2013 F1 rules, allow an ‘aesthetic smoothing’ between the low nose and the high chassis. Importantly, the fairings will not affect the car’s impact-protection properties and teams will not be able to modify them to gain an aerodynamic advantage.
FIA Technical Regs…
Probable 2013 direction…
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