Mechanical grip gains set to be a key technical battleground in F1 2023

Max Verstappen driving the RB19. Bahrain, Feb 2023 Credit: Alamy
Max Verstappen driving the RB19. Bahrain, Feb 2023 Credit: Alamy

As time has passed Formula 1 has become increasingly prescribed from a technical perspective and the modern technical definition of the F1 car is no exception.

Of the primary degrees of freedom afforded a constructor in the design of their car both the power unit and aerodynamic platforms have become the most restricted they have ever been, and it is evident each season that the performance of the teams is converging.

Prior to the new F1 aerodynamic era of primary downforce being generated by underfloor ground effect the previous flat-bottomed concept was more reliant on the attitudinal sensitivities of the upper aerodynamic surfaces.

The need to control the dynamic pitch, roll, and yaw behaviours of the upper aerodynamic platform was a critical requirement in the generation and sustainment of nominal downforce. This was achieved primarily through the control of suspension movement in additional degrees of freedom to what is now allowed in the new regulation framework with hydraulic springs, dampers, and inertial dampers.

Furthermore, suspension movement control was complemented by the previously regulated tyres, which had much higher sidewalls that were far more compliant in load transmission and therefore created more predictable behavioural characteristics.

Importantly, because the underfloor downforce generated by the flat-bottomed F1 car of the modern era was far less sensitive to ride height change, it was suspended with much lower spring rates in comparison to the 2022/2023 ground effect car.

On the other hand, the modern ground effect F1 of 2022/2023 has sensitivities more centric to the underfloor, and it has a very defined ride height range in which to operate.

For a ground effect car, the instance of the ride height becoming too low can often result in the flow through the throat of the underfloor venturi entries stalling, briefly releasing downforce with the opposite resultant raising the ride height which potentially sets up the behavioural loop we came to know as ‘porpoising’ last year.

Conversely, when the ride height raises too high downforce can be lost instantly, which can have catastrophic consequences, particularly if it occurs at time when the car is relying on downforce to transmit high lateral loading.

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It is not always a given that porpoising will occur, though, and in 2022 several teams found ways of mitigating flow stall at low ride heights by means of throat and venturi profile design, whilst others were forced to reduce downforce by raising their ride height, in particular due to the need to avoid the consequences of Technical Directive 039 which was introduced during the season as a health and safety measure.

Consequently, the control of the ride height for the 2022/2023 F1 car is of a critical nature, and due to regulative restrictions, such as active ride systems, additional degrees of suspension control freedom, and inertial dampening being banned, the suspension systems are sprung with much stiffer spring rates.

Nevertheless, a more stiffly sprung F1 car brings with it dynamic behavioural traits that aren’t necessarily always desirable as the front to rear, and outside to inside, mechanical balance can become restricted to a smaller more finite range, resulting in a less compliant or “knife edge’ characteristic, harsher implications for the temperature and wear aspects of tyre management, and more violent ride quality characteristics.

With respect to ground effect there is a good level of stability in the 2023 F1 Technical Regulations in comparison to 2022, and whilst there has been a change relating to the static height of the underfloor edge at a certain position to raise it, once again as a measure to mitigate the potential of porpoising, the impact for those teams who already have reasonably mitigated flow stall in their underfloor at low ride heights will probably be minimal.

An important area of design where freedoms to differentiate do exist in the pursuance of performance divergence and exploitation is suspension geometry and configuration, and this is certainly an area worth monitoring in the new season.

When reviewing front suspension systems in comparison to last season 2023 has interestingly seen the whole field adopt a push-rod actuated front mechanism, except for Red Bull who have not only continued with a pull-rod system on the RB19, but also continued with their unique multi-link front top wishbone, as opposed to the single piece wishbone the rest of the field uses.

Of course, Red Bull would most certainly have adopted this due to reasons relating to how the rearwards aerodynamic flow suits the RB19 design for them to have proceeded with such a configuration, but it would also seem reasonable to suspect that there are mechanical aspects to this as well.

The only team that has changed a front suspension system actuation method for 2023 is McLaren, who have used a push-rod mechanism on the MCL60 rather than the pull-rod mechanism that was used on the MCL36, and in another interesting twist they are the only team to change the actuation method used on the rear suspension by adopting a pull-rod mechanism in 2023.

Naturally, the power unit and drive line architecture and layout on an F1 car has an important influence on the rear suspension design, particularly the actuation method, for aerodynamic and packaging reasons, and in 2023 it is not coincidental that all chassis using the Ferrari power unit use a pull-rod mechanism, as do every user of the Renault and Mercedes PUs, whilst all Honda powered chassis have a push-rod rear suspension system.

As the wheelbase, track, and weight of the F1 car has steadily crept upwards in recent times so too have the optimal behaviours required of the car during braking and the transition to acceleration.

They have become less binary in nature, and with the inclusion of a more stiffly sprung ground effect car into the equation, the balance shifts between front dive under braking and rear squat under acceleration have become an important consideration, given the associated rise height sensitivities.

For 2023, after pre-season testing, there is a greater prevalence of more obvious in-built anti-dive and anti-squat geometry into the suspension designs across the field.

It is likely that the teams with designs that optimise their mechanical grip packages through best managing stiffly sprung ride height sensitivities, and that can enter and begin exiting corners with as less interference to ride height variance as possible, will be the ones that hold the cornering performance ascendency in 2023.

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