Barcelona, as the first race in the European season, lived up to its reputation as the race where teams bring big upgrades to their cars. Ferrari perhaps created the biggest stir with their halo-mounted combined mirror/flow conditioner (shown below, right).
The dramatic-looking winglets mounted some way above are attached to the mirrors by a thin stalk, ostensibly to reduce vibration of the mirror and therefore improve visibility. However, the FIA is poised to ban the Italian team’s layout after reasoning that the stiffening could be achieved with an extension close to the mirrors that could be mounted from the same point. The extra mounting point therefore must be to create a structure higher up on the halo – and the inference of that, together with the shaping of the structure, is that this is primarily an aerodynamic device, not primarily a mirror-stiffening device.
But while Ferrari caught the eye, actually by far the biggest changes amongst the big teams came at Red Bull…
As well as a revised engine inlet – which involved a new crash/load test because of the roll hoop arrangement – and a modified front wing, the RB14’s sidepods had been reshaped to give a tighter 'coke bottle' section in plan view. This entailed rearranging the radiators within to get the required shape and altering the barge board arrangement to suit the new sidepod shape.
The barge board and top boomerang section were re-shaped. In place of the previous four airflow-accelerating ‘teeth’ ahead of the sidepod’s inlet, there are now six and there is a McLaren-like slot on the outer edge of the floor to encourage a stronger vortex generation on the edges of the underfloor. These vortexes act as virtual skirts, sealing off the area to the outside and enhancing the negative pressure being created by the underfloor surface and diffuser. Using slots to help make them stronger has become a feature of the wider-floored cars of 2016 onwards.
Simulation suggested the changes had brought a performance gain of at least 0.3s per lap, though this wasn’t really borne out in qualifying, where the deficit from pole was about the same as before, as measured against a Mercedes W09 that had a series of much smaller updates – including detail changes to the front wing, sidepods and diffuser and a small guide vane on the front suspension (pictured below) – reckoned to be worth around 0.1s.
The complication in assessing the worth of the Red Bull and Ferrari updates is that performance was far more dominated by the tyre temperature conundrum than any car changes. On this occasion, Mercedes got a better handle than anyone on the new thin-gauge Pirelli tyre that will be used at several fast-corner tracks this year, with the intention of limiting graining.
We can say that the updates certainly didn’t seem to have an adverse effect on any of the top three team cars – with the Ferrari’s fall from pole-winning form very much related to its tyre usage.
McLaren’s upgrades were always likely to be under more scrutiny than most in Barcelona. The main part of the team’s new package - which was the one they wanted to bring at the start of 2018 - consisted of this new nose and front wing (shown in the images above). It shows the influences of several other cars, with a Mercedes-like cape vane below the nose, Sauber-like intakes at the front of the nose with a Red Bull-like shaping of the central intake. However, vertical slots (nicknamed credit card slots by some) running up either side of the nose reveal the whole update to be much more than just a selection of features from other cars.
The underside of the nose reveals an incredibly complex arrangement of airflow. It appears as if the two outer nostril intakes feed the cape vane, generating ground effect there and making that vane work much harder in creating downforce by increasing the speed of the air through reduced air pressure. The vertical slots are also drawing air from the nose’s underside and exiting on the upper surface, improving the aero efficiency of both surfaces.
Both Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were adamant that the big upgrade for the MCL33 had given a car with a more stable rear on corner entry – previously a weak point of the car. Alonso was closer to pole than he had been in Baku, but their position in the pecking order remained about the same.
Force India again trialled the new front wing that first appeared in practice at Bahrain, but again both Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon discarded it in favour of the original. This one (seen above) is distinguished from the original by a more complex curvature of the main plane where it meets the central neutral section, and by the different cascade of upper flaps.
The main problem area of the car remains a rear instability, which the team believes originates in an airflow separation issue around the upper body surfaces, which has yet to be properly rectified. As such, an improvement in front wing performance just adds to the car’s balance problems. So until the rearward aerodynamics are improved, the new front wing cannot be properly assessed.
So, plenty of new parts on display in Barcelona, but not necessarily any significant changes in the pecking order as yet…