That’s just about where the 11 Formula 1® teams’ technical experts find themselves ahead of what Renault Sport has described as “the most significant technical change to hit the sport in more than two decades”.
Of course they all have cloudfuls of data from previous years, both relating to their cars and to the tracks they run on, to help them get ready for the turbo era and all its knock-on effects.
But not until cars hit the track at the first test on January 28 will they – and we – begin to understand how the changes will affect the running order in F1® for 2014 – if at all.
There has already been one tyre test in Bahrain in late December to help Pirelli prepare for the changes to 2014 cars but that produced a worrying moment when Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes suffered tyre failure while nudging 320 km/h on the straight.
‘No problem’, was the Italian firm’s response, as this was a prototype only previously seen in their lab and will not reappear on cars in 2014. But the incident did highlight the challenges everyone in F1® faces as we head into this brave new world.
At least Pirelli had already decided not to alter the size of their rear tyres, in response to F1® teams’ request that they leave well alone. The teams already have enough dimensional changes to worry about.
While we know they will have to cope with cars that are almost 50 kilos heavier, we have to wait for further data on tyres until those cars start running. “We don’t know the real impact of the aero when we start racing,” admits their main trackside man Paul Hembery, and that’s fair enough.
So let’s focus on the aerodynamic consequences of the 2014 changes for now.
“In performance terms it’s quite a dramatic change,” says Ferrari’s Pat Fry, “but the cars will look quite similar to the current cars.”
If you want to spot the differences, the wings are the things. The front wing is reduced in overall width from 1800mm (the maximum width of the car itself) to 1650mm.
That’s a small matter of just 150mm – but of course in F1® terms that’s HUGE. It affects the airflow from the front wing past the wheels. Given that the 500mm mid-section of the wing must remain ‘neutral’, technical bods will be spending many computational hours on the design of the outer part of the wings and especially the end-plates to channel that air most effectively.
Will it go round the outside or the inside of the wheels? How quickly will those two streams join up to fill the significant drag-inducing void behind each wheel?
Moving to the back of the car, the so-called ‘beam’ wing, its large lower section, has been done away with, so the rear wing will look smaller and shallower than it did. The purpose is to reduce the possibility of creating exhaust-blown downforce.
That goes hand-in-hand with a new regulation governing the exhaust pipe itself: now it must be a single pipe, facing rearwards and kept close to the car’s centre-line
Most obviously, perhaps, we will be able to tell a 2014 car by the shape of its nose – and they look set to be pretty droopy.
That’s because the front bulkhead (set across the car at 90 degrees to the direction of travel) is now positioned at a height of 525mm, while the new height of the front of the car’s nose is dramatically cut to just 185mm.
So how will the tech whizzes bridge that downward gap, as they seek to maximize the airflow under their new creations?
Last but not least, the sidepods may give us a clue as to the cars’ year of origin. With all the ancillaries and functions generated by turbo-charging, plus the small changes to the mandatory crash-test structures, they make look a little fatter.
One side will house the turbo intercooler and KERS cooling system, the other will accommodate engine and gearbox oil coolers and water radiator.
In fact it’s the sheer challenge of fitting everything in to the dimensions of the F1® car that is causing engineers the greatest headaches. They’re shrink-wrapped already, so how do you cope with add-ons like turbos on the car’s centre-line behind the engine in spaces where the gearbox might like to spread its elbows?
Perhaps that’s why, over the European winter, there seem to have been more changes in technical personnel than anything else.
Mercedes have made two high-profile signings in Performance Director Mark Ellis and Chief Engineer, Simulation and Development, Giles Wood, both snared from Red Bull; Williams have made a whole raft of changes, recruiting from Red Bull, Lotus, Force India and Mercedes as Pat Symonds seeks to make the FW36 the car that starts Sir Frank’s fight-back.
Engine and chassis sections within each team will be working more closely than ever before. As Ferrari’s Nikolas Tombazis has said, “The changes aerodynamically are quite significant and in some key areas this involves reviewing our design completely.”
As always, the team – or Technical Director – that second-guesses the rule-makers best will be the one that gets its nose in front. And we mean that literally…