The FIA have issued a technical directive to clamp down on flexible bodywork ahead of this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix, but can Formula 1 truly eliminate the problem?
One of the most engaging aspects of the sport is the innovation, technology, and the partially-open design regulations that can reward the brightest teams.
It’s not uncommon for this to result in debates about the legality of designs, with protests often intensifying in the heat of a championship battle. Usually, when a certain loophole or ‘creative interpretation’ of the technical regulations is found, the rules are changed or clarified, and teams either proceed or desist with their trickery.
However, one occasional subject that comes up is the excessive flexing of a Formula 1 car’s bodywork, which has been the subject of discussion in the run-up to this weekend’s Singapore GP. So, why has it come up? And why is it a topic that cannot be completely abolished?
FIA to tackle flexible bodywork issue at the Singapore GP
With the FIA closely monitoring the cars over the course of the season, technical directive TD018 has been issued to clarify how bodywork should and shouldn’t move under aerodynamic load.
Article 3.2.2 of the Technical Regulations states that “all aerodynamic components or bodywork influencing the car’s aerodynamic performance must be rigidly secured and immobile”. Some bodywork movement is tolerated, and the FIA carries out various load tests to ensure the flexing is not excessive.
However, whilst all teams are passing the current scrutineering tests, it is believed that clever design work has been used to achieve desired bodywork flexing for aerodynamic gain.
From the Singapore GP, the FIA has clarified that front wings must not contain elements that move relative to the part they are fixed to (e.g. the end plates). Along with this, teams must not use rubber fillets or coverings designed to deflect under aerodynamic load or designs that use soft trailing edges to facilitate flexing. The FIA will also review the drawings of front wing designs at this weekend’s Singapore GP.
This means that the FIA have tried to emphasise that while they accept some deflection takes place due to the aerodynamic load, any deflection in the front wing must be uniform, with no localised areas of flexing.
These rules aren’t limited to the front wing, either. Their application to the entirety of the car’s bodywork triggered a response from Williams, who believed their floor would be affected by the TD.
Whilst none of the current designs have technically been declared illegal at any of the races this season, the FIA have elected to close any potential loopholes, with this being just the latest example of teams trying to push the boundaries of car legality.
FIA’s previous battles with flexible bodywork
Those who have followed Formula 1 for more than a couple of years will probably be familiar with some of the previous occasions where the FIA have felt the need to intervene with bodywork design and testing.
Even this season, Aston Martin are suspected to have been hampered by a partial midseason clampdown on flexible elements on front wings but, understandably, this has been neither confirmed nor denied by the team.
Looking further back to the heat of the 2021 Drivers’ Championship battle, both Mercedes and Red Bull were, at various points of the season, suspected of creating overly flexible front and rear wings. Onboard footage showed Red Bull’s rear wing in particular bending backwards on high-speed straights to reduce the aerodynamic drag.
Despite this, both cars were passing all of the load tests applied to the rear wings, and therefore no penalties were handed out. However, additional tests were implemented throughout the season in an attempt to bring the bodywork under control and stop the squabbling.
At the start of the 2010s, both Red Bull and Ferrari were in the spotlight for their front wings which many believed to be excessively flexible. Despite the wider-wing regulations only coming into play for the 2009 season, it wasn’t long before teams began pushing these rules to the limit.
At high speed, the outermost parts of the front wings appeared to be flexing downwards, effectively reducing the gap between the underside of the wing and the floor. Many teams believed this to be offering an aerodynamic benefit, and the FIA gradually increased the load tests at the ends of the front wings.
In fact, similar instances have been occurring since around the turn of the century. Several teams were pushing their rear wing designs to the limit – and often going over the limit – in 1999 and 2000. Similarly, Ferrari, McLaren, and BMW all felt the heat from the FIA and made mid-season front wing changes in the 2006 season.
Why the flexible bodywork issue will come up again
This is surely not the last Formula 1 fans will hear of a flexible bodywork topic. A certain amount of aeroelasticity will always exist in parts subjected to aerodynamic loads. If a part becomes too stiff, then it would be less likely to survive the impacts from kerbs. The scrutineering tests are there for safety and to ensure Formula 1 doesn’t descend into an ‘anything goes’ development war.
There will always be a gap in between the specific loads experienced in the tests, and the total load applied to the car at racing speeds, otherwise, the part in question will be designed too close to the failure point. As long as this design window exists, then teams will always explore if it can be used to an advantage.
Even if the FIA became sure of closing any loopholes or performance opportunities in the rules, the intermittent upheaval of the technical regulations – such as the ones in 2009 and 2022 – will likely open the doors for teams to exploit potential gaps in the wording.
The only way the FIA could become completely sure that the bodywork of all Formula 1 teams is compliant with the regulations is for them to create a standard design for everybody. Considering that part of the sport’s essence is an ultra-competitive technical battle, this is unlikely to change anytime soon.