During the ongoing row over the FIA’s attempt to clamp down on aerodynamic bouncing and so-called ‘flex floors’ in Formula 1, Red Bull’s Christian Horner has argued against proposals to change the current rules of season, stating “there is no such thing as the intent of the settlement. It’s a binary thing.
Curiously, Ross Brawn – now F1’s managing director of motorsport – found himself embroiled in a very similar row in 1996 when he was technical director of the Benetton team.
Coming out of a constructors’ championship in 1995, Brawn’s Benetton team were caught up in new regulations that mandated higher cockpit sides for 1996, as part of a drive to improve safety after the fatal crash of Ayrton Senna at Imola two years earlier.
Brawn was particularly unhappy with the approach taken by Jordan and Williams, who both used different ingenious methods to achieve lower cockpit sides than their rivals and thus gain aerodynamic efficiency.
In a recent episode of The Race’s Bring Back V10s podcast, revisiting the 1996 Australian Grand Prix and Jacques Villeneuve’s incredible F1 debut, Gary Anderson, then Jordan’s Technical Director, reveals how his team achieved a design that irritated Brawn so much.
“What we’ve done is reverse the roll bar – in other words the front leg of the roll bar normally goes up quite vertically and the rear leg that goes to the rear of the chassis is in sort of tilted,” says Anderson.
“The way the regulations were written, you had to have a straight line between the front roll bar, which is right out of the monocoque, in front of the steering wheel, and the rear roll bar – and it had to clear the headset driver.
“The definition of where the hoop is is where they put the load test on the hoop – so the team defines where that position is. And from there you had straight to 50mm deflection This occurs on both the front hoop and the back hoop.
“We reversed the rear roll bar, set the position to be further back – but in theory it’s still the front of the roll bar – and the load test still goes into the same direction from the front point – so the roll bar is just farther back.
“Then, to make the line between the rear roll bar and the front roll bar pass in front of the rider’s helmet, we raised the tip at the front of the chassis – so it was 45mm higher – because still once, you are entitled to this deviation of 50 mm.
“Everything was still in place, so it was as required by the regulations with regard to the roll bars, with regard to the line above the driver’s helmet, but the front of the headrest was defined from this line, there was an offset to this line, so because we had a shallower [angle of] line, we had a shallower headrest area – which meant it didn’t look like a dumpster, which the Ferrari looked like, for example.
During a special appearance on The Race’s F1 Tech podcast last month, Ferrari designer John Barnard admits his team has designed something bulkier and far less efficient.
“That’s because I left my aero guy alone to go do the wind tunnel testing,” Barnard explained. “Following the rules exactly as they were written, and producing this headrest next to the driver, he did it on the model in the tunnel and he phoned me and said ‘do you know what, it improves it – it gives us better numbers!’.
“I said ‘are you sure?’ and he said ‘yes, we’ve tried it a few times and it’s improved the numbers’ I said, ‘it doesn’t look good; it looks fake in a way’ .
“What happened was we went with that result but he hadn’t looked at the airflow in the airbox. It screwed up the airflow in the airbox, and if you ever look at some of the pictures of [Michael] Schumacher leads him, in the straight he has the lead [leaning] to improve airbox flow.
“To be fair, that car had a lot of downforce – it won Spain in the wet; Schumacher was sailing away from everyone and I think that’s because he had really good downforce – what he didn’t have was good straight line speed, that was probably his greatest downfall.
At the time, Brawn, whose team had designed something apparently similar to Ferrari’s solution, publicly criticized Jordan’s interpretation, saying “the top of the hoop is the top of the hoop, and you can’t use two different positions to measure it. From what I can see in the Jordan, the helmets are well outside the cockpit, so I’m sure there will be a fuss about that.
The Williams headrest was even lower than Jordan’s. Adrian Newey, now of Red Bull of course, found a loophole in specifying the height of the chassis next to the driver’s head, but the rules didn’t explicitly say the height of the headrest had to be the same .
The head restraint was only required to have a minimum total area, so Newey took that area and placed it as low as possible above the driver’s shoulders, then satisfied the height regulation of the chassis with a small fin on the top of the head restraints.
Brawn initially said the Williams looked ‘reasonable’, but by the time he arrived in Australia he was less pleased – saying: ‘When the rules were set the intention was clear and I don’t I’m not sure the intent was followed.” They follow the letter of the rules, it’s just a matter of whether we have to rewrite the rules. It’s up to the authorities to decide if it’s in the spirit.
But, as Newey said in his autobiography, “the rules are the rules and there is no intent to settle clause.” This is a point with which Anderson agrees.
“It’s another way of looking at it, to put the headrest lower than the top of the chassis,” he says. “At that time, we never read this solution.
“We sat on the technical working group with the FIA when these regulations were all changed, and there was a technical representative from each team.
“I was the one from Jordan, and after the Ayrton Senna accident, we came up with some stuff to try to protect the driver better – make it a survival cell instead of a monocoque – and at each meeting some of these things were opposites so you were sitting there thinking about it while you signed up for it, or debating it, so you’re still trying to figure out the solutions and our first solution was flipping the roll bar in the other meaning.
“It’s the same old thing, there’s no rule that says ‘it’s the intention’. It’s all about the numbers – the numbers are black on white and that’s what you have to be conform.
It was the approach that won out in this particular row. Williams and Jordan have raced in their Melbourne cockpit setups all season, and by 1997 most teams had moved in similar directions.