Binning the noses: not as unthinkable as you may think

Sunday 02nd February 2014, 11:42 by Graham Keilloh 

Sahara Force India F1 Team

Lots of stories emerged from the opening 2014 F1 pre-season test in Jerez. Renault's woes; the particular woes of Red Bull; the Mercedes-powered teams' apparently constant presence at the top of the times; the mileage of the German marque’s works team; Ferrari’s encouraging time of it; the new spec formula particularly with the new hybrid engines; the noise of the ‘power units’. But despite all of this one particular matter seemed rather more exacting. To the eyes anyway.

Yes, you’ve probably worked out by now what I’m on about: the interesting interpretations of the 2014 year’s revised nose regulations present on the unveiled machines. Some have euphemistically referred to them as ‘anteater noses’. Closer to the truth others have referred to them as ‘gentleman’s appendages’. Whatever we call them, and however much teams seek to disguise them with creative paint jobs, in most cases they are repugnant. Just like two years ago, the sport has sought to lower the height of the noses and managed only to lower the tone, and what we’ve ended up with rather goes against what racing cars should be aesthetically: both elegant and look like they’re doing 200mph even when standing still.

There is rather a lot of variation in the designs I grant you, and Mercedes to its credit has almost alone come up with a dignified solution, but in many cases what we have protruding from the front of F1 cars is rather horrifying. 

Worse than this some of the designs almost challenge decency, to the point that races’ TV coverage might have to be shown only after the watershed. I’m talking to you, Toro Rosso. And to you, Force India. And you, Caterham. And while the stepped noses of 2012 certainly were unsightly they at least, unlike the 2014 versions, didn’t look like, you know, that. That even Ann Summers’ Twitter feed was making mirth at it all shows the potential F1 has to resultantly be viewed widely as a laughing stock through this.

The problem is seemingly that while the intention of the new regulations on noses was clear – creating lower noses aka the 2009 Brawn, so to stop cars cartwheeling over one ahead in a collision as with Mark Webber in Valencia in 2010 – the actual wording was a botched job. The teams did what is their right and stretched the wording to its maximum in order to continue to take advantage of the benefits of airflow under the nose as much as they could. After all, no designer can unlearn what they already know. And the outputs we now have were hardly unforeseen: Mercedes’s Bob Bell for one warned as much upwards of six months ago.

There is an assumption that, as with stepped noses and the subsequent ‘modesty patches’ of last year, that come next year a solution will be found to allow the cars to look sensible again. But, again as with stepped noses, that still leaves a whole 12 months in which these aesthetic horrors have to be tolerated. 

But it’s not the reaction of us habitual F1 fans that I worry about, it’s that of the uninitiated, such as casual fans who might dip in but not follow the sport intensely (and they vastly outnumber us freakish close followers among the F1 audience). Then there are potential new fans. One can only imagine what these people will think. And I hope you realise what’s going to happen: we are going to have to spend the whole season explaining to such uninitiated people why the noses resemble, um, one of those. I’m not looking forward to having to explain it to my mother, though the prospect is grimly inevitable.

With all of this in the course of the Jerez testing a wild thought did cross my mind: at what point do we require the teams to put these noses in the bin and re-write the rules for this season so to ensure that the noses we have in Melbourne are sensible?

Unthinkable you may say. Ridiculous perhaps. After all, it’s by now just over a month before we land in Australia for the season’s opening round. It’s way too late to open up the regs. And the teams will squeal that all of the time and by extension money spent in designing, developing and building their nose designs will have gone to waste, as well as that the aerodynamics of the whole car is affected by the nose.

But it might not be as unthinkable as you assume. Doing it would simply be a matter of will.

For one thing, as we know if all teams agree then rules can be changed at a moment’s notice. But – even with the fact that the nose designs appear to elicit little affection even from the teams that have come up with them – getting all of the teams to agree on whether it’s Tuesday is challenging enough. Add in the fact that not all teams have gone down the Ann Summers route and perhaps only a dodo flying past would create more surprise than the 11 competing squads establishing a unanimous view on this.

But what about the FIA? It has the power to change the regulations unilaterally if the circumstances allow: safety, force majeure, it can even claim strict interpretation of existing rules. The world really is its oyster. Furthermore Adrian Newey for one has already questioned the safety of this year’s noses while it’s also since been reported that the FIA is indeed interested in the structural integrity of the new designs, so there is potential in that avenue.

Time was you could do these things in the blink of an eye, such as in the 1969 Monaco Grand Prix meeting wherein the hideous high rear wings of the age, which used to sway in the breeze and the failure of Lotus’s caused harrowing accidents for Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt in the previous round at Montjuic, were banned by the CSI (as the FIA was called at the time) between Thursday practice sessions. And this was done even though the rules said it was supposed to give notice for such changes. There was some grumbling but broadly speaking everyone complied dutifully and the following practice session took place - sans the high wings - as scheduled.

But of course the world was different then, and this applied to F1. It especially applied to its understanding of aerodynamics compared with now. Perhaps therefore a more pertinent example of what can be done if the will is there is in 1983. 

Between the 1982 and 1983 campaigns F1 cars undertook perhaps the most gaping leap in chassis regulations that they have ever experienced. After years of accidents and some tragedy, the FIA citing force majeure and safety declared that the de rigueur ground effects were out, flat-bottomed cars were in (among a range of changes), robbing the cars of more than half of their downforce. But less well known was that these changes were not confirmed until 3 November of 1982, with the opening round of the 1983 season to be on 13 March. This is four months’ grace not four weeks’ I hear you cry, but bear in mind that not only in this former case was the whole car changing fundamentally, but also that then F1 teams were drastically smaller in staff numbers and budget compared with now. Perhaps in most cases they could be considered more comparable to GP2 squads that just so happened to have to design and build their own cars. Even the modern-day Marussia collective would dwarf them.

There was more sound and fury at this one than in 1969, many teams vociferous in their claims that a bulldozer had been driven right through the Concorde Agreement. But again the bark was much worse than the bite: all cars complying with the new regs were on the grid for the opening round in Rio in March, and an all-new Brabham BT52 – a gorgeous machine designed and built from scratch in the meantime (with the BT51, well into its development when the goalposts were shifted, now binned) – waltzing off with the race. Suddenly being given a month to change your noses seems a rather trifling undertaking.

More recently there lays perhaps an even more pertinent example of things being changed significantly while the fraternity was on the point of stepping on the plane to Australia for the campaign’s start. In the 2002-2003 close season, following a soporific year wherein Michael Schumacher had wrapped up the drivers’ title in July, as well as amid an economic downturn and a Formula One seemingly determined to spend itself into oblivion (sound familiar?), FIA President Max Mosley sought urgent change both on cost and on the show to be in place for the start of the 2003 season.

Achieving consensus among the teams for the form that change should take was as usual rather like herding cats, so after months of wrangling Mosley at the last possible moment went for the nuclear option. On the grounds variously of safety and strict interpretation of existing rules, he declared that for the 2003 season there would be one-lap qualifying, parc ferme between qualifying and the race, and most controversially of all there would not be refuelling allowed between qualifying and race’s green light. And all this was forced through in mid-February, literally a matter of days before freight was to be despatched to Melbourne for the opening race. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? But it happened.

As you might imagine there was an explosion of anger at this; Ron Dennis at McLaren spitting feathers more than most given he’d just spent Lord-knows-how-much on a qualifying car that Mosley had unilaterally and at a stroke declared in effect obsolete. McLaren and Williams declared their intention to take the whole matter to arbitration at the International Chamber of Commerce, believing that Mosley had exceeded his powers. But not much happened in the end, as always seems to be the way with these things.

Indeed, F1 history is rather littered with examples of the car’s spec changing overnight if the circumstances require it. In the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix weekend that followed Ayrton Senna’s and Ronald Ratzenberger’s deaths at Imola, Mosley (him again) announced changes to the front wing, end plate and diffuser dimension regulations that were to be in place for the following Spanish meeting in a mere two weeks’ time. And then of course there were the Pirelli changes of mid last season, from which there were clear winners and losers.

Of course, just because changing the rules at this late stage is not impossible it doesn’t mean it’s probable. If nothing else, unlike Mosley pressing the nuclear button and taking on the teams head-on does not appear to be Jean Todt’s style (indeed, this is something Mosley has criticised Todt for).

But whatever happens don’t let anyone tell you in the coming days and weeks that it can’t be done. And if you doubt that then think of it this way: imagine that the Jerez test had demonstrated that the Merc’s nose was irrefutably the most effective out there, good for a second a lap advantage. One imagines in that scenario that none of the teams would have qualms in making sure that they had something similar on their own machines come Melbourne. As mentioned, and as with most things, this is simply a matter of will.

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