For the fourth time in this Formula One season, the same two drivers have finished a race first or second. But while Aytron Senna, who won Sunday's Detroit Grand Prix, and his McLaren-Honda teammate, Alain Proust, seem to be setting a pattern, another pattern of Formula One racing is coming to an end. The changes that follow could not only affect these small, high-powered racing cars, but the automobiles ordinary people drive on the highways. From now on, aerodynamics will play a bigger role in design for both racing and street cars.
While a good driver can make a big difference in Formula One racing, the key to victory is traditionally found under the skin of the lightweight sports cars.
This year's fastest cars are turning out about 1,000 horsepower, even though their 1.6-liter engines are about the same size as the power plants found in small economy cars. The big difference comes from high-powered turbochargers, which ram air into the engine, dramatically boosting performance.
This is the last year, however, that FOCA, the Formula One circuit's governing body, will permit use of turbos. Next year, all cars will be equipped with 3.5-liter normally aspirated engines turning out a comparatively modest 600 hp. Many Formula One teams have already made the changeover this year to get an extra year of development under their belt.
``As a result of these changes, we will have to look for other ways to gain an advantage,'' says Thiery Boutsen, a respected driver on the Formula One team, sponsored by the Benetton clothing chain and the Ford Motor Company. He finished third in Detroit Sunday.
One of the most promising fields of development, Mr. Boutsen says, is aerodynamics. ``Every week we are in the wind tunnel checking our designs.''
`Gluing' a car to the road
Knowing exactly how a race car's shape interacts with the wind can yield tremendous results. For one thing, wings mounted to the vehicle's body act like an airplane in reverse, developing negative lift, and ``gluing'' a car to the road.
Knowing how to manage the wind is also important in reducing drag, or wind resistance.
Rory Byrne, design director for the Benetton-Ford team, notes that with some wing designs, a race car ``moving at 180 miles per hour needed 400 hp. just to pull itself through the air.''
Because each Grand Prix course is different - some run at average speeds of 150 m.p.h., while others, like Detroit, average barely half that speed - the design of a car's aerodynamic elements, such as wings, must be changed for each run. That keeps racing engineers busy checking their designs on test tracks, in wind tunnels, and through computer simulations.
Double payoff for Ford
Though Ford officials decline to disclose just how much they'll invest in Formula One racing this year, the stake is estimated in the tens of millions of dollars. The company, however, believes it will get a double payoff.
First, there is the exposure it gets among motoring fans around the world from Formula One, the world's most popular motor sport.
Also, the Formula One circuit serves as a real-world research laboratory, notes Don Hayward, an aerodynamic specialist with Ford's Special Vehicle Operations. ``By taking it to the edge, we're able to get some very clear input on the effects of aerodynamics.''
Aerodynamic styling has already had an important effect on passenger vehicles, with Ford considered the styling leader in the use of wind-cutting designs.
The benefit, Mr. Hayward says, is multifold. Fuel economy can be increased without reducing engine power. Handling is improved, particularly in the face of heavy crosswinds. And wind noise is reduced, improving passenger comfort.
So, Hayward says, the increasing emphasis on aerodynamics will allow engineers to make developments that will go from Formula One to the less glamorous production cars.