May 12, 2021

How low-rake F1 concept has put Aston Martin at a crossroads

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It’s a question that even the team itself can’t yet answer, despite the example of Mercedes providing some encouragement.

This was supposed to be the year when, boosted by extra financial resources and the arrival of Sebastian Vettel, the Silverstone team broke away from the midfield pack. Instead, the team has found itself towards the back of that group.

In Bahrain, Lance Stroll just scraped into Q3 and scored a point with 10th place, while Vettel had a disastrous weekend that included two penalties and ended with a lowly 15th place.

Team principal Otmar Szafnauer has made no secret of the root cause of the problems – he’s adamant that the aero tweaks made by the FIA to trim downforce levels for 2021 have disadvantaged the two low-rake teams, Aston and Mercedes, more than anyone else. And making up that loss will not be the work of the moment.

“After analysing the data the low-rake cars were hampered significantly more by the regulation change, so we expected a tough race,” he rued in Bahrain.

Mercedes appears to have got a handle on its issues, and in the space of less than two weeks went from a dire test in Bahrain to a race victory at the same venue.

However, there was a quite a bit of Lewis Hamilton magic in that performance, and it’s evident to all that the Red Bull is now the faster car.

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Aston has the potential to improve – but even with the budget cap impacting its bigger rivals more, the team has fewer resources to call upon than Mercedes.

And crucially like all the other teams, it also has to focus on its 2022 programme. The last thing technical director Andrew Green and his men needed was to switch extra R&D effort back to solving fundamental issues with the current car.

It’s worth recalling how the team found itself in this situation. Heading into the 2020 season, the then-Racing Point outfit decided to switch from high to low-rake, for a variety of reasons.

Firstly and most obviously, low-rake contributed to Mercedes having the quickest car.

Secondly, the Mercedes gearbox and suspension pick-up points were optimised around low-rake, so it was logical for Racing Point to finally follow the route chosen by its supplier.

And thirdly, taking a short cut to 2020 performance by borrowing a proven philosophy was supposed to free up R&D resources for the new rules – then due to be introduced in 2021.

If it didn’t work, then only the 2020 season would have been wasted, and the team would have a flying start on the new regs.

“The inspiration is from the quickest car from last year,” Green told Motorsport.com at the RP20’s first test, where the similarity to the previous year’s Mercedes W10 became apparent.

“That’s where our inspiration came from. It’s – why wouldn’t we? We had a car that was running around seventh in the championship. And we’ve got one more year of these regulations, and the development that we were seeing with the high rake car to me just wasn’t going to deliver, and it was worth taking a risk.

“And it is a big risk. We tore up what we did before, fresh piece of paper, where are we going to start? Well, you aren’t going to start looking at the slowest car on the grid are you? You’re going to start looking at the fastest car, and that’s where we started.

“If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, we’ve lost one year, but I don’t think we would have lost anything relative to not doing it. The downside of not doing it was much greater.”

Otmar Szafnauer, Team Principal and CEO, Aston Martin F1

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

It did work, as demonstrated by the fact that the team won a race and took a pole. The ultimate championship position of sixth was compromised by too many retirements and the brake duct copying points penalty, and was not fully representative.

The new rules were postponed to 2022, and thus the low-rake concept had to do another year with the re-named Aston team. That would have worked out fine had the aero rules not been changed, in two steps.

It’s interesting to recall that after the first, confirmed by the FIA in June, Green already realised that it represented a big change.

Due to the shutdown, F1 teams were not able to run their own simulations during the discussions.

“When we [the FIA technical working group] decided on the change we weren’t allow to do any simulations on a current car, the simulations were coming from F1 with their modelling,” Green said in June.

“It wasn’t until we got back from the break and started to look at it we realised how big a change it was.”

A few weeks later, the FIA added three more aero changes to create a package, supposedly adding up to a 10% downforce cut. Still later, Pirelli created a new 2021 construction, with wider fronts that had an aero impact.

By then, it had become apparent at Racing Point that low-rake cars would indeed take more of a hit than high-rake rivals.

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” said Szafnauer after the Bahrain race. “But it was pointed out last year by the low-rake runners, that this would have a bigger effect than on the high-rake runners. And we were correct. At the time the regulations were being made this was pointed out.”

He also stressed that those rule changes did not get unanimous support.

Aston Martin AMR21 floor

Aston Martin AMR21 floor

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

“No. Number one, there was never a vote. Number two, there was an indicative vote.

“So that was just at the technical under committee [working group], that all the technical directors had to have an indicative vote, and three teams voted against it.

“You’ve got to remember only two teams have a low-rake concept. So even one of the high-rake teams voted against it. So nowhere near unanimity. And it wouldn’t have even passed on the eight out of 10 rule. Because three voted against.”

What the team can’t do is change its basic philosophy back to high-rake, even it was able to make such a commitment in terms of bringing new parts through the system.

“Worse than that for the first time ever that I can remember in my 24 years of the sport we’ve had to homologate the suspension,” said Szafnauer.

“You could only change it if you actually used your tokens on suspension. So even if we wanted to run 150mm rear ride height, we can’t.”

As noted earlier, the gains made by Mercedes since the Bahrain test provided some encouragement – a low-rake car can be improved.

The problem is that Aston Martin wants to be looking ahead to 2022 now, and not using scarce resources for firefighting issues with the current car.

Having finished sixth in last year’s championship under the new aero testing rules, the team does at least have more wind tunnel hours and CFD usage than the teams that finished ahead, but that’s of little comfort.

What should have been an advantage for preparations for 2022 could now easily be swallowed up.

It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances given that a driving force behind the original switch to low-rake was to free up resource for the new regulations.

Szafnauer says that Aston doesn’t yet know when it can make a complete switch of focus to 2022, as it can’t afford to be left behind.

“Well, it’s a really good question,” he said. “If I knew I would tell you, but I don’t know, unfortunately.

“So the trade-off has to be how much more can we gain this year at what expense for next year? That’s really, really hard to predict. And so at this time, we’re going to keep going in parallel.”

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