A Nose Job That Puts Safety before Beauty ; but New Rule Plunges Paddock and Fans into Debate over Aesthetics

By Spurgeon, Brad | International Herald Tribune, March 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Nose Job That Puts Safety before Beauty ; but New Rule Plunges Paddock and Fans into Debate over Aesthetics


Spurgeon, Brad, International Herald Tribune


Heading into the Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend, Formula One is engaged in soul-searching over the beauty -- or ugliness -- of its cars.

It has been nearly 15 years since Formula One, which prides itself on having the greatest racing cars in the world, was last plunged into major soul-searching over the beauty -- or ugliness -- of those cars.

But this season finds the elite series once again in the throes of such a debate, which came to a head -- or, rather, a nose -- at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix last weekend. Given the results of that race -- won by Jenson Button in a McLaren -- the discussion is likely to continue as the teams prepare for the second event of the year, at the Malaysian Grand Prix outside Kuala Lumpur on Sunday.

At issue is the new front end on the 2012 racing cars. As a safety measure, a change in the technical regulations called for the tip of the car's front end, its nose, to be lower than it was last year. Rather than change the complete structure of the chassis, teams decided to "step" down the nose at the tip, leaving the height of the rest of the chassis the same as it was last year.

The media and fans have not been pleased with the result, with many irate over what they consider an ugly appearance.

"Those noses are ugly and unnecessary," Claude Rapalli, a Swiss fan in Melbourne, said before the start of the Australian race. "Look what McLaren has done!"

Unlike at most of the other teams, McLaren's designers decided not to put a step in the nose, choosing instead to arch it downward in a gradual slope. They proved that the required change could be accomplished without compromising either the car's beauty or its winning technology: The McLaren team finished the race in the first and third positions.

In the modern era of the series, aerodynamics became the most important aspect of the car, apart from the engine, and in the late 1960s the cars began sprouting wings and looking more like fighter jets than the racing cars of old.

In the 1970s, the technical rules were so loose that designers came up with such extreme experiments as a six-wheel car; an air intake that was so high that the car was dubbed the "teapot," and a "fan car," which had a giant fan on the back ostensibly to cool the engine but really providing an aerodynamic suction advantage.

But since the 1980s, the technical rules have become much more restrictive and the cars have become more aesthetically pleasing, with relatively little change in appearance from year to year. A 1990 Ferrari designed by John Barnard is even included in the permanent art and design collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1998, however, the series began soul-searching about beauty. To enhance aerodynamics, small wings that looked like mushrooms and were dubbed winglets were attached all over the car. They were deemed ugly by fans and the teams, and safety issues were raised: What, for example, would happen if they were suddenly wrenched from the cars during a race? Midway through the season, the International Automobile Federation, the series' governing body, finally banned the winglets.

But safety issues were the origin of the current nose problem. The F.I.A. ordered the car's nose lowered this year so that in an accident it would not override the cockpit and strike the driver's head.

The teams, however, did not want to entirely redesign the chassis, so they asked that the nose become lower only in the middle of the car's front section. Most teams therefore made the nose section drop off drastically in the middle to fulfill the regulatory need. …

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