While it may be difficult to believe after the disgraceful episode at the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis in 2005, when 20 Grand Prix cars took to the track to start the race with 14 almost immediately peeling off to the pits to retire during the warm up lap, Formula One continues to thrive. The rejuvenation has been helped by the fact that after a five year domination of the sport, Michael Schumacher and Ferrari were finally beaten last year. Spanish driver Fernando Alonso drove his Renault to become, at the age of 24, the youngest World Champion in the sport’s history. The question now is whether he and Renault can maintain their championship-winning ways or whether Ferrari or McLaren will mount successful bids.
What is adding a bit of spice to this year’s championship are the rules changes that have created more variables than usual, the principal one being a change in the engine regulations that see the normally aspirated 3.0-liter V10 configuration giving way to a normally aspirated 2.4-liter V8. The rules are so well defined that they have given little scope to the designers who have to give their engines a 90° configuration, a minimum weight of 95 kg (an easily achievable target leading to ballast being designed in) and a center of gravity not less than 165 mm above the reference plane. Variable geometry inlet and exhaust systems—variable trumpets—are not permitted nor are valve timing and variable valve lift systems. Other specifications include pistons being produced from an aluminum-based alloy, crankshafts from an iron-based alloy, camshafts from an iron-based alloy and made from a single piece of metal, and crankcases and cylinder heads from an aluminum-based alloy. Magnesium-based alloys, MMC (metal matrix composites), intermetallic materials and alloys containing more than 5% of beryllium, iridium and rhenium are forbidden. While the V10 is still allowed for this season it has been severely restricted so as not to be too competitive. Only one team, the new Squadra Torra Rosso, in effect, the number two Red Bull team that is based on the former Minardi team of Italy, will run them. All the other teams will use V8s.
The irony of this is that the rule changes were made in late 2004 in the name of cost-cutting. In effect, it has been exactly the reverse, with the manufacturers—BMW, Ferrari, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota—spending tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in development.
As befits being the World Champion, Renault unveiled its 2006 contender in Monte Carlo at the end of January. For the Anglo-French team—it is based in Enstone near Oxford in the UK, where more than 500 engineers are employed and at Viry-Châtillon, 20 km south of Paris, where 250 people work on the design, development and operation of the Formula One engines—the new car represented a number of challenges. Where other manufacturers produced 90° V10s, Renault used a 72° V10 in 2004 and 2005.
“First of all, it is a brand new engine that has been designed to exploit the new regulations to the maximum,” says Rob White, head of the Renault F1 team’s engine technical operations. “However, the regulations now impose on us more parameters than in the past. Our goal was therefore to push to the limits of the regulations to gain maximum advantage. However, there is no point designing an engine in isolation. We began discussions with our colleagues in Enstone from late 2004 in order to achieve optimum engine integration with the chassis, and to understand the effects of the engine change on the overall package. It was a very productive dialogue that enabled us to make a significant step forward in this area.
“The fixed architecture is significantly different, but we will use similar technology,” says White. “A 2006 V8 will have much more in common with last year’s V10 engines than the V8 units used in other categories or in Formula One in the past. With the RS26, the V8-specific challenge was to understand and manage the internal and external vibrations, as well as the engine’s other subtleties, plus to manage the changes imposed by the regulations, such as materials restrictions and the removal of variable trumpets. I think we will continue to see Formula One engines revving to very high levels—around 19,000 rpm—and, in spite of the restrictive regulations, increasing the maximum revs will remain a core objective for the engine builders. The V8 is not a clean break in terms of technology, and the constraints we encountered with the V10 are still in place. However, the V8 is also a shorter engine, which makes its dynamics different. The new architecture, therefore, brings advantages and disadvantages. I think the maximum revs at the start of the season will be similar to those seen with the V10, and will climb progressively through the year.”
Another change in the regulations relates to the use of tires, the bone of contention at Indianapolis. “We are once again allowed to change tires during the race,” says Pat Symonds, Renault F1’s executive director of engineering. “This is not a step into the unknown because it marks a return to the sprint races we have seen since the mid-90s. The more interesting change, though, is how we use those tires throughout the weekend. Unlike last year, we are now totally free and more importantly, we do not have to make our tire choice until qualifying starts. In previous, years, we had to do so by Saturday morning. We can even start the race on new tires and fit new ones all the way through the race, if we so choose. The key thing is that we only have seven sets in total. Managing tire usage is now a key strategic choice during the weekend.”
As for the car itself—the R26 —the biggest challenge has been one of packaging. “The tasks for 2006 were to assess the impact of the engine regulation changes for the chassis, integrate the new challenges they posed, and then continue on our development path under stable chassis regulations,” says Bob Bell, chassis technical director of Renault F1. “We have worked on saving weight, improving stiffness and improving the car in every area. The V8 engine is significantly shorter than the V10 and this meant re-assessing the mechanical architecture of the car before making major design decisions,” says Bell. “Subsequently, we have had to integrate the increased external vibrations generated by the V8 into account during the design of ancillary components and joints, to ensure they can withstand this new operating environment. And finally, uniquely at Renault, we have had to adapt the mechanical layout of the car to suit the 90° v-angle of the V8, which is more open than the architecture of our previous engine. In visual terms, the aerodynamic package is completely new. The most striking elements are the smaller sidepods to take account of the reduced cooling capacity of the V8 engine, but there are no carry-over items in any area. Under the skin, the major mechanical change is that we will be using a seven-speed titanium gearbox for the first time. The V8 engines have less torque than their predecessors, and moving to a seven-speed gearbox allows us to exploit very effectively the power and torque characteristics of the new engine.”
“2006 will be a year of renewal for Renault, and the Formula One program has an important role to play in that project,” says Patrick Faure, Renault F1’s team president. “World championship success has energized the image of the Renault Group. In the medium term, this will allow us to develop increasingly dynamic road products and derive increased commercial return on our investment. However, in the immediate future, it also demonstrates values of performance, technical excellence and reliability, which represent a formidable platform to accompany our commercial expansion into new markets such as China and Russia. Mobilizing the company to pass this message to our customers will be a priority in 2006.”