The RACER Mailbag, May 4

The RACER Mailbag, May 4

Insights & Analysis

The RACER Mailbag, May 4

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Q: I’d like to add some further information to the question posed by Terry J in last week’s Mailbag (April 27).

Terry states that he doesn’t recall the Lotus 79 or the Chaparral suffering from porpoising — and the simple answer to that is they didn’t! 

The term “porpoising” was invented by Mario Andretti to describe the behavior of the Lotus 80 in 1979, when it was a huge problem for the car; as well as for the contemporary original-spec Brabham BT48 that Niki Lauda couldn’t get to work either.

The reason the Lotus 80 suffered from porpoising and the 78 and 79 didn’t was basically because both Lotus’s Colin Chapman and Brabham’s Gordon Murray attempted to create a “second generation” ground-effect car, where instead of the ground-effect tunnels being restricted to the sidepod area as with the 78 and 79, the active area was basically the entire underside of the car. In theory, that would massively increase the available downforce, with long side skirts from one end to the other to seal the area off and prevent air just coming in from the sides, and would mean that conventional wings were unnecessary, reducing drag.

What happened then was very similar to today — as the car loaded up, the airflow stalled, re-attached, stalled again and so on; and the center of pressure under the car shifted all over the place, making the car bounce.

How did they fix it back then? Well, they tried ever-stiffer springs to try to control the bouncing, but that ended up making the car utterly undriveable. Brabham identified the problem as being difficult to solve quickly and basically ripped off all the additional skirts, etc., and converted the BT48 back to a “first generation” car. There are a few photos on the internet of the original specification BT48 – it’s most easily identified by the lack of obvious rear wing.

As for Lotus, after a decent start (as Mario took a podium in the Spanish GP) it became more and more obvious that the Lotus 80’s porpoising was just not a problem the team could resolve in-season, so instead they reverted to the previous Lotus 79 for the rest of the year. If I recall correctly, the porpoising was so bad that Carlos Reutemann, Mario’s teammate of the time, refused to drive it again after his first test.

No one ever got a true “second generation” ground effect car to work in either F1 or IndyCar — all successful cars in both series are developments of the original “first generation” cars, though skirts have been banned for many, many years now in both series, which lowers the effectiveness of the ground effects and prevents most porpoising issues. When the Ligier JS19 tried again for a “second generation” car three years later in 1982, it was just as much of a dog as the earlier attempts.

Of course, skirts are still banned in modern F1, but they now use aerodymanic vortices to try to seal the sides to give the same effect, and then you’re back to the problems of the “second generation” ground effect cars where the ground effects are too powerful for the setups to handle. It’s also an incredibly complex area to try to simulate, so the only true option is to keep trying things on the track, which is only available in the very limited free practice times at GPs themselves. The simplistic answer to the problem is to raise the ride height, or to use less powerful vortices, but then you’re losing lap time, and no good racing team wants to do that.

I hope this additional information might be of interest to fellow readers.

Steven Jukes, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, UK

MP: Thanks for the read-through, Steven. We also saw some attempts in CART in the 1990s to sculpt the bottom of the sidepods to spin nice little vortices in an attempt to create some sealing, but those efforts didn’t appear to offer the advantage that was sought and quickly disappeared.

Mario in a Lotus 79 at Watkins Glen. Not a porpoise to be seen. David Phipps/Motorsport Images

Q: I write in reference to Earl from Edmonton’s letter about blind spot warnings and cameras. I wrote Robin several years ago suggesting the same thing and he wrote that the drivers he asked about it didn’t want it. I don’t see why not, given it is cheap and effective and would seem to allow the driver to pay a bit more attention to what is in front.

Tom in Waco

MP: This technology — in racing, at least — has come a long way in recent years, so I’d imagine there’s a lot of cool options IndyCar might consider since Robin was posed the question.

Q: Why can all of the other teams see exactly how much push-to-pass a driver has left? I think it would add a little bit of mystery, fun and excitement if teams were guessing how much P2P another driver had left at the end of a race. As long as every team started with the same amount, no one could claim an unfair advantage. It would definitely add more tension to the end of a race if a driver had already burned all of theirs to get to the front, I can see the nervous sweat pouring off of the race engineer already. 

Ryan Moore, Youngstown, OH

MP: IndyCar has played with making it available for all to see and removing it to keep it hidden. I’d like to see a throwback weekend where no live timing and scoring was available and everybody at the track had to look at the pylon to know who was in each position.

Q: Just my two cents about P2P vs. DRS: I would like driver-activated P2P that only works when you are within a second of a car in front of you. This would make Will Power happier when he is trying to lap someone.

Also, I have seen comments about whether or not the engines will have enough time to cool down between the Fast 12 and the Fast 6 at Indy. In years past, I have cars come in, make a small adjustment, bolt on a new set of tires and go right back out. How important is it?

Wayne Smitreski, Allentown, PA

MP: The motors tend to be run at rather high temperatures in qualifying, so unlike the normal practice sessions where heavily restricting airflow through the radiators is not done to improve streamline aerodynamics, the engines tend to get super toasty, hence the need to cool them down to a place where a loss of power isn’t happening. It’s important!

Q:  I could use your help with getting better pics at the track. I recently inherited an Olympus digital SLR camera. I know absolutely nothing about cameras like this. I have searched online for how to shoot race cars, or anything moving fast, and can’t seem to get the answers I am looking for. I try to experiment with the limited information I have but I know there are so many factors that have to be considered. I don’t expect you to give a complete breakdown, but can you help an idiot find the best way to start? Any general advice? A Marshall Pruett Masterclass? I’ll be at RA this year and I want to get some good shots. 

Erik S., Oswego, IL

MP: Happy to help, Erik. Hard to do so without knowing what all you have in your camera bag, so send another email through and we can connect and come up with some first steps. And if I’m at Elkhart Lake, you’re welcome to come shoot with me. There’s lots of places where I fire away from areas that are fully accessible for and open to fans, so you won’t need a special media credential to join in.

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