There are some fairly significant rule changes with the end of the F-duct system (Kubica's pleased with that as removing the hand from the wheel nearly caused a couple of huge "moments" this year), the introduction of the moveable rear wing and the return of KERS for an instant power boost.
As with anything, getting all this new stuff to work properly requires intensive development. But in an era where in-season testing is highly restricted, virtual techniques are employed by teams to get man and machine up to speed.
One area I'll focus on here is the use of simulators for driver and car development. You may have seen a preview of this in a piece I did for BBC Breakfast news a couple of weeks ago (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-11701657).
I couldn't go into too much detail in that VT for time reasons. But during the day at Williams F1 I had a fascinating chat with Max Nightingale, Senior Vehicle Dynamics Engineer at Grove. He explained just how important simulators were to a team, starting with the driver.
“It can take him ten laps or more just to learn his way around and find where his braking points are and what gears to use for each corner. We can short circuit all of that lost time. We only have three days of running at a track so any laps are precious.
“But it goes beyond that. It is things as mundane as deciding which brake ducts we need to use at the circuit. Without a simulator like this it is quite difficult to evaluate how severe the braking demands are at a track.
Max Nightingale, Senior Vehicle Dynamics Engineer
“Here we can generate the data and that data can be analysed. It is exactly the same data that would be generated as if we were really running at that circuit. So we know which brake ducts to put in the suitcases.”
Yes, all those switches do work...
The big question mark over simulators is whether they can really replicate the experience of driving the real thing. The Williams simulator – which they call The DIL – or Driver in the Loop -- is a stationary platform, so clearly the driver is not going to get the same “seat of the pants” feel compared to the real FW32 car.
“We try to make it as realistic as possible. The telemetry data that comes off the simulator is the same as the telemetry data that comes off the track. We can overlay that data and we really cannot distinguish between the two.”
“So we think we have got the physics pretty much spot on. The only missing thing is on the seat of the pants feel.”
Williams have written their simulator software entirely themselves, rather than use a bespoke commercial product. They say this gives them more flexibility when gathering data.
The DIL uses clusters of computer processors dedicated to running the simulation itself. More processors drive the display (again, the graphics software engine is written in-house). One other crucial area where simulators are becoming more important is in the development of the car.
“We can evaluate components in here even before they exist in the real world. So maybe a new aerodynamic component … we might only have computational fluid dynamics data for that component but we can plug that into the simulator and, as far as the driver is concerned, it is exactly the same as if he had gone to one week’s testing in Barcelona.
“With a new wing, he can drive around in here with the old wing and the proposed new wing and find out exactly what the differences are and tell us. If the new wing has more down force on some circuits and less down force on others then he can get a feel for it even before you have to make a part in the wind tunnel.
“We have been doing this simulator for about ten years and the increase in computing power has allowed us to make the vehicle model, the tyre model and the aero model more high fidelity, and we are always trying to push the boundaries.”
For Williams F1, future development of their simulator will focus on further improving what the driver sees and probably adding motion too.
“A lot of ground vehicle simulators are still feeling their way with motion platforms. I think other teams have got some quite clever solutions. Obviously budget is an issue … but certainly it is an area of research that we are very interested in.”
What's fascinating about this area of development is that it is likely to increase its role in F1. Already the Virgin F1 team uses computers exclusively in the design of their cars' parts, completely doing away with the traditional wind tunnel. Other teams, including Williams, use a combination of both computing power and wind tunnels in design as each has its own strengths -- time being a downside of Computational Fluid Dynamics software when compared to the instant results from wind tunnel tests.
Surely though, this will change in the industry as processors get ever more able to crunch billions of numbers. What effect all this has on performance too will be interesting to see, particularly in a sport so focused on keeping huge costs down.
Many thanks to the AT&T Williams F1 Team for the access to their facilities and staff.