Analysis: Ferraris Front Wing Flutter

In free practice for the Indian GP, we saw a violent fluttering of Felipe Massa’s front wing. This is a higher frequency movement than the flex we commonly see on front wings – in fact, the movement is enough to cause the endplates to hit the ground, sending up showers of sparks. Bearing in mind that the wing is around 75mm off the ground when the car is at rest, we can appreciate the amount of movement that’s occurring here.
This movement is not an aero benefit in itself, but may be symptomatic of other flexibility in the wing.
Ferrari Flexi Wings 2011 Indian Grand Prix FP1 by Mattzel89

This clip shows the Ferrari crest the hill before braking into a turn (4s into the clip). As the car crests the hill at high speed with DRS open, it’s clear that the wing is bowed from the aero load. It’s possible to see the side spans of the wing bend down from the central section. At this point there is some vibration in the wing, but not an excessive amount. As the car starts to go down hill (DRS still open) and passes a shadow across the track, the wing starts a rocking motion (5s into the clip). This rocking soon increases in violence until Massa closes the DRS and starts to brake as usual for the corner (at 9s), so this episode only lasts three seconds. I counted around 20 movements of each endplate, which increase to the point where the endplates’ skid blocks strike the ground.
The cause may be explained as follows: the wing is bowed at speed, but as the car crests the hill the wing is unloaded slightly. Then, as the car starts to move down hill, that load would reverse and the wing (which was already vibrating) is sent into a rocking motion. One endplate moves down, while the centre section and wing mounting pylons appear to be rigidly fixed to the car and are not moving. The load passing from the endplate must have been transferred across the central spar of the wing to the other endplate, which now drops. This movement resonates in a wave from one side of the wing to the other, increasing in frequency and amplitude until the wing actually hits the ground.
I can’t explain why closing the DRS and braking calmed this resonance so quickly, but the wing rapidly returns to the low-amplitude, high-frequency vibration seen elsewhere on track.
Also, I’m no expert on composites but my limited knowledge does suggest that carbon fibre structures are relatively well damped (compared to, say, a metal structure), the rebound effect of flex being relatively well damped and not prone to oscillating.
Ferrari introduced the new front wing in Korea. Alonso ran the wing as it was clear that it displayed the accepted level of flex as used by many other teams. The wing is legal as it meets the more stringent FIA 2010 deflection test. Last year Red Bull set a precedent when its wing, which openly appeared to bow downwards at speed, passed the tests and was declared legal, even when the test loads were increased mid-season.
This bowing effect – where the tips of the wing move downwards at speed – is commonly used as the front wing then sits closer to the ground and can generate more downforce. Despite a lot of theories about mechanisms or heat being responsible for the flex, the answer is much simpler: it is down to the way you want the wing to work i.e. the tips to bend down without the wing twisting and thereby reducing the wing’s angle of attack. This is all done with the lay-up of the composites – I’m told it is a “nightmare“ and have heard of composites technicians spending weeks trying different lay-ups to get this effect, but once worked out it is very effective.
Of course F1′s knowledge of carbon structures has been used to create very stiff parts, but now that we are starting to allow controlled flex, we will start to see resonance becoming an issue. There is a new field of knowledge to be understood and controlled.
It seems the wing was tried again in FP3 and the FIA has taken an interest in the wing. The wing was removed and one would assume that it will not be raced for fear of mechanical failure or a post-race ban, although Ferrari’s Friday press release may suggest that the wing is a development item not planned for use in the race, but as part of the 2012 programme. Pat Fry: “We continued with the now usual parallel programmes: on the one hand looking for the best set-up for the car at this circuit and on the other, working to get a greater understanding of the latest aerodynamic updates, with the new car project in mind.”
We have seen extreme movement of front wings before in super slow motion, such as wing tips fluttering, wings swaying sideways on their mounting pylons and endplate devices flapping. All of these movements, although highly visible, have been accepted by the FIA because the tests have been passed. All of which is to the detriment of the overriding regulation that bodywork should be rigid and immovable.

Thanks to Andrew Biddle (andrewbid@gmail.com) for his assistance as Copy Editor

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