It was the effect of the extreme heat upon the drivers which made the news in Qatar but those demands also impact heavily upon the performance of the car. And the problems posed upon each are quite different in an important way – as we will see when we compare Qatar last weekend to Mexico in two races’ time.
Performance creates heat. Converting the potential energy within the fuel into motion in particular creates huge amounts of heat, which needs to be dissipated in order to allow the car to continue to function.
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The heat will always move from warmer objects to cooler – from the metal of the engine to the liquid in the cooling jackets, from there to the radiators and from there to the external environment – but the hotter the external environment, the slower this process will be.
On the other hand, the faster you can get the air to move over the radiators, the more you can speed up the dissipation. Another crucial part of this is the density of the air in the external environment. Air is at its most dense at sea level and less dense at higher altitudes and so has less of a cooling effect there.
It would be very easy to ensure an F1 car is always adequately cooled by having lots of space around the heat sources and over-sized radiators with lots of exit area. But obviously, that would make for a very slow car. Packaging the car as tightly as possible and creating the surfaces which maximise its aerodynamic performance pose severe cooling challenges. So, the absolute minimum of space is available for cooling.
The cooling demands vary a lot from one venue to another but it would obviously be impractical to have alternative mechanical layouts and radiator sizes. These remain the same, but there are alternative cooling packages.
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The easier it is for the hot air around the radiators to escape from the car, the greater the cooling capacity, but the more disruptive that is of the aerodynamics, which costs lap time. So, there are alternative bodywork packages comprising of bigger or smaller exit holes, bigger or smaller louvres of a greater or smaller number.
Within a certain tolerance, the car’s engine, battery, turbo, electrical components etc – just like the human – have set internal temperatures which must be maintained for the car to function at all. These various hot air exits are just a way of matching that internal temperature demand to the various environments in which the car will run.
We can see in the Giorgio Piola drawings above where McLaren inserted their extra cooling louvres in Qatar compared to the standard package used in, say, Japan two weeks earlier. We can also see the Alpine (image below) ran in FP1 an even more extreme version of its Qatar cooling package with much-enlarged and deeper louvres atop the sidepod. This was a test item in preparation for the Mexican Grand Prix.
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Typically, Mexico City will not be as hot as Qatar was last weekend. It’s unlikely we will see there the drivers suffering the physical effects of the heat in as extreme a way as was the case in Qatar.
Why does the car need more cooling in Mexico than Qatar. Because Mexico City sits 2,250 metres above sea level – by far the highest of any circuit on the calendar – and its air is around 25% less dense than that of Qatar which is at sea level. So, the cooling effect of the air is reduced by around 25%.
The driver will not be in as hot an environment in Mexico and won’t need as much cooling. The car, on the other hand, requires vastly more cooling than the human as its processes create vastly more heat. A 25% reduction in air density means that it will actually need more cooling than in Qatar, despite the driver needing less.
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If there are variations between teams in how much the extra cooling compromises the aerodynamics of the car, it will have an effect upon the competitive order. We can hopefully see this play out in Mexico.