The initial track testing of prototype wheel arches, colloquially termed as spray guards, failed to hit the ground running. Regardless, it served as a critical first step in terms of collecting data and identifying areas for improvement. This also gave the FIA a starting point in dealing with spray issues, magnified by the 2021 red-flagged Belgian GP.
According to FIA‘s single-seater director Nicolas Tombazis, although it wasn’t a perfect start, the commitment to make it work is unwavering. He believes that if the spray guards can save a race and spare spectators from a disappointment like the Belgian event, even once, it is worth all the trouble.
This is in direct response to the disappointing sight at the Belgian event where cars were seen trailing behind the safety car, which consequently prompted efforts to reduce spray and enhance visibility. The mission was to develop something that could be mounted on cars during heavy rain when typically it wouldn’t be possible to race.
The prototypes were developed in two parts: the upper part of each wheel was covered and a secondary component that resembles a sideways bargeboard was situated near the ground. This entire setup is affixed to the upright and moves in sync with the wheel.
Mercedes assisted by altering a W14 for Mick Schumacher to carry out tests on a calculated wet section of Silverstone with the new devices equipped. Simultaneously, McLaren‘s Oscar Piastri was documenting the spray a usual car emits while also trailing the Mercedes to observe effects on visibility.
FIA‘s aerodynamics team, headed by Jason Sommerville, undertook an intriguing challenge as modelling water droplets is not a straightforward process. They initially drew upon models developed for road cars. However, Tombazis emphasizes the complexity of the task due to the need to simulate the behavior of water droplets which form a complicated physics field.
The main challenge was to design a device that could work in an F1 environment, cause minimal aerodynamic disruption, and to remain attached to the car at high speeds. However, Tombazis concedes that the Silverstone prototypes had minimal impact on spray reduction, due to them covering only small areas of the tyres. Nonetheless, he asserts that a wealth of correlating data was gathered that will inform future tests.
Concerning the spray generated by the diffuser, Tombazis considers it an inherent issue, but he remains optimistic given the comparative success of sports cars in this regard. Though a successful prototype may be several months away, the F1 teams remain supportive in recognizing the potential catastrophe of another day rendered un-raceable due to rain.
Echoing this sentiment, Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin admits that while more work needs to be done, a solution will be beneficial to both teams and fans. He asserts that while the prototypes surpassed the tyre-induced spray, the one emerging from the diffuser remained a challenge. However, he suggests that these are useful first steps and offering their vehicle for development and deciding next steps essentially rests with the FIA.