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To step or not to step?

For the second year in succession, stepped noses are a talking point in Formula One. The question remains: Are they worth it in performance terms?
Thursday, February 7, 2013

February 8th, 2013 (F1plus / Chris Cameron-Dow) - When the first 2012 F1 cars were launched at the beginning of last year, it quickly became obvious that the defining visual feature of the cars would be their stepped noses - all barring the Mclaren and Marussia had a noticeable step between the chassis and the nose.

The steps were declared "ugly" and the regulations tweaked to allow the steps to be covered from 2013 onwards. The new rules allow for a non-structural "vanity panel" to be installed on the nose which would hide the step. The panel is intended to be purely cosmetic which, unfortunately for the rule-makers, made it largely irrelevant to the design of a Formula One car.

Designers of Formula One cars aim to maximise three broad aspects of their products - safety, speed and reliability. Safe cars protect the drivers, quick cars run at the front of the field, and reliable cars finish races. A combination of those three factors results in victory. But nowhere in that recipe for success is there space for aesthetics, particularly when the penalty for appearance is extra weight.

The vanity panel adds weight to the front of the car. It's not much weight - only a few grams in reality - but weight nonetheless. In a sport that is so defined by the performance of the cars, however, a few grams of extra weight cannot be tolerated unless there is a resulting performance gain. 

The 2013 cars have an interesting variety of stepped, partly stepped, and smooth noses - clearly different teams have differing ideas about the importance of the vanity panel.

On one end of the scale are the Lotus E21 and Caterham CT03, which proudly display their 2012-style stepped noses once again. On the other end of the scale are the Ferrari F138, McLaren MP4-28, Mercedes W04, Force India VJM06 and Toro Rosso STR8, all of which have vanity panels to cover their stepped noses. In between are the Red Bull RB9 and Sauber C32, which display partial steps - the Red Bull has a panel that smooths the step a bit but does not eradicate it completely, and the Sauber has only the sides of the step covered. 

Marussia are the interesting odd team out, as they did not have a stepped nose in 2012 and have once again appear to have a lower chassis which does not necessitate much of a stepped nose.

With such variety present on the 2013 cars, the burning question is: who has it right? Aerodynamically, is it better to have a vanity panel and suffer the consequences of extra weight at the front of the car, or does a stepped nose cause no appreciable problem in terms of interrupting airflow over the rest of the car?

The answer will be revealed by the teams in good time. Formual One cars are constantly evolving, with updates being brought to most of the races by the major teams. Consequently, any worthwhile aerodynamic development tends to become visible on all of the cars sooner or later. Either the teams currently displaying stepped noses will add vanity panels to the front of their cars - which would be a concession that there is an aerodynamic benefit from the panels - or they will continue the season without the panels, effectively proving that they have no impact on performance.

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