When Tyrell introduced the first car with a high nose cone (namely the Tyrrell 019) in 1990, the car was not at the top of the field and raised a lot of questions about its efficiency. It was however a primitive type as several important points of a high nose design were not yet thought of. As the years evolved, the mechanical parts have become smaller and smaller, increasing the advantages of a small and high nose. In 1997 all low nosed cars had disappeared in favour of the higher alternative. The design is one thing, but optimising it is another.
The last front running low nosed car was designed by Williams F1 in 1994. The year before, Alain Prost won the 1993 championship with the Williams FW15C. Relying on this succes, the 1994 Williams FW16 still featured a low nose, but the car was usually outpaced by Benetton's Michael Schumacher who took his first championship, and the first for a high nosed car as well. Williams' aerodynamic mastermind Adrian Newey soon realised the high nose was the way to proceed, and the team came up with the Williams FW17, their first ever high nosed design that continued the team's strong form of the nineties.
High nose advantages
The see the advantages of high nose designs, one needs to look at the bigger picture and see the nose as a part of the entire Formula One car. As is evident on the Williams FW15C and the Williams FW16, even low noses were designed more and more to get air to flow at each side of the car, rather than direct it over the nose and onto the helmet area. Aerodynamicists realised that it was no use feeding air to the helmet area, as it's a turbulent zone that negatively affects the rear wing's efficiency.
Exactly as with the high nose designs that followed, the nose was now designed to help feed air into the sidepods to aid cooling, while on the other hand increasing airflow around and underneath the car. With more air flowing underneath the car, the flow through the diffuser also increases, enhancing the suction effect on the car towards the ground. This effect is highly desired by designers as downforce generated this way comes with less drag compared to front or rear wings.
One additional advantage of high noses, as illustrated on the Red Bull RB1 of 2005 is that the front wing can span over the car's entire width, rather than be separated by a low nose. It used to be possible to generate downforce in this middle section as well, but regulation changes in 2009 mandated an aerodynamic neutral section in the middle of the wing.
Subsequent regulation changes that limited the diffuser's size further pushed designers into raising the nose to increase under-car airflow, up to a point where it restricted driver visibility and created a security hazard in case of side impact collisions. To curb this, yet another regulation change in 2012 lowered the height of the nose, and a further change effective in 2014 further lowers the height of the nosetip while still mandating a 'high' nose - leaving room under the nose for a full width front wing.
Built to crash
Apart from its obvious aerodynamic purpose, nose cones couldn't even be left out if a team wanted to, as it's a mandatory car component to ensure safety in case of a crash. As such it must comply with a number of strength and measurement rules that are set by the FIA. Not only must it absorb energy in the case of a head-on collision, it must also support the front wing.
Made of carbon fibre sheets impregnated with resin, the structure is manually laminated in order to provide the most effective energy-absorbing properties. During its construction, individual plies of carbon fibre are layered and staggered so that the car's deceleration is controlled progressively.
"The beauty of composite construction is that you can put plies exactly where they need to be to optimise the load-bearing requirement," explains Matthew Jeffreys, Senior Project Engineer, McLaren Racing. "The component's function as the frontal energy-absorbing structure is regulated by Formula 1's governing body, the FIA, with its length being influenced by the amount of energy and deceleration it must sustain."
Each new nosebox design must pass two mandatory tests, one a static side load test and the other an impact test. In this, the nosebox is fitted to a monocoque - complete with driver dummy - mounted on a trolley and crashed into a wall. To pass the test, all the energy must be absorbed by the nosebox, with no damage incurred to the monocoque or dummy. Such test includes pushing a nose into a solid wall at 14 metres per second in order to verify its absorption properties.
"People often comment that the test speed of 14 metres per second (around 50km/h) is not very fast compared with the speed at which a Formula 1 car travels," says Jeffreys. "But during the test the car is in effect hitting an immovable brick wall, whereas on the circuit the crash barriers take some of the energy so not all of it is absorbed by the nosebox itself." Upon impact, the carbon fibre will turn to dust.
"Generally the smaller the particles you are left with, the more efficient the structure has been," he explains. Another of the nosebox's crucial functions is as the supporting structure for the front wing assembly, which is mounted by two aerodynamically shaped wing hangers" - as mandated by the regulations.
Generally, nose box design is only limited by the strength and dimension requirements, even though regulations also stipulate it is not allowed to change it during a race with a heavier version. Moving elements inside the nose are also banned as they are likely to be considered as moving aerodynamic devices, as Renault found out in 2006 after its tuned mass damper was found illegal.
One of the more recent developments in nose design has been to make the part flexible such that the front wing can bend downward under high loads while still making sure the front wing itself can pass the flexibility tests. Red Bull Racing appears to have initiated this trend as a response to FIA's ever increasing tests to limit front wing flexiblity.