Honda’s F1 racing team has had a torrid year, garnering just six points compared to 86 in 2006. But this year’s poor showing, generally attributed to the car’s poor aerodynamics, has prompted it to invest in more computing power to help it overtake the competition.
Honda was founded by a petrolhead and so has been involved in motorsport from its early days, making its Grand Prix debut in 1964, when it raced a single car in the German, Italian and US Grands Prix. The following year it celebrated its first world championship point at the Belgian Grand Prix, and also its first win - in Mexico - both thanks to the American driver Richie Ginther.
Honda’s next victory was by John Surtees in the 1967 Italian Grand Prix – a season in which the team secured fourth place in the constructors’ world championship. Following title successes as an engine supplier during the ’80s and ’90s, the highlight of Honda’s return as a works team in 2006 was Jenson Button’s victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix, which helped secure fourth place in the final constructors’ standings.
But this victory was not followed by a string of comparable results - quite the opposite, with both drivers complaining in 2007 of their cars’ poor balance, especially under braking. And since the performance of the engines is locked down by tight regulations, the only way for an F1 team to gain an advantage is through improved aerodynamics.
"Formula One is a fiercely competitive business where fractions of a second could gain you ten places on the grid, and where the overall rate at which you can develop your car means the difference between winning and ending up outside the points," explains Honda Racing’s head of CFD Henrik Diamant. "The drive for performance is relentless, and with the current technical regulations, aerodynamics is the key area where crucial lap time gains can be made.
"Traditionally, aerodynamic development has been conducted in wind tunnels, but with recent advancements in CFD codes and supercomputers, an increasing number of race car parts are developed directly in CFD, saving both time and costs.
"Although we’ve been running large, complex, complete car CFD models at the Honda Racing F1 Team for a number of years, it’s only recently that software developments have truly revolutionised the process. For example, five years ago, generating a CFD model of the complete car would have required weeks, whereas with today’s largely automated tools our engineers can create a model in a few hours. Needless to say, with such an increased throughput, the limitations on the number of models or parts we can analyse depend on the hardware used to solve these very complex calculations."
Honda’s F1 cars include about 10,000 Honda-designed components (including all the minor parts such as nuts, bolts, washers etc), and a further 13,000 parts that Honda is not allowed to change due to the rules of Grand Prix motor racing. The engine, for instance, is homologated for three years, meaning it will be the end of 2009 before there is another change.
The gearbox the team starts the season with will also receive only minor alterations unless there is a major problem or advance in technology. And the structure of the monocoque in which the driver sits is also unlikely to change during the season.
But apart from these, virtually any part can be developed and improved over the course of the season. As a result, during the year around 30,000 parts will be drawn by the team’s aerodynamics specialists, and a further 20,000 by the drawing office. "If you look at the geometry of the race car aerodynamically, the car we finish the season with is completely different from what we start with. There is no commonality. The front wing. The rear wing. Everything is different," says Diamant.