“People who don’t believe in CFD are members of the flat earth society.”
Nick Wirth, January 2011
The news that Nick Wirth and his Wirth Engineering company have split with Virgin Racing comes as little surprise. After all, the team has fallen some way short of its aim to regularly battle for a place in Q2 this year. Instead, they’ve found themselves fighting to keep the Hispania cars behind them on the grid. Meanwhile, 2010 rivals Lotus have made strides towards the midfield, leaving Virgin behind in the process
When Wirth returned to F1 with the Dinnington-based team the former Benetton and Simtek man’s hopes were high. He believed that his decision to design the team’s cars solely using CFD (computational fluid dynamics) was the wave of the future. More than just a belief, this seemed to be a deep-set conviction in the Englishman. Those still using windtunnels to design Formula One cars were dinosaurs; whilst the earth may have been theirs at present extinction couldn’t be staved off.
The team’s debut campaign wasn’t too shabby. On the plus side they managed to show up for testing (unlike two of the four new teams granted entry for 2010) and then spent their season battling Lotus for 18th on the grid. On a number of occasions Timo Glock managed this, and on pace they stacked up pretty well.
Sure, there were also problems – a fuel tank too small to run a full race distance, a spate of mechanical failures and the wooden spoon in the constructors’ standings – but they could get away with a troubled teething season, particularly one in which their comparative speed to their fellow newbies was decent. 2011 would be the acid test.
And, to be brutally honest, it’s been a disaster. The new car is slow – sometimes over a second off the pace of the Lotus boys in qualy and at risk from the Hispanias – resulting in neither driver yet getting above P20 on the grid. Considering that they have a proven front-runner in Glock this just isn’t good enough. “If we carry on like this, it will be quite difficult to qualify for the races,” the German said earlier this year. When the news that Wirth had departed came it was no real surprise.
At the launch of the new Virgin car back in January one comment of Wirth’s in particular stuck with me: “People who don’t believe in CFD are members of the flat earth society,” he said with great confidence.
Adrian Newey is, for want of a better term, an ‘old school’ aerodynamicist, but his world is not flat; it is one of the beautifully curved RB7, a car that has been known to run a second a lap faster than the likes of McLaren and Ferrari – and a good five seconds quicker than the Virgins. If he’s a member of the flat earth society you’d be forgiven for not getting on a boat again for fear of dropping off the edge of the world. Newey’s approach is the one to trust.
It’s not that CFD is a bad way to go about the business of car design, it’s just that it clearly can’t stand alone – windtunnels are still the basis of a quick car. Wirth’s decision to return to F1 after more than a decade away and go against the wisdom of men like Newey, who has barely dropped out of F1 employment since the late eighties, was perhaps a little arrogant. As the whole thing went on it became farcical, as he dug his heels in and insisted that this was the right way to go. The proof was on the timing screens and result sheets, and it all pointed to Wirth being wrong.
So is the lesson here that to succeed in F1 you simply mustn’t swim against the tide? That a conservative approach is the only way for a new team to go?
Essentially, yes. Whilst is can sometimes pay off to be bold in the design of a car that sort of thing is best left to midfield teams looking to make a quick leap to the front. A new team – and one running on limited resources, as Virgin are – needs to follow an established path. Force India’s link-up with McLaren in 2009 is good evidence of that. You’ve got to learn to crawl before you can walk, let alone run with the big boys.
So what of Virgin’s future? Former Renault man Pat Symonds now seems likely to head the tech department, though whether he’ll design the new car is questionable – he is, after all, an engineer rather than a ready-made replacement for Wirth. That said Pat is a top man to have on board, no questions there. He was heavily implicated in crash-gate, but it’s time to move on. In fact putting past mistakes behind us seems to be a theme in F1 this year; after all, Mike ‘Spy Scandal’ Cloughlan has recently returned to the sport with Williams. Virgin can also count a great team in the Manor outfit who run the racing side of things. It’s not all doom and gloom.
But for Wirth it’s difficult to see a return to Formula One. After the failure of his Simtek team in the mid-nineties and now the Virgin episode his future may forever lie outside a sport ruled by the flat earth society.