Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Thursday, February 10, 2000

New Crop of Racing Cars

But Grand Prix Models All Seem to Look Alike

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - They rise out of smoke and spotlights from stages behind Irish dancers in London theaters. They are rolled in front of museums of fine art in Barcelona, or onto legendary English cricket grounds. Before audiences of thousands in Switzerland, they suddenly appear from within a cube of scaffolding from which curtains have dropped as if in a David Copperfield illusion.

The new crop of Formula One racing cars is once again being harvested with the fanfare of a Beaujolais Nouveau celebration before the new season starts on March 12. After Ferrari revealed its new model in Maranello, Italy, on Monday, only Arrows and Minardi have yet to display their year 2000 challenger. But thanks to the consistency of the technical regulations in recent years, the new models look almost identical to last year's, and all pretty much alike. No one ever claimed Beaujolais Nouveau was fine wine.

''It's true that all the cars are beginning to look like each other,'' said Alan Jenkins, technical director at Prost Grand Prix, which presented its car in Barcelona last week.

Partly to cut production costs, and partly to spur closer competition on the track by drawing the cars together in design, the International Automobile Federation, the sport's Geneva-based governing body, decided a few years ago that the technical regulations should remain static for a while.

Unlike most other forms of motor racing, where teams use either production cars or off-the-shelf models, each team in Formula One builds its own car according to the detailed technical regulations. But the result of the regulations' current stability is that the designers have less room to come up with some of the oddities -- such as tiny ''winglets'' protruding above the cockpit, or raised nose cones or the six-wheel car of the 1970s -- that made the harvests of the past more interesting.

''The longer Formula One technical regulations remain stable,'' said Malcolm Oastler, the technical director of the British American Racing team, ''the more everyone tends to move in the same direction.''

Or rather, the more time the 10 other teams have to make their car resemble the fastest model of the moment, the McLaren-Mercedes. While the other teams play catch the leader, McLaren fine-tunes its successful car by developing the engine, making it fit into the chassis better in order to lower the center of gravity, and incrementally improving the aerodynamics.

''When you are in the third successive year of a set of technical regulations,''

said Adrian Newey, McLaren's technical director, ''there is not very much room for any specially great exploitation of new ideas.''

Gavin Fisher, chief designer of the Williams car, used a catchphrase now employed by all the top teams to describe this year's model when he said that the design philosophy is ''evolution rather than revolution.''

If the annual presentation of the new crop is meant to be a time to show off the winter's labors, it is also the only time of the year that teams try to attract such attention. And it is only skin deep. ''If you look at a '99 car with the bodywork off and then look at this one,'' said Gary Anderson, technical director at Jaguar, ''the '99 car looks about 10 years old.''

During the presentations, of course, the bodywork stays on. And during the season, when the cars are in the pits, they often gain additional clothing to cover any innovation that might attract the eye of a competing designer. It was the starting point of last season's biggest controversy when in the second-to-last race, in Malaysia in October, McLaren called for a close inspection by track officials of Ferrari's barge boards -- lateral wings that run alongside the cockpit -- which the Italian team covered up with sleeves every time the car was off the track. Ferrari was penalized for breaking the rules by a single centimeter and disqualified, before being reinstated after an appeal.

McLaren too, however, frequently hid its front wings with sleeves, just as most teams guard the secret of their designs. Perhaps the real purpose of the annual presentations is to reveal the new decals on the bodywork of the sponsors that were signed on over the winter.

[Not to be reproduced without the permission of the author.]

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