Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2021

Analysis: How F1’s flexi-wing furore reached its endgame

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No sooner had the FIA issued Technical Directive 018-21 – which doubles the forces applied during ‘push down’ and ‘pull back’ tests to check that rear wing flex complies with the current technical regulations – than it became clear the controversy would reach a climax in Baku. Not only is today’s race the last before TD018-21 kicks in, but the ‘flexi-wings’ are most effective on the circuit’s 2.2-kilometer straight.

By rotating backwards on flexible mounting posts under the aerodynamic pressure created by speed, the wings present flatter elements to the airflow, thereby boosting top speeds by reducing drag. Ingenious, yes, but their detractors are adamant that they breach the spirit of the regulations by bending more than the governing body had envisaged. This, they say, makes them illegal.

The matter became emotive in the aftermath of the Spanish Grand Prix, where Mercedes and Red Bull fired verbal salvos at each other. The FIA issued TD018-21 but, curiously, delayed its implementation until the French Grand Prix on 20 June, effectively providing two grands prix – Monaco and Azerbaijan – as grace period.

There are (unconfirmed) suggestions that the governing body was (understandably) cautious, preferring to delay the stricter tests rather than impose newly-designed rear wings for one of the fastest tracks on the calendar. In addition, a 20% tolerance has been granted during the first month after TD018-21’s introduction in order to provide sufficient time for teams to comply fully with the revised tests.

Marko warned of a “chain reaction” of protests
These decisions, though, gave rise to bewilderment in the paddock: The have-nots, principally Mercedes, do not accept that the haves (Red Bull) are permitted to continue racing with what they consider ‘illegal’ cars, and threatened protest action. Red Bull countered by alleging the front wings on Lewis Hamilton’s car moved about so much that a sponsor logo became obscured from view in certain camera angles.

Red Bull’s F1 consultant Helmut Marko put it succinctly, saying, “If one [team] protests, a chain reaction will result.”

The matter is widely perceived as being all about Mercedes versus Red Bull – particularly after the latter moved into the lead of both championships, the first time Mercedes has been headed simultaneously during the hybrid era. But in fact, it is about strict interpretation of the regulations, and not about their ‘spirit’ or ‘intention’.

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At least five (unnamed) teams – stretching down the order – are said to have wings that will not meet TD018-21, yet, crucially, they pass all current tests. The matter is best explained by equating it to lowering a speed limit from 60 to 50 on a stretch of road on a certain date: Until then it is legal to travel at the limit on that road; the next day it becomes illegal. A retrospective fine would not stand up in court, either.

Article 3.9.9 of the 2021 technical regulations empowers the sport’s governing body to ramp up its tests: “The FIA reserves the right to introduce further load/deflection tests on any part of the bodywork which appears to be (or is suspected of), moving whilst the car is in motion,” it states.

The FIA used stickers to monitor rear wing flex
Thus, from this weekend through to the end of the season (at least) a series of yellow 10mm ‘diagnostic discs are mandatory on the wings to enable the FIA to monitor flex.

Crucially, should a team – Mercedes or otherwise – lodge a protest against ‘flexi-wings’, it would effectively be protesting not the target team but the F1’s technical regulations and their provisions, which were devised by the FIA in the first place. Thus, any plaintiff would indirectly be protesting the governing body’s regulations to the governing body’s stewards!

True, the stewards act as an independent body, but what chance them finding that cars that currently comply with prevailing tests are illegal? Appeals could follow, as could civil action, but the question remains: why would any court deliver a different verdict when the wings are legal through to a certain point in time?

After a terrible Friday in Baku – the two Mercedes placed 11th and 15th – team boss Toto Wolff dialled back on the protest rhetoric and appeared to accept that flexi-wings would be on his rival’s cars this weekend. True, Hamilton salvaged Mercedes honour by qualifying on the front row; equally, a series of red flags left the order jumbled.

Where McLaren, like Mercedes a vocal opponent of flexi-wings, had previously urged tough action against flexi-wings, the team has now left the matter up to the governing body. “I think the ball is in the court of the FIA to act as they think they have to act within the technical directive,” said team principal Andreas Seidl in Baku after qualifying.

The directive does, of course, stipulate an effective timeframe for the revised tests. That is where the matter is likely to rest, then after this weekend will come the aerodynamic reset. Whether the balance of power shifts in the process remains to be seen.

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16 comments on “Analysis: How F1’s flexi-wing furore reached its endgame”

  1. I do have to say, that after reading this:

    he matter is best explained by equating it to lowering a speed limit from 60 to 50 on a stretch of road on a certain date: Until then it is legal to travel at the limit on that road; the next day it becomes illegal. A retrospective fine would not stand up in court, either.

    I could not help but think that an alternative reading/explanation of the rules situation would be that when there’s a speed limit of 50, but the enforcement isn’t accurate enough to have a margin of less than 20 on the measurement, then anything below 70 can’t be proven illegal, and thus cannot be fined.

    However, if then the authorities find a way to reduce that margin to say, 5, then people who previously got away with 65 now might get fined for going 10 over the limit. Given the rules explicitly allow the FIA to improve their tests, that seem like a just as, if not more valid description.

    Also, I note McLaren is as persistent, if maybe not quoted as loudly, as Mercedes. Might be PU-partner, but equally, it just might be that they feel they should not be forced to put money of the capped budget into becoming a ‘have’ when it’s about literally bending around the rules.

    Not sure, as I do feel innovation in materials technology/composite materials tuning to target several stress axes differently is useful in general, but maybe not currently in F1 on this topic also I also do think the cost-cap changes the balance here to some extent (after all, cost, not danger, not being illegal was one reason to ban the DAS system after last year – this discussion is certainly not about something with more legal merit).

    1. RandomMallard (@)
      6th June 2021, 8:19

      @bosyber I honestly feel that McLaren are concerned about this of their own accord, with no, or very very little, involvement from the Mercedes overlords. They appear to be worried about the Alpine and rumoured Ferrari flexi-wings, and as they are 2 of McLaren’s key rivals I think they are doing this independently of Mercedes. Add to that the fact that Merc don’t seem to be wanting Merc to be too involved with McLaren with the lack of branding or anything on the car.

      1. @randommallard we have had Binotto directly saying that Ferrari are exploiting the deficiencies of the current rear wing testing procedure – and making clear that they are not the only ones either – and that Ferrari will be redesigning their rear wing to account for the new test procedure.

        Given that Ferrari are a direct rival of McLaren and that Binotto is openly admitting they are exploiting the current testing regime, it would be more surprising if McLaren weren’t complaining.

    2. I agree @bosyber, the rule (that movable aerodynamic devices are illegal) has been in place for decades and isn’t changing. The issue is how you detect breaches of the rule in practice, especially since a completely fixed aerodynamic device of any sort is a physical impossibility. So it is always a question of interpretation and tolerances. Broadly speaking, the FIA is right to change its tests every so often, but it is also right that teams are given the opportunity to adapt to the new tests.

  2. F1oSaurus (@)
    6th June 2021, 8:27

    This is not at all like changing the speed limit. This is akin to a driver using a radar detector or jammer or whatever to avoid getting caught speeding and then the radar detector is banned.

    Or like having drunk too much and drinking something just prior to a breathalyzer test you take something to mask the alcohol. The tests detects that you are OK to drive. However the police officers notice that you can barely walk straight so they decide to do a blood test instead.

    Red Bull is making sure their wing does not flex too much during the tests, but when higher loads are applied it does bend back progressively more and more. This progressive bending is what is irking the FIA and rightly so.

    it is about strict interpretation of the regulations, and not about their ‘spirit’ or ‘intention’.

    Wrong. The regulations haven’t changed. The tests to detect if someone is cheating the regulations have been changed.

    appeared to accept that flexi-wings would be on his rival’s cars this weekend.

    The current rea wing configuration on the Red Bull doesn’t flex as much as it did in Spain. It bends as much as Mercedes own wing. So there would be nothing to protest against. Did you even follow the news Dieter?

    Either Red Bull changed the design or the current shallow high speed configuration of the rear wing doesn’t bend as much backwards. They are using progressive bending to make sure it bends a lot only under very high loads and not under the loads the FIA tests it on. So if the loads/drag in Baku are much less, then it makes sense the wing bend progressively less too.

    I guess next stop is the front wings. Horner keeps propagandizing that Mercedes front wing bends slightly more than theirs. Reality is that everybody has a flexible front wing. Especially those upper elements. The carbon is much thinner on smaller elements so it will bend. This is a linear bend though and not specifically designed to bend progressively more on higher loads.

    So is Horner really that callous that he would have everybody (including Red Bull and Aplpha Tauri) design a new front wing out of spite that he was caught clearly cheating and had to change his rear wing? Is the FIA going to accommodate that case of whataboutism? I guess we’ll see.

    Another thing the article completely missed out on is the case of the markers on the rear wings. I find that development the only interesting bit from the whole debacle. This could end this kind of cheating once and for all. No more half baked static tests at small loads to try and mimic real world situations at loads multiple times higher.

    1. @f1osaurus good point on the markers; yes, I did expect that to appear as a main thing after the header, but the article seemed one sided enough that at the end I had forgotten about expecting that at all. It does seem like significant, cheap and clever way to deal with all flex issues on these cars, given current visual processing possibilities (maybe even something AWS can be usefully be applied for in F1 – live view of competing cars different flexibility during FP’s ;-) and applicable to almost all body-parts that.

    2. I’m thinking Horner won’t protest the front wings, but will trot this out as an excuse anytime RB are beaten by Mercedes to pole or the win. As he has done regularly for years with the magic button or anything else he can grab as an excuse. It’s what he does.

  3. Nothing in the article about the MB rear wing appearing to flex just as much as the RB rear wing during practice. Hopefully we get to see views of MB and RB rear wings during the race outside of DRS activations.


    These videos say it all. The Mercedes rear wing is flexing nearly as much as the Red Bull rear wing and the Red Bull front wing is flexing as much as the Mercedes front wing. People in glass houses and all that…

    The most interesting thing for me will be what these sorts of comparison images/videos look like from the French Grand Prix onwards.

    1. It looks to me as though the rear wing isn’t flexing very much, but rather the End Plates to which the wing is attached are rotating backwards, so the rear wing is pivoting and presenting a cleaner profile to the air, presumably influenced by the speed of the car through the air. As the End Plates rotate influenced by the speed of the car through the air, the angle of attack for the wing at the rear of the car presents becomes less acute angle to the air, thus reducing the drag. My guess is this means less wind resistance, hence a higher straight line speed.

  5. Personally I think if the FIA were suddenly and magically able to test every regulation/rule/tech spec exactly, there would not be a team on the grid that does not breach something, somewhere, somehow.

  6. So this is beginning to sound like a broken record. As it is a physical impossibility to prevent at least “some” movement on an item that is subject to literally tonnes of load at high speed, a physical tolerance MUST be specified. If I was in charge of the Aerodynamics department and didn’t at least attempt to gain and advantage from this tolerance, I wouldn’t be doing my job!
    Saying that, maybe the FIA could introduce the incorporation of a homologated “load cell” into wing mounting points on the chassis, to at least accurately measure twisting or rotational loads on the wing assemblies. That in conjunction with stereoscopic video would give a VERY accurate measurement of deflection at high speed / load.

  7. Its interesting that different videos show varying amounts of flex, I think the point is, they are arguing that wings should not flex, but they all do and will always do so. The FIA simply has to determine what is reasonable under the loads they experience and make an appropriate ruling.
    A simple statement like “the wings are flexing and should not be” would/does make them all guilty in varying degrees.

  8. RocketTankski
    6th June 2021, 10:57

    They need to ban these newfangled wings. It’s the only way to be sure. Go back to a 1950s style chassis.

  9. Why are moving aero parts banned in the first place? I think it’s really neat technology.

    Perhaps you could even have a dash switch to set the aero parts for clean air or dirty air? Maybe that way a car that is set up for being front of the grid and lead the race all day (Mercedes) will have a chance to stay closer to other cars through corners as well.

  10. Red Bull and Ferrari will always cheat when ever they can.

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