Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Philosophy, Vol. 1 Revisited

I'll touch on this subject one more time and then let it rest.

Just to show that our preconceived notions of what the racecar needs are often wrong, and that slavish devotion to simplistic notions of vehicle dynamics are equally wrong, it happened again this weekend at Autobahn.

One car I engineered felt like it needed a crisper turn-in with more support. But, it was worse with a slightly stiffer front bar, not better - as is often the case. Turns out it needed more low-speed bump damping and less front bar.

Another car I engineered lost front grip with a lower nose on the bump damping curve, despite expectations that it would gain front grip from that change. After all, the rear had just gained grip from a similar change.

At the next event, I may have to abandon these seemingly solid conclusions, too, if they prove to have been track-specific.

On my soapbox for the last time on this subject, for at least the next week:
-Listen to the car and the driver. They are reality. Your preconceived notions are not.
-The solution to a question may go contrary to common theory or your experience.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Springs, Part 2

Tuning with springs

If there were any question that springs are a powerful tuning tool, we'd only have to look at the extensive spring inventory in the typical race trailer and at the amount of time the typical race car spends on the setup pad getting springs changed. A complete treatment of spring tuning would probably be a whole chapter of a book. Today, we'll just offer some fundamentals to stimulate thought.

There are two major influences that springs always have:
-Dynamic ride height changes from longitudinal load transfer,banking loads, and aero loads.
-Roll stiffness and the resulting front-to-rear distribution of roll couple
Tackling these first...

Softer springs allow more ride height and pitch change from braking and acceleration, stiffer less. For example, allowing the nose to drop more on braking should increase front downforce percentage and maybe total downforce amount, lower the height of the mass at the front of the car, and lower the front roll center. IF these work, the result is a sharper turn-in response, which in turn can lead to less mid-turn understeer (even after the nose rises) by the simple virtue of getting the turning done earlier in the corner. But, too much drop can destabilize response, shut off the front aero, move the suspension into the bump stops, cause adverse camber changes, blah, blah. A similar but different set of concerns exists for stiffer springs. And, a similar but different set of concerns exists for the rear springs. As always, the key is finding how much is just enough and how much is too much.

In roll, the springs affect both the roll stiffness and the feeling of support perceived by the driver. With front AR bars creating a fairly significant portion of front roll stiffness on most rear-drive cars, the effect of springs on roll stiffness on the front of the car is relatively subtle compared to their effect at the rear, where the AR bar is relatively soft or even disconnected. But subtle may be all you need, if the front-to-rear bar balance (a whole 'nother blog) is already good.

Of course, one reason springs are so powerful for tuning is that you get both ride height and roll stiffness changes in one tuning change. If you choose to run the same static ride height with a stiffer spring, you get more roll stiffness, less vertical movement, and higher dynamic ride height under aero/banking loads. If you choose to run a lower static ride height with a stiffer spring, you still get more roll stiffness and less vertical movement, but the dynamic ride height will depend on where you set the static. You have to choose.

But wait, there's more. We haven't gotten the full $29.95 worth yet.

Springs have to be matched to the tire. I've seen a change in rubber compound and carcass construction require as much as a 20% change in spring rate to retune a car. With serious sim work and full tire test data, we might be able to reduce the "cut and try". Outside of F1 and NASCAR, the average race team simply doesn't have the money or information, though. The tire might have different vertical or lateral stiffness, different contact patch shape, different internal damping, a compound that requires "working" the tire to generate sufficient heat, etc. There's also the issue of the extent that tire performance falls off over the tire's life.

Springs have to be matched to the track. In broad generalities, lower-grip venues require softer springs, within reason. At higher-grip venues, the car may feel sloppy and unresponsive if not supported by some combination of stiffer springs, stiffer bump damping, and/or stiffer bars. Bumpier venues may require softer springs and higher static ride heights, if a solution doesn't exist in damping. Tracks that put a premium on corner-exit traction or tracks with a persistent reputation for understeer may require a different front-to-rear spring proportion.

Springs have to be matched to the driver. Some drivers like softer, some stiffer. Engineering doesn't completely win out. If the driver isn't happy, you aren't fast. I once saw a team make a nearly 100% stiffer spring change to accomodate a new driver. He won the same number of races as the preceding driver, and was equally or more competitive in general. Same car, same tire, same tracks...

The holy grail of 7-post rig testing, the RMS variation of contact patch loads, is generally better as the springs get softer. But, we can't chase this in isolation either, as should be clear by now.

So, how do we choose spring rates and then tune them?
-Thoughtful consideration of the driver's comments
-Detailed review of the the logged data
-Careful analysis of the available tire data
-In-depth review of all the vehicle dynamics and aero data for your car
-Testing, either stand-alone or in the context of a race event
-Assessment of the track's needs

I can't over-emphasize the need to break free from dogmatic thinking. On two different cars in the last 12 months, I've improved front grip by going stiffer on front springs. Both cars were simply moving too much. On one of these, I saw too much front roll in the logged data. Fairly easy call. But, on the other, it came to a "gut level" call. Nothing in the data or the driver's comments pointed the way. On that car, I had to buck the skepticism of the drivers and the car owner. Luckily, one of the drivers was open-minded enough to go "Hey, it worked even though I thought it wouldn't".

And one detail - street car thinking says don't have the same natural frequency front and rear. See Gillespie. While many factors may well lead you away from this on a race car, I personally haven't found it to be a sin when it did happen.

Have fun!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Travel to Watkins Glen

This is as close as I'll get to personal blather on The Race Engineer. I did warn you that I'd write about life as a race engineer, and that includes travel. So, here are a few random notes about this weekend's trip to the Finger Lakes region of NY for a race at Watkins Glen.

-The dining scene in Corning has lost the old standby, London Underground.
-Tony R's, Corning's excellent new chop house, more than makes up for losing LU. Our group enjoyed steaks, seafood, and some of their Italian specialties. We also had the largest baked Alaska known to man. Not cheap, but well worth the trip.
-Ithaca/Tompkins Regional Airport is a nice alternative to Elmira.
-I finally got to tour the Corning Museum of Glass. Well worth the time.
-If you connect through DTW, the "trippy tunnel" connecting Terminal A to B and C is, well, pretty trippy.
-There is nothing in racing quite like the view from the paddock down the valley to Seneca Lake.
-Does it always rain at Watkins Glen? I've never had a totally dry weekend there.

Back again soon with another "real" post. See you then.