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CFD: Is It Wirth It?

NEWS STORY
07/02/2011

Mat Coch writes:

It's fair to say Monaco doesn't hold too many fond memories for Nick Wirth. It was on the Principality's streets that his Simtek team took part in its final race before its untimely demise a few short weeks later.

That weekend in May 1995 is one Wirth will have tried hard to erase from his memory. Both drivers, Jos Verstappen and Mimmo Schiattarella, retired from the race. The handful of laps the pair completed were to be the last Simtek would ever turn, the team going into voluntary liquidation shortly after the Canadian Grand Prix, an event the team didn't even travel to. It was the end of Nick Wirth's tenure as a Formula One team boss.

Wirth started his Formula One career at March, working alongside Adrian Newey until he and Max Mosley founded Simtek Research in 1989. After the venture collapsed on the back of the racing team's failure he joined Benetton as chief designer, a position he held until 1999.

His path then took a turn away from motor sport as he founded RoboScience, a robotics company which developed, of all things, a robotic dog. Then, in 2003, he set up Wirth Research, a design consultancy company with a focus on motor sport.

The company has been a bit of a rebirth for Wirth's motor sport career, one that ultimately returned him to the streets of Monaco with his own team some fifteen years after the demise of Simtek. A director and share holder in the Virgin Racing team, Wirth has returned to the sport's biggest stage, with Wirth Research finally getting the chance to sink its teeth into a Formula One contender having established a reputation for itself in the US.

Virgin's philosophy is a little different to most other teams, while being entirely consistent with the minimalist approach Wirth seems to favour in his business ventures. While some teams, not to mention the Formula One Teams Association, carry on about cost reduction and controlling expenditure, Virgin Racing has been built from the ground up with those very principles in place. A lean operation, the development budget Wirth enjoys is a fraction of that spent even by their nearest rivals.

Much of that is a result of the approach that Wirth Research has adopted in the design process, heavily investing in computational fluid dynamics (CFD). "I like CFD because it has allowed my company to design championship winning sports cars," Wirth explains. "We have won pretty much everything there is to win in sports cars with one notable exception, and which we're working on at the moment, which is LMP1, the 24 hours of Le Mans."

It was while working on a sports car project for Acura in North America that Wirth Research made a discovery that set the wheels in motion for the company's move towards Formula One, though they didn't know it at the time.

"On the sports car front, the Acura sports car programme starting in 2006, we used for the first time huge scale CFD," Wirth recalls. "Because we were resource limited we were spending so much money wind tunnel testing. We were spending, in parts of the programme, probably $60,000 a day on wind tunnel model parts, and of those probably $54,000 of those bits ended up in the skip because they wouldn't be any good.

"For every ten iterations you do nine of them wouldn't work, it doesn't matter if it's bodywork or suspension or a wing. So we were haemorrhaging money, like everyone who uses a wind tunnel does, on parts, and so we set ourselves out a target to try and improve the resolution and fidelity of CFD to at least match a wind tunnel, but actually we exceeded it. We ended up learning things which enabled us to turn what was a reasonable sports car, the Acura sports car at the beginning of the programme, into a championship winning and record setting series of sports car which continues to this day."

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