July 26, 2023
History shows that engineering (using an idea without necessarily understanding it) usually gets the drop on science (understanding an idea without necessarily having any idea what to do with it). Phillip Whiteman I came across this quote in a great book on racing (Formula 1 Technology by Peter Wright) just as the “flying car” controversy was occurring at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The new “aero kits” were intended to make the “spec chassis” currently in use look and perform differently. Unfortunately, the first use of the kits on road course resulted in carbon fiber fragments flying everywhere. Now, on the biggest stage in motor racing, they seem to work fine in the intended direction but launch the car into the air if the driver spins out. The law of unintended consequences has struck again! Phillip Whiteman has summed up the reason we have so much experience with this powerful force but can’t resist risking it. The possibility of a big success blinds us to the risk of failure. And it isn’t just in racing. When our industry was first moving to the carburized, hardened, and ground gears that predominate the power transmission side of gearing, early adopters took full advantage of the higher durability capability without fully appreciating the system dynamics in some applications. Within weeks gearboxes started failing due to broken teeth. Once proper service factors were applied to the bending capacity of the teeth, carburized gears performed well in these applications. But to this day, 35 years later, some industries remain skeptical of “hard gears” for critical service drives. I have confidence that the engineers in charge of those aero kits will get things under control. That won’t stop fans without the skill to form a decent paper airplane to decide aerodynamics is “bad” for racing. The science can’t be ignored; cars crashed from “lift” long before the first wing was fitted and they will continue to crash when pushed to the limit. Our job as engineers is to understand enough of the idea to get good results without hurting people.