Banned: Ground effect


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The last in this series looking at F1 technologies that were banned looks at one innovation that the governing body were surely right to get rid of.

Indeed, had they stepped in more quickly to rid the sport of ground effect cars, a series of terrifying crashes might have been avoided.

Another Lotus innovation

Ground effects was another innovation brought to F1 by Colin Chapman’s Lotus team. It was borne of an idea of making the entire car function as one giant wing to increase downforce.

It was also one of the first developments to be discovered using a wind tunnel. The team observed that when the outer edges of the car’s sidepods reached the floor it generated a massive increase in downforce. It created a low pressure area beneath the car, sucking it down.

Applying that theoretical observation to the track proved difficult. The Lotus 78 (a.k.a. the John Player Special Mark III) of 1977 was the first car to attempt it and did boast substantially better grip than its predecessor. But poor reliability ruined the team’s season.

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The team continued into 1978 with a modified version of the 78 but really hit its stride when it brought the 79 out for its first race. At Zolder, the sixth round of the season, drivers Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson destroyed the opposition, finishing first and second by a comfortable margin. They repeated the feat next time out in Jarama, Spain.

A focus on tidying up the aerodynamics of the car made the 79 a leap forward over its predecessor and every other car in the field. The rear bodywork was all-enveloping and the front and rear suspension was brought within it to keep the airflow as smooth as possible.

Chapman used every trick to keep the back of the car as neat as possible – even lobbying for a change in the rules that allowed the car to have a single fuel tank. This allowed him to move the cockpit forward, insert the fuel tank between the driver and the engine, and tidy up the rear of the car accordingly.

Lotus won eight of the season’s 16 races – total dominance by 1978 standards. But their double title win was, as so often in Lotus’s history, marred by tragedy. Ronnie Peterson died of complications following in accident at the start of the Italian Grand Prix, where Andretti became drivers’ champion.

Out of control

The team also lost the plot on design. Chapman targeted an aggressive development of the ground effects concept for the 1979 car, the Lotus 80. But rival constructors Ligier and Williams beat him by allying the ground effects to a more rigid chassis structure.

Lotus won nothing in 1979 – but ground effects continued to dominate. And the gigantic cornering speeds they created saw lap times tumble. Alan Jones’ pole position time for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone of 1’11.880 (236.324kph / 146.845 mph) was 6.61s quicker than James Hunt’s of two year’s previously.

By 1980 escalating cornering speeds was becoming a real concern. It was the focal point of a furious dispute between the governing body FISA, typically supported by the manufacturer teams Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo, and the constructors’ association FOCA, led by Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone.

Simply put, FISA wanted to ban ground effects because of the dangerously high cornering speeds they allowed, and the fact that if one of the ‘skirts’ broke it could send a car off the track at massive speed with no warning for the driver.

FOCA resisted – its teams largely used Cosworth engines that were less powerful than those of the richer manufacturers, and more effective chassis design using ground effects provided them with a means of levelling the playing field.

A series of accidents escalating in severity put pressure on FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre to act. In testing for the German Grand Prix Alfa Romeo driver Patrick Depailler was killed when his car speared straight on at the high speed Ostkurve.

His death was blamed in part on the fact that the safety fencing on the corner had not been erected. But the massive cornering speed of his ground effect car was a contributory factor.

The following season brought a controversial ban on skirts. But designers quickly found a gaping hole in the regulations: The undersides of the cars were only required to be flat when the car was in the pits.

Brabham’s Gordon Murray was first to cotton on to this and he produced an ingenious solution for his BT49 which automatically lowered the skirts while the car was on the track. With that advantage Nelson Piquet destroyed the opposition in the Argentinian Grand Prix.

Teams began copying the system – albeit using a crude lever operated by the driver instead of Murray’s complex hydraulics – and soon every car in the field was legal in the pits but illegal as they lapped the circuit.

FISA gave up the fight and re-legalised skirts for 1982. The consequences were dire.

Disaster and near misses

By now many of the leading teams were using turbo engines which required substantially more fuel than before. Thus drivers were perched at the front of explosively powerful turbo cars that cornered so quickly they could barely see.

This much was obvious at the second race of the year in Brazil when the winner, Nelson Piquet, collapsed on the podium from the exertion of manhandling his Brabham BT49D around the fast circuit in scorching Rio de Janeiro heat. His team mate Riccardo Patrese retired after losing his bearings and almost collapsing at the wheel.

Much worse was to follow. In qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix Gilles Villeneuve tagged the back of Jochen Mass’s March and Villeneuve’s Ferrari was launched into the air. It hit the ground nose-first with such force that it likely killed Villeneuve instantly. The Ferrari disintegrated and threw its driver across the track.

The accident horrified the sport but, like Depailler’s death, it was immediately blamed on another mitigating factor – qualifying tyres. Villeneuve had previously complained about the dangers of trying to post a quick qualifying lap under high pressure on tyres that only provided grip for a lap or so. And those were exactly the circumstances in which he was killed.

With the benefit of hindsight it is fair to say that, although the pressures of qualifying played a role in Villeneuve’s death – as did his fall-out with team mate Didier Pironi, the vicious nature of the ground effect cars had a hand in it too.

Two months later at the Dutch Grand Prix the suspension on Rene Arnoux’s Renault collapsed under the enormous pressure generated by ground effects. He ploughed into the tyre barrier at Tarzan corner, mercifully stopping short of the crowd.

An even luckier escaped followed later in July. During the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard Mauro Baldi’s Arrows and Mass’s car tangled, firing Mass’s burning car into the spectator enclosure. In that terrifying moment pure fortune alone spared Formula 1 from suffering its own equivalent of the 1955 Le Mans disaster – no one was killed.

But at the German Grand Prix in August Pironi was not so lucky. Much has been written about his state of mind going into that race, and many have speculated why he was even bothering to lap the Hockenheimring in the pouring rain in qualifying when he already had pole position.

In thick spray he drove straight into the back of Alain Prost’s Renault at undiminished speed. His Ferrari arched into the air and ploughed its nose into the ground. Pironi survived, but his legs were terribly broken in many places, and he never raced an F1 car again.

However great the role of ground effects had been, the catalogue of traumas prompted FISA to act, and flat bottomed cars were made mandatory for 1983. Ground effects were gone.

Lessons had been learned from beyond Formula 1 too. In America the Indy Car series had begun using ground effect cars. In practice for the Indianapolis 500 Gordon Smiley was killed in a crash of appalling violence, hitting a concrete wall nose-first. The impact was so great his crash helmet was wrenched from his head with the chin strap still fastened.

Perhaps it would be possible for modern single seater racing cars to employ full ground effect trim – but modern safety standards would demand enormous compromises if they were left unrestricted.

Enormous run-off areas would put spectators a long way from the action, street racing would be out of the question, and drivers would need the kind of gravity suits used by fighter pilots.

It’s not hard to reach the conclusion that ground effects had to be banned.


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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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24 comments on “Banned: Ground effect”

  1. Ah, the ground effect era, when cars became streamlined bullets honed to perfection. Interestingly, I have seen a lot of comments lately that suggest allowing ground effect again, usually as an antidote to the lack of overtaking possible with today’s cars. I’m not sure that would be a workable solution at all and, as you point out, it makes the cars very susceptible to sudden and catastrophic failure (and that’s without even considering the increased strain on the drivers through enormous G loads).

    I have a theory on that era that requires rather more than a comment to explain – which means you have given me something to write about today. Thanks, Keith!

  2. The G-force loads are somewhat forgotten about, since the only incident I can think of was a CART walkout regarding dangerous speeds achieved in banked ovals.

    The real goal of such a change is to promote the creation of a car that can draft. Perhaps what I’d really want to see is less wings.

    Someone correct me if I’m wrong for thinking that the moving side-skirt is the reason why moving aerodynamic pieces are taboo.

  3. The ban on moveable aerodynamic parts pre-dates ground effects – when Brabham’s fan car was banned in ’78 that was on the grounds that it contained moveable aerodynamic parts:

    The CART walk-out was at Texas in 2001.

  4. Simon Stiel
    10th June 2007, 21:38

    Sorry to bother you but what books did you use to gather the information for this article?

    Many thanks.

  5. Simon Stiel
    10th June 2007, 21:39

    Apologies for bothering you again but what books did you use to gather the information for this article?

    Many thanks.

  6. I’m going to have to start putting a references section at the bottom of these articles!

    OK: “Lotus: The Competition Cars” (invaluable for this series, it’s a damn good book), Nigel Roebuck’s biography of Mario Andretti, Steve Olvey’s excellent autobiography “Rapid Response” and, as ever, a thick stack of Autosports. I recently acquired the black-fronted issue from May 1982 after Villeneuve’s death :-(

    Here are the links for the books:

    Happy reading!

    There is a new book coming out on the 1982 season which I am sure which touch on this subject and we will have a review of soon…

  7. Just a nit, but it’s not really correct to say that ground effects was banned from F1. Flat-bottomed cars were mandated, but you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and ground effect is still extremely important in the design of an F1 car.

  8. After reading all the causalities I think Ground effect shouldn’t comeback in F1.

  9. Ground effect aerodynamics are vital to bring some much needed overtaking back to Formula 1, and boost popularity by making the sport more exciting.

    Following a car in front causes loss of grip, as insufficient air passes over the front wings, caused by the vacuum left by the leading car.

    Re-introduce ground effect, remove reliance on front wings = more interesting sport!

    Cars are much safer than ’78. I’m looking forward to the changes….

    1. Snoreflottado
      2nd January 2021, 10:44

      I do hope you’re are correct, The Veteran.
      I’ve grown up with aircraft and race cars in my life.
      If I understand the concept of ‘ground effect’ correctly (let us consider the Lotus 78 e.g.) the area either side of the engine is the largest negative space of the side pods, and theoretically should be producing the highest vacuum (the lowest air pressure). For this to be possible, for the system to work as intended, it requires air – air that is subjected to rapid expansion – and hence producing the low air pressure.
      In theory if reduced air pressure (‘dirty air’ (from a car close in front)) was to travel through the system that reduced air pressure may not produce even less air pressure. It may not have a multiplying effect.
      So, it may not work the way we, as racing fans, wish, (any amount of race cars racing ten tenths nose to tail), but may instead result in the one second gap which has plagued the pinnacle single seat category for decades.
      But please understand I want very much to be wrong!
      Sustained close racing in Formula One is of paramount importance.

  10. Is it entirely fair to blame GE for all the incidents listed in this article? Sure, they contributed, but the cars were generally more dangerous and the drivers more vulnerable than they are now.

    Bringing back GE with today’s safety technology will definitely improve cars’ ability to follow one another closely enough to get past and the proposed engines are nothing nearly as vicious as the ones which killed so many drivers.

    Agree that the safety of driver and spectators is paramount, but things have moved on and it’s time for GE to come back.

  11. I know that it was the right thing to do for saftey reasons… so I don’t disagree with banning ground effects.. but for some reason, I just find the whole idea of slowing the cars down, reducing cornering speeds, etc. goes against my F1 DNA. You just watch the designers working so hard to eek our every tenth of performance in the cars under the curent regulations, and then there are concepts like this that would instantly make the cars SO much faster..

    I have always thought that there should be one racing series in the world with unlimited budgets and completely unlimited technology to push the limits of what is possible. I know I am just dreaming, but it is a beautiful dream.

    1. Luke Pitman
      12th July 2011, 21:27

      I so agree with your post, F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle of motorsports so why do they keep slowing it down. Why cant someone build a 3000 horsepower car with 4 wheeldrive and ground effect.

      1. Because it would be a life-lottery. Drivers would either win or die…

        1. Awesome

        2. Win or Die like Man of TT rider? So they are put their life on lottery game? They know and understand the risk, so why F1 can’t? It’s a car, with 4 wheel and seatbelt, not a bike with only 2 wheel and more or less box matches grip area on asphalt

    2. snoreflottado
      2nd January 2021, 11:17

      A short history lesson, if you’ll allow please; almost 50 years ago (possibly) the most amazing Grand Prix occurred. It happened on a circuit which had but 5 corners and 2 very long straights. I have chatted with drivers of this era and they say that there was 2 hard braking areas and one small tap of the brakes each lap, meaning virtually the whole lap was flat out. For much of the race 8 cars were swapping those 8 places, including for the lead.
      Alas, mechanical reliability retired 3 cars.
      After nearly 80 minutes of mentally exhausting/exhilerating racing 5 cars flashed across the finish line. The order of that 5 had been completely different the previous lap, and had it run for one or more laps that order would also have changed.
      When they flew across the finish line 0•6 seconds covered them.

      If you enjoy Formula One history you may want to read;
      (a small portion: “At Monza that day, there were 25 lead changes, among eight drivers, but maybe the most numbing fact of all is that on only eight of the 55 laps was the order as it had been the previous time around.”)

      The reason I bring this up…? I firmly believe we can learn much from history. The very reason this GP was the way it was, as were at least the previous 4 at this once astounding circuit, is because the cars raced with virtually no ‘wing’ at all. And not a skerrick of ‘ground effects”.

  12. some of the things said in this article don’t seem to quite gel with what I have read elsewhere (namely Competition Car aerodynamics). sliding skirts where quite rightly banned as failure of them was both relatively common and completely catastrophic however under floor tunnels IIRC are less of a demon with the two main problems with them both fixable and also present in flat bottomed floors. firstly is the bottoming out of the undertray under certain conditions as down force increases as the road surface-undertray gap decreases only up to a point where the gap is to small and down force drops off dramatically and this is simply solved by the use of a plank that acts as a spacer between the undertray and road surface and this solution is IIRC currently used in all race series where underbody tunnels are allowed. secondly is pitch sensitivity where pitch changes in the car dramatically change downforce this is solvable through good design (in fact flat floors were barred in LMP and replaced with a controlled tunnel set up to avoid the pitch related problems that led to several late 90’s incidents including the infamous mercedes CLR crashes) and suspension tricks intended to maintain constant pitch and ride height.

    1. It’s hard to read longer text sections which do not feature any interpunction

  13. Is there a dvd out about when F1 adjustable side skirts were banned called something like…”Gentlemen Lift your Skirts” and if so where could I buy it please?

    1. You can watch it on YouTube, Graham.

  14. A semi interesting article that overlooks a lot of things in it’s condemnation of ground effects and is very simplistic. Maybe in those days then yes a ban worked, in todays day an age it should be looked at again.

    My points would be
    – Today’s cars are a lot safer than those of the 1970’s and 80’s. Today drivers routinely survive major accidents at very high speeds. Didn’t the Torro Rosso crash in Russia last year and Austria this year at very high impact. Vestappen in Monaco is another example.
    – You mention suspension breaking due to high loads. This is not a problem with ground effect loading, it is a problem with not building suspension that can handle the loads.
    – You mention Giles Villenueve and his crash looks similar to that of Mark Webber’s in Valencia with an airborne car. He survived that as todays cars are stronger and safer.
    – If both front and rear wing snapped off todays car at a very high speed corner, say at Monza (is it the Curve Grande?) then it would plough off into the barriers. That’s because wings increase downforce and therefore corner speed, should these be banned too?
    – Why would side skirts fail mid corner? Todays cars are built tough and it is fairly rare to see failures of bodywork or suspension that fails due to the forces it experiences (Austria this year being a notable exception, though this was easily solved by driving on the track).
    – Why would drivers need G-suits? They routinely pull 5-6 G now. Fighter pilots use them to put pressure on their legs as far as I knew when changing direction quickly to fly upwards. The pressure stops the blood being forced from their brain to their legs as that would cause black out due to lack of oxygen. A formula one car has lateral loads but no vertical so I’m not sure why this is necessary

  15. I would say that Gille Villenueve’s death (and Pironi’s retirment in very similar circumstances) was more to do with Ferrari’s archaic construction methods than the nature of their aerodynamics, for they were still building cars using a spiderweb of tubing with a stressed aluminium skin, an approach abandoned by the British teams in the 1960s. It’s hardly a coincidence that for 1983 and beyond Ferrari got it’s self right up to date and constructed their cars using carbon fibre monocoque construction.

    Also, the reason why the cars got dangerous was FISA’s lack of understanding in how best to regulate ground effect cars, ground effects in themselves are not dangerous and one could argue that the exposed nature of wings and their susceptibility to failure due to contact with other cars makes them far more dangerous, this was after all what caused Roland Ratzenberger’s death in Qualifying for the San Marino GP in 1994. If FISA had banned sliding skirts effectively then ground effects would still be in use today. They didnt “need” banning, they needed properly regulating, flat bottoms were not without their own problems and many blame a flat bottom “stalling” as being a key factor in Ayrton Senna’s death during the San Marino GP in 1994.

  16. Indy Car, CART and others have had a huge amount of R&D done on ground effects. F1 should take advantage of that. Also there have been advances in crash barrier design which can be more effective and far easier to set up than stacks of old tires cabled together.
    As others have stated, the design of the F1 cars has become much safer over the past 40 years.

    F1 has already allowed some movable aerodynamic devices in recent years, notably the adjustable gap in the rear wing that enables reduced drag on straights. If they want to restrict which areas of a track things like that can be used on, setup radio beacons around a track like a limited area GPS. The car’s control system would read those position signals and adjust what devices and how much change is allowed.

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