Front wing design case study: Mercedes W03

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Mercedes' front wing as seen at the last test in Barcelona

John Beamer takes a look at current trends in front wing design in F1 using the Mercedes W03.

Since the introduction of the 2009 technical rules, which closed off several areas for aerodynamic development, front wings have become one of the most important areas of car development.

This is because there are few other areas where designers have much freedom. Later rule changes have further limited the scope for improvements to the diffusers.

The front wing is a vital component because it is where the passing air first meets the car. The entire aerodynamic performance of an F1 car can be changed by the subtlest of alterations in front wing design.

The 2009 front wing

BMW 2009 front wing

Cast your mind back to late 2008 when BMW ran the first 2009-specification car in an end of season test (see illustration above).

This one one of the first examples of post-2009 front wing design we saw. It was simple and boxy, with very square endplates which had the single function of pushing air around the front tyres.

The wing itself was a simple three-element device with none of the cascades or appendages we are now familiar with. (The 2009 rules also allowed it to be adjusted while the car was moving, but this rule was scrapped at the end of 2010).

Other teams followed with more refined concepts. Designers quickly realised a lot of lap time was available from a properly developed front wing. Outside of the FIA-mandated horizontal section below the nose there are comparatively few restrictions on what they can build.

This has resulted in an aerodynamic arms race that saw even midfield teams bringing updated front wings to every race.

The modern front wing – Mercedes W03

Mercedes 2012 front wing design (1)

Fast-forward to the start of the 2012 season. This illustration shows the launch-spec front wing on the Mercedes W03.

Like the original BMW wing it has three element, but the similarities pretty much end there. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see how much more complex wing design has become in the space of just over three years.

The endplate structure is very intricate. It consists of multiple fins, some of which blend into the front wing elements.

There are a complex series of stacked cascades around the outer part of the wing. And there are further ‘indents’ across the leading edge and under-surface of the main plane. The Mercedes’ nose is thin, rounded and raised.

The modern philosophy of front wing design is that the device itself isn’t necessarily to create a ton of downforce but rather to condition the flow over the rest of the car. By manipulating how air leaves the front wing the flow to the tea-tray, sidepods, floor and diffuser can be optimised.

Nearly all teams use a three-element design such as this. Although a two-element design gives greater peak downforce, airflow separation on the underside of the elements is more of a problem and this compromises airflow to the rest of the car.

Mercedes 2012 front wing design (2)

The second illustration shows the aerodynamic elements aft of the front wing (but not the suspension) – the undernose vanes, bargeboard and detail around the leading edge of the floor.

From this angle you can start to appreciate why the front wing needs to be so detailed to create the right flow environment for the rest of the car to work.

Mercedes 2012 front wing design (3)

Add in the suspension arms, steering rack and brake ducts and the picture is even more complicated as shown in the third illustration.

Brake ducts are also relatively free from regulation and is a hotbed of development. The W03 brake duct has a simple aerofoil below the duct.

Don’t be surprised to see this area developed further as the car mature. The suspension arms are also faired for aerodynamic benefit and manage flow around the sidepods. However the steep angle of the wishbones means the effect is small.

Mercedes 2012 front wing design (4)

The final illustration selectively indicates airflow streams generated by the front wing.

This is a not a complete picture, but it gives an idea of how various vortices are created. The inner cascade is a perfect example: the air above the cascade is at a higher pressure than the air below it.

This higher pressure air will ‘roll’ towards the low pressure zone to equalize this lateral pressure gradient, and it is this rolling motion that creates a vortex.

Vortices are useful because they can be directed with reasonable precision and they also create a sealing effect. The semi-circular footplate and other indents on the main plane underwing are all designed to capture and direct vortices.

For example, air above the footplate is at a higher pressure than that below. Air will roll over the side of the footplate and is capture by the semi-circular channel sealing the rest of the main plane.

The front wing of 2014

There is no doubt that F1 teams have and will continue to invest a lot of aero resource in front wing development.

The FIA has consistently shown it is prepared to close down development avenues it perceives as not beneficial to the sport or the commercial automotive industry.

Don’t be surprised if come the next aero regulations overhaul in 2014 will see the ability to develop the front wing severely curtailed – we already know they’re going to be narrower.

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51 comments on “Front wing design case study: Mercedes W03”

    1. Has it been confirmed that this is being used? Mercedes have not mentioned anything have they?

      1. Oh…Am I wrong to presume that all the teams are doing this?

    2. Thank you, that’s very insightful.

    3. This seems wrong intuitively. The tiny inlet at the tip of the wing could hardly provide sufficient airflow over the required areas. And there would surely be too much resistance in those narrow winding channels to create any significant downforce..

      Can anyone confirm that this is actually being used..

      On a completely unrelated topic.. will there be a predictions championship this year?
      Maybe I missed this somewhere else on the site..

      It was great last year, even though I was completely useless :)

      1. @MW…as has been discussed in the article above, which I think is a fascinating and significant point, it is not just about how much downforce the front wing itself actually produces, it is also about how the front wing affects airflow over, under, and around the rest of the car behind the front wing, and how THAT affects overall downforce and no doubt balance of the car, as I say after air has passed the front wing. So the front wing is actually serving two purposes…downforce, and shaping the air and affecting how it hits other parts of the car.

  1. OmarR-Pepper (@)
    6th March 2012, 12:58

    The final illustration selectively indicates airflow streams generated by the front wing.

    This is a not a complete picture,

    I like drawing and …WOW you DO draw awesome details
    Great explanation and comparison with 2009 cars. A shame FIA is planning more restricted development the following years. They should permit more free-thinking and creativity on at least this element, there’s some variation from team to team on the design of the front wing and that can make the difference. I know big budget teams can even make this wing go down a little (like Red Bull and the failing Ferrari copy which gave a lot of vibration to the car) but the restrictions should be based on other criteria (safety is Ok, but let the cars be fast, that’s F1)

    1. While I’m all for free thinking and creativity in many aspects of F1, at the same time I believe they need to get away from so much aero dependancy and the DRS, and more toward relying on the mechanical grip of sticky tires. This imho to promote seat of the pants passing with cars much less disturbed by being in another cars dirty air as a way to promote great racing that is a compromise between having fast cars stuck behind slow ones lap after lap due to being in dirty air, and DRS passes that make the leading car appear defenceless and the one passing look like a child could do it.

      So I hadn’t heard that for 2014 the front wings will be narrower, and I think that is good news.

      1. I agree totally and incidentally , if you think developing a more powerful/efficient engine is expensive imagine how much designing a completely new airflow every year is.

      2. I don’t believe it is possible to go back to a time where the Mechanical grip was of higher importance to the design than the grip created by the Aerodynamics, without either watching old videos or turning F1 into something bare and archaic.

  2. Like the original BMW wing

    I think it’s Brawn, not BMW.

    1. Oh sorry I misread it…lol

      1. The 1st image actually says BMW though, and it has the Intel sponsor on it which did sponsor BMW?

    2. That’s good, but the original picture shown IS still a BMW front wing :-)

    3. Definitely BMW’s wing. The boxy endplates were very characteristic to it.

  3. To be fair, if you take the Brawn’s front wing from 2009 and compare it to today, the difference isn’t that large to be honest. It too was a three element design with split endplates, extra wings and many sculpted shapes.

    It’s simply that the BMW front wing looks like they didn’t want to spend any sort of time developing it.

    1. That depends. If you compare the Brawn in 2009 to the Mercedes in 2011, then the differences are small.

      But if you compare it to teams like McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari, then the difference is substantial.

      1. I disagree — the Mercedes w03 wing I think is a lot more developed. Check out this picture. Philisophically there are similarities but the detail is definitely lacking

        1. Compared to the BMW wing, the difference isn’t nearly as large as the BMW wing would lead you to think, though. Naturally the wings have evolved.

          1. BMW did have the worst front wing in F1 at the time!!!

        2. I got the impression at the time, that apart from the DDD the front wing was just as much a revolution in design.

          Altough Brawn himself left it largely unchanged until their bigger update mid-2011, other teams picked up the ideas from it (and from others) and took them further in a frenzy of development.

          But by now the wings have changed a lot, with the slot in the main plane to create a 3-element wing, the endplate less wings and all the arches and cascades on them.

          Not to mention the various forms the wing pillars have taken and experiments with camera mounting placing.

  4. Cool article and great drawings.

    And in case the last drawing isn’t complicated enough, if the rumours are true Mercedes are running their ‘w-duct’ blown front wing which would give them even more options for conditioning the airflow downstream.

  5. How does the technical level of aero in F1 stand up against other aero-heavy fields, like military fighter jets? On the face, F1 is just a “sport”, so obviously the technical expertise will lag behind that of massive government spending on military equipment. However, I see that the development cost of a Russian/Indian fighter jet is 6 billion USD. In F1, the combined budget per year of all teams is about 1 billion USD. So actually, F1 technical expertise is quite advanced.

    1. Governments always spend way too much money on technology. IT projects in my country cost sometimes 100 times more than comparable projects I’ve come across in the Telecom industry. So I don’t know what to conclude from money spent.
      However possibly hot tech attracts the best engineers, so maybe jetfighters and space programs are good comparison.
      I think F1 is a-class…

    2. I regards to the cost difference:
      Governments usually use a tender process for those things because the government isn’t a telecom industry or jet manufacturer so they get companies to do it for them..

      The companies know the government has billions to spend, so, in a nut shell; when they submit their tender they jack up their prices (and the govt usually chooses the cheapest of these) :p

      Then there’s the cost blow outs when people know the government, or the company working for the government, is buying something from them; so they raise their prices to cash in on it.

      Formula one is a bit different in the sense that they hire individuals and craft them into a team. That team then builds the car, so it is harder to exploit them for money. And such they get things done cheaper and (probably) a lot more efficiently

      /what was meant to be a short and simplified rant explanation :p

    3. Well, given the service requirements, it’s cheaper to build F1 parts. Why? It’s hard to pull over to marshal’s stand in the middle of combat mission. ;-)

      I spent 10 years in aerospace; it’s more expensive, but high-stress parts in aircraft have service lives in the thousands of hours.

  6. Either way, I long for the pre 2009 regulations. That way we can immediately get rid of DRS. Woohoooo

    1. I disagree. I love the post-2009 regulations. I just find these cars a thing of beauty compared to that of what we saw in the preceding years.

      Obviously I think this year will be the exception, in that the regulations have taken a turn for the worse, but that can be easily remedied with lower chassis’.

      I dread the year when they reduce the size of the front wings again in 2014, because I love how they are now.

      1. I agree with you @JamieFranklinF1. I love how you can see a more exposed coke bottle area of the cars. It makes the cars look curvier. Also being able to see more of the cars without all the cascades and bits and pieces obscuring them allows a better insight to the fans of how the downforce is produced and why the cars are as fast as they are.

        1. You do realise what you’re both saying?

          You prefer pretty cars to incredible racing.. in the pinnacle of motorsports. I think you have your F1 priorities wrong.

          Although I’ll play along a bit, how about we go to the spec of the 80s then? Beautiful cars AND beautiful racing..

        2. And @dom I disagree hugely with this

          Also being able to see more of the cars without all the cascades and bits and pieces obscuring them allows a better insight to the fans of how the downforce is produced and why the cars are as fast as they are.

          Just how much of the blown diffuser could you see last year? Because I know I could barely see any of it, and that’s where something like 80% of the downforce came from. Pre-2009 was easier to see because it was clearly because of all the tiny pieces of bodywork!

          It’s simpler to understand now, but more difficult to see I think.

          1. I meant @3dom haha

  7. It only seems like over the past 3/4 years that the front wing has really taken off in terms of an arms/design race. Before it was since the early 80s a simple 2 element wing right up until the late 90s/early 2000s before the 3rd part being added, and even then the design was still “simple” compared to the rather ‘Art’ like designs we have now. Incredible really.

    And I’ll add that its nice that many teams have much different designed FWs, when we all complain the cars look similar, there is 1 part that is differnt

    1. Gagnon (@johnniewalker)
      6th March 2012, 22:45

      COTD here

  8. I must say I dont like the look of this wings. Much less when compared with the rest of the car. It looks out of place. These wings belong to 2008 regulations.

    Maybe in the future we’ve ground effect back and these overdeveloped wings and such will be gone.

    1. Ground effect isn’t coming back

    2. Turbos are back, Ground Effect from anything bar the diffuser isnt. The Front wings are getting narrower (i dont know about the rears, anyone?)

  9. Have a look at the 2012 HRT front wing it looks much the same as the 2009 bmw. I don’t think they have invested any time looking at directing air. It seams as though they want to be a moving advertisement rather than a serious racing outfit. The paradox of this though is that they wont get the sponsors if they arn’t in the points and getting TV time.

    1. They will be getting plenty of TV time if they are being lapped. I used to think they were a joke outfit as well, but they’ve worked really hard over the winter to produce this car. And yeah, it might not be the greatest, but along with moving their base and changing ownership, they’re building a solid foundation for their future. They should be applauded, not jeered.

    2. Watch for more from RaceCar Engineering later after this tweet:

      RacecarEngineer I have reason to suspect the HRT F112 still uses a tub based on the 2010 Dallara (built in 2009!) more tomorrow
      about 16 hours ago by Racecar Engineering

  10. The quality of F1 engineers is amazing. They always find ways to get back what FIA takes away from them through new rules.


    1. @jcost That’s exactly why I don’t worry about it. It is one of the biggest factors which make this the highest form of motorsport there is.

  11. Thanks again @john-beamer for another really tech article. The bit about vortices really really helped my understanding.

    I welcome change from the FIA, FOTA, TWG, whoever. Time and time again we are proved wrong when it comes to the fear of stagnated development yet everytime, something radical comes along and gets us itching to talk about it!

    I’m in awe of just how quickly this sport changes and it’s one of the biggest attractions for me.

  12. Although Mercedes AMG team developed new wing for WO3 they tested the old wing from W02 on the new car. Just briefly though.
    New wing is obviously departure in design approach from the previous one. Probably they wanted to see the magnitude of impact on the performance of the car.
    Regarding the rules and front wing design I don’t see any need for FIA to intervene if Ferrari makes their wing to work ;-) If they don’t make it then we’ll see… FIA rule number 1. Interest of the sport = interest of Scuderia Ferrari

  13. Regardless of how clever, intricate and expensive this aero-development is, it is totally useless in any other application. I would rather see the enormous costs associated with designing and developing new aero packages every year spent on something more applicable to automotive engineering eg. engines, tyres, suspension.

    1. @hohum I wouldn’t say totally useless. Aero is featuring more and more on road cars, particularly diffusers. The FIA has it’s agenda and the teams have theirs. There are more privateer teams on the grid than there are constructors so where’s the incentive to develop areas that can’t be developed for any commercial gain?

  14. What I would like to know is what else was affected when they notified the Fia about the possible loophole in the engine software, which by all accounts was unworkable anyway due to fuel consumption and excessive engine wear. I reckon they blocked a couple of other exploits with the solution. Could be nothing but we already have one b spec chassis and another on the way before the first free practise session. This from 2 top teams with plenty of resources and one has the best designer on the payroll. Are we really to believe that both of them just got it wrong with the first car?

    1. Not entirely, they are not getting what they expected. It’s possible even when you have the best designer on the payroll. The best designer blossoms only because he’s planted among the bunch of most talented engineers in F1. Otherwise, he would be designing cars like MP4-16,MP4-17,MP4-18…
      Regarding the other team, I think they have the fastest car. Not being in the spotlight just helps ’cause they’re less pressured by media and others. You’ll see…

  15. Very interesting article but it surprises me that with all the resources and brains in F1 that more has’nt been achieved in airfoil design to maximise the benefits of lift (downforce) while reducing the penalties of drag. Mercedes are thinking on the right lines but rely on driver input (contentious) to achieve it. I believe there are ‘passive’ ways to achieve the same effect.

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