Why doesn’t F1 clamp down on aero development?

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Formula 1 aerodynamics have been blamed for spoiling the racing for decades. So why doesn’t the sport restrict them more heavily? @DieterRencken answers another RaceFans’ reader question.

What I most fail to understand about F1 over the past probably decade now, is why is the sport (and other open wheel racing series) so addicted to aerodynamic elements that inhibit close racing.

I’m no aerodynamicist, I’ve never raced, but seems to me the giant front wings both hinder cars aerodynamically when following close behind another car and create physical obstacles making it more difficult to cut in as close as possible to the car in front during overtaking manoeuvres.

So my question is: Why is there not more apparent will to curb these very obvious (to my eyes) inhibitors to better racing?
Maciek Janicki

As with most (if not all) Formula 1 regulations, the challenge is one finding a three-way balance between sport, technology and cost.

Aerodynamics became part of F1 in 1968 after Ferrari bolted a full-width wing to the back of Chris Amon’s Ferrari 312. Others had dabbled with it before: Colin Chapman added front flippers and a rear spoiler to earlier Lotus designs. Both teams were well and truly gazumped by German Michael May, who tried to race a Porsche with a mid-mounted wing in the fifties, but had his innovation banned on safety grounds.

In the sixties and seventies F1 went through a succession of aerodynamic developments. High wings and sealed-off ground effects were experimented with in different seasons before being banned. Thereafter F1 settled on its current configuration of front wings, underbody diffusers and relatively low rear wings. Over the years, the dimensions and the numbers of elements have varied, but the basic concepts have remained similar.

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The fundamental problem is that aerodynamics cannot be unlearned or totally banned. When objects pass through air they are subjected to aerodynamic forces, and in F1 the challenge is to safely manage these to best effect within the regulations. If cars can be designed to create “dirty” air, which makes it more difficult for following cars to overtake, so much the better…

Therein lies the challenge for the rule makers: to ensure that F1 cars are aerodynamically safe – F1 cars travel at well in excess of the take-off speed of passenger airliners – while not hindering overtaking. Yet, the more the FIA tries to tame aerodynamics, the more creative aerodynamicists become.

Because other performance differentiating technologies are either standardised (tyres) or tightly controlled (engines, transmissions, electronics), aerodynamics potentially provide the greatest untapped performance area. Thus teams throw massive amounts of resource at aero, and only increasingly prescriptive regulations and greater restrictions on wind tunnel usage and computational fluid dynamics processing will halt that.

At the moment teams are restricted in terms of run time and the number of runs within that period, with further restrictions on air speed. CFD is subject to similar simulation restrictions. Yet, despite ever-tighter regulations teams have managed to claw back the downforce. This year’s vastly simpler front and rear wings, which are designed to reduce dirty air, have not stopped lap times falling.

F1 2021 India concept model
How will F1 revolutionise the racing in 2021? Its new concept car analysed
Liberty’s technical team is currently formulating 2021-onwards aerodynamic regulations which should reduce ‘dirty’ air, with the first fruits being the current (admittedly ungainly) wider front wings. The overall consensus in the paddock is that they do reduce ‘outwash’, thereby reducing ‘dirty’ air.

I foresee further restrictions on wind tunnel time/CFD processing going forward, probably with standardised computing clusters to better control costs and usage. Cost caps will reduce team headcounts, with aero activities – currently the most intensive engineering area within teams – being cut by up to 30 per cent, and more amongst major teams. These measures will automatically reduce focus on aero.

To gain an idea of the costs of operating a wind tunnel: A mid-size team with its own tunnel employs 150-180 heads in its aero department, including wind tunnel staff, model makers and various levels of aerodynamicists, while a tunnel costs around £5,000 per hour – thus it burns though over £40,000 per eight-hour shift, all operating costs considered. A state-of-art tunnel costs minimum £50 million.

Aero development should be reduced, and not only for the sporting reasons you point out,: wind tunnels burn electricity at a frightening rate, and ultimately aero consumes the largest portion of car development budgets, yet is the least road relevant area – which is the primary reason why no car manufacturer has committed to a full F1 factory effort since Mercedes in 2009.

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Video: F1’s 2021 aerodynamic concept

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...
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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  • 48 comments on “Why doesn’t F1 clamp down on aero development?”

    1. I think this is where areas can be opened up by giving options to teams. We know that the v10’s, v8’s and now the new hybrids offer roughly the same BHP output but its where the power is delivered in the rev range. Some of the concepts of cutting the aero could be done if there are other places within the regulations for teams to play. IE – have a v10 but have a more underground effect led car or a hybrid v1.6 with the more “traditional” aero we see at the moment. The only problem with this will be that teams will still hone into the best compromise solution which is why we see 20 cars on the grid that all look pretty much the same. There’s no easy solution here the INDIA car Liberty propose will help in closeness of racing but the concern will be is how standard is it (so not discourage the manufacturers) verses how much freedom teams get to try and find that competitive edge.

      1. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
        9th April 2019, 13:40

        so not discourage the manufacturers

        Therein lies the problem. Manufacturers can come in, spend big and expect to get rewarded with results. This is the way they sell the project to their management boards.

        I say to hell with the manufacturers, they add massively to the cost and little to the on track sport. F1 could easily survive without them and it would be cheaper and more competitive to boot.

        1. tony mansell
          9th April 2019, 14:52

          Yes I agree, they come in bang their hands on the table and then are gone in a heartbeat if it suits them. Mercedes are killing the goose, no one can get near them and although Ferrari push them close, Ferrari will forever find new ways to lose, which in itself levels the playing field

          1. tony mansell, Mercedes is actually a fairly bad example, as Mercedes’s current involvement in the sport – 25 years as an engine supplier and 9 as a full manufacturer – is, I understand, quite a bit longer than the historical average life expectancy for most independent teams.

            I believe that, across the full history of the sport, the average life expectancy of most independent teams is slightly less than 4 years. There is a romantic notion of independent teams sticking to the sport through thick and thin, but that isn’t really borne out in practise – quite a few of those independent teams ran out of resources pretty quickly and have quit the sport with the same rapidity that you accuse manufacturer teams of doing.

            1. Yes Anon, that is true and additionally teams may appear to have long lives as the owner/financiers change but the name remains the same eg Brabham. But let’s hear it for the Billionaires that use F1 as a platform for wealth redistribution although the design restrictions now make that kind of patronage virtually impossible, all in the cause of reducing costs.

            2. Anthony Vertue
              10th April 2019, 8:09

              Through the late 60, 70 and 80 you had independent teams, household names;

              These where not four year wonders;

              McLaren
              Tyrell
              Brabham
              Lotus
              Willliams
              Arrows etc.

              These teams won races, championships etc.

              Almost every year a few new ones would show up and a few would fall away – but they had chance….

              This is the time the old romantics dream of.

              Not the independent teams of HRT, Virgin, Caterham etc. Or the “B” teams of TR, Alfa, Haas etc.

    2. which is the primary reason why no car manufacturer has committed to a full F1 factory effort since Mercedes in 2009

      Renault 2016?

      1. @RB13 Yes indeed.

    3. Why don’t they just run spec front and rear wings? Even the field and eliminate outwash etc, just wondering…

      1. @jett Because that isn’t what F1 is meant to be. There should be as few standard parts as possible because the technical/development race between teams & ingenuity that can create is a huge part of what puts F1 above other categories & to many the tech/development race is just as interesting/exciting as what happens on the track.

        Going towards spec wings would take away a big part of that race & given how big a factor the front wing in particular is when it comes to the overall design of the car it would also risk resulting in everyone going down the same design route with all the cars ending up looking the same. By that point you may as well just start calling it Indycar Europe or something because it just wouldn’t be F1 anymore.

        1. @stefmeister

          Yes I get the fact it’s F1 and what that stands for, but, it seems pointless changing rules and regulations around wings if the aero guys just push the boundaries and take advantage of even the smallest loophole, and all we ever end up with is outwash and no ability to follow.

          I don’t believe a spec front wing only would mean everyone therefore builds the same car. We have some quite different cars with similar front wings, and some similar cars with quite different front wings already, so I don’t buy it.

    4. Aside from the drastic changes to the cars, I hadn’t considered what would happen if their wind tunnel work was further curtailed through budget cuts and cost caps. The changes to the cars alone should be plenty, as even if they wanted to continue to throw massive amounts of money at aero, the new cars simply will no longer have within them the same parameters such that the teams could even get near clawing back all the aero dependence to which they have become accustomed. So…cars less clean air dependent, cars making much less wake for the trailing car, and teams throwing less resources at the file, all indicate to me much much closer racing come 2021…much more driver vs driver stuff with no need nor desire for drs. The art of defending shall return. I think it is going to be great.

    5. Even the drivers say they would prefer more mechanical vs aero grip. Let’s see what Ross Brawn can achieve for 2021, at the very least I would love to see yet much simpler front wings. I believe Michel May considers himself Swiss…

    6. To gain an idea of the costs of operating a wind tunnel: A mid-size team with its own tunnel employs 150-180 heads in its aero department, including wind tunnel staff, model makers and various levels of aerodynamicists, while a tunnel costs around £5,000 per hour – thus it burns though over £40,000 per eight-hour shift, all operating costs considered. A state-of-art tunnel costs minimum £50 million.

      Stupid question, but is CFD technology still not good enough to substitute the use of wind tunnels? How expensive is CFD compared to Wind Tunnel testing?

      1. Google the Marussia MR01 as an assessment of how a purely CFD designed car may fare.

        1. tony mansell
          9th April 2019, 14:55

          That was a while ago now. It will be how it is done in the future but it was likely too early or as it didn’t work it wasn’t adopted. Most new things in F1 have been trialled before.

        2. It’s almost 10 year ago with the MR01. Also as an outsider, I don’t know if the car’s aerodynamic was bad, or it was just a terrible car through and through, considering they had a fuel tank issue as well back then.

    7. Aren’t the rules for 2021 looking at increasing ground effects so that cars can follow closely again?
      Or the other way would be to get rid of the wings and just go for mechanical grip. lap times would be a lot slower but the corner action would be mighty.

      1. @johnrkh I think it’s more about the underbody, i.e., the ground effects-side of it that’s been looked at, at least as far as I’ve interpreted the recent news on the topic that is.

        1. @johnrkh Brawn has already said the wings will be present and we have seen that in the concept articles. They still need them for some performance and for the aesthetics of the cars but they will be less effective. It is a multifaceted approach. Less emphasis on wing surfaces for the majority of their downforce performance, more emphasis on ground effects, but ground effects done better than it has been done in the past, and cars that make much less wake when teams for decades have only been motivated and allowed to make as much wake as possible in order to disrupt the trailing car. They are not just going to throw out all they know of aero downforce, as stated early in the above article. But the dependence on aero downforce will be greatly curtailed along with other facets that will combine for great improvement…up to as much as only a 5% loss in performance as opposed to the 50% they experience now. No wonder Brawn said this year’s non-outwashing front wings are just a drop on the bucket towards the ‘huge’ ( his word) changes they know they can make.

    8. Adub Smallblock
      9th April 2019, 13:35

      Thanks, Dieter, for pointing out the irrelevance, to road cars, of the huge aero expense. The same is true of some of the other technology on these cars, but if anyone complains about any of the technology, they are hit with the old “developing technology for use in road cars” flap.

      1. 1) it doesn’t say ‘irrelevance’, as much as you wanted to hear that.
        2) there are more areas where the F1 aero expertise is being used.

      2. Indeed, and for that alone it should be severely restricted and/or preferably standardised front/rear wings at the very least!

      3. Agreed. Aero is fascinating to look at, but I’d rather the cars be able to race closely and not require DRS. With less downforce, we might even see the odd powerslide.

    9. A state-of-art tunnel costs minimum £50 million.

      Why is a wind tunnel so expensive?
      It seems pretty simple technology.

      1. I’ve long said that they should limit the teams to specific numbers of specs per season of key aero parts, enough so that the development race is still part of the DNA of Formula 1 but less to close the gap between the haves that can bring a new front wing to every other race versus the have-nots that can only afford launch, Europe and Monza-spec wings whilst reducing the overall spend on aero.

        1. Didn’t mean to nest it above!

          But in answer, I’m guessing there’s big electric motors pushing fans, lots of cooling required, plus any computing off the back of the windtunnel tests and what sounds like a lot of opex to support.

        2. I’ve long said that they should limit the teams to specific numbers of specs per season of key aero parts

          So it is like the engine tokens all over again?

          wings whilst reducing the overall spend on aero

          It won’t, you think Ferrari or Red Bull wont spend the exact same amount of money making sure whatever their next spec of wing is is as good as they can make it?

        3. This sounds like a revised version of the Token System, which simply made it easier for those “who had” to keep ahead of those “who didn’t have”.
          The problem with limiting teams to a certain number of updates per season is say a team has a problem, e.g. like Williams currently do, that problem probably isn’t caused by one element of the aerodynamics that is failing, it is probably a consequence of many inefficiencies. Even if there was just one problem in the aerodynamics, e.g. say the plastic bag that recently caught on Bottas’ front wing was a design flaw, the problem might not be noticed straight away, it may take months to be noticed. So to get good downforce performance they need to find and fix each inefficiency.
          From what I’ve read (including comments by the Anonymous One) it seems the aerodynamics are so complex teams don’t do a complete redesign of their car’s aerodynamics at the end of each season. Instead they use the current design as the foundation for the new season. Unfortunately, this does have the effect that inefficiencies, especially unidentified inefficiencies, can perpetuate from one season to the next.
          As it is, there are 20 or so Grands Prix, each with 3 practice sessions, plus some in season testing sessions (which might require the team to not use their regular drivers), to which teams can bring parts to be tested. I know that sounds a lot, but I suspect teams would say it isn’t because once they’ve tested the newly designed part (which is probably the first time they’ve been able to test it in full size, wind tunnel testing is limited to smaller scale parts) they then have to revert to the old part in the hope they can get some comparable results, which might be inconclusive, and then they have to remove all the Pitot tubes, other aerodynamic measuring equipment, and special dyes they’ve put on to the car, and get ready for the race.

    10. Great article and good to read, as always.

      One thing I still cant get is the comparison to F1 cars and their relevance to road cars. If you look at the performance different between and F1 car and F2 car there is daylight- but if you compare the cost between the two based on lap time, the F1 car is a very uneconomical beast in cost- the gap in price is huge.

      When F1 technology travels down to road cars, that’s good. But it shouldn’t be why F1 exists- it should be the best of the best. I don’t like how aero dominates F1 either, so its a hard one.

      Ferrari, Merc, Renault sell cars, Red Bull an energy drink, Williams and McLaren just racers- hard dynamic to please. Work than one out your are smarter than Einstein, but Ross will work it out.

      1. Williams and McLaren are not just racers, look up Williams Advanced Engineering and Williams Hybrid Power, and, McLaren Automotive. Haas Automation is and engineering firm specialising in cnc machines.

        The odd team out is Point Racing.

    11. You are not answering the question!

      This passage does hint at an answer:
      > Because other performance differentiating technologies are either standardised (tyres) or
      > tightly controlled (engines, transmissions, electronics), aerodynamics potentially provide
      > the greatest untapped performance area.

      Why not standardise aero and let teams innovate in the other areas?

      1. Yep, also disappointed with this article. The question is very good, and the article doesn’t provide an answer.

    12. Sometimes I think a lot of us “fans” don’t understand what formula 1 racing is all about. The fact that its both on and off track. The problem is that the sport and some teams except maybe mercedes (through their youtube channel) have failed to communicate the developments, the decisions behind the development and strategy over the race weekends. This is mainly due to intellectual property, and I get that, but picture an f1 weekend were you can see what and why the teams make the decisions pre, during and post race in detail where they are at the factory in terms of development.
      There is a reason why the cheaper spec series with “close” racing have not made anywhere near as much or have a fan base as big as F1s. F1 has a unique selling point, the fastest, most technologically advanced racing series and we should never lose sight of that and all the stakeholders should protect the brand.
      Also it seems we have a lot of keyboard aerodynamicists and engineers who seem to have the magic bullet to solve f1’s “racing” problem by banning wings whilst having 1000 bhp engines in the back. I call them F1 populists and the people running the sport should not be influenced by them.

    13. road relevence has gone now. France and Belgium have reduced their National speed limits to 43 and 50mph. Fast loud cars will also bring them down in other countries.
      Also imagine if electric car manufacturers had a token system holding back motor development.

    14. Vince Shayer
      9th April 2019, 15:15

      The main reason is actually quite simple.

      It’s an Open wheel race format.

      Open wheel racing etiquette is non contact as the wheels become a danger if they touch. This creates an intense skill to maintain close racing but not to touch. This is why we like F1.

      The downside is that open wheel race cars are by design aerodynamically inefficient. The open wheels generate lots of unwanted turbulence. All the aero development over the past multiple decades have dealt with this within their own designs with the disregard for the following car. Even simple wings are effected by following close and the overall design even if a simple once cannot steer the air around the turbulent wheels. Compare this with closed wheel racing like LeMans or a regular sports series like GT and you see much closer racing. Open wheels and aero is an inherent flaw.

      To add to this i think the Tire spec needs improvement, something more like Michelin in the LeMans series which is more raceable thought the cycle of the tire, even if it scrubs with areo loss when chasing you can still push on them over and over. At the moment you get one or two goes and then the tires are done.

      1. Great to know the reason is simple. Shame you didn’t say which reason it is, though.

    15. Something they should maybe look at considering which I don’t think they currently are is to get some driver feedback in terms of the 2021 regulations because a fear I know some have is that there going to end up with a car that may very well race well but which isn’t all that fun to drive.

      For example if you look at GP2. The first generation of GP2 car used from 2005-2007 was heavily reliant on ground effects & was a great little car when it came to the racing.. But the drivers never really enjoyed driving it because it understeered horribly, felt sluggish & was horrible in low speed corners due to the ground effects not been that effective at slow speeds.
      This is the reason that they backed away from ground effects for the gen 2 & subsequent cars & drivers who had driven both Gen 1 & 2 universally said they preferred the gen 2 because they felt more satisfying to drive.

      Even looking at Indycar which made a big deal over moving towards ground effects, They have backed away from that to a degree & the car as it is now relies on the wings far more than was originally intended because drivers were not as universally positive on the initial design with a lot of the same complaints as the gen 1 GP2 car.

      I know that the general focus now is more on just having cars that race better, But they shouldn’t do that at the expense of cars that drivers don’t enjoy driving. Look at the situation with the tires, High degredation tyres created crazy races but the drivers hate how much management is required due to how less satisfying it is & how far below there limits they end up driving.

      Just something to think about maybe.

      1. @gt-racer A great point. I have always disliked hearing when drivers have been sidelined from giving their input and when they have also complained about not enjoying driving the cars. Hopefully at this level of racing, being the pinnacle, the 2021 cars will be enjoyable to drive and the drivers will enjoy the close battles that should ensue. I suspect we won’t know until they are actually racing them in anger in Australia 2021. Of course 2021 is not going to be the end of the developments as that never stops.

      2. @gt-racer: The drivers are just jockeys. Ask Seb.

      3. Tut tut, imagine spending your whole weekend having to drive a car that was no fun, and all for a lousy $1million or so.

      4. @gt-racer, to that end, Alonso has also recently commented that, having tested the new IndyCar, he also believes that their new chassis has actually made it harder to follow another car in some cases.

    16. I too believe road relevance is a bonus not the goal to achieve when we consider f1. Also, after years investing in all kind of aerodynamic related departments, wind tunnels, cfd, etc, F1 has created a monster no one can get rid of. I believe that the only way to solve this issue is a full reset of rules ( a la Stefan Johansson proposal a month ago) Even if not all points he highlighted are doable, this will change all this aero nonsense we see today, where a single inlet from a tiny portion of the car could have more than 30 people working full time and spending millions on it. He proposes to slash aerodynamics all around and emphasizes on more freedom on energy output from engines, so resources could be reallocated in more meaningful ways than on aerodynamics.

      1. @mmertens, Stefan’s proposal didn’t really come across as being that workable, or even intended to be that workable in practise – indeed, I suspect that he had no intention of sorting out how it would work in practise. It came across much more as a nostalgic vision designed to appeal to middle aged men who resent the fact that the world has moved on from what it was like in their youth and want to retreat to a romanticised fantasy that caters to them.

    17. @mmertens If you wanna run cars as expensive as F1 its all about fooling people its road relevant to secure funding. They run these crazy “power units” thats even more expensive than the aero and its all because they can tag it as green and road relevant.
      Most constructors are making their “hypercar projects” trying to show how road relevant their aero is.

    18. Because it’s about maintaining the status quo. They don’t *really* want an upstart budget team with a Cosworth V10 IC engine to compete with Ferrari and Mercedes, because of a spec front wing cutting out 30% of a spending advantage.

    19. georgeboole (@)
      9th April 2019, 22:18

      From what I m reading ground effect will be good for high speed turns and following each other closely but wings and other aero stuff will be good at lower speed corners and won’t let a car follow the other easily.
      So if we keep both how will the following car be able to use either of them? We already know wings are almoat useless when following with the current air flow so they will be less useless with the new regulations. Ground effect needs air to perform too. How will they be getting the required amount of air when following closer?
      I m bot an engineer but it looks rather confusing to me. Unless I tottaly got the concept wrong.
      But I know ground effects were banned previously for a reason. And that was safety. So I still don’t get it.
      I m sure there are materminds working there and can find a solution to make racing better.

    20. The proposed solution (clip embedded) for 2021 is worrisome as it will make the cars even more look alike.

      My suggestion is simple to a point of being overly simplistic: Outside of the ground effects (diffuser, floor vanes, etc…) allow each manufacturer a set amount of square footage for all the aero add-ons, such as wings, barge boards, tail fins, etc….The amount of square footage to be set small. E.g, 2.5 square meters. Then each team decides how much of this area to use in front wings, rear wings, barge boards, etc…

      The aero-dependence for performance has to be curtailed. It is hurting the racing big time.

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