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?
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.
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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