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History of Aerodynamics

By Allianz
March 30 2003

Apart from the development of tyres, it is the aerodynamics which offer the best potential in Formula 1 for winning a few decisive tenths of a second. Therefore, the designers devote an enormous amount of effort taming the airflow and generating downforce – just as their predecessors did, when this quest first started 35 years ago with the first wings of the Formula 1 cars.

 Evolution of aerodynamics
Apart from the development of tyres, it is the aerodynamics which offer the best potential in Formula 1 for winning a few decisive tenths of a second. Therefore, the designers devote an enormous amount of effort taming the airflow and generating downforce – just
as their predecessors did, when this quest first started 35 years ago with the first wings of the Formula 1 cars.

Nine-hundred and twenty-eight metres straight ahead, past the gigantic palm-tree grandstand at 310 kph, through the hairpin bend and then, back to the start-finish straight. A look at the most spectacular section of the Sepang Circuit, which was inaugurated in 1999, seems to support the suspicion that this race will be decided by high speeds. Yet, if the spectator goes on to watch how the cars weave through a series of slow, medium-speed and virtually full-throttle corners, it soon becomes clear that that thought has long been out of date. In Formula 1 there are no simple solutions and Sepang is definitely the best example of that; the key is to design and to set up the cars so that they can compete on the straights and resist the lateral centrifugal cornering forces as effectively as possible.
Graphic courtesy of Allianz Click on image for larger version

Formula 1 faces a big aerodynamic dilemma and, at every race, a new challenge. The problem can not be solved by brute force – there is no single set-up which works perfectly at every track. The true art of modern Formula 1 racing is to come closer to perfection than the competition can. The shape of the cars is honed on the computer, in the wind tunnel and on the racetrack; and the wings and wind deflectors have to conform just as much as the diffuser on the rear underbody of the car. Everything is done to channel the airflow as perfectly as possible and to create the maximum amount of downforce.

Nowadays, aerodynamics is a question of attending to the tiniest detail. An air-duct panel (or barge-board) between the front wheel and the side panel can add more speed than an engine with two or three extra horsepower. The aerodynamics are the most important factor in the design of a Formula 1 car. The path to this discovery is lined with daredevil experiments, revolutionary inventions and new technological developments. Even so, in the early years of motor racing, the term ‘aerodynamics’ was rather an unfamiliar concept; the front of the car was a bluff obstacle and therefore the cars generated lift rather than
downforce. As a result, many of the early designs were soon ‘gone with the wind’...

In the beginning – 1968 – it was not possible to precisely calculate the forces generated by the oncoming airflow, so the teams had to progress by trial and error; as a result, the front and rear spoilers (or aerofoils), which were fitted on delicate struts, kept breaking off… Formula 1’s governing body reacted by stipulating that the spoilers would have to be
fitted directly onto the rear of the car in 1969.

A stroke of genius by the great designer and founder of Lotus, Colin Chapman, in 1972 showed the way ahead for Formula 1. Chapman designed the Lotus 72 with a pointed ‘shovel’ nose and a nose-cone in the form of a wedge, and the radiators were fitted into sidepods. This also had the effect of moving the car’s centre of gravity toward the rear. Lotus promptly won both the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ World Championships. Thanks to its revolutionary aerodynamics, the Lotus drove 15 kph faster on the straights than its predecessor with the same engine power.

It was Colin Chapman again who introduced another design breakthrough in 1977/78. The Lotus 78 featured inverted wings which generated downforce, so naturally the car was soon dubbed the ‘Wing Car’. The side-skirts on the side of the Lotus were virtually flush with the asphalt, this created a vacuum which pressed the car on to the track and allowed incredibly high cornering speeds. Success followed quickly: in 1978 the Lotus driver, Mario Andretti, won the World Championship.

The so-called ‘ground-effect era’ lasted until 1982. Even before the 1981 season, the FIA had banned for safety reasons the use of movable sideskirts on the underside of Formula 1 cars, in order to increase the ground clearance and thus reduce the cornering speeds. In 1983, the flat-bottom regulation came into force, which prohibited all aerodynamic aids that generated downforce on the underside of the cars. The cars were then given narrower designs again, so the developers began to turn their attentions to small aerodynamic details.

In the 1990s, aerodynamics definitively became the central issue in Formula 1 development. The most significant innovations included, for instance, the front trim of the Tyrrell in 1990; Harvey Postlethwaite succeeded in guiding the air around the underbody and the radiators far more efficiently. In 1987, Team Lotus introduced active suspension, which guaranteed an unchanged, ideal flow angle, but it wasn’t until 1991’s Williams FW14 that active suspension started to make a real impact in F1.

The FIA reacted to the inventive spirit of the engineers with further restrictions designed to reduce the aerodynamic efficiency and so ensure lower cornering speeds and greater safety. In 1994, all electronic aids, including active suspension, were banned following the tragic San Marino Grand Prix. However, the designers keep on successfully compensating for these restrictions with new innovations and continued development.

By 1998, there had been experiments with numerous different wing variants: for instance, Tyrrell used the so-called X-wings (winglets mounted on stilts on the sidepods) and many teams introduced winglets (small additional wings fitted to the outsides of the rear wings). At the same time, the FIA made drastic changes to the regulations (narrower cars, grooved tyres) which meant that the aerodynamicists had to find new ways to win the battle against the wind.

Most teams now possess their own wind tunnel, where they usually work roughly 3600 hours (150 days) per year. In modern wind-tunnels, the airflows are made visible by laser, because nowadays, it is more important than ever to give the car a perfect balance with a set-up suited to all the features of the race track. “The design has to ensure that there is a maximum level of downforce at all times,” says Max Nightingale, Head of Vehicle Dynamics at Williams. “A sort of dynamic downforce is important to keep the car balanced all the time – on fast straights, or in fast or slow corners.”

As the 2003 season begins, the occasional unconventional wing has been sighted on the test tracks. However, given the current state of technology, it is unlikely that there will be any revolutionary new developments like in the 1960s and 1970s. The dilemma still exists; the aerodynamicists are now relying on steady evolution rather than revolution because they know that in Formula 1, finding just an extra hundredth of a second or two per lap might be enough to win.

In contrast to Formula 1, there is no need to make production passenger cars a fraction of a second faster, but the air resistance is still a primary concern for passenger car aerodynamicists. It is a fact that a car’s driving performance depends on its aerodynamic performance; it influences fuel consumption, top speed and, to a lesser extent, acceleration. All of these are decisive features when buying a car. Passenger cars can certainly learn a great deal from Formula 1, especially in terms of safety.

Dr. Christoph Lauterwasser, a safety expert from the Allianz Centre for Technology says: “In general, the driving stability decreases as the speed increases. A force perpendicular to the direction of travel, referred to as lift, results from the airflow over the top and underside of the car’s body. As a rule, this lift is in the positive range in passenger cars: it pushes upwards and tries to raise the car, so relieving the stress on the wheels and this impairs the stability of the car in the direction of travel. A car remains easy to control if it has little lift and well-balanced lift distribution. If they are adapted properly to the car, aerodynamic accessories such as front and rear spoilers can help to provide better driving stability and, at times, they can even reduce the air resistance.”

Spoilers or wings are fitted as standard above all on super sports-cars, where the generally flat and relatively wide design leads to considerable downforce, but at the expense of the car’s air resistance. Strong downforce is a crucial safety aspect, especially when taking on curvy roads, where it can help to stabilise road-holding. But also for “normal” vehicles, there are special equipment packages for aerodynamic optimisation, which are offered by most manufacturers. These packages include front and rear aprons, side sills or rear spoilers.

Low consumption, more safety; the decisive advantages of good aerodynamics mean that superfluous decorations have very little chance of being featured in the modern design of passenger cars. Elements such as rear fins, which were popular in the USA in the 1950s but also widespread in Europe, have been consigned to the past. In contrast, the development departments of car manufacturers are constantly trying to achieve lower drag values.

Design studies already exist in which the air resistance of current passenger cars has been halved. So the cars of the future will have even less air resistance and lower fuel consumption – to the benefit of the customers. Moreover, they will also possess a comprehensive aerodynamic concept, generating downforce to improve driving stability and to increase safety.


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