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The Evolution Of Aerodynamics In Formula One

Formula 1 has evolved rapidly since its inception in 1950. Teams have one goal and that is to be the fastest car on the track. Due to the highly competitive nature of the sport, F1 has a very strict set of sporting regulations which manufacturers have to navigate and abide by. Designers push the boundaries of what is permissible, often coming up with ingenious designs.

Aerodynamics is one of the most important aspects of motor racing, and it has become even more crucial as engineers employ new technology to clinch the constructors' championship. We explore how aerodynamics has changed throughout the history of the sport.

The Origin: 1950s

There are two ways in which Formula 1 cars generate grip to stay on the track at break-neck speeds:

● Through mechanical grip created by the tires and suspension.

● The other is through downforce generated by wings.

Back in the day, race cars relied very little on aerodynamics. Instead, the focus was placed on generating mechanical grip through engine power and mechanical grip.

Wind Tunnel Technology

The late 1960s into the 1970s saw the revolutionary wind tunnel technology. Wind tunnels would allow teams to see how air would flow around their vehicle, giving designers huge insights into what was and wasn’t working. Lotus was the first team to use wind tunnels to develop the Lotus 49B. Due to the limitation of wind tunnel testing facilities, teams had to schedule testing sessions ahead of time often at quite the price tag.

Downforce: Wings

In the 1970s front and rear wings were introduced to race car design. Similar to an aircraft that uses its wings to create lift, F1 cars use wings to generate downforce, pushing them into the track. This force helps the car stick to the track allowing the driver to corner at higher speeds.

With the addition of wings, came ‘ground effects’ where the airflow underneath the car could be harnessed through aerodesign. The changes to the floor of the car would create low pressure, sucking the car onto the track. This design would give F1 cars a dramatic increase in grip.

More Speed: Turbo Introduction in the 1980s

As time went on, engineers were coming up with new ideas and creations to propel their respective teams forward to build championship-winning cars. The introduction of the turbo-powered engine meant that F1 cars were even faster than in previous years. Teams move away from naturally aspirated engines to these horsepower-generating machines. This newfound speed created a need for even more grip that resulted in more drag.

These new challenges of balancing straight-line speed with cornering grip led constructors back to the drawing board. The solution was to find aero packages that reduced the drag on the race car down the straights while maintaining enough downforce through corners.

Along with the introduction of turbochargers, came the active suspension which allowed the suspension to be adjusted by a computer-controlled hydraulic system during a race.

Regulation Changes in the 1990s

The 1990s saw changes to regulations as safety is always the number one priority. Active suspension and ground effects were banned in Formula 1. The ban sent teams back to the drawing board in an attempt to design around the new rules without losing any speed advantage that they had gained. This saw innovations such as:

● Barge boards served the purpose of smoothing the turbulence created by the front wing.

● Smaller front wings produced less aerodynamic drag resulting in faster straight line speeds.

Raising The Bar: Wind Tunnel Technology, late 90s to 2000s

The late 1990s to 2000s was an exciting era in Formula 1 for car designers and engineers. It marked the introduction of computational fluid dynamics (CFDs) with the use of wind tunnel technology. Teams were now able to create computer-generated models and test their cars' aerodynamic design. This was an effective method as teams could test as many times as they wished making adjustments to the design along the way saving them time and money. This led to a major jump in aerodynamic technology and packages on the race cars.

Going Greener: Hybrids in the 2010s

2014 was the year when hybrid power units were introduced. Teams experienced large reductions in engine power. Aerodynamic design and efficiency were imperative to compensate for the lost power in the cars. Designers had to carefully consider cooling the power units, this meant that air flow had to be redirected to cool the engine. Exhausts had to be reconfigured to fit the rear end of the car ensuring that exhaust emissions did not interfere with the airflow over the car.

Where Are We Now?

Formula 1 is as popular as ever, not just on the track but also in everything from online pokies games to eSports. But the future of F1 with new regulations and laws is an ever-changing landscape that is quite complex. In the 2023 season, we saw restricted budgets and wind tunnel testing time.

As we await a full breakdown of the regulations, restrictions and bans set for 2024 and 2025 leading us into a new era of Formula 1 in 2026; all that is known is that the cars are set to be shorted and lighter which will have significant consequences to their design.

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