What would a Formula 1 car be without grip?

The front wing produces downforce and keeps the car pressed to the track. Picture credit: commons.wikimedia.org/ Morio

F1 car engines typically put out about 750 horse power. Without track grip, controlling the car would be a huge task. F1 is a game in which even one thousandth of a second matters. To get ahead of the competition by even that much, aerodynamics is a big part of the game.  

There are two types of grip: mechanical and aerodynamic. Cars should have a good mix of both and that is the challenge for design engineers. 

Mechanical grip is purely provided by the tyres and suspension. Without mechanical grip, the car would be difficult to control at the corners. The car also needs to have good grip in the corners. If it does not, it would have to slow down considerably in order to stay on the track. If a car is slow in the corners, it obviously means the driver loses precious time and could even be overtaken.

Aerodynamic grip is required when the car is going fast on the straight parts of the track. The front and rear wings and bodywork provide this kind of grip. In simple terms, those weird pieces of carbon fibre jutting out from all parts of the body keep the car pinned to the track. If the car is kept firmly pressed to the track, there is less sliding around and the car is able to go faster in a straight line. This is called Ground Effect.

Designers spend a lot of time trying to get the aerodynamics right. Good car design makes the difference between a championship and back-of-the-grid contenders. Teams spend a lot of money in wind tunnel testing to improve the aerodynamic performance of the car. 

In fact, the International Automobile Federation’s (FIA) 2019 technical regulations see the front and rear wings and bargeboard being simplified. This is to aid overtaking and hopefully make races more exciting.

The first job of an aerodynamicist is to produces a car that has good downforce that pushes the car towards the ground for good cornering ability. The other challenge aerodynamicists have is to produce bodywork that has minimum drag. The car could be considerably slower if there is too much drag (or wind resistance impeding the forward movement of the car). 

The concept of aerodynamics and how much it helped began to be taken seriously in the late 1960s. Teams discovered that clever body and wing design could make use of varying air pressures above and below the car to keep it pressed down on the track. This is phenomenon of getting to keep the car pressed down is known as downforce. 

The middle part of the 1970s saw Lotus team engineers smartly designing the underside of the car so that the entire chassis was made to act like a huge wing. This kept the car pressed to the ground. 

The FIA currently has strict guidelines for the kind of bodywork that can be used to produce downforce. Around 60 percent of the downforce in an F1 car is produced by the front and rear wings. The floor of the car produces the rest of the downforce. 


Rear wing. Picture credit: commons.wikimedia.org/ Gil Abrantes

Monza (Italy) and Buddh International Circuit (India) can see cars going faster because of longer straights. These tracks need less wing area, while in a tight and twisty race like in Monaco, the wing area is bigger and more aggressive.

One of the cleverest implementations of the FIA rules was in the 2009 season. Famed designer Ross Brawn designed a double diffuser system on the Brawn GP team cars. The double diffusers (wings at the rear of the car that directed airflow downwards) were so effective that the team crushed the bigger names like Ferrari, Red Bull Racing and McLaren. Briton Jenson Button won the championship for drivers, while Brazilian Rubens Barrichello finished third. A lot of teams cried foul about the legality of the double diffuser design, but the FIA cleared it.

Ultimately, the point is that it takes just one smart piece of aerodynamic design to bulldoze the entire field.

With inputs from formula1.com

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What would a Formula 1 car be without grip?

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