Half-Baked Ideas: How to Fix Formula One

I am a motor racing junkie. I came late to the sport, but it really put its hooks into me some years back. Since then, many valuable hours on summer Saturdays and Sundays have been spent watching races from all over the globe. I watch the big, well-known races (the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Indianapolis and Daytona 500s), and also races that only those who have caught the racing bug watch (the Pau Grand Prix, Bathurst 1000, 12 Hours of Sebring). One racing league has captured my fascination more than any other, and that’s Formula One.

Formula One bills itself as the pinnacle of motorsport — the best drivers driving the fastest cars. It’s debatable. Drag racers and Indy cars go faster in a straight line, but nothing gets around a twisty lap faster than a Formula One car, except when an LMP1 car does it. Confused already? That’s okay. Trying to keep all the minutiae of racing sorted in one’s head is a fool’s errand. Just know that some of the best race car drivers in the world drive in Formula One, and the best teams spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year (not a misprint), designing and building custom, bespoke cars for these drivers to use.

Unlike many other racing leagues, where the cars are all the same model, each car in Formula One is custom to the team. They are built to a set of rules provided by the sport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). The rules have changed often throughout the history of the sport. The rules these days work at cross-purposes sometimes, but one thing the FIA has been trying to do for decades is develop rules to allow closer following. What in the world does that mean? Bear with me.

Back in the 1960s, F1 cars didn’t have much in the way of aerodynamics. Cars were simple and light. To drive a car from back then was to sit in a machine that only had a passing relationship to grip. Drivers would have to brake early and slide around corners. Then someone got the bright idea of putting upside-down aerofoils on cars, thereby providing downforce instead of lift, and drivers found they could get around corners faster. Ever since then, F1 has been a competition among the teams to see who has the best downforce.


Lotus 49 & Lotus 49C
Left: The Lotus 49, a title winning car with little in the way of downforce. Right: The updated 49C. The same car, but with wings bolted on to generate downforce.

Downforce is all about air — how it presses down on and flows around the car. At high speeds, air has a weight to it that is substantial. Designers spend a lot of time in computer simulations and wind tunnels working out how the shape of the car affects downforce. They work to create a car that uses as much of the air around it as possible to press the tires into the asphalt while cornering. The result are cars that, believe it or not, create so much downforce that they could drive upside-down on the roof of a tunnel at high speeds. No one has tried to confirm that, however.

One flaw every single F1 car has had for fifty years, now, is that the cars are designed to run in clean air. That is, the aerodynamics work best when there is no other car in front creating turbulence. Turbulence disrupts the airflow over the car, reducing downforce. So, while following another car, a driver finds they can’t get close enough to pass because their car just doesn’t work as well, anymore. That means that leading cars have a performance advantage that didn’t used to exist before the introduction of aero. This has a negative effect on the quality of racing.

Once upon a time, that didn’t really matter. In decades past, performance gaps between cars were such that the effects of dirty air were small beans compared to things like engine performance. But in the last 30 years, gaps between the cars have tightened, making dirty air a serious problem. Meanwhile, F1 became a global brand, making close racing desirable from an entertainment perspective.

Only racing junkies don’t care about performance gaps. To the racing junkie, a race that has a grandstand finish is more entertaining than a half-lap blowout, sure, but the racing junkie also has deep appreciation for something like the 1988 F1 season. That year, McLaren had such a performance advantage that they won 15 out of the 16 races, and would have gotten the clean sweep if Ayrton Senna had not gotten punted off the track in Monza, Italy while leading the race late.

To maximize entertainment value, and to keep the league viable in a media environment where the competition has never been greater, the FIA has been struggling to come up with a ruleset that allows for close racing, and therefore more overtakes, during grand prix. Before the 2009 season, the FIA altered aero rules, banning much of the bits and doodads that had come to typify the cars. Here are two more images.

Sauber F1.08 & F1.09


The first is the BMW Sauber F1.08 from the 2008 season, whose designers really went nuts with the aero. The second image is the F1.09 from the following season. Underneath the bodywork, these are similar cars, but the difference in aero slowed the 2009 car down a few seconds a lap.

The simplified aero was intended to decrease the amount of turbulence in a car’s wake and make it easier for the trailing car to get close. It was a step forward, but didn’t do enough to address the performance advantage of a leading car.

Another idea the FIA implemented is the Drag Reduction System (DRS). This is a movable aero piece on the rear wing of the car that opens, reducing downforce, if the trailing car is within one second of the lead car. When the trailing car brakes into the corner, the wing closes, reestablishing downforce so the car doesn’t go spinning off the track. This system is designed so that cars can get close enough in a straight line to try and pass at the next corner, but does nothing to address the differing levels of downforce between a leading and trailing car while within the corner.

Racing purists tend to hate DRS. For one, it’s a departure from longstanding FIA rules that ban movable aero parts. For another, they say it gives a trailing car an unfair advantage over the leading car. The leading car got there on merit, the thinking goes. This ignores the fact that the leading car’s aero advantage has been unfair for decades. The leading car is making the performance of the car behind it worse, and DRS is meant to address that. That’s why I support DRS, but I think the concept of movable aero parts hasn’t gone far enough.

The darling of advocates for close racing has been ground effect aero. Unlike wings on the upper body of the car, ground effect uses the underside of the car to speed up airflow, thereby reducing air pressure underneath the car, increasing downforce on the top of the car. F1 teams went all-in on this concept in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but it was banned. It was ahead of its time, outstripping car designers’ pace to use it consistently and safely. Now that some decades have passed, advocates say it is time to let the teams have another go at ground effect, the idea being that since ground effect cars generate downforce from underneath the car, they can get rid of all the aero bits on top of the car that have been causing the worst turbulence. The problem with this is that the FIA’s own Overtaking Working Group (that’s how seriously they’re taking the problems of trailing cars — they have a committee) put a lot of time into studying ground effect, and they determined that it would increase the gaps between cars rather than decrease it.

So, if ground effect can’t be used, and simplifying the aero doesn’t go far enough, that leaves more movable aerodynamics as a possible solution.

It took thirteen-hundred words to get here, but it was necessary. I wouldn’t have had to spend that many words on context were this post about baseball. Anyway, here’s the half-baked idea:

Like DRS, which a driver activates when trailing a leading car by less than one second, providing a higher top speed on straights, cornering needs something similar. Reducing downforce would be silly in a corner, but a movable aero piece that increases downforce, compensating for the decrease caused by turbulence, might work.

The idea would go something like this. Every car has two sets of aero. The first is for clean air driving. But when a car gets within a certain distance of the car in front, some of the aero pieces tilt around on actuators, and a different aero setup is engaged — one that produces more downforce. Teams would be required to design and set up two types of aero, which is no easy task, but nothing about what they do is.

It doesn’t have to be a super-complicated system, either. Tilting the front wing in a corner might be enough to compensate for the turbulent air. Working out range limits for component movement would be something the FIA would have to work out over multiple seasons, enduring endless howls of protest, but if the problem facing trailing cars is less available downforce in corners, changing the shape of the car to account for that seems like a good option.

It would be complicated, but that’s kind of what car designers live for. It would cost money to develop, which is always a problem in F1. It would also produce unintended consequences, but every rule that F1 has ever adopted has done that. The fact is, there is a problem in F1, and no solution has so far adequately addressed it.

Over time a system like this could end up being an indispensable part of high-end motorsports. The specter of movable aerodynamics is that teams will want to move to full-on active aero systems, like one sees on supercars. This is supposedly bad for the sport but no one has been able to convince me why, other than associated costs.

Admittedly, the system I describe, with aero having two possible states, is a half-measure when fully adjustable aero is already out there on consumer automobiles. But it would represent a leap forward for F1, and they always like to pretend that they’re developing road-relevant tech. Most importantly, it would address an issue that has dogged F1, and other racing leagues, for decades.

I’m not an aerodynamicist, and that’s why this is a half-baked idea.

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