Formula 1’s 5 Most Iconic Aerodynamic Designs

For decades now, Formula 1 has been entrenched in a war of aerodynamic development. The smallest winglet or strake in just the right position can completely change the balance and behaviour of a modern F1 car. This has escalated such that we now have regulations in place to physically restrict wind tunnel and CFD time allowed.

Aerodynamics may be at the forefront of F1 discussion these days but in truth, it’s always been playing on the engineer’s mind. Here are 5 of the biggest steps taken in F1’s quest for aerodynamic supremacy.

Streamlining

Streamlining to reduce drag gave early Formula 1 cars, such as this Maserati 250F, their distinct shape

It’s easy to look back on the early days of F1 as just putting the most powerful engine in the lightest frame possible. While there was some truth in that, there was always another common goal: make it as tightly packaged as possible. Vacuuming the metalwork around the chassis gave early single-seaters their distinctive cigar shape, reducing the effect of aerodynamic drag as they pushed through the air. However, newcomer to the sport, Mercedes-Benz, was about to exploit a surprising loophole. You see, while it may seem alien today, F1 cars never had to be open-wheelers.

The German team made their mark in 1954 with their straight-8 powered Silver Arrow, the W196. This fearsome challenger would go on to claim the titles in ’54 and ’55 with the help of its “Type Monza” bodywork. This was a trick taken from their pre-war days; going toe-to-toe with the fearsome 16 cylinder Auto Unions at tracks like the insane AVUS autobahn circuit. Specialised streamliner bodywork encased the racer, enclosing the wheels in the name of top speed.

The enclosed body of the low drag W196 cars gave them the look of a contemporary endurance racers. (Wikimedia Commons)

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This bodywork was only fitted at the very high speed circuits: Reims, Silverstone and, of course, Monza. While the bumpy Silverstone airfield circuit proved to be unsuitable for the aluminium cloak, the remaining events allowed it to shine. The ultra-high average speeds made possible by the cut in drag completely eliminated the weight penalty. This was partnered to a chassis and engine designed to a blank cheque, with drivers including Juan Manuel Fangio, Sir Stirling Moss and Karl Kling behind the wheel.

The indomitable crew hit a 75% win rate across it 2-year tenure. The unique bodies didn’t last long, however. The disaster at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans drove Mercedes out of motorsport entirely, taking their striking streamliners with them. It would take more than 3 decades for them to return to factory-backed competition.

Aerofoils

The early emergence of load-generating aerodynamics, seen here on the Lotus 49B at Zandvoort. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the following years, the mid-engine revolution gripped Formula 1. The success of the “garagistes” brought a new focus on low-weight and agility. Whilst introducing the DFV to the sport in 1967 had made Lotus arguably the team to beat, they had lost their exclusive right to the powerplant come the season’s end. Their engine advantage gone, the ever inventive Colin Chapman decided to experiment with inverted aerofoils, and introduced them on the updated 49B at the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix.

Lotus were not the first ever to use wings on a race car. That honour goes to Michael May’s Porsche 550 Spyder entered into the 1956 Nürburgring 1000km. Aerofoils were then popularised by multiple Chaparral Can-Am and endurance racers. Lotus were the first to introduce them to Grand Prix cars, though, adding a small pair of winglets to the nosecone partnered with a heavily sculpted cowling on the rear deck.

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The inevitable one-upmanship soon followed, as Ferrari and Brabham brought full width wings to Spa. Lotus responded by mounting their counterpart directly to the rear suspension uprights. They even introduced a variant at Mexico featuring active aerodynamics: the driver controlling the pitch of the wing via a 4th pedal, reducing its angle of attack and improving top speed. In a way, this was a precursor to the DRS system we see today.

This 1969 McLaren M7C shows how out of hand the race for downforce was getting. (Wikimedia Commons)

This all came to a head during the following season’s Spanish round. High wings now featured on both the front and rear suspension throughout the grid. However, the rough Montjuïc circuit exposed flaws in the design, as both Lotus cars suffered catastrophic failures when the wings folded and collapsed under the weight of their own downforce. This was the final straw, as many teams had previously suffered failure of the slender wing supports or the suspension components they mounted to. A total revision of the rules introduced wings to their modern form: comparatively low, mounted to the sprung chassis only.

Side-mounted Radiators

Despite continued updates with various aerodynamic addendum, it was clear the Lotus 49 had reached its limit after 3 years of service. This was exaggerated by Lotus losing a year plunging down the dead end that was the four-wheel-drive 63. Their eventual replacement would more than make up for it though, if not being the immediate groundbreaker its predecessor had been.

Lotus 72 (left) at the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix, its debut year. You can clearly see how the lack of a front mounted radiator allowed a much narrower front end compared to its contemporaries. (Wikimedia Commons)

Moving the radiators to the side of the car seems an almost inconsequential change to bring up. In reality, this is probably the most significant change on this list. With nothing left to package, the nose of the 72 could adopt the trademark wedge shape, improving the efficiency of the front winglets while also reducing drag. The considerable mass of the cooling system being moved to the middle of the car had similar benefits to the mid-engine concept as a whole, just on a smaller scale.

Debuting at Round 2 of the season, the car didn’t find immediate success, as its radical anti-squat and anti-dive suspension needed considerable refinement. Drivers also complained of the steering lacking feel, a byproduct of there being minimal vehicle weight on the front tyres. These complaints soon stopped when the drivers saw just what this car was capable of. Jochen Rindt was able to make the most of his steed, taking 4 straight wins on the way to his infamous posthumous title. Emerson Fittipaldi would secure the cars final win for its debut year at his home Grand Prix.

Later evolution of the 72, here in E specification, complete with ram-induction high airbox. (Wikimedia Commons)

Lotus had quite rightly stuck to their guns by continuing development of their new car, but it would shock most competitors with just how long they would do so. The car, upgraded to “D” specification in 1972, would bring Lotus a second constructors title since it’s introduction, with the aforementioned Fittipaldi taking his first F1 driver’s title. Lotus still weren’t done with this car though, eventually retiring it in “F” spec at the close of the 1975 season.

Ground Effect

Probably the most famous aero development in Formula 1, and once again we turn to Lotus for it’s introduction. The ground effect phenomenon was something of an accidental discovery. The team at the time were looking to use upward ejected heat from the radiators to produce downforce.

However, repeated usage of the wind tunnel model caused its sidepods to sag down, with the equipment registering a lower pressure between the deformed panel and the road surface. This was drastically improved when a side panel was put in place to prevent the low pressure flow escaping.

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The curved underside of the sidepod acted the same way as a conventional wing, accelerating the airflow to reduce its pressure and suck the car to the ground. But being much larger than a conventional wing, it produced much more downforce, yet with a lower drag penalty.

This design was introduced on Lotus’ now famous 78, debuting at the 1977 season. It could have been readied sooner, but Chapman withheld the design to prevent his competitors being able to design a counterpart during the off-season. Further improving the new car’s performance was the addition of spring loaded rubber skirts. These were forced into the tarmac to seal the area under the sidepod, performing the same role as endplates on a wing and keeping the low pressure air from escaping.

While the car was doubtless a quantum leap forward aerodynamically, it was by no means perfect. The downforce generated by the ground effect was biased too far forward, meaning a large rear wing was required for aerodynamic balance and negating the low drag advantage of the new technology. Experimental Cosworth engines produced to fight the drag of the wing also proved unreliable. On its day though, the car was almost untouchable.

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The car would evolve into the 79 for the following season, with the venturi tunnels now exiting between the rear wheels, rather than ahead of them. This stabilised the aerodynamics, making the large rear wing obsolete and allowing the engine to return to a more conservative state of tune. With the car refined, Mario Andretti would take his Driver’s crown, with Lotus unsurprisingly dominating the constructors championship.

The ultimate evolution of Lotus’s concept, complete with the sliding skirts that helped it produce downforce so effectively. (Wikimedia Commons)

High Nose

The success of the ground effect design would eventually lead to its own downfall. Skirts were banned to reduce speeds, particularly with the takeoff of turbocharging. As a countermeasure, teams took to running the cars with hugely stiff springs to keep ride height as low as possible, battering the drivers. For 1983, FISA called time on the design, regulating all cars to feature a flat floor.

While the shaped profiles were outlawed, the floor is still an exploitable area aerodynamically. Simply having a low ride height creates a similar effect to ground effect cars, but to a lesser degree. Any gain here would also be aided by much improved diffuser designs, as these had become increasingly intricate and effective.

Tyrrell unveiled their new 019 chassis, with its highly distinctive nose at the 1990 San Marino Grand Prix. The nosecone was elevated far above the track surface, with individual front wings reaching back down, leaving a clear tunnel to the floor. They had found the nosecone itself was causing more harm that good. Any air hitting the nose of the car would be deflected up towards the sidepods and rear wing, taking airflow away from the top surface of the front wings.

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There had been tentative experiments with high nose concepts the previous year as teams placed the front wing under the nosecone, then raised the entire assembly. However they stopped short of raising the bulkhead, as that was too much weight to elevate, which would harm the centre of gravity.

It didn’t take long for other teams to realise the aerodynamic potential of the raised nose. (Wikimedia Commons)

Tyrrell had discovered that the aerodynamic benefit of their design neutralised the CoG penalty, but reliability woes prevented them from capitalising on their advantage. The car excelled at low speed circuits, with rising star Jean Alesi taking podiums at Monaco and Phoenix. 1991 saw many of the grid follow the 019’s wheel tracks with their own variations on the concept, as it became clear that Tyrrell had been onto something. The concept is now inseparable from open wheel racers, and has even found its way into the design of closed cockpit endurance racers.

And that’s a wrap for Part 2! Be sure to check back soon for Part 3 where the chassis’ themselves will take centre stage!

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