Right, as F1 fans we’re pretty knowledgeable about racecraft, Formula 1 regulations, driver backstories and the race results for grand prix up to 25 years ago. But talking to a lot of fans, it’s become clear that many people don’t know what’s going on inside the vehicles. There’s a range of content on the net about the intricacies of a modern F1 car (including the amazingly wonderful scarbsf1), but most websites cater to fans who already know their way around a racecar. This new series of articles aims to give a basic overview of what’s going on in the car, and how the damn thing actually works.
I feel as though I should start with a disclaimer. I’m not an engineer, and I’ve never worked on a professional race car in my life, Heck, I’m an arts student! My highest qualification is driving the cars, Which isn’t very helpful at all. Fortunately, I paid attention during maths and physics, and was a little crazy with reading about cars, so I have a general idea about how they work!
I’ll start simple and go from there. F1 cars are upside down airplanes. Instead of the wings pushing the air downwards, Race aerodynamics involves pushing the air upwards, creating downforce. Going with Newton’s 3rd law; “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, the force of which air is pushed upwards from the car, is the same as the force of which the car is being pressed into the ground. A good example of this can be done easily yourself. Jump in your road car, and get the speed up to about 60 km/h. Once you hit the speed, wind down the window and stick your hand out into the air just like this guy here (without the crappy singing, don’t do that!).
The natural enemy, drag is basically the evil twin sister of downforce. Without going into specifics, drag is caused by objects moving fast through air (in the case of racecars), and causing an area void of air directly behind the object. The object (the racecar/wings) will find it hard to move through the air because of the friction caused by the air hitting the object. Flat objects that run perpendicular to the direction of travel/wind create more drag and ultimately slow the car down in a straight line. This is the primary reason of why RedBull was so strong in 2011. They had tremendous downforce (to help through the corners), but were causing large amounts of drag, hence why they were often the slowest through the speedtrap.
The engineers task each race weekend is to effectively find the sweet spot, between where there is enough downforce to create grip through the corners, and where the car is aerodynamic enough to slip through the air. At tracks like Suzuka and Hungaroring (where there are multiple high-speed corners), the team would bank up the wings and maximise the diffuser (diffuser’s are confusing, more on that later!). While at tracks like Monza and Shanghai (where there are massively long straights), the team would lean wings off and try to get the car to move through the air as smoothly as possible. In effect, Aerodynamic setup is a constant battle between Downforce and Drag, where each influence each other (apart from situations like at Indianapolis, but that’s a different story!).