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29 Oct 2017

Original artwork Jonas DeRo
The title sounds extremely ominous doesn’t it?.. Rather than a foreboding insight into a post-apocalyptic future, brought on by machines overthrowing their overlords it’s actually my first article on the impending changes that the sport we all love is going to go through in the not so distant future. That’s right guys, set your flux capacitors to 2021 as we do a Marty McFly and go back to the future, do our best to make a huge mess of things, spend an inordinate amount of time rectifying it and eventually change absolutely nothing,.

For all of its perceived failings Formula One attracts a huge audience, something many consider to be the side effect of gladiatorial style figures duking it out week after week around the globe. It’s a sentiment that seems to be held by the sports new owners - Liberty Media, who know that lifting the drivers up as idols makes marketing the sport a much easier prospect. The problem here lies in balancing that raw emotional prospect of warring factions with the engineering challenge that Formula One has always posed.

For me, as a technical analyst and someone driven by the intricacies of the sport a ‘dumbing down’ will be a bitter pill to swallow but I suspect that the team’s and engine manufacturers may also feel the same way. Afterall, Formula One is a high speed advertising board for many of the brands that exist within and they fight one another in order to show just how much better they are than their counterpart. Of course, I don’t disagree that long periods of domination by one team can be a turnoff, especially in an era where most people have the attention span of 140 characters or whatever length of video Snapchat is using these days. However, the heritage or DNA of the sport must be considered too and F1 is a team and engineering sport, always has been, always should be.

Thankfully Liberty Media have charged Ross Brawn with looking at and helping to shape the regulations that it’ll use in 2021, of which the Brit is amassing his own team of experts. Joining Brawn is Jason Somerville as head of aero, Craig Wilson as head of vehicle dynamics and Nigel Kerr as finance director.

As there are a huge number of factors in reshaping the sport I have decided to split this piece up into several articles, otherwise I suspect I’d lose your attention, given the total article borders somewhere around 6000 words. So, in this first sector (yup I went there) I’m going to cover aero.

Aero wake, DRS, homologation and ground effect

In terms of aero the question of quality over quantity has never rang more true since the sport made the almost universally detested addition of DRS. It’s a solution that was moreorless seized upon by the FIA, owing to McLaren and subsequently the rest of the fields implementation of the F-Duct in 2010. Afterall the aerodynamically stripped back racers of 2009 were heralded as the way forward when it came to resolving the difficulty that is faced in making racing close and improving overtaking opportunities.

As always there are numerous factors behind this failure, including but not limited to a delayed introduction of no in-race refueling, a return to slicks, the introduction of KERS and the double deck diffusers. All of these shape the bedrock of a race, from strategy, to weight and its distribution, to the wake generated by each and every car and how that affects a field of trailing cars.

All of the choices made for the aerodynamic regulations of that year were of sound reasoning -

  • Change the width and height of the rear wing, displacing its interaction with the diffuser and changing the car's wake profile, hopefully allowing a little more slipstreaming.
  • Widening the front wing to allow a physical barrier to the airflow across the face of the tyre, which would make wheel wake control more achievable
  • Introduction of a mandatory shape to the central section, which would limit the differential between each machine and give relatively similar flow structure to the rest of the car across the board.
  • Moveable front wing flap, allowing six degrees of motion twice a lap
  • Remove large bargeboards and aero flicks, reducing drag and the complicated aero wash they generate

The problem is that the teams, as they’re there to do, started to make huge downforce gains from long, stable, vortices created at the front of the car that helped to create rearward downforce too. These powerful vortices are primarily the reason you all blame the front wing for the issue of following another car and although you’re right to some degree, fundamentally it's the effect the loss the of these vortices have on surfaces downstream that are the key - Like a switch, turn off the front wing and you instantly lose rear performance too and that is what makes overtaking such a difficult aero problem as aero balance is lost during cornering.

(Therefore we need to look for ways to improve the front wings performance when trailing another car)

The 2017 regulations, intentionally or not have set about reversing some of these issues by taking away some of the front wings responsibilities, especially when it comes to generating downforce downstream. Of course, the wings are still overtly complex but at least this year we aren’t seeing an entire cottage industry spring up in order to design the various cascades, canards and flap angles to create complex and energetic vortices. Instead teams are focused on other areas of low-hanging fruit, such as the bargeboards and floor, as they’re given the freedom to manipulate the airflow more directly, taking some of the emphasis off the front wing.

They’ll likely return to the front wing in due course though, when in need of smaller gains that add up to an overall gain, after all nothing in F1 is new, just borrowed from somewhere or somewhen else. Perhaps then this would be a good time to re-regulate the area, give the fans what they want and strip the front wing of some of its faff? It may also be time to reevaluate a moveable front wing design, placing the responsibility and choice of how to follow another car in the drivers hands - not a gimmick but a driver aid.

Dare I mention it twice in an article? Screw it…. DRS - the Drag Reduction System is or has been a sticking plaster for F1 since 2010, one that fans and drivers cannot abide. “Destroying the purity of racing” is the line I see the most, as if there is such a thing, but in any case although I don’t find it abhorrent I do think it needs a drastic rethink - if not only to realign its image with you the fans. The issue for everyone from here to Abu Dhabi is that DRS is indefensible, such is the over speed that can be gained against a competitor. IF I were to have my way I’d change that and hopefully people's perceptions - making it a racing tool, be that strategic or for attack or defence.

For me the simple use for DRS, before what will eventually be a total removal of it (so say an introduction in 2019 and used up until 2021), is a limited use system. Rather than having to be within 1 second of a competitor at a detection point, you give drivers a set number of DRS uses per race and once they’re spent you’re done. That means it can be deployed in the given activation zones to give chase, to attack as it is now, as a form of defence, or strategically to improve laptime. This takes away the inevitability of a pass, could lead to some strategic cat and mouse and most importantly is less contrived, albeit not as pure as everyone would like but I’m still struggling to imagine an F1 that is ‘pure’.

If you’ve just choked on your coffee at my DRS suggestion then make sure you don’t take another gulp before going any further. One of the biggest spends in Formula One is the industry that has grown up around aerodynamics, a field that is entirely useless outside of many of the teams that run the solutions, let alone in the real world outside of the sport. This points me off down a path that many may disagree with but it might help, or hinder given your take on it, the issue of field spread. Now whilst swathes of fans seem interested by the notion of spec parts it’s not something I’m overly keen on, as it takes away a team's ability to differentiate itself from the rest.

However, I’m not adverse to an idea used in other forms of motorsport and in other areas of F1 - homologation. Imagine that teams are only allowed to design 4-5 specific aero kits each season, yes they can chop and change parts to work at specific circuits with another part. Eg, front wing specification one, with rear wing specification three and so on and so forth but essentially development has to become much more focused. Furthermore, waypoints are created in the calendar for when parts can be introduced, reducing the rush to market we often see, where parts are shipped out to races, without regard to the cost, externally of the usual air and sea freight.

“F1 should just use ground effect, that’ll get rid of these stupid front wings and make it easier to follow”

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have seen this comment made to me under an array of circumstances on social media and in the various comments sections of sites I’ve written for, but just because you say or believe something doesn’t make it the truth. The reason that most people think that this would improve racing is that it works in other series’, but these are spec series’ where surface aero is limited. Now, take a look at what happened to the spec DW12 chassis when Honda and Chevrolet were given the opportunity to create aero packages..

Unable to make adjustments or improvements to the DW12’s ground effect package they went after surface driven changes, which altered the lift-to-drag ratio, the car's wake profile and their ability to follow one another.  Formula One would undoubtedly suffer the same fate, as whilst they’d gladly take the performance advantages offered up by running ground effect tunnels they’d also want to populate the car with surface driven, wake generating aero.

Having read that, anyone that says let’s just have a ‘spec’ aero package in Formula One, get out! You’re no longer welcome here ;)

Aerodynamics is a divisive topic for any F1 fan as you've been sold the broad stroke that if we went to a simple front wing, and perhaps less so a return to ground effect, everything would be fine, but I’ll guarantee you that won’t be the case, at least not in isolation. Before Formula One can define a new set of regulations it needs to first understand what are the objectives in terms of laptime (as the 2017 regulations have overturned years of ‘reigning in’, which as an aside in a recent interview I saw with Ross he alluded to the fact he hates the bristling aero that has come back this year and is eager to remove it. However, he knows that in order to maintain development this sort of thing - micro aerodynamics, is an inevitability), challenge to the drivers and engineers and perhaps most importantly the framework for the powerunit that will be used going forward (including its weight, as this will be of direct consequence to the aero that is needed).

As I’ve gone on long enough in this part already I’m going to call it a day here and hope you’ll drop me your thoughts in the comments section. In the second part I’m going to look at an another issue that polarises opinion - powerunits. I'll take a look at what direction the sport might head off in and whether that’s a good thing or not...

Part II of the article is now available and can be read here:


  1. Excellent article. Particularly enjoyed the regulation history preamble!

    Aero wake preventing close racing is the essence of the aerodynamics problem that F1 faces.

    It’s a measurable problem for Brawn, Somerville, Wilson, Kerr and company to pursue.

    In the slowest corner of any particular circuit, any two cars that are physically nose to tail (within a few centimeters at racing speeds) through that corner will have a measurable time gap of a few tenths of a second, (1 or 2 or whatever what it is). In the faster corners of the same circuit, the problem and question for Formula 1 (Brawn & team) is how close (measured in tenths of a second) can the 2021 (& later) F1 cars run nose to tail?

    It's likely they’ll aim to bring those two measurements closer together than they are now to enable closer, and DRS free racing.

    Any thoughts on additional measurements that Brawn & team are likely to use to identify solutions to the issues mentioned in this article?

    1. It's understood that FOM own the Manor wind tunnel model and are actively seeking a tunnel to use to test some of their theories.

      I know Sauber's tunnel in Hinwil was designed with the capablity of running two models in sequence, which could help to identify how changes can be to improve trailing wake. However, it's been some time since this was completed (2008) and so any updates applied since may have eradicated the option - given the rules do not permit it.

      I think it might be pertinent for FOM to commondeer the 'mule' cars created by Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari for the 2017 tyre tests too, that way they can do some real world testing - especially as none of those cars are no longer representative.

  2. Good interesting read. As a compromise, to help overtaking, could the FIA/FOM define a standard simple spec front wing design, without the beels and whistles, that is designed to reduces the wake issues, and then allow teams to design cars to match the aero it delivers to it ?

    1. Yes, I'm sure this is one of the solutions that is being looked at. The problem with this is that you'll then end up with an even bigger wake differential though, as the teams will have to work the airflow behind the front wheels harder in order to achieve their net goals.


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