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F1 in the Future - The Aerodynamics

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F1 in the Future - The Aerodynamics
Dec 28, 2009, 9:58 AM

When you contemplate the F1 cars of the future you imagine their shape and that is all about aerodynamics.

When you contemplate the F1 cars of the future you imagine their shape and that is all about aerodynamics. F1 cars haven't changed much in looks over the past 30 years and there is no reason why they should - you cannot uninvent aerodynamics.

Lotus F1 technical director Mike Gascoyne pointed out that aeroplanes have changed little in looks and fundamental layout since the monoplanes of the World War I and so projecting forwards, there is no real reason why F1 cars should change much in looks over the next 20 years.

Not everyone in F1 shares that view, however.

F1 cars have always been open wheeled, apart from the 1954 W196 Mercedes, known as the 'Streamliner' (in 1955 the same car appeared in single-seater format). For veteran aerodynamics engineer Frank Dernie, it is inconceivable that the F1 car of the future will have covered wheels. “Almost all surfaces of a covered wheel racing car produce lift and it takes only a small upset to make them take off. An F1 car, when upset, very rarely takes off and if it does it comes back to earth very quickly. So from a safety point of view it has to be open wheel. ”

We will come on to safety later in the series, but this is clearly an area where no compromises can be allowed.

The challenge for F1 aerodynamicists of working with open wheels is the sophistication of modelling the way the air is disturbed by the spinning wheels and how to channel the disturbed air around and over and under the bodywork. This provides a vital part of the engineering challenge of F1 and the engineers say it probably still will in 20 years time, so complex is the problem. As well as work in the wind tunnel, teams use computer simulator programmes like computational fluid dynamics, which divide the car into billions of tiny squares and perform many billions of calculations based on adding in variables based on car movement.

Former FIA technical consultant Tony Purnell sees the car being open wheeled, but with bumpers around the wheels, as a safety device to avoid cars touching wheels, which happens occasionally and can launch one of them into the air. He sees the need for bumpers because he believes that the cars will race very closely with each other and the drivers will be used to dicing and bumping into each other, with three or more cars abreast and constant chopping and changing. F1 will be less about doing a perfect qualifying lap and then reeling off a string of fast laps in the race, it will be about pure speed in qualifying and then ultra-high speed "cluster racing".

This is because F1 will be primarily, perhaps solely, an entertainment and the next two generations, who will be raised on gaming, will want fast and furious action. A successful business has to adapt and give its customers what they want.

To that end Purnell also sees the shape of the car being set by stylists rather than by design engineers. In other words, aerodynamics will have a less important role than today and the cars will be designed to look as sexy as possible, “more of a fashion than a function.” The drivers will be more visible, although still well protected and they will be obviously busier in the cockpit, working various adjustable functions of the car, moveable aerodynamic devices which will allow them to get extremely close to the cars around them without becoming unstable, as they do today.

In this vision the cars will need to be able to go around the track in a gaggle, rather than strung out as they are today and to take corners side by side, because this is what the public will want from them.

The cars will probably be smaller because the efficient engine will require the car to have a much smaller fuel tank. Whereas today an F1 car uses 150 kilos of fuel to cover a Grand Prix distance, in 20 years time they will use less than 50 kilos to go just as far and as fast.

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