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Why The 2022 Formula One Cars Are Using A 40-Year-Old Aerodynamic Concept

2022 Red Bull RB18

After a few years of delays due to the global pandemic, the eagerly anticipated—and, to some, controversial—new regulations around Formula One car design and specifications have finally come to the forefront. As many racing fans know, F1 cars are at the very bleeding edge of what you can do with aerodynamics, hybrid engines, high-performance tires, and the like.

It was only in 2009 that the Kinetic Energy Recovery System, or KERS, was introduced into F1, and just a few short years later, the Holy Trinity of Hypercars, namely the Ferrari LaFerrari, the McLaren P1, and the Porsche 918 Spyder were all released. In the Ferrari and McLaren, KERS was introduced to use the electric motors to assist with braking (known as regenerative braking), and that technology has even trickled down into the latest generation of hybrids and fully electric commuter cars.

It is because of this that many were left scratching their heads as to why the FIA, the governing body of Formula One, mandated that instead of using over-body aerodynamics to generate the downforce these land missiles require to compete, under-body aerodynamics were to be used. To understand, we need to wind back the clock to 1977.

The Ground Effect Era (Est. 1977)

When the FIA Formula One World Championship of Drivers (to use its full and official name), was formed in 1950, F1 cars of the day were little more than four wheels sticking out from a hammered aluminum body, with a thundering great V-12 or Straight-8 engine upfront, often supercharged. The cars were based mostly on the shape of bullets—as that was, at the time, thought to be the best shape to pierce the air and go fast.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, these cars evolved to be lower, wider, shorter, with much wider tires and the engine behind the driver instead of in front. It was during the 1970s, however, that engineers and designers started to appreciate that if they took the same concept that made fighter jets fly—namely, wings—inverted them, and stuck them on the cars, they would help push the cars down into the road.

One of the key designers of this period was Gordon Murray, a brilliant engineer and designer who worked for the Brabham Formula One team. Other key individuals were Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus Cars and the Lotus F1 team, as well as Shawn Buckley, a researcher at the University of California in Berkeley, who was sponsored by Chapman to study underbody aerodynamics.

After a few experiments here and there, such as the Brabham BT44s in 1974 from Murray that used air dams to prevent air from going under the car, and the Lotus 77 from Buckley that used huge wings to slice into the air and generate downforce while not worrying too much about the undercarriage, it occurred to the design team at Lotus that a physics principle from the 1700s was the answer to all their concerns.

Thus, the Lotus 78, one of the most legendary Formula One cars of all time, arrived in 1977—with the evolution, the Lotus 79, following in 1978.

The legendary 1977 Lotus 78 Formula One car
The legendary 1977 Lotus 78 Formula One car. Note the long side pod and the skirting along the lower edge, and the shockingly low rear wing. Via Wikimedia Commons.

What made the Lotus 78 a subject of instant fame and scrutiny was that it had moving skirts along the lower edges of its sidepods, between the front and rear wheels. It also had a very pronounced and high exit from its underbody, and the rear wing was low and long, instead of up in the air. There were also strange vents and a prolonged air intake behind the front suspension.

This was the first car to use ground effects—and throughout 1977, in the hands of drivers Gunnar Nilsson and Mario Andretti, the Lotus 78 won 5 races, making the podium on two other occasions. This made other teams want to know why the cars were so fast, and able to corner so hard.

In a bit of brilliant deception, Chapman would come up with all sorts of crazy-but-viable explanations that obfuscated the real reason that the car was so fast: Bernoulli’s Principle and the Venturi Effect.

Ground Effect: Bernouilli & Venturi In Layman’s Terms

Let us be clear: there are some incredibly complex physics and math that go into fully picking apart how ground effects work. There are different calculations on rates of speed, compressible versus incompressible flow, and positive and negative pressure coefficients that change from instant to instant. So instead of trying to teach university-level physics in this article, we’ll use the example of… a garden hose.

Bernouilli’s Principle

The basic concept of Bernoulli’s Principle is pretty simple: the pressure of a fluid is directly related to its velocity. More velocity equals less pressure in the fluid, and vice versa.

Think of a garden tap: if you turn it on with no hose attached, the water comes out fast because there’s no pressure on it when it leaves the tap. But when you attach a hose, the water comes out slowly. That’s because the hose makes the water flow faster, which lowers its pressure before it exits.

Want to make the water come out of the hose faster? Just press your thumb partway over the opening. Now you’re putting the fluid under pressure again when it exits the hose, which will increase its velocity once more. Simple, right?

The Lotus 78 used the same principle, but the fluid in question was air instead of water. Hidden behind the car’s movable skirts and long intakes was an inverted aerofoil. The underside of each pod was curved to make air flow around it faster—resulting in a pressure increase that generated downforce and helped push the car down the road.

A practical demonstration of Bernouilli’s Principle: the thumb over the end of the hose creating lower pressure but a higher flow rate. Via Videoblocks.

Air would then expand again as it exited the side pod, generating additional downforce via the Venturi Effect (we’re about to explain what that is; don’t worry). Those moveable skirts? They were there to seal the Venturi Tunnels, as they came to be known, from losing pressure.

The Venturi Effect

In the 18th century, Giovanni Battista Venturi was fascinated by Bernouilli’s work and set about researching compressible fluid dynamics. In the simplest terms, he discovered that when air was passed through a tube with a narrowed section in the middle (a chokepoint), the static pressure before the choke was much higher than the static pressure after the choke. What caused this was the compression of the flow through the choke to keep the same flow rate, causing a drastic drop in pressure, and a drastic increase in the speed of the particles moving through the choke.

Going back to the hose, but on a much smaller scale, this can be demonstrated with a drinking straw. If you blow through a straw aimed at your palm, you’ll feel a constant flow of air. If you then pinch the straw very lightly, you’ll feel that air hit your palm a little faster, but not as hard. You’ll also notice, if you pinch the straw perfectly, that the tip of it suddenly wants to start moving around a little.

This is the Venturi Effect. In terms of the Lotus 78, while Bernoulli’s Principle was used to create the literal vacuum to the road through the Venturi tunnels, the Venturi Effect explained why the rear wing was so much lower than with all the other cars on the grid.

NASA graphic demonstrating the Venturi effect area in a race car.
The area behind the compression zone of the side pod where the Venturi Effect occurs. Image courtesy NASA Educational Web.

When a compressible fluid is suddenly released from pressure, it expands rapidly, causing an area of extremely low pressure as other particles around it rush in to fill those gaps. Since the exit of the side pods were directly under the car’s long and low rear wing, this meant that on top of the side pods sucking the car down to the road, the shaped exits created a massive low-pressure area under the rear wing.

With the air passing over the wing already pushing down with high pressure, this effectively increased the downforce on the car. Another side benefit of the Venturi Effect is that the rapidly expanding air cools down rapidly—meaning that with the car’s engine right beside the Venturi tunnels, there was some active cooling.

This exact same principle of rapid expansion of compressible fluid helped rocket scientists at NASA create reusable engines for the space shuttle, as liquid hydrogen was circulated around the inside of the rocket bell at high pressure during all parts of the flight to space before escaping through a relief valve directly into the burning plume. You can see those relief plumes on footage of almost any shuttle launch—such as here at 1:23 in the official NASA footage of the STS-129 launch.

Combined, this meant that as long as the skirts kept the pressure under the side pods from escaping, the Lotus 78 was quite literally being vacuumed onto the surface of the road. With the massive rubber contact patches of the tires, there was immense mechanical grip to take advantage of the ground effect thereby created.

Thanks to these discoveries, cars suddenly began going much faster in the years to come—in fact, they started to exceed what the FIA considered to be safe speeds. Ultimately, after the death of Canadian legend Gilles Villeneuve in 1982, ground effects were banned from 1983 onwards.

The 2022 Formula One Car

With that gigantic explanation out of the way, this brings us to the Formula One cars of today. In the past three and a half decades, while the Venturi Effect was allowed to be used, skirts and tunnels were banned.

The ban saw the majority of F1 cars shift to over-body aerodynamics such as added wings, barge boards, flow shaping endplates on the nose and tail wings, and the like. This gave teams that had the budget and resources to rapidly and comprehensively simulate, construct, and update their cars throughout the year a massive advantage.

Another problem with the use of over-body and complex aerodynamics is the wake of the car, leaving vortices, eddies, and massively disturbed air behind the vehicle. Since F1 cars need as much “clean air” as possible to maximize their downforce, when two drivers got close to each other, the outwash from the leading car effectively disrupted the downforce of the chasing car, which meant the chasing driver had little opportunity to pass at speed. Most of the passes for the past decades have been made either through massively better corner exits or under braking for a corner.

2022 Haas and Williams drivers Mick Schumacher and Nicholas Latifi able to drive nose to tail
2022 Haas and Williams drivers Mick Schumacher and Nicholas Latifi able to drive nose to tail, which would have been impossible just 6 months ago with 2021 cars. Image via Formula 1.

The 2022 regulations, however, are changing that. Gone are the complex bargeboards and over-body winglets. Gone are the nose wing endplates that were used to shape the air around the tires so they didn’t add drag. Gone are the flat and wide tail wings that threw out massive vortices.

2022 AlphaTauri AT03 Formula One car rear end, showing venturi tunnels, lower double wing, reshaped upper wing
2022 AlphaTauri AT03 Formula One car rear end, showing venturi tunnels, lower double wing, and reshaped upper wing. Image via Formula 1.

Instead, each car must now make at least 60% of its downforce through ground effects alone. The front wheels now have little wings over them (called flow tamers) that prevent the tires from creating disruptive flow. The rear wing is bowed down and curved, to lower the vortices that get thrown off the rear edge.

As well, there are no moving skirts to seal the Venturi tunnels, which instead use vortex generators to create an “air skirt” around the sides of the car before they are ultimately dispersed through the rear suspension and through the lower double wing on the back of the car. That double wing serves as the exit of both Venturi tunnels, which are also lower to the ground now.

2022 Red Bull RB18 detail, showing full length of the side pod Venturi tunnel
2022 Red Bull RB18. Note the length of the Venturi tunnel, starting from just behind the front wheels, compressing fully under the O in Oracle, and then releasing up towards the rear wing. Image via Formula 1.

What this means is that compared to the 2021 season car, the new 2022 Formula One cars produce up to 40% less turbulence behind them, keeping most of that turbulence as low to the ground as is scientifically possible.

This means that following cars will be able to effectively use more air for their own downforce, and since any turbulent air entering the Venturi tunnels will have that turbulence negated by being compressed, it means that nose-to-tail racing is set to return this season.

How the 2022 Formula One Cars Are Closer to Road Cars than Ever Before

The other knock-on effect of the new regulations for the 2022 season is that the over-body aerodynamics of the cars are smoothed out, giving each one a much cleaner appearance and allowing the air to flow much more freely around the body. This means that their bodies are shaped to be as slippery and aerodynamically efficient as possible.

With the recent rise in electric vehicles (EVs) in recent years, you may have noticed while driving by one that they have no air intakes in the front, instead often having shaped noses (Tesla) or a “grille” that is mostly blocked off (except for some air holes that lead through ducting to exit over the motors, which provides some cooling). If you drive behind one, you will also notice that most have shaped bumpers, with little dips towards the ground at the outer edges, with little strakes along them.

Tesla Model 3 underbody with air dam in view and wheel air and suspension exit area visible with shaped floor
Underbody of a Tesla Model 3 electric car. Note that in this specific model, the air from the front air dam is used to cool the front motor before being evacuated out the wheel slots in the floor and passing along under the car. Source: Via Twitter

Since the underbodies of almost all EVs are sealed to provide the least disturbance to the airflow under the car—and with air from the front being directed towards the middle of the underbody or inside the front wheels, depending on where the motors are—this basically creates a very weak Venturi tunnel. As well, most EVs are also shaped to be as slippery as possible, with no protrusions outside of necessary ones (like side mirrors) to interrupt the airflow.

While nowhere near as extreme as in race cars, the data and real-world information that can be gleaned from the 2022 Formula One cars could very well lead to examples of cars from major manufacturers like Aston Martin, Mercedes, McLaren, Alpine/Renault, and Ferrari integrating underbody downforce to a greater extent.

Ferrari has already applied some of their knowledge to this—such as in the SF90 Stradale hypercar, which has active underbody aerodynamics to shape and stall air underneath the car to maintain optimal downforce.

Ferrari SF90 Stradale
The Ferrari SF90 Stradale, using over-body and under-body aerodynamics to produce maximum downforce. Note the two Venturi tunnel exits in black on either side of the lower rear fog light. Via

This also ties in with the unofficial Green Promise most manufacturers around the world have stated—that between 2025 and 2040, depending on the company, all of their cars will either be EVs or use alternates such as hydrogen or ethanol-based sustainable fuel.

Interestingly, that’s another initiative that the 2022 regulations for Formula One have included. Turbo-hybrid 1.6-liter V6 engines in the cars have been developed with fuel partners to use E-10 race fuel, which contains 10% bio-sustainable corn ethanol.

New regulations at the dawn of a new era of Formula One are exciting. That these cars are having a real effect on the road cars of the future is even more so. As the saying goes: “The future is now.”