A guide to Formula One aerodynamics – the difference between winning and losing – Part 1/2

A Formula One car is a finely tuned machine, and every inch of carbon fibre is placed meticulously in order so as to gain vital tenths of a second. To the untrained eye, these machines can look ugly, messy and cluttered. But oh, if only they knew. Months and years go into the planning of a Formula One car design and the importance of the aerodynamics (wings, winglets and flaps attached to the car) should never be unappreciated. Aerodynamics are essential components that contribute to entry and exit grip level, downforce, drag and overall speed (and with it, lap time). Because of these key areas, each specific area of the car has to be constructed with expert precision. Get it right and you’ve unlocked a speedy race winning car; get it wrong and you’ll be travelling the same speed as your rivals back down the grid. It a fine line, which is why teams spend ridiculous amounts of money getting it right.

Now before we start looking at the different parts of the car, let me explain the two most important aerodynamic sections. Firstly, the front nose/wing section is the area of the car that is the most fragile, and most exposed. It is also the area most at risk of damage. The front wing is designed to give the car front end grip and channel the rest of the air over the nose cone and towards the rear of the car where the air is recycled. The way it works is that the air is pushed on to the wing which is pushed towards the ground. The closer the wing is to the ground, the less buffeting will occur. The car can cut through the air cleanly and therefore faster. Nearly all teams’ front wing will have small pieces called winglets to aid the air flow. The winglets can be any shape or size and will vary from car to car, depending on what is needed.

As you can see in image (a), the Lotus front wing has several winglets that are attached to the endplate (the lowest part of the wing). These winglets are curved to carefully direct the airflow to other areas of the car. They also force air onto the tops of the wing to push it further towards the ground. The work starts here. A newer addition to front running wings is an extra winglet on either side of the nose uprights. It is simplistic in design but very effective. As seen in image (b), the winglet is vertical with a horizontal edge (curving slightly upwards). The nose cone itself has a lesser role in channelling airflow, but is still a key part in performance.


Some wings like the one on the Red Bull have a slight dip which makes the air flow up and over the driver’s head and into the air intake box above. One team who made perfect use of this feature in 2012 was Sauber. Using a dipped nose, they have incorporated an F-duct/passive DRS system which uses a slot located below the nose.


This slot sucks in air channelled from the wing, through tubes which is then forced out of the top through another slot on the top of the nose. The airflow is then projected over the driver’s head into the airtake box. Below the nose and between the uprights, air is channel through the underside of the car and round the side, an area composing of sidepods, turning vanes and more winglets. They channel the airflow to the floor and rear of the car.

The sidepods of Formula One cars are built predominantly around the engine and gearbox. Teams still manage to make this part as aerodynamic as possible. Air channelled from the front wing is propelled through the underside of the nose cone and flows round the side of the car. There, the air passes through what are called turning vanes (medium sized aerodynamic pieces which can be straight or curved). These make sure the air is carefully directed round the side. It also makes sure the air does not escape to the side, preventing air being used effectively. These can as simplistic as possible (like on the Mercedes), or more intrinsic (like on the Lotus which has two curved elements) Most teams these days have additional winglets on the top of the sidepods. These turning vanes are used to direct more air to the back of the car. On the Lotus, there is more of a horizontal “airplane” wings to help stability.


Next is the floor. The floor is an intrinsic part of a Formula One car. Air needs to be pushed onto the bottom of the car using the airflow from the front wing and sidepods/turning vanes mentioned in the previous sections. When the air flows through the vanes, it travels round the side of the big sidepod and continues to push down on the carbon fibre floor. The diagram below shows the Sauber car from last year and how the airflow is channelled from the turning vanes to the rear of the car.


Recently, the floors have been elaborated into more detailed aerodynamic components. Curved sections mean that the air can flow perfectly towards the rear of the car as seen on the 2013 Ferrari. When the air moves around the curved sidepod and reaches the back end, it is then channelled through a selection of small carbon fibre winglets. The vertical aspect of these means that the back end of the car remains stable and airflow cannot be restricted.


Pictures extracted from the following:


Craig Scarborough @scarbsf1


One thought on “A guide to Formula One aerodynamics – the difference between winning and losing – Part 1/2

  1. Melvyn July 9, 2013 / 7:21 pm

    Enjoyed your article Steve – didn’t know you were a prospective journo… keep up the good work!


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