Formula 1 cars are incredible machines. They’re built purely for performance, which shows in their design and how they behave on the racetrack. One of the most critical aspects of how they achieve that level of performance though is how low F1 cars are to the ground.
F1 cars are extremely low to the ground and can be as low as 30 millimeters/1.2 inches. With ground effect cars, the lower the floor of the car, the more downforce it can produce. Cornering speeds are what set F1 cars apart and the low ride height helps them corner at up to 190 mph.
The ride height of F1 cars has a major impact on their aerodynamics and therefore their performance. Below, we discuss everything there is to know about how low F1 cars are, why they are so low, and even the controversial topic of porpoising that is being experienced in F1.
How Low Are Formula 1 Cars?
Formula 1 cars are incredibly low with their overall ride height between 30 and 80 millimeters (1.1-3.1 inches). This is extremely low compared to other cars that normally have much more ground clearance. The low ride height is necessary for F1 cars to perform at their best.
The cars have been designed to be as close to the ground as possible to generate more downforce, allowing for faster corner speeds. The incredible cornering speeds are what sets Formula 1 cars apart from all other cars making them the fastest cars in the world over the course of a lap.
Formula 1 cars have always been extremely close to the ground. There has always been a link between lower ride height and faster cars in F1. In 2022, ride height became more important than ever before with the return of ground effect. Getting the car as close to the ground as possible is crucial.
Why Are F1 Cars So Low To The Ground?
F1 cars are so low to the ground because it allows the cars to corner faster through improved aerodynamics. The lower the cars are to the ground, the more downforce they can produce via the ground effect and over body airflow, and therefore the faster the cars can corner.
The lower the car is, the more the air can ‘push’ the car into the ground through the effect of downforce. If we’re looking at normal aerodynamics (as opposed to ground effect that will be explained later), air needs to flow over the top of the car for the car to be ‘pushed’ into the tarmac.
When an F1 car travels along the track, some of the air in front of it goes over the car and some of it goes underneath. As the car’s shape ‘squeezes’ the air underneath the car, the air below the car travels at higher speeds than the air above the car and is less dense.
Creating A Pressure Difference
This creates a pressure difference, with the air flowing over the top of the car at a higher pressure than that below. This higher pressure air ‘pushes’ the car down to the ground, allowing the tires to have better grip to the track surface, letting the car take corners at incredibly high speeds – much faster than any other motorsport.
The lower the cars are to the ground, the greater the pressure difference between the air flowing over the car and the air going underneath it. This generally means that the lower the cars are to the ground, the more downforce they can generate, and the faster they can corner. This is true for over body downforce and for the phenomenon known as the ground effect (more on that in a moment).
Lower Center Of Gravity
But there is another reason F1 cars are so low, and it’s because it lowers their center of gravity. This keeps more of the mass lower to the ground, which helps to maintain better balance across the car’s four tires when cornering, and helps control weight transfer. Think about a small car and a double decker bus going round a corner at high speed, and you can imagine which would be more stable!
F1 Ground Effect Explained
Ground effect is one of the main aspects to mention when it comes to modern Formula 1 cars. Rather than forcing all of the air over the top of the car, engineers design the floor with Venturi tunnels. These tunnels use the Venturi effect to create a vacuum underneath the car (the low pressure area), which effectively ‘sucks’ the car into the tarmac.
This effect is a similar phenomenon that helps generate downforce using things like front and rear wings. By forcing the air into tight ‘tunnels’ under the car, the air speeds up, creating an area of low pressure and therefore ‘sucking’ the car towards the ground. The more effective these tunnels are at generating downforce, the faster the car can corner.
History Of The Ground Effect
The concept was first used in the late 1970s. It started off slowly, with teams eventually seeing the benefits that it brought to their cars in cornering speeds. Moving into the early 1980s ground effect was banned for becoming too dangerous, as damaged floors would lead to a sudden loss of grip and the cornering speeds were getting too high.
Ground effect was brought back in 2022 as teams and engineers had a better understanding of how to keep it under control this time. The idea behind implementing ground effect into Formula 1 cars was to reduce the amount of dirty air in the wake of the car in front, allowing cars behind to follow through corners much closer than before.
More Air Under The Car
On modern F1 cars, teams want to try and get as much airflow under the car as they can, so that they can maximize the pressure difference under the car that sucks it towards the ground. The diffusers on the current generation of F1 cars are also much bigger than they were before, and so teams want to make as much use of them as they can by funneling air under the car.
This means many teams will still run the car low to the ground, but the front wing might sit higher off the ground than in the past. This is because, with the front wing higher up, more air can be funneled under the car to be made use of to generate downforce via the ground effect. The front wings are still effective at generating downforce, but they’re not as important as before.
How Ground Effect Causes Trouble For F1 Teams
With ground effect making a return, many drivers and teams were looking forward to the challenge. Everything about these cars would change, from the way they are built to the way they are set up and driven out on track. However, many fans wouldn’t have really expected a serious problem to come along with the new ground effect cars.
But one problem appeared in preseason testing – a phenomenon known as porpoising. Porpoising happens when the cars reach high speeds along the straights and are generating massive amounts of downforce. When the air flows into the venturi tunnels in the floor of the car, the car is sucked towards the tarmac. So far so good.
Stalling The Air
However, at some point, the car reaches a maximum level of downforce, and the car gets so low to the ground that the air flowing underneath it ‘stalls’ and is no longer generating downforce. This is in part due to a separation of the airflow at the back of the diffuser. When the diffuser stops doing its job properly, the airflow under the car can’t do its job properly either.
This effectively causes the downforce to momentarily disappear, and the suspension unloads, pushing the body of the car back up towards its normal ride height. At high speeds this effect repeats rapidly, leading to violent bouncing. This is why it’s called porpoising, as the car mimics the up and down motion of a porpoise going in and out of the water.
Why Porpoising Is Bad In F1
The first downside of porpoising is the performance aspect. With the car bouncing aggressively down the straight it will be losing top end speed. This ultimately means that the car will be slower down the straights. This effect is negated if porpoising affects everyone equally, but some teams have it more under control than others.
The next problem is that it can cause damage to the cars. The bouncing along the straight can become so violent that the floor of the car hits the tarmac. If the floor hits the tarmac too hard there’s a chance that it could damage the floor. With ground effect cars, a damaged floor can mean the driver needs to retire from the Grand Prix, as that’s where most of the downforce comes from.
Finally, porpoising may have a negative effect on the wellbeing of the drivers. Inside the car, porpoising is often much worse than what it looks like from the outside. Drivers are experiencing vertical G forces during the bouncing, and it could be enough to cause long term damage, and multiple drivers have complained about back pain.
Do F1 Cars Bottom Out?
F1 cars can bottom out. This is fairly normal when the car is producing lots of downforce, but it can cause damage to the floor on circuits with bumpy sections. While it’s normal for the car’s skid plate to bottom out, if other parts of the floor hit the track they can be damaged.
F1 cars have been bottoming out even before the ground effect was brought back into the sport. This is because of how the suspension compressed under high speeds, and even through high-speed corners.
While the car’s ride height is between 30 and 80 mm (1.2-3.1 inches) off the ground, that height becomes even lower when the car is traveling at high speeds. The faster the car goes, the lower it gets to the ground as downforce builds up.
When the car is pushed/sucked into the tarmac, the suspension will lower under the strain of the downforce. Eventually it will get to the point where the floor scrapes against the tarmac. However, F1 cars have protective measures under the cars to protect the important parts of the floor.
Why F1 Cars Spark
You’ll often see F1 cars produce sparks in their wake as they go down the straight. This can mostly be seen during night races where the sparks stand out as the cars fly down the straights. It’s a spectacular effect that was first seen in the 1980s.
The effect has been witnessed since then, but it has had periods of absences from the sport as the FIA changed regulations. These regulations pertain to the floors of the cars, and primarily the materials used to make the skid plates underneath. These now have titanium blocks on them, which, when they contact the ground, produce a shower of sparks while protecting the car’s floor.
F1 cars have an extremely low ride height of between 30 and 35 mm (1.2-1.4 inches) at the front of the car, and between 75 and 80 mm (2.9-3.1 inches) at the back of the car. The lower the car is, the better the aerodynamics of the car will work, making it much faster around corners and on straights.