Formula 1 cars are some of the fastest and most sophisticated cars on the planet. While they might not have the fastest straight-line speed, what’s most impressive about them is the downforce that allows them to corner so fast. But you might be wondering how F1 cars generate downforce.
F1 cars generate downforce through complex floor designs that make use of the ground effect, along with wings that produce over body downforce. The more downforce they produce, the faster they can corner and complete laps. F1 cars can produce more than 2x their weight in downforce.
In Formula 1, downforce is king. Often the cars that can produce the most downforce will succeed in terms of lap times and race results. Below, we take a closer look at what downforce really is, and go into more detail about how F1 cars are able to produce so much of it.
An easy way to describe downforce is to think of how an airplane flies. The wings on the plane will generate a force known as lift. They do this by manipulating the way the air flows over the wings, creating a pressure difference between the top and bottom of the wing. The high pressure area under the wing ‘pushes’ the plane upwards.
Downforce is essentially the opposite of lift as it pushes the vehicle into the ground rather than lifting it up. This happens because the wings are designed in the opposite way to those on a plane, with the wing’s angle going up from the front of the car, versus the wings on a plane that are angled down from the front.
Note: Modern F1 cars also make use of the ground effect, which doesn’t rely on these wings to generate downforce, and we’ll talk more about that soon. There are also other components on the cars, like the diffuser, that produce a lot of the car’s downforce. For the sake of this initial explanation however, we’ll largely refer to the wings as they’re the easiest to illustrate with examples.
The faster the car goes, the more it will be pushed into the ground. In theory, if the wings were designed differently on a Formula 1 car, it could become airborne when it reaches a specific speed on the straights. But because the wings are essentially ‘upside down’ versions of a plane’s wings, they produce downforce instead of lift.
This is why Formula 1 cars become more stable and planted the faster they go. It gives the cars the ability to corner at incredible speeds, much faster than any other car on the planet. The incredible amounts of downforce that Formula 1 cars produce allow them to lap circuits faster than any other car simply because of the advantage they have through the corners.
But there is a downside to having too much downforce. The more downforce the car generates, the slower it will be on the straights. This is because more downforce equals more drag, and drag is a force that acts against the car’s direction of travel – in other words, it wants to pull the car backwards.
This is a result of similar phenomena to how the car generates downforce. While the wings and complex floors on the cars generate downforce by creating a low pressure area under the car to help ‘push’ it into the ground, the faster the car goes, the bigger the area of low pressure it leaves behind it.
Key Fact: If you double the car’s speed, the drag it experiences quadruples!
This low pressure area effectively acts to ‘suck’ the car backwards, much like the low pressure area underneath tries to ‘suck’ it towards the ground. Go fast enough, and this low pressure area becomes incredibly powerful, and the drag created is enough to severely impact how fast the car can go. This is why there’s a balance to strike between high downforce and low drag.
The Fastest F1 Car Ever
Honda were able to record a maximum speed of 397.36 kilometers per hour (246.9 miles per hour) by removing the wings off their RA106 car back in 2006. By manipulating the shape of the car and only having stability improving components (rather than big downforce producing wings) the car was able to go incredibly fast thanks to it producing a relatively tiny amount of drag.
But if this car were to try and corner, it wouldn’t have had an easy time of it. Without any major downforce producing components, the car wouldn’t have been able to generate grip at speed in the corners, and so would be slow over the course of a lap, despite its high speed on the straights. Again, there’s a balance to strike!
Nevertheless, modern Formula 1 cars can still comfortably reach top speeds of more than 210 mph at circuits with long straights, like Baku and Monza. Even on tracks that require more downforce, the cars comfortably reach speeds of more than 200 mph.
Key Fact: DRS, or Drag Reduction System, refers to a flap in the rear wings of the cars that the drivers can use at certain points on the track. This flap reduces the drag on the car, allowing it to reach higher top speeds on the straights, often gaining an advantage of about 6-8 mph.
The Technical Bit
It’s worth taking a look at the equations and principles that make downforce possible before we go into more detail about why F1 cars need downforce in the first place. You can skip this bit if you want, but we promise we won’t get too deep into the physics of it all! To get the downforce generated by a given component, such as a wing, the following formula is used:
F = Downforce generated
CL = Lift coefficient (a property of the wing itself)
ρ = Density of the air
v2 = Velocity of the car
A = Area of the wing
While this might look a little confusing, what this equation shows is that the downforce produced by the wing depends on a few key factors. The lift coefficient is related to a few physical phenomena, along with the angle of the wing to the airflow in front of it (i.e. how steep the wing is).
The density of the air is also a factor, but not one we need to worry about for this discussion (we’ll come back to it later on). The ‘v2’ part tells us that, with every doubling of the car’s speed (velocity), the downforce increases by 4 times (with all other things kept equal). We can simulate this by subbing in ‘1’ for all of the other components of the formula, and changing ‘v’ from 2 to 4:
F = 1 x 0.5 x 1 x 22 x 1 = 2
F = 1 x 0.5 x 1 x 42 x 1 = 8
By doubling the car’s speed (i.e. v=2 becoming v=4) we quadrupled the downforce from 2 to 8. Obviously this is a super simplified example, but it should illustrate the fact that the faster the car goes, the more downforce it generates. Finally, the A in the equation tells us that the area of the wing affects how much downforce the car produces – bigger wing equals more downforce.
One more thing to consider that will become very important when we discuss the idea of the ground effect is Bernoulli’s principle.
Bernoulli’s principle tells us that the faster a fluid is moving (such as air – yes, air is a fluid!), the lower its pressure. The slower the fluid moves, the higher its pressure.
This is important because F1 cars manipulate airflow under and over them. By doing so, the cars can make the air molecules flowing under them go faster than those going over them, and this creates an area of low pressure under the car and an area of higher pressure above the car. This pressure difference is essentially what generates the downforce. But why do F1 cars need downforce?
F1 cars need downforce in order to go round corners at speeds of up to 190 mph and maintain stability. The cars rely on various components to produce this downforce, and even the slightest bit of damage can cause a car to lose valuable lap time, or even retire from the race.
Formula 1 cars are capable of cornering at incredibly high speeds. Watching the cars driving through corners like 130R at Suzuka, which the drivers can take at around 190 mph (305 kph), shows just how important downforce is in Formula 1.
Without downforce, Formula 1 cars would not be able to corner as fast as they can as they would rely more on mechanical grip (i.e. grip resulting from the weight of the car on the tires) rather than aerodynamic grip. The cars just cannot produce enough mechanical grip to allow these high cornering speeds.
Without the big wings, complex floors, and large diffusers, the cars wouldn’t be able to manipulate the airflow over and under them to ‘push’ or ‘suck’ the car into the tarmac. This allows the tires to generate far more grip than under the car’s weight alone, and increased grip allows for increased traction.
Downforce allows the cars to have incredible grip out of the corners and at low speeds while keeping the car very light. While adding more weight over the rear wheels could improve traction, it would reduce the car’s power to weight ratio, decreasing its acceleration and making the cars bulkier and less stable in the corners.
Downforce increases the load over the tires at high speeds without adding actual weight to the car. This means the car remains light and nimble at low speeds for maximum acceleration, but at high speeds the downforce increases, providing the driver with enough grip to corner at incredible speeds that are unimaginable in a road car!
If a Formula 1 is damaged during a session, the driver could lose a significant chunk of their lap time. Even losing a small piece of the front wing can cause the car to lose up to half a second or more over the course of a lap. Formula 1 teams will usually call their car into the pits to change their front wing if it is significantly damaged.
Note: This isn’t always true, especially on the current cars that make use of the ground effect. A perfect example is Charles Leclerc’s damaged front wing at Silverstone in 2022. He lost a significant portion of his front endplate but still managed to keep the pace with the others around him, almost winning the race.
However, if the body of the car or the rear wing is damaged, there is no way to repair the damaged parts during a race (unless they can repair it under a red flag). Drivers will need to commit to a damage limitation race strategy, where they simply try to finish as high as possible with the disadvantage that they have, like Max Verstappen did at the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix.
If the damage on the car is too severe and the car won’t be competitive, the team can also choose to retire the car from the race. This is often done to preserve the engine life and prevent any further strain and stress from being put on the power unit, which would mean that the driver may need to take a grid penalty in the near future.
KEY POINTS• F1 cars need to produce downforce in order to corner at very high speeds
• Downforce provides the cars with incredible amounts of grip
• Even small amounts of damage can drastically reduce the car’s downforce levels
How Do F1 Cars Generate Downforce?
F1 cars generate downforce through various wings on the car, along with complex floor designs underneath the car, and large diffusers at the back. F1 cars make use of both over body downforce and the ground effect, with the latter being brought back into the sport in 2022.
Both the front and the rear wings of an F1 car are used to generate downforce and push the car into the ground as it picks up speed. These wings are designed to ‘catch’ the air as it flows over them, and they are angled in such a way that the portion of the wing at the front is lower than the portion of the wing at the rear, creating a wedge shape.
The wings make use of the phenomena discussed at the beginning of this article, creating high pressure areas above them and low pressure areas below them. This causes the air to ‘push’ down on the wing, pushing the car itself into the ground.
Formula 1 teams will adjust the angles of their wings to generate more or less downforce on the car. An increased wing angle will give the car more downforce and grip through corners, whereas a decreased angle will give the car less downforce and more speed on the straights.
These changes can be made quickly, and the teams can sometimes even make these changes during a pit stop, specifically on the front wing of the car (although these changes are very small and often not noticeable to anyone besides the driver). You’ll notice that if it starts to rain, teams will adjust the front wing angle when the car comes in for wet weather tires.
The team will increase the wing angle to allow it to catch more air and give the car more downforce. This is important in the rain because the wet track and the wet tires force the driver to go slower. Going slower reduces downforce per the equation we discussed earlier on, so a steeper wing angle can help compensate for this to an extent.
On high speed circuits with long straights, like Monza, teams will aim to reduce their wing angles as much as possible to gain a top speed advantage on the straights. You’ll often see ‘skinny’ rear wings at these tracks, as the major gains in lap time are made on the straights rather than in the corners, shifting the ideal balance towards the low drag side of things.
The floors of the cars became more important than ever in 2022. The floor refers to the underside of the car – the bit you can’t normally see, unless the driver has crashed and their car is lifted into the air by a crane and there are a few opportunist photographers around! These floors are incredibly complex, with features like turning vanes and Venturi tunnels.
These are areas of the floor that are carved out in specific ways to squeeze the air flowing under the car. Squeezing it speeds it up through the Venturi effect which, as we know from Bernoulli’s principle, creates an area of low pressure. The faster the car goes, the more air accelerates through the tunnels. The more clean air that goes through these tunnels, the more downforce the car generates.
This phenomenon is known as the ground effect, which was in use in F1 in the past, but was banned in the early 1980s. It returned with the major aerodynamic rule changes made in 2022, largely because it allows the cars to generate a lot of downforce without creating large wakes of dirty, turbulent air behind them, in theory making it easier for the cars to race closer together.
One of the main parts that produce downforce on a Formula 1 car is the diffuser. A diffuser is a set of winglets and channels at the back of the car underneath the rear wing. Their purpose is to accelerate the air flow at the back of the car.
What this does is create a low pressure area underneath the car, which sucks the car into the ground. This is similar to how the Venturi tunnels work closer to the front of the car. Diffusers help provide the car with a lot of rear stability. Using a diffuser is one of the key ways to produce downforce in any car, not just in Formula 1.
The bodywork of the car is also important, but it does play less of a role than the wings and the floor of the car. When looking closely at a Formula 1 car, you will notice several different curves and shapes in the bodies of the cars between teams.
Every team has their own design, and this has to do with the way they want the air to flow around their car. The ideal scenario would be to use the body of the car to direct the airflow to where you want it to go. For example, Ferrari use their curved sidepods to direct airflow onto the rear wing, which gives them more rear downforce and helps them in slower and more technical corners.
Red Bull on the other hand have a sleeker design that allows the air to pass over the body of the car as quickly as possible without much interference, which gives them the upper hand in straight-line speed. Neither design is right or wrong, it’s all about how it works with the car’s entire package.
F1 car bodies used to be far more complex than they are now, featuring lots of winglets and bargeboards that were deemed illegal when the 2022 rule changes came into effect. However, the bodies of the cars still play incredibly important roles in how they produce downforce.
KEY POINTS• F1 cars produce downforce through several different components
• The wings are some of the most obvious ways F1 cars generate downforce
• The floors of the cars generate downforce through the ground effect
• Diffusers and other pieces of bodywork are also important for producing downforce
Over Body Downforce vs Ground Effect
The 2022 aerodynamic rule changes massively changed the way that Formula 1 cars produce downforce. In the past, the cars primarily used something known as “over body downforce.” This is exactly what we described above where the cars rely on their wings and the shape of the car’s body to produce the downforce that pushes the car into the ground.
But from 2022 onwards, the cars use the ground effect to generate a lot of their downforce. This concept is nothing new, and it was first discovered in the 1970s through Colin Chapman’s Lotus Formula 1 team, but it was then banned in the 1980s because it was causing too many issues for the drivers and the teams.
Ground effect involves the cars using their floors to generate downforce rather than using the wings on the car (which make use of over body downforce). Modern Formula 1 cars are now much less reliant on their wings and other aerodynamic elements to produce downforce than they were in the past.
Note: A damaged wing will have less of an effect on the car’s ability to perform and generate downforce. However, they still generate a lot of downforce and play an important role in stabilizing the car while it’s traveling at high speed.
In the past, Formula 1 cars used to have a relatively flat floor with a plank to prevent them from generating downforce using the ground effect. The cars were also run much lower to force more air over the top of the car, which increased their downforce.
The cars are still obviously very low to the ground, but getting more, clean air under the car is also important. This means you’ll see a fairly big gap between the ground and the bottom of the front wing compared to the older generations of cars, as teams try to force lots of air underneath the car and through the Venturi tunnels to produce maximum downforce through the ground effect.
In order for the Venturi tunnels to work, the cars need to run very low to the ground to create the vacuum effect that sucks the cars downward. The faster the car goes, the more downforce it generates, and the more it gets pushed into the ground.
But at some point the floor of the car gets so close to the ground that the airflow is ‘stalled’ under the car, taking away the downforce for a moment. This causes the car to rise up rapidly as the suspension unloads, before then regaining downforce and the cycle repeats. This leads to a bouncing effect that is most noticeable on the straights, and it’s referred to as porpoising.
This issue has affected most teams, with some worse off than others. Not only could it cause damage to the cars, but it could be damaging for the drivers as they are constantly bouncing up and down with the cars. This is one issue that was never present when over body downforce was the key contributor to the car’s overall downforce production.
Over Body Downforce
But over body downforce is not without its own disadvantages. Over body downforce effectively refers to any downforce generated by manipulating airflow over the car, such as over the wings and the bargeboards we saw on the pre-2022 cars. While these components can generate incredible amounts of downforce, they also produce a lot of dirty air.
Dirty air is turbulent air that is sent out the back of the cars as a result of being disturbed by components like the wings. This turbulent air is analogous to the wake behind a boat, and cars traveling through this dirty air experience difficulty generating downforce. This is good on the straights (as it creates a slipstream effect), but it’s bad in the corners.
The Effect Of Air Density
If we think back to our equation from earlier that showed us how downforce was related to the density of the air, this makes a lot more sense. You want high downforce in the corners to produce maximum grip and reach as high a speed as possible without going off the track. This means you want to increase all the things in that equation that contribute to higher downforce levels.
One of those things is the density of the air. The air behind a car with massive wings and complex bargeboards will be less dense than the air that car is traveling through. This means there is less air for the car directly behind to push over its wings and other downforce generating components, leading to less downforce.
Because downforce is proportional to air density (i.e. as you increase density, you increase downforce, with all other things kept equal), decreasing the air density decreases the amount of downforce the following car can produce. Lowering the maximum downforce reduces the following car’s grip, also reducing its top speed.
Key Fact: This dirty air effect was so powerful in the past that cars would find it difficult to follow each other through corners even if they were several seconds apart!
So, the goal for 2022 and beyond was to reintroduce the ground effect to combat this problem of dirty air. By forcing the cars to make use of underbody components to generate downforce alongside simplified front and rear wings, F1 was able to reduce the effect of dirty air. This allows for closer racing, without a compromise on the speed of the cars.
F1 cars can generate around 2-4 times their weight in downforce at high speeds, with numbers estimated at between 1,500 to more than 3,000 kgs of total downforce (3,300 to 6,600 lbs). However, the exact figures will vary from team to team, and it also depends on their specific setup.
An F1 car is able to generate its own weight in downforce at speeds somewhere around 120 mph. This is obviously fast, but given the cars can reach speeds of 200 mph or more, and because downforce increases as speed increases, it’s clear that the maximum downforce generated by an F1 car would be multiple times its own weight when going closer to its top speed.
A Formula 1 car could drive upside down in theory. This is because the cars can generate well above 2x their weight in downforce, which would be enough to allow them to ‘stick’ to the roof of a tunnel driving upside down. However, other factors could cause problems if the car drove upside down.
Unfortunately for us fans, this has never been tested, which is understandable! Not only would it be difficult to find a driver willing to try it out, but it’s also difficult to create a tunnel that allows a car to drive on the roof.
Even if such a scenario was possible, there’s the risk of the car’s internal components failing as they are not designed to work upside down, which would put the car and the driver at risk. So, in theory a Formula 1 car can drive upside down, but in practice, it’s simply not feasible to test.
F1 cars generate downforce using complex floor designs, diffusers, and various wings and other components. They make use of the ground effect and over body downforce to produce about 2-4 times their weight in downforce. The more downforce the car can produce, the faster it can go around the track.
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