F1 is no stranger to wild innovation, but it is also no stranger to banning new ideas before they even make it to the track. However, some innovations manage to squeeze through the cracks, and they remain within the sport for a season or more. T-wings were one such innovation.
T-wings were aerodynamic components of F1 cars that first appeared in the 2017 season. They helped provide extra downforce, but the FIA changed the rules for the 2018 season onwards, and the current generation of F1 cars don’t have T-wings.
The T-wings used in the 2017 season were some of the most cunning in terms of implementation, making use of a very small loophole in the FIA’s regulations. But looking back on them, just how did they work, and how effective were they at generating downforce?
A Quick Rundown Of Aerodynamics & Downforce
We have talked at length about aerodynamics and downforce in our article about bargeboards in F1 cars (another complex component that’s no longer allowed), but we will briefly go over the basics again here. Essentially, aerodynamics is the discipline that involves how things move in air.
If something is said to be highly aerodynamic, it can move through the air with ease. In the case of a car, this means it can usually go quite fast without experiencing much drag.
Drag is exactly what it sounds like. It is the force that works in the opposite direction to that in which the car is moving as a result of an area of negative pressure behind the car. It effectively drags the car backwards while it drives forwards. Minimizing drag is key, as you want to be able to go as fast as possible in Formula 1. So, steps are taken to make things more aerodynamic.
Aerodynamics vs Downforce
These steps tend to come in the form of different components on the car, such as the front and rear wings, as well as the general shape of the car too. Keeping things narrow and smooth with generally small surface areas is key. But the car also needs to provide a lot of downforce.
Downforce is another intuitive word, literally meaning the downward force pushing the car into the track (or sucking it to the track in the case of the ground effect). More downforce equals more grip, which means faster cornering, which means more successful races. To generate downforce, you usually need to introduce a bit of drag, and so it is from finding the balance between aerodynamics and downforce that the best F1 cars emerge.
Searching For Loopholes
Downforce is always one of the main issues that F1 teams concern themselves with, and so they are always looking for ways to get more downforce without losing power or speed through excess drag, and this often means scrutinizing the rule book to find areas they can exploit. One of the ways that the teams managed this in 2017 was with T-wings.
How Does The T-Wing Work On An F1 Car?
With these basic descriptions of aerodynamics and downforce in mind, we can look at the T-wing as one of the components designed to find that perfect balance between the two. The structure of the T-wing was essentially the shape of the letter T at the back of the car, originally protruding taller than the rear wing but being much narrower. They came in many different shapes and sizes.
They arose due to an exploitable part of the FIA rulebook in 2017, which left this very specific area at the back of the car open to modification. The FIA did not intend for the teams to modify this part of the car, and that is why they then changed the rules for the following seasons.
The teams that year took their own initiative and created some very different T-wings, but they all worked on the same premise. The idea was to generate some extra downforce, but one of the other benefits of the T-wing was to supposedly condition the airflow that hit the rear wing. This is a fairly controversial topic, as many don’t believe that it would have had any effect on the rear wing at all.
The effects of the T-wing on the rear wing’s performance seemed to be very minimal, in some cases even slightly detrimental. This led to the teams inevitably trying all sorts of variations of the T-wing, trying their best to minimize the drag effects that they sometimes caused on the rear wings. But this is where things get a bit too complex for the scope of this article.
But the main benefit of the T-wing was the extra downforce that it generated. It was often referred to as ‘free’ downforce, due to the fact that there was very little drag caused by the T-wing for the amount of downforce it provided. This amount of downforce wasn’t huge, but relative to the size and shape of the wing itself it was very significant and made the T-wings very efficient.
Basically, the shape of the T-wings meant they had a very large aspect ratio. This is something you may have heard of in terms of screens, such as on a phone, laptop or TV. In terms of the T-wing, it basically meant it was much wider than it was deep, meaning it could provide a relatively large amount of downforce without impeding the airflow over the car too much.
More Efficient Than The Rear Wing
This can be compared to the rear wing. The rear wing on an F1 car generates a huge amount of downforce, with estimates (at the time) putting it above 25% of the total amount generated by the car. However, this comes with a price, with the wing having a much lower aspect ratio than the T-wing. In other words, it is wider, but it is also deeper, having a larger footprint against the airflow over the car.
This is where DRS comes in, and you can learn more about that by checking out our article on DRS. DRS effectively splits the rear wing into two, and so the aspect ratio of each part increases and it becomes more aerodynamic at the expense of lost downforce. But the T-wing didn’t generate much drag at all, so why was it then outlawed midway through the 2017 season?
KEY POINTS• There’s a delicate balance to strike between aerodynamic efficiency and downforce
• The T-wing seemed to do a good job of providing downforce with little drag penalty
• Teams came up with various different designs for their T-wings in 2017
Why Was The T-Wing Banned?
Although the FIA did ban the use of the T-wing in 2017, it was only to be implemented at the end of the season. This meant that teams continued to develop their own T-wing concepts. But come 2018, the large T-wings were mostly gone, with some taking on a lower profile shape on the rear wing supports, and I will explain this in the next section.
But problems started to occur quite early on in 2017, with teams struggling with vibrations coming from the T-wings, and they were prone to a lot of wobbling. In several cases, the T-wings fell off the cars. This happened in Bahrain, when Valtteri Bottas’ T-wing came off his car and then Max Verstappen drove over it, causing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to the underside of his Red Bull.
They Fell Off
This was only in a free practice session, but Bottas’ T-wing fell off again a week later in China, and this prompted yet more calls for them to be banned. They seemed to present a safety hazard, but importantly it was an expensive one as well. The FIA has spent a lot of time trying to bring the cost of the sport down, and T-wings were not helping this matter.
After the 2017 season, the big T-wings were never seen again. This received mixed reviews from drivers, teams and fans, as the extra downforce was always going to be a difficult thing to let go of. But this does not mean they did not return to F1 in some form or another, as teams are always looking to innovate in order to get the edge over their opponents in any small ways that they can.
The New T-Wings
Although the FIA banned the T-wings of the 2017 season, the rules surrounding them left room for yet more exploitation. The sometimes-absurd looking tall T-wings of 2017 did disappear, but they simply migrated down lower from 2018, onto the supports of the rear wings themselves. This did seem to change their effects, although they were still useful.
Their new migrated position still allowed them to generate extra downforce, but it was somewhat less so than in their previous elevated position. Their main purpose therefore appeared to now be the conditioning of the airflow over the rear wing. As they were now level with or below the rear wings in terms of height, their effects on the airflow over them were much greater.
Not Always Used
But teams picked and chose when to use them. As their effects were still being observed and as each track required a different setup, their usage was not constant during a season. At tracks that required more downforce for the fast corners, we tended to see more T-wings on show, but it was clear that some of the teams were not concerned with them, and they put their focus elsewhere on the car.
Key Fact: T-wings disappeared with the 2022 aerodynamic regulation changes, but we now have similar components in the beam wings
The T-wing was an aerodynamic and downforce component added to F1 cars during the 2017 season, which arose due to a loophole in the rulebook. It was an efficient provider of downforce, but due to their proneness to falling off and the safety hazard and financial risk they presented to the teams, they were banned for the 2018 season onwards.
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