What Is A Tow In F1? (Slipstream Explained)

Many teams, drivers, and even F1 commentators will often refer to a tow or slipstream during qualifying and the race. It’s an important element of Formula 1 and motorsport in general. It’s useful to gain an understanding of what a tow is in F1 and why the slipstream is so important.

A tow in F1 is when one car follows closely behind another one on a straight. The lead car will “punch a hole in the air,” meaning there is less air resistance for the car behind to get through. This allows the trailing car to reach a higher top speed and get closer to the car in front.

The slipstream is incredibly powerful in Formula 1. However, it is more powerful on some circuits than others. Below, we take a closer look at the tow in F1 and explain why slipstreaming is so important.

What Is A Tow In F1?

A tow in F1, also known as a slipstream, is when one car drives closely behind another on a straight, allowing them to catch up and to go faster. The car in front effectively pushes the air out of the way of the car behind, reducing the air resistance that the trailing car must overcome.

When the lead car drives down the straight it’s effectively punching a hole in the air, due to its large shape and complex aerodynamic design. Directly behind the car is a pocket of air that is less dense and therefore easier to get through, since most of the air is moved out of the way by the lead car cutting through it. If another car gets into this pocket it will be able to go much faster.

This is because there is less resistance that the car needs to push through in order to achieve its top speed. The biggest factor that limits a car’s top speed is the resistance from the air in front of it (also known as drag).

By minimizing drag, a car can go faster without its engine having to work harder. This is ideal because the car behind can gain a massive advantage in speed without having to adjust any of their setups to go faster (which would otherwise result in a loss of downforce and slower cornering speeds). It’s effectively like a free speed boost on the straights.

Slipstreaming In F1 Explained

The slipstream is another word that is used instead of a tow. Slipstreaming in Formula 1 is much more powerful than many other motorsports and it can be incredibly helpful. In your average road car, you could catch a slipstream behind another one. However, the effect is minimal and you likely won’t even notice the difference that it makes.

However, if a Formula 1 car was to tuck right in behind another one they would be able to gain a big advantage in speed, sometimes up to 20 miles per hour depending on how long the straight is. This will make them faster than the car ahead and give them the opportunity to overtake.

Getting A Tow Off Your Teammate

Many teams use the tow to their advantage in a more strategic way, especially in qualifying. On circuits with long straights, such as Spa and Monza, teams will often send their cars out together so that one driver can give the other a tow, allowing their teammate to set a faster lap time.

A Formula 1 car can catch a slipstream from quite far away, with some estimating the ideal distance for a tow being as much as 5+ seconds behind another car. The car can pick up a decent tow when it is up to two seconds behind another car, but it becomes extremely powerful when the trailing car is within one second of the car ahead, attempting an overtake.

How Important Is A Tow In F1?

A tow can be very important in Formula 1. This is especially true for cars that do not have powerful engines or low drag setups. Many drivers have to rely on catching a tow in order to overtake or to be competitive in qualifying.

A driver can use a tow from their teammate to gain an advantage on the straights if they have a high downforce setup. Having a high downforce setup will give the driver an advantage in the corners, but they will lose out on the straight. Using a tow, they can mitigate this disadvantage that they will be experiencing on the straights by getting a tow from their teammate.

When it comes to overtaking during the race the slipstream is crucial. If a driver gets a good exit onto a long straight it will give them an excellent opportunity to catch a tow from the car ahead. If they successfully catch a tow they can create an opportunity to overtake into the next corner with the top speed advantage that they gain.

The leading driver can try to break the tow by weaving. Weaving across the track means the following car must do the same to stay in the slipstream, which is also just made slightly less effective as a result. However, weaving on the straight will also naturally slow the car down. The FIA has also clamped down on weaving on the straights as it can be dangerous.

Sometimes A Tow Is Not As Important

A tow can be extremely powerful if it is used on what is known as a power circuit. A power circuit has a massive focus on engine power because it is largely made up of long straights. However, with a tow, a car can go faster without the engine having to work harder, which can be a huge benefit.

On other circuits though, it’s not as beneficial to get a tow from another car. Circuits such as Monaco, for example, have very short straights and the cars often don’t reach higher top speeds. In these scenarios a tow does not make much of a difference to the car behind, and the cars are set up for higher downforce to gain more speed in the corners.

However, a tow will always be beneficial in the race as the following car attempts to overtake the car ahead of them. Getting into the slipstream of the car ahead will help the following car to catch up and achieve a higher top speed, allowing them to pull alongside the car in front of them and attempt an overtake going into the next corner.

Why Is The Slipstream So Powerful In Formula 1?

The slipstream is so powerful in Formula 1 because of the way the cars are designed. With a massive focus on downforce and aerodynamics, F1 cars naturally go much faster on the straights than many other motorsport series, and their aero designs move a lot of air out of the way as they race.

You may have seen a tow being used in other branches of motorsport, but it’s more powerful in F1. Sometimes the cars are able to pick up a tow from a long way back, and this comes down to the way that the cars have been designed.

Formula 1 cars are built with aerodynamic efficiency in mind, and they have also been designed to produce as much downforce as possible while minimizing drag. Producing this massive amount of downforce requires the use of big wings and other components on the cars. These disturb the air behind the car (creating what is known as dirty air), which affects the cars behind.

With such a long trail of dirty air behind the car, the slipstream can be picked up from the further back. It also becomes much more powerful the closer the following car gets to the lead car, as the air is more “disturbed” and therefore offers less resistance, meaning the following car can move through it much faster.

How Have The 2022 Aero Regulations Changed Slipstreams?

The 2022 season saw some of the biggest aerodynamic changes in the history of F1. These changes not only impacted the way that the cars handle, but also how the air flows off the back of the car, with the main aim being to reduce the amount of dirty air that the cars produce behind them.

This dirty air provides less resistance, which is great for catching a tow, but it’s also bad for the downforce of the car when going through the corners. The new rules aim to make the cars easier to follow in the corners by directing the dirty air upwards and over the following car using components like the beam wing.

However, doing this is slightly detrimental to the powerful slipstream that Formula 1 has had in the past few years. A lot of the dirty air that offers less resistance is now directed upwards and over the following car, which means the pocket of less dense air behind the cars is smaller than it was before.

The slipstream is still powerful with the new aerodynamic changes, but its effectiveness has somewhat reduced. However, with the cars being able to follow closer in the corners, the idea is that any loss in slipstream effectiveness is made up for by the fact that the cars shouldn’t need to challenge cars in front from such a long way back on the straight in the first place.

Is DRS Still Necessary In F1?

With the new rule changes, many have fans have been questioning whether Formula 1 still needs the drag reduction system (DRS). The DRS is the flap in the rear wing that opens and allows more air to flow through the rear wing, creating less drag and allowing the car to reach a higher top speed.

DRS has been helpful in creating more overtaking opportunities. However, it has been the topic of much controversy ever since it was introduced. Many fans and drivers believe that it makes the racing more artificial by helping the car behind with a top speed advantage over the car ahead of them.

With the aerodynamic rule changes, the aim is to eventually remove DRS from the sport by slowly phasing it out. It remains to be seen whether this will happen, and the sport is currently still reliant on DRS to create lots of overtaking opportunities.

Final Thoughts

The tow in Formula 1 allows a car to tuck in behind another one and gain a speed advantage. The tow works by the lead car moving a lot of the dense air out of the way of the car behind. This can create an overtaking opportunity or allow them to improve their lap time during qualifying.

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