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Why Did F1 Ban Ground Effects?

The idea concept of ground effects in F1 resurfaced for the 2022 season. The ground effect is essentially what keeps the car sucked into the tarmac without using massive wings or a huge amount of bodywork on the sides of the cars. Ground effects used to be in F1 decades ago, before they were banned.

F1 banned the ground effect in the 1980s because the FIA felt that the ever increasing cornering speeds were becoming too dangerous. If the ground effect was disturbed, cars would lose so much of their downforce at one time that it just became too risky, and the ground effect was banned in 1983.

The ground effect is a clever concept that was developed in F1 in the 1970s. The concept uses tunnels underneath the floor to create a vacuum that effectively sucks the car into the tarmac and helps it to produce a massive amount of downforce. Below, we take a closer look at ground effects in F1.

What Are Ground Effects In F1?

The ground effect in F1 is a concept that involves effectively using the entire car as a ‘wing’ to generate downforce and stick to the track. Teams did not have intricate wings and bodywork designs to produce a lot of downforce in the early days, so the ground effect was used instead.

In order to create this downforce, the cars had “tunnels” (known as Venturi tunnels) carved into their floors. These tunnels force the air under the car to move through a tight space, and this causes them to speed up. The faster moving air generated an area of lower pressure. This area of low pressure under the car effectively “sucks” the car to the ground.

A Different Way To Create Downforce

This creates downforce, but in a completely different way to how more recent F1 cars do it. Without massive front and rear wings and complex bargeboards, F1 cars from 2021 for example wouldn’t have much downforce. Rear wings are the easiest to consider in terms of how they produce downforce (bargeboards are a little more complex), and it creates a useful comparison with the ground effect.

The rear wing of an F1 car is designed to squeeze air underneath it, much like the ground effect does with the Venturi tunnels. This forces air under the wing to move faster than the air above the wing, creating an area of low pressure under the wing, therefore creating downforce. The problem is that wings also create drag, and importantly for the 2022 F1 regulations, a lot of dirty air.

The Problem Of Dirty Air

Dirty air is turbulent air that leaves the back of an F1 car – creating an area of low pressure behind the car – as a result of interacting with all of the complex wings and bargeboards etc. While the lead car benefits from increased downforce, this dirty air thrown out the back limits the impact of the downforce creating components on cars behind it, making it harder to follow other cars.

While that’s the main reason the 2022 F1 cars look so different to their predecessors, it’s the element of drag that originally made the ground effect so lucrative for F1 teams in the past. Big wings produce a lot of downforce, allowing for fast cornering. But they also create drag, which is essentially a force working against the direction the car is traveling in.

Reducing Drag

As the rear wings are great at utilizing low pressure areas below them to suck the car to the ground, at high speeds, they also leave a low pressure area behind them. This low pressure at the back and higher pressure at the front arrangement at high speeds means the car is constantly battling a kind of “suction” effect trying to pull the car backwards.

This limits top speeds on the straights, so the ideal solution was to limit the sizes of the wings, obviously losing out on downforce, but also minimizing drag. Then, the ground effect could be used to make up the downforce losses, without having to worry too much about drag. This led to some very fast cars!

The ground effect became so effective that more and more teams started using it. The ground effect was great for older cars that were less powerful and lacked downforce from wings and bodywork. However, when the cars became more powerful, and cornering speeds increased rapidly, the issue of safety become more important.

When Were Ground Effects First Introduced?

Ground effects were first used in F1 in the late 1970s. Colin Chapman’s Lotus 79 took the F1 world by storm by being the first car to fully utilize the ground effect, after testing it the year before. The Lotus, with Mario Andretti at the wheel, was driven to championship glory in that season.

Why Were Ground Effects Banned In F1?

Ground effects were banned in F1 because, as the cars began to corner at higher and higher speeds, it became very dangerous when cars suddenly lost the suction effect created by the ground effect tunnels under the car. This could happen relatively easily, causing the car to lose downforce.

Essentially, teams realized that a great way to maximize the ground effect and gain even more downforce was to attach skirts to the sides of the cars. This effectively sealed off the edge of the floor of the car, very close to the ground, meaning the airflow under the car wasn’t able to escape out the sides.

This made the Venturi tunnels extremely effective. However, if the skirts broke, or if the car raised up significantly going over a bump or kerb, the seal would break, causing the air pressure under the car to rapidly increase as the airflow was disturbed and the tunnels lost their effectiveness. This would cause the cars to effectively lose almost all of their downforce instantaneously.

When Were Ground Effects Banned In F1?

Ground effects were banned in F1 in the form of various other regulation changes, namely a ban on skirts in 1981 (that was later reversed in 1982) and a rule that required all cars to have flat bottoms from 1983. This formally meant the ground effect wasn’t seen on F1 cars until 2022.

How The Ground Effect Works On 2022 F1 Cars

In 2022 the ground effect made its return to F1. It had been almost 40 years since we last saw a car that uses ground effect in the sport. However, teams and the FIA have learned from the past, and have designed it to be safer and more effective for 2022 and onwards.

Engineers simply have a much better understanding of aerodynamics now than they did in the 1970s and 1980s, and they know how to safely implement it. With proper wings and bodywork on the cars, the ground effect will still be effective, but it won’t be the only downforce producing component on the car. Importantly, from 2022 onwards, there won’t be the controversial and dangerous skirts.

Why Was The Ground Effect Brought Back In 2022?

The ground effect is returning to F1 because overtaking has become increasingly difficult in recent years. The cars have become larger and more focused on producing massive amounts of downforce using large wings and complex bargeboards.

This downforce made the cars faster through the corners, but this caused a wake of dirty air to flow off the back of the car. This dirty air disrupts the downforce of the car behind, causing them to lose grip and become slower when they’re within a few car lengths of the car ahead.

The solution was to get the cars to produce cleaner air in their wake by removing a lot of the excess wings that disrupt the airflow over the car. Bringing the ground effect back into the sport allows F1 cars to produce enough downforce to take corners at high speeds, even with simplified wings and bargeboards, and therefore making the cars easier to follow with less of an impact of dirty air.

Final Thoughts

F1 banned ground effects in the 1980s as the FIA deemed them to be unsafe at that time. When the seal between the cars’ skirts and the track was broken, such as when they went over kerbs or if the skirt broke, the cars lost a massive amount of downforce, and they could easily spin out of control.