#F1 History: Aerodynamics in Formula One – Part I

Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler Jennie Mowbray 

The first in a two part series looking into the F1 aerodynamic evolution.  

1968:  When Formula One Cars Grew Wings

It was in 1968 that man first orbited the moon in the Apollo 8 spacecraft and it was also 1968 that saw the first wings fastened onto Formula One cars. The first took men higher into space than they had ever been before, but the function of the second was to keep them closer to the ground.

Graham Hill arrived at Monaco in May, 1968 with modest front wings and a very subtle rear spoiler on his Lotus 49B. This was the start of ‘aero’ in Formula 1. Up to this time the cars had only used mechanical grip that was generated though the tyres and suspension system.

Wings had been seen previously on Jim Hall’s Can-Am sports cars.  In 1963, the Chaparral 2 was fitted with front mounted wings to prevent the front wheels from lifting off the ground. Then in 1965, the Chaparral 2C was fitted with a rear wing mounted on pivots and in 1966, a dramatically high wing on the Chaparral 2E.

The use of soft rubber and wider tyres showed that good road adhesion which in turn produced better cornering ability was just as important as a powerful engine in producing fast lap times. This desire to further increase the tyre adhesion led to a major revolution in racing car design, the introduction of inverted wings which then produce negative lift or “downforce”. In addition to enhancing the cornering ability, aerodynamic downforce allowed the tyres to transmit a greater thrust force without wheel spin and this resulted in increased acceleration.

The Lotus 49 demonstrating the larger rear wheels

The Lotus 49 demonstrating the larger rear wheels 

Lotus 49

Even without wings which Colin Chapman so famously introduced the Lotus 49 was a revolutionary car.  It won its first grand prix at the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort with Jim Clark at the wheel.  It was the third grand prix of the season and the engine had been fitted to the car only a few days before.  Jim Clark had not even seen the new car and Graham Hill had only had a few hours behind the wheel.   Graham Hill retired from the lead on lap 11 with a broken tooth in the timing gear.

Clark had been sitting in fourth, but after Hill retired he worked his way up to the lead, overtaking Jack Brabham on the sixteenth lap. Clark went on to win the race by 23 seconds with Brabham in second. The car had performed better than anyone had dreamed and Lotus and Ford were ecstatic.  Not since Fangio had won in a Mercedes in 1954 had a Formula One car performed so well on its first outing.


First Time Out 1967 – Lotus 49 at Zandvoort

South African GP 1968

The 1968 season had started well for Lotus with Jim Clarke winning the first race of the season at Kyalami. He had taken the lead on the second lap and kept it until the end with Graham Hill finishing second 25 seconds behind. It was Clark’s third consecutive GP win in a row; however, it was to be his last.  The tragic event of his death shook the world of Formula One.  Read our on this day article for the full story.

Spanish GP 1968

Before the next race in Spain, Jim Clark had died with Colin Chapman not even showing up at the track.  It was now up to Graham Hill to pull his grieving team together. It had been over two years since Hill’s last victory and he could only manage sixth in qualifying. However, there was less than one second between the top seven drivers.  Team Lotus was also arguing with the authorities in Spain about their new livery and Gold Leaf sponsorship.

Slowly the cars in front of Hill were forced to retire because of mechanical failures or accidents.  Eventually, Hill ended up in the lead after Chris Amon’s fuel pump failed. He was being pursued by Denny Hulme, but Hulme lost his second gear and Hill ended up with the win 16 seconds ahead of Hulme. Graham Hill told reporters, “We badly needed this win just now.  It’s been a long time coming and it could not have happened at a better time.  I reckon I completed 1350 gear changes during the race today. It was real hard work.”

Monaco GP 1968

It was at the next race in Monaco that the Lotus 49 appeared with the first hint of aerodynamic wings.  Despite the team still coming to terms with the death of Jim Clark they unveiled their new Lotus 49B and the press were immediately impressed. It had revised wedge-shaped bodywork and a small front wing.

Lotus 49 front wing Monaco 1968

In November 1967, Jim Clark had raced an American IndyCar called a Vollstedt at Riverside.  The Vollstedt had small front and rear wings and impressed Clark with its grip and stability.  Clark is quoted as saying that the Vollstedt “had driven faster than was thought capable by a mortal man.

During the lead up to the 1968 Teretonga-Tasman race in New Zealand, Clark persuaded his mechanics to build him a rear wing from a helicopter rotor. There appear to be no photos of this and the rear wing wasn’t used in practice, qualifying or the race but the pieces were starting to come together for an innovative way to get more speed in Formula One. An eagle-eyed Ferrari engineer took note of it and the result of what he took back to the Ferrari factory would be seen at the Belgium GP.


A video of  a restored Vollstedt – the same one Clark drove in 1967

Lorenzo Bandini had been killed the year before at Monaco and Ferrari didn’t attend the 1968 race amid reports that the team was not happy with the safety standards at the circuit.  There was also a lot of political unrest in France at the time and threats of a power cut meant the organisers borrowed generators to ensure that the tunnel was not plunged into darkness during the race.

Graham Hill was on pole 0.6 seconds ahead of the next fastest car. Johnny Sevox-Gavin was the first off the start but Hill took the lead early after Servoz-Gavin suffered a driveshaft failure on lap three and crashed his Matra.  Hill then held on to the lead until the end.  Richard Atwood in his BRM gave Hill a fight for the win, setting a lap record on the last lap on the race and finishing only 2.2 seconds behind Hill. They were the only two drivers on the lead lap and only 5 drivers finished the race due to multiple accidents and mechanical failures.

The rear spoiler and front wings that were introduced by Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus at the Monaco GP, on the revolutionary Lotus 49B, were quickly adopted by the other teams.  F1 would never again be without the downforce-generating wings, changing the series forever.

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8 responses to “#F1 History: Aerodynamics in Formula One – Part I

  1. At that time it’s all about empiric trying? When we use the first windtunnel? Who used it?

    Great article.

  2. amazing piece! from back in the days when I had already became forever hooked! to me, the ’67 Lotus 49 was the most beautiful, aggressive looking and purpose built race car ever – before the wings and sponsor-painted cars.
    so happy I got to see Jimmy & Graham in them at Mosort & the Glenn…
    and how interesting that F1 was behind the curve, as you pointed out!
    what a time of amazing technological advancements… even highly restricted Trans Am Camaros, Mustangs, Javelins, and Challengers were sprouting front and rear spoilers. even more surprising, NHRA dragsters were getting heavily into aerodynamics just before 1970.
    and we must not forget the World Land Speed cars of the time…

  3. “Graham Hill arrived at Monaco in May, 1968 with modest front wings and a very subtle rear spoiler on his Lotus 49B. This was the start of ‘aero’ in Formula 1.”

    Strictly speaking the “aero” age started when McLaren introduced the M7A car with a rear wing at the previous race in Spain in 1968.

    • From my research McLaren first fitted their rear wing at Spa (which was the next race after Monaco). I have the book “To Finish First” written by McLaren’s engineer Phil Kerr which describes McLaren’s efforts at Spa to attach a rear spoiler. They used it during practice but due to wet weather on Saturday couldn’t do any more fine tuning and so didn’t use it during the race. I’ve covered this in part 2:)

      The Lotus 49 is now one of my favourite cars too – so sleek and streamlined and I love the way those cars with no down-force slid around corners.

      Jennie (aka Taflach)

  4. McLaren did not use a wing at Spa 1968. Bruce McLaren won the race with a spoiler attached to engine cover. No rear wing, no front wings. In 1967 Lotus fitted spoilers to the nosecone of the 49 and achieved downforce. However, they neglected to provide downforce at the rear…

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