Ground Effects – F1’s Deadly Technology PART 1
I don’t know how many times I’ve read, usually from a young F1 fan, of the technology issues that F1 has today and how they would fix it. The comment usually starts after a processional race and how DRS and aero has ruined racing, and then evolves into “if we could just go back to the 1970’s / 80’s or even the 1990’s, when engineers could do just about whatever they wanted, we’d have ‘real’ racing”.
They then rattle off the standard checklist of items that need to be eliminated or brought back from the past. Some of which are – getting rid of the front and rear wings, more “mechanical grip”, unlimited turbo boost, a return to manual gear selection, active suspension and invariably – ground effects. Then a link to YouTube showing the battle between Villeneuve and Arnoux at Dijon in 1979, with the comment “this is how it should be”. And maybe it should be, if you want to get rid of carbon fibre wings and body work that shatter into a million pieces when hit, and go back to aluminum which simply bends. But that discussion is for another day. What I want to address is the belief that many fans have, that bringing back ground effects is a part of the answer for today’s lack of overtaking. I’ll look at what it is, what it did, the politics surrounding the technology and why it was ultimately banned in 1982 and shouldn’t be brought back to F1.
Enzo Ferrari once said, “Aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines.” While “Il Commendatore” might have been right at the beginning of F1 in 1950, but over time, he’s generally been wrong. Outside of the turbo era’s, dominance in F1 since the 1960’s has almost always had more to do with the aerodynamicist’s than with the engine department.
While Ferrari and the other Italian factory teams in the 1950’s put much of their effort into developing their engines, the emerging British privateers, helped by an abundance of aerospace engineers from the war and having to rely on underpowered customer engines from company’s like Alta and Climax, put their resources into aerodynamics. By the early 1960’s the sleek aerodynamically efficient cars from the likes of Cooper, Lotus and BRM were dominating F1. The age of simply relying on a powerful engine to win was over.
Throughout the early and mid-1960’s aero development in F1 was focused on making cars as efficient as possible, with most looking like cigar tubes. As the speed of the cars increased from this efficiency, teams began looking at ways to counter-act the problem of cars getting launched into the air if they hit bumps and losing grip in corners. Several teams experimented with the use of wings but nothing came out of it. That is until 1968 when Lotus introduced the 49B at Monaco with its high mounted rear wing and moustache type front wings. The car easily won Monaco for Graham Hill, but what was really striking was that he out-qualified his teammate Jackie Oliver by 3.5 seconds in a wingless Lotus 49. The age of engineered downforce had begun. 1968 was also notable as the FIA lifted all sponsorship restrictions, something that would have significance shortly.
Throughout the rest of the late 1960’s and into the early 1970’s, teams experimented with just about every conceivable wing design. FISA (Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile) then the FIA sport’s governing body banned high mounted wings and required them to be connected directly to the chassis. That regulation, plus others on size and position, was to gradually establish the front and rear wing “look” that we see even today.
The 1972 season was one of F1’s more significant. In fact it may have been F1’s most significant. The significance wasn’t that Emerson Fittapaldi won his first F1 WC and become the youngest driver to do so, though that was notable. Nor was it from any ground-breaking engineering in a car. It was from what was painted on the Lotus and BRM – full tobacco sponsorship. While tobacco sponsorship wasn’t new to Lotus, they had Gold Leaf since 1968, this was different. John Player was creating a brand around F1 with JPS. Philip Morris was doing the same thing with Marlboro, first with BRM and then with McLaren. The ban on tobacco ads on TV and radio was starting to take effect in Europe and North America, and the large tobacco company’s saw F1 as an ideal global marketing vehicle and starting pouring millions of dollars into it. The effect was dramatic. With long-term tobacco sponsorship teams were no longer having to survive hand to mouth. Long term development could be planned and the last technologies purchased. F1 would never be the same.
We now jump to 1975. The engineers in F1 had continued to make wings more and more efficient, with greater and greater levels of downforce. But that downforce came at a cost as wings also produce drag. The extra time you gained from downforce in corners and chicanes, was lost to drag on the straights. Engineers starting looking for ways to keep the downforce and eliminate drag. And in 1975 Lotus seemed to have discovered how to do it.
The Lotus engineers came up with the idea that instead of using wings to push the car onto the track, use the underside of the car to create downforce, sucking it down onto the ground much like a vacuum cleaner. While the idea was novel in F1, the principle was well understood in the aerospace industry. Instead of creating high pressure under the wing and lower pressure above, which generated lift, you reversed the process and created downforce. It was simply nothing more than an inverted aircraft wing.
The difficult part of creating this inverted airfoil was that the engine – gearbox assembly had to remain effectively level, thus using all of the underneath of the car wasn’t possible. The only solution was to effectively create inverted airfoils on either side of the car. Lotus hit on the idea of using Venturi tunnels placed in the sidepods.
The only practical way to test the concept was in a wind tunnel, and here the tobacco sponsorship money came into play as it allowed Lotus to rent time at a full sized wind tunnel, something that just a few years before would have been financially out of their reach.
Once the Lotus engineers, principally Colin Chapman, Peter Wright and Tony Rudd, were able to get into the wind tunnel with a prototype car they were astonished at the amount of downforce the car produced. It was like nothing they had ever seen before. The other benefit they observed was that drag was minimal, much less than the wings on their existing cars produced. They also realized that by adding skirts to the side of the car they could stop air from spilling out – which created even more downforce. And from that the Lotus 78 was born.
Introduced at the start of the 1977 season, the Lotus 78 ushered in the era of ground effects in F1. Technically there were still lots of problems with the car. The suspension had to be rock hard to keep the skirts as close to the ground as possible to prevent air escaping and reducing downforce. The car produced too much downforce at the front requiring a much larger rear wing to balance it and stop it from porpoising. Three fuel tanks were used to get the weight distribution correct. During the 1977 season the car suffered from poor reliability, but when it did finish it usually won. With Andretti and Nilsson winning five out of seventeen races.
The 78 would be used for the first five races of the 1978 season while development was being finished on the car that for many people is when ground effects really started – the Lotus 79. With the 79 Lotus had solved the problems that plagued the 78. Introduced in Belgium the 79 was virtually unbeatable. From Belgium until the end of the season it won ten of eleven poles and six races, giving Mario Andretti a WC.
It didn’t take the other teams long to figure out what Lotus was doing. While Lotus lost the plot in 1979 with the 80 – Ferrari, Williams and Ligier made ground effects even more effective. It’s interesting to note that this year we think that pole times of a second or two better than a couple of years ago is astonishing. Yet in 1977 Hunt set pole at the British GP at Silverstone in a non-ground effects car with a 1:18.49 time, and two years later Alan Jones in a Williams’s ground effects car at Silverstone took pole with a 1:11.88 – more than six and a half seconds faster in a car that had essentially the same straight-line speed as Hunt had.
READ PART 2