Deadly Tech: What fans ought to know & how it’s not going to solve F1 today

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

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13 responses to “Deadly Tech: What fans ought to know & how it’s not going to solve F1 today

  1. Ground effects is not dangerous if it is used in conjunction with active suspension. This article is misleading.

  2. Excuse me but I too use the ‘I want manual gears back’ argument. It makes perfect sense! Think about it. H boxes make the driver important again. Plus it generates overtaking possibilities, due to driver errors. And who can’t be impressed if a driver tames nearly 1000bhp with one hand?

    That being said the ground effect conclusion (tomorrow ?) will, hopefully, end the use of that argument. The pic of that Ferrari is a great example.
    And I think some will say but indy uses 60% ground effect. So prepare for that, cav 😉

    • That picture of Villeneuve’s Ferrari 126C2 is misleading. Gilles’ crash was caused by touching wheels not ground effects. In 1982 they used qualifying tires which were good for only one hot lap. GE got blamed unfairly. The problem with GE cars occurred in 1981 after the FIA banned skirts. In 1978-1980 GE was not a problem. The cars still had suspension compliance. You could visibly see the cars take a set into a corner as the car dived due to weight transfer. There was spring movement. The problem started in 1981 when skirts were banned. That’s when the springs became rock hard. That’s when they struggled to keep the sidepods close to the ground by using stiff springs. When the cars hit a kerb they bounced off uncontrollably. See Villeneuve in the British GP 1981. Active suspension solves all that and solves the porpoising problem caused by excessive unbalanced downforce. This article is another typical doomsday scare tactic.

        • Active suspension can have built in safe guards. Williams had it on their 1992 & 1993 system. Mansell specifically asked for it because the consequences without it are horrendous. Yes, Zanardi did have an AS failure at Spa, but his suspension design was different. Senna had no active suspension when he crashed his car at Imola in 1994. The FIA had banned it for the 1994 season. If the FIA had not banned active suspension for 1994 Senna might not have had his tragic accident. There are many who believe that Senna’s crash was caused by his car bottoming out after hitting those 3 bumps at Tamburello, rather than steering column failure. In fact those bumps may have caused his suspension to fail and collapse. Active suspension may have saved him.It would have maintained a safe ride height to keep the car bottom off the track. The different suspension design of the AS system would have been more resilient to those Tamburello bumps.
          Ground effects is not dangerous if it is used together with active suspension.To say otherwise is just plain wrong.

          • My error about Senna / 1994. But if we go back one year to Imola in 1993 – Senna, Andretti and Berger all had active suspension failures which put the into the guardrails.F1 wants rid of driver aids and you seem to be suggesting that they be increased.Take a corner wrong – don’t worry the car will sort it out for you.

          • Active suspension can be safe if properly designed, just like anything else. Williams proved it. F1 teams have already agreed to bring back a standard active suspension system to prevent arguments over trick hydraulic suspension systems. Active suspension is no more a driver aid than is the trick hydraulic suspension systems that Mercedes and Red Bull were running in 2016. Active suspension is all about controlling ride height to maintain a level and stable ride height. That is done for one reason and one reason only. That reason is to enhance ground effects downforce. Suspension compliance over bumps is a side benefit that benefits ground effects downforce. In fact Colin Chapman started to investigate active suspension in an effort to control and manage the unbalanced porpoising oscillations that were caused by excessive GE downforce. It wasn’t done because of bumps. GE is not a problem anymore IF it is used with active suspension.

          • The many, were people at Williams defending themselves on manslaughter charges.

            What most people forget/ ignore is that the previous lap, the one following release from behind the safety car, Senna completed it in what would remain the 3rd fastest lap of the race.

            This would have been on tyres which had lost pressure and were being reactivated again to the correct temperatures and pressure.

            If the bumps were culpable on the lap he crashed, then surely they would have been even more dangerous the lap before with the car bottoming out…

            As to the ridiculous notion that taking away AS contributed to the accident, absolute poppycock. AS had been around in racing form since 1987 and was banned six years later. F1 is 67 years old, it’s almost as though the teams and media colluded to deceive about the true parameters behind the sport. Again!!

          • What you fail to realize is that with the flat bottom cars of 1994 the faster they went the greater the downforce. As Senna’s car went faster the car would have been pushed down more which would have countered the increased tire pressure. Furthermore, Michael Schumacher told the investigators that on lap 6 Senna almost lost control of the car over those Tamburello bumps. It is entirely plausible that those bumps contributed to suspension failure or the car bottoming out in some manner, which would have caused a loss of control on lap 7.
            As for your inference that the banning of active suspension had no significance that is absolutely wrong. The flat bottom cars of 1992 & 1993 generated their downforce from running as close as possible to the ground. The closer they ran the greater the downforce. Active suspension was crucial in maintaining ride height and attitude. When active was banned it because extremely difficult to control the ride height and manage bumps and more importantly, ground clearance. Williams were having tremendous problems balancing ride height and downforce. The loss of active suspension was a crucial part of this accident. No one knows for sure if the steering column failure was a cause or result of the crash. Damon Hill believes Senna’s crash was due to going too fast over the bumps at Tamburello. He knew first hand how tricky the 1994 Williams was to drive. Active suspension would have made dealing with those bumps much easier and would have lessened the impact and stress on the car.

  3. It would be interesting to see today with 1000 HP if any driver could get a manually operated gearbox to last six consecutive races?

    The use of ground effects in Indycar is limited to super-speedways like Indianapolis. It’s not being used on road courses or short-ovals.

    • That ‘last six races’ is what’s wrong with f1. But yeah you’re right about that. But you can’t deny it would bring back more action and drivers would be more in charge.

      • The ironic part is that the cost of developing the paddle operated dual-clutch gearboxes is probably greater than using a new manual one each race.

    • I didn’t know the indy thing. Damn, should’ve know when I had a discussion a while back. Would’ve ended his argument straight away.

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