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Deadly Tech: What fans ought to know & how it’s not going to solve F1 today (PT2)

Ground Effects – F1’s Deadly Technology PART 2


But there was trouble on the horizon for ground effects. As teams understood the dynamics better and made more and more effective use of the technology, they started to see dangerously high corning speeds. And in 1980 there was an escalating number of accidents caused by drivers losing the ground effect in corners and spinning wildly off track. Then sadly we saw the first driver death that was principally caused by ground effects, when Patrick Depailler testing an Alfa, lost ground effects at the Ostkurve in Hockenheim and went into the guardrails.

Depailler’s death triggered a political war in F1 with Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo and FISA on one side and Bernie Ecclestone and FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association) on the other. FISA wanted an outright ban on ground effects, while FOCA made up mainly of the British privateers saw it as a way to level the playing field against the manufacturers, especially as the FOCA teams knew that Ferrari and Alfa Romeo were testing turbo engines ( Renault already had one) and they would be stuck with the under-powered Cosworth’s. Without ground effects the FOCA teams knew they’ be sitting ducks. Eventually a compromise was worked out. For 1981 the underneath of the car could stay as it was but the side skirts had to go.

In F1 rules are made to be circumvented, and the teams soon found a way around the ban. Gordon Murray at Brabham figured out a way to lower the skirts on the track and raise them in the pits when they were being scrutineered. The rest of the teams followed. The Cosworth powered teams had another lease on life. FISA realizing how easily the skirt banned had been circumvented and still fearful that FOCA might leave F1 over the issue relented and dropped the skirt ban all together for 1982. But there was a bigger problem ahead – ground effects and turbo’s.

For 1982 fours teams would run turbo powered cars. Renault, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Brabham. A lot of people knew that ground effects and turbo cars were a recipe for disaster, and sadly they were to be proved right.

The published horsepower of the 1982 Cosworth DFV was 495. For the turbo’s, Ferrari Tipo 021/2 610 HP, the Renault EF1 590 HP and the BMW M12/13 620 HP. The turbo cars were producing on average 20% more HP than a Cosworth. That extra HP translated into a 15 mph – 20 mph advantage on many long straights. That’s actually more of a speed differential than this year when comparing the McLaren Honda to Mercedes or Ferrari. That extra horsepower coupled with again full ground effects immediately showed itself.

The turbo cars won the three of the first four races, leaving the Cosworth’s in their dust. Then Belgium. Villeneuve touched the back of Mass’s March, lost the ground effect and was launched into the air, the Ferrari then hit the ground nose first and threw Villeneuve across the track where he died. Four races later at Zandvoort, the suspension on Arnoux’s Renault collapsed due to the extra downforce the turbo car created, plowing into a tyre barrier and just coming short of going into the crowd. Even the Cosworth powered cars were having frightening accidents when they lost their ground effects. Baldi and Mass tangled and both went flying into a crowd enclosure and narrowly missed hitting spectators. The next race in Germany saw almost a repeat of Belgium. Pironi touched the rear of Prost’s Renault, went airborne and then the nose plowed into the ground. Luckily Pironi remained in the car, but his legs were crushed and he never drove in F1 again. FISA had seen enough, ground effects were banned, flat bottomed cars were made mandatory for 1983 and onward.

More recently ground effect was on the table again courtesy of a suggestion from Red Bull and Adrian Newey, a few years prior to the current aero regulations we have today. At the time Jenson Button was on record admitting that this could help reduce the issues with turbulent air:

“If you’re going to work with downforce it should come from the floor rather than the wings, because you can race closer and fight, and you don’t have as much dirty air from the wings for the car following.”

This re-engineering of fundamental F1 aerodynamics clearly whetted Newey’s appetite.

As true then as it is today, the issue of cost control was never more than one suggestion away from any new idea. At the time, Max Mosley advocated that if teams agree to cap their spend, they may be given greater freedom in this area of development.

Horner was against this proposal, explaining, “There has been a proposal for a budget cap but complete freedom of wind tunnel use and testing but that’s a bit like putting an alcoholic in a wine cellar.”

Another team had suggested standardising the new ground effect floors. Unsurprisingly, Christian Horner believed this was also a bad idea. “The regs are pretty tight as they are, so we wouldn’t want to go anywhere near making it standard.

“It wasn’t a proposal from Red Bull. I don’t think it would do anything, the cost of the floor is pretty marginal at the end of the day, the floor around your gearbox and engine installation has to be unique”.

Some experts say it would be possible for modern single seater racing cars to employ ground effect but modern safety standards would demand enormous compromises if they were left unrestricted. Even bigger run-off areas would put spectators a long way from the action, further ruining the experience for those that pay to watch races at the circuit. Street racing would be out of the question and drivers would very likely need G suits similar to those used by jet fighter pilots.

So there you have it. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see an effective cost cap despite Liberty Media’s intentions and should pandora’s box, that is ground effects, be opened – a run away development situation would surely occur. Today we have F1 cars that produce around 1000HP, close to double that of 1982 – the last occasion we had full ground effects. While the safety of today’s cars is far ahead of those in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the physics haven’t changed. One engineer wrote that full ground effects in a 2017 F1 car could at some bends / corners, Paribolica at Monza being one, create G force’s so high drivers could potentially blackout. Even without ground effect, the high downforce 2017 cars we have now have been known to physically tear up track surfaces.

Ground effects is an interesting subject to read about as part of F1’s history, and that’s where it should stay – part of the sports history and not its future.   @CavallinoRampa2