This season saw the biggest shakeup in Formula One car design regulations, which are none power unit, related since 2009. The FIA in an attempt to make it easier for cars to follow each other and overtake on track slashed much of the downforce the F1 cars were deriving from the rear of the car. This lost aero was replaced by a re-introduction of “ground effect” principles last used between 1978-1982.
Put simply, ground effect car designs reduce the space between the floor and the asphalt creating a low pressure area underneath the car. This increases the speed with which the air passes which creates downforce even higher than that from a front and rear wing pushing the car onto the track.
As the car is sucked onto the track this increases cornering speeds but the principle proved highly controversial back in the 1980’s and was ultimately banned form Formula One.
Ground effect in F1 discovered by accident
Colin Chapman and his aerodynamics Peter Wright discovered ground effect when designing the Lotus 78 but by accident. As they redesigned the radiators of their F1 car to reduce drag the tests produced extraordinary levels of downforce. It wasn’t the radiators per se that delivered this but the manner in which the car had been re-engineered to accommodate them.
To improve the low pressure under the car, they added skirts to the floor to seal the area off almost completely. The skirts were fitted as low as possible to generate maximum efficiency and the suspension was adapted to ensure the cars literally just skimmed across the track.
Yet of course the surface F1 cars race on is irregular and back in the day even saw the cars run over small potholes. The cars needed to avoid being unbalanced and so avoided kerbs as much as possible because if the air pressure was broken it would result in an isn’t loss of grip and F1 cars were even flipped over.
The tragedies caused by ground effect F1 cars
However, the drivers experienced ‘porposing’ where the cars would bounce as the pressure was unsealed and resealed repeatedly and the cars were a huge physical challenge without the power steering of today. F1 drivers finished races literally exhausted.
The FIA eventually banned ground effect F1 car designs for 1983 following a number of tragic incidents.
In 1978 Ronnie Peterson and Patrick Depailler were both killed in ground effect related crashes as was Gilles Villenueve in 1982 as his car was launched into the air.
René Arnoux ’s ground effect crash in 1980 saw his car launched into the crowd and Didier Pironi’s car also flew through the air crashing with Alain Prost’s Renault breaking both his legs.
So why was ground effect re-introduced into Formula One for 2022 given its unsafe history?
FIA reintroduces ground effect for 2022
Firstly the return of skirts was not included so the teams attempt to achieve the same ‘sealing effect’ the air using aerodynamic devices which do not touch the asphalt.
Secondly, the circuit surfaces are generally better than they were 40 years ago with safer barriers, greater run off areas and better cockpit crash designs.
Yet at certain bumpy street circuits like Baku in particular the current cars have still struggled there more this season than on the purpose built tracks.
Another significant difference is since 1994 the F1 cars are forced to run a plank under the floor. This prevents the cars from riding too low and also ensures with ground effect that there is no instant loss of downforce.
Red Bull’s Adrian Newey says FIA “missed opportunities”
Red Bull Racing have come out of there blocks strongly since the radical overhaul of the F1 car design regulations for this season though their Technical Director Adrian believes the FIA have “missed opportunities”.
“I’ll be brutally honest, when I first read the regulations, they kind of left me cold,” he told The Red Bulletin.
“And I do still feel that there are a few things that were perhaps missed opportunities.”
Newey doesn’t elaborate on what the missed opportunities are yet one is patently clear; the front wing width should be reduced by 10cm each side which would again reduce the “wash” that affects other cars behind.
Further in the rough and tumble that is turn one and has seen a number of drivers this season lose front wing endplates, this would mitigate this and the debate over the policing of damaged cars by the use of black and orange flags would surely be diminished.
Surprisingly F1 cars designed differently
“But it’s obviously easy to be critical. As we got into them, then I actually started to enjoy them. They made it quite complex. I think I can speak for the whole team—that overall, we’ve really enjoyed the challenge of this new set of regulations,” Newey continues.
“It has been a surprise, but a good one. When we first looked at the regulations, the initial reaction was that all the cars are going to look the same.
“As you get into them, it is true of some areas—around the front wheels, the rear wheels, the brake ducting, the nose and upper rear wing and end plates. As we feared, those areas look very similar across the grid.
“But the sidepods are actually very open, and we now have this happy situation, in my view, that just about every team has come up with its own different interpretation of the best aerodynamic solution.”
Red Bull have clearly interpreted the new regulations better than their competitors, but as Lewis Hamilton recently observed: “Adrian obviously did his thesis on ground effect cars at university so it’s no surprise that what he’s done and created this year is impressive.”
F1 pecking order shaken up
Ferrari have done the next best job in the 2022 car design stakes and only due to their mistakes and power unit reliability have Mercedes flattered to deceive and are close behind the Italian team in third place at present.
Newey notes the effect of the last big rule change in Formula One’s recent history.
“If you look at the last major rule change for this in 2009, you also see Ferrari and McLaren relinquishing their dominance to Brawn and Red Bull. These kinds of rule changes quickly lead to a changing of the guard.”
Clearly the guard has changed the the dominance of Mercedes for 8 consecutive season has been brought to an abrupt end.
One other effect of the 2022 car designs is the grid has closed up somewhat as Newey observes: “Alfa Romeo and Haas have moved further forward than ever before and McLaren and Aston Martin have fallen back slightly,”
As TJ13 revealed yesterday, Toto Wolff has realised the changing of the guard has set Mercedes back significantly such that he’s unsure whether Hamilton can challenge for another F1 drivers’ title for the significant future.
Ferrari: The hope for a Red Bull F1 challenge in 2023
The new car design regulations were proposed due to the delay from 2021 to 2026 of the next generation of F1 power units. Yet for many fans of the sport it must be positive that there’s been a shakeup on the grid.
Hopefully Ferrari will improve the reliability of the power unit over the winter and send their strategists on an extensive training course. Then we may see a real challenge from the Italians to the dominance of the Red Bull team in 2023.
READ MORE: Sky F1 executives negotiate peace talks with Red Bull
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 7, 2022