How can the cars go so fast?

With its on-board computers, cockpit and aerodynamic structure, the modern Formula One car probably has more in common with a fighter jet than it does with the Volkswagen sitting in your driveway!

Making the car as aerodynamic as possible has become the crucial factor in Formula One, as the big teams realise that split seconds of speed can be the difference between success and failure over the course of a season.

In light of this, each team spends millions of pounds on research and development in the field each year.

In terms of aerodynamics, a Formula One car designer has two primary goals. The first is the creation of downforce, which helps push the car’s tyres closer to the track which in turn improves their cornering ability. The second main goal is to minimise turbulence from the track’s surface which causes the car to slow down. This is known as the car’s drag.

Modern Formula One teams have vast technological resources at their disposal. Every car is tested in full-sized wind tunnels and all kinds of computer power is used to assess the cars aerodynamics. Basically speaking, the idea is to create the maximum amount of downforce for the minimum amount of drag or downforce. Wings are a vital part of this equation, and are now a familiar site on all Formula One cars. They operate on almost the same principles as aircraft wings, only in reverse. Air flows at different speeds over the two sides of the wing by having to travel different distances over its contours. This creates a difference in pressure.

While planes use their wings to create lift, race cars use theirs to create downforce. A modern Formula One car is capable of developing three and a half times their own weight in aerodynamic downforce. While it might all sound like the same idea, the primary wings mounted on the front and rear of each are actually fitted with different profiles depending on the downforce requirements of the track they’re about to race on.

For example, the streets on Monaco, which is quite a slow circuit, requires more aggressive wing profiles in order to generate downforce. This is because the slower the car is going the less wind pressure there is. In Monaco, you will generally see that cars run two separate ‘blades’ on the rear wings. Two is the maximum number of blades permitted.

In Monza, which is regarded as a high-speed circuit, teams will strip the cars of as much wing as possible, in order to reduce drag and increase the cars speed on the long straights.

Aerodynamics have become so important in Formula One that there is not a single surface of a modern Formula One car, including the driver’s helmet, that doesn’t have its aerodynamic effects considered. While this might sound excessive, it is all carefully thought out. For example, one potential hazard to the designers is the amount of heat a Formula One car generates. Designers can’t have too much air skidding off their cars, as much of this airflow is needed to keep the car cool and prevent it from overheating.