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The Era of the Formula 1 Wind Tunnel

Aerodynamics Take Over Where Tires Leave Off

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The Era of the Formula 1 Wind Tunnel

Williams' second wind tunnel, pictured here, can use full-sized models of the racing car.

Photo (c) WilliamsF1 Team

Racing cars used to be about big, fat, slick rubber tires and engine grease. In the last couple of decades, Formula 1 has become all about aerodynamics.

Although wings have been clamped onto Formula 1 cars since the late 1960s, today their development has become a science, the main tool of which is the wind tunnel. All teams now either own or rent wind tunnels, and some teams staff them 24 hours a day, seven days per week.

Principles of Car Aerodynamics

Unlike airplanes wings, which give lift, racing car wings point in the opposite direction to provide downforce. As its name implies, downforce presses the car to the track. This provides extra grip, particularly in cornering.

The Wind Tunnel Craze

To develop the car aerodynamics, teams spend an average of about $50 million to build a wind tunnel at their factory. It is one piece of equipment that separates the big budget teams at the front of the grid from the small budget teams at the back of the grid. As with airplane wind tunnels, a car wind tunnel is a massive tube joined at each end and with fans producing airflow. From an operating room beside the tunnel, a team's aerodynamics engineers monitor a model of the Formula 1 car and study the computer signals that define the way it reacts. Rather than moving the model - most are half the size of the real car, but some use full-scale models - the wind moves over the car wings as if the car were traveling at a given speed.

The Engineers Behind the Wind

The wind tunnel is the play area of both aerodynamics engineers and specialists in a branch of aerodynamics called computational fluid dynamics. This is a form of computer analysis that uses a computer representation of the effect of the wind on the car. It helps the engineers to see how effective the wings are and where the main areas of turbulence are. The data is sometimes processed in a supercomputer, also owned by the team.

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