Formula 1: Another Kind of Flying

4 min read

After a two-year COVID-induced break, Formula 1 returns to Singapore this October.

Officially, its full race title is ‘Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix’. What a mouthful – as title sponsorships tend to be. I will bear with this one, however, for scientific reasons: planes and F1 cars are two sides of the same coin when it comes to their aerodynamics*.

A key component of plane design is wing shape. For a plane to fly, its wings need to generate lift – an upwards force from the air around it. To achieve this, modern plane wings typically have a top surface that is more curved than the bottom surface. When a wing passes through air, the air moving over its top surface moves faster than the air moving over the bottom surface**. This results in lower air pressure above the wing than below it. Air wants to flow from an area of high pressure to low pressure, so it pushes upwards on the wing.

Wings can also be symmetrical and even flat on both sides. To generate lift, such wings will have to be inclined at an ‘angle of attack’. This introduces another perspective on lift: Newton’s third law, that for every action is an equal, opposite reaction. Think of a bird flapping its wings. When the wings push down on the air, the air is pushing back against it, enabling the bird’s flight.

A plane wing can’t flap, but its shape and angle of attack directs air downwards as the air passes over the wing. In turn, the air imposes an opposing force on the wing, pushing it upwards.

F1 cars make use of the same concepts, but instead of lift, they seek to generate downforce. As you might guess, this effect has air pushing down on the car rather than upwards.

Why is this important? Downforce presses the car into the track, allowing the tires to grip the track better. Better grip allows the cars to go faster, especially around corners. (Fun fact: Singapore’s Marina Bay Street Circuit has 23 corners in total, the second most on the 2022 F1 calendar.)

Several components of an F1 car contribute to generating downforce, with the front and rear wings being the largest and most visible contributors. The front wing directs air over the car in an ‘upwash’. As the upwash passes over the car, the rear wing further deflects it upwards. The air, being pushed upwards, will exert an opposite push back downwards.

The underside of the car is also important. Amongst other features, diffusers towards the rear of the floor accelerate the airflow under the car so the air underneath flows more quickly, not unlike air flowing across the top of a plane wing. The diffusers also flare out towards the back, allowing the air rushing underneath to quickly expand. Both of these lower the air pressure underneath the car, further forcing the car into the ground, giving the drivers the grip they so need to swoop around the track at impressive speeds.

Altogether, the car works like an up-side down plane wing with the way air flows around it.

With the right balance of downforce with other factors (the weight of the car, the engine power, etc), an F1 car should in theory be able to drive along a ceiling. Of course, none of the teams will risk any of their drivers to test that out.

*Aero ● dynamics – ‘air’ and ‘in motion’

**We can observe that the air flowing over the top of the wing moves faster than air flowing over the bottom through experiments and simulations. However, the finer details behind this observation is still being studied in the field of aerodynamics.

Written and Illustrated by Ellen Ng


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