Need For Speed – What Makes Formula One Cars So Fast?
Formula One (F1) is such an exciting sport with a strong following. For drivers and fans, it’s the speed of the cars that reels them in. I mean granted the teams, talent and rivalries keep the fans engaged, but seeing cars drive as fast as possible across a circuit has to be the most intoxicating element of all.
We definitely know that these cars are fast, but how fast are they really? To put it into perspective, let me take you back to a time when we could actually go out and watch races. Back in 2019, here in Melbourne’s very own Albert Park Circuit, the fastest lap time set by a driver was just over 1 minute and 25 seconds. That’s a distance of around 5 kilometres cleared in just over a minute!
How do they go so fast?
While part of the reason is its powerful engine, the secret behind F1 cars’ super speed lies in the fact that they can go through corners at high speeds. They are able to do this using aerodynamics.
Aerodynamics involves the analysis of the movement of air around an object. It is so important in Formula one that teams have been reported to allocate around 20 percent of their budget in understanding the aerodynamics of their car.
Why the fixation on aerodynamics?
The main aim of aerodynamics is to generate downforce. Think of downforce like the opposite of lift; it is a force that pushes the tyres harder into the ground. More grip by the tires means they can go really fast in corners; thereby leading to quicker lap times.
Wings to NOT fly.
To understand how downforce works, let’s take a closer look at the car’s front wing. After all, it’s the first part of the car that interacts with the air, so it must be important when studying the car’s aerodynamics right?
An F1 car’s front wing is responsible for generating around 40% of the car’s total downforce. Its success in harnessing downforce can be explained using Bernoulli’s principle.
In an aeroplane wing, Bernoulli’s effect produces lift and the plane is able to fly. Thankfully, that’s not the case in F1. The front wing is designed to be upside down so the car doesn’t get lifted off the circuit.
During the race, fast air flows under the wing as compared to the top part of the wing. The slower air at the top generates a great pressure that pushes the car towards the faster-moving air. This results in a great downforce that grounds the car instead of letting it fly off.
Illustration of Bernoulli’s principle by Misky Noor (Author)
Typically, downforce in an F1 car is adjusted depending on the race track. For example, in tracks with many sharp corners like the Singapore circuit, the teams adjust the car features to generate more downforce. On tracks with fewer corners such as the Monza circuit, the teams focus on reducing downforce and increasing speed on the straight sections of the track. This is all in a bid to provide an optimal car that sets them apart from other teams and hopefully sets them up to win the race.