According to a recent report by BBC Sports, ground effects will be part of a suite of technical changes mandated by the FIA for F1 cars as soon as 2013. The ground effects concept is a method of managing airflow along the underbody of a car’s chassis to reduce air pressure beneath the car, thereby creating downforce (or suction, if you like).
Ground effects were banned in the early 1980’s, to reduce the cornering speeds of cars. In recent years, however, there has been a growing support for the return of ground effects, as a means of reducing dependence on large front and rear wings.
Unfortunately, a direct byproduct of the use of wings to attain downforce has been a decline in F1 cars’ overtaking ability. There seems to be a positive correlation between wing efficiency and the amount of dirty (i.e. turbulent) air created by the wings. When one car trails another closely though a turn, dirty air will destroy the trailing car’s downforce. Ground effects are a way of negating this problem.
Apparently Williams boss Patrick Head, and former Ferrari chief designer Rory Bryne have been working together to come up with some interesting alternatives to the profile of the current F1 cars. Apart from the aforementioned aero changes, the two engineers were also given a mandate by the FIA to reduce fuel consumption significantly.
According to Head, “We are only going to have roughly 65% of the amount of fuel and a [limited flow] rate. That was a given. We were just told, ‘That’s what it will be, you’ve got to come up with a car spec that is not going to be more than five seconds a lap slower than a current F1 car.’ So some circuit simulation was done by Rory at Ferrari and when we’d come up with some numbers in terms of drag and downforce it was then to try to come up with a geometry of a car that could try to achieve that.”
In other words, as part of the FIA’s continued interest in appearing “green,” they’ve commissioned Head and Byrne to come up with new specs that are much less fuel consumptive than those currently in operation, with the proviso that they do so without sacrificing much speed. Hence, the return to ground effects, which will help compensate for slower top end speeds on straights (it’s expected that the portion of an average lap that a car will be able to spend at full throttle will drop from 70% to 50%) by maintaining higher speeds in turns. The use of ground effects, of course, should be more drag efficient than wings, which in turn will reduce fuel consumption.
With any luck, the end result might be a return to the car specs that produced such close dicing between cars as recently as the 1990s, although the ground effects ban was certainly a fixture in the rules at that time. It’s also worth noting, of course, that the FIA has directed Head and Byrne to sacrifice no more than five seconds per lap in their efforts to make F1 cars more green. The current gap between F1 and GP2 cars is about five or six seconds. One wonders if the FIA will also require GP2 cars to cut their pace. If not, at least one of the formulas would begin to seem superfluous. One can only guess which one it would be.