In the high-stakes, ultra-competitive world of Formula 1 racing, every millisecond counts. The secret to success in this arena lies in the blending of human skill with state-of-the-art engineering.
A crucial component of this is aerodynamics, the study of how air interacts with moving objects. Among various aerodynamic testing methods for F1, wind tunnel testing stands out due to its incredible impact on the development of modern Formula 1 cars.
History of F1 Wind Tunnel Testing
In the 19th century, the focus of aerodynamic research was manned flight. The physical testing was done with a gravity-powered whirling arm spinning test objects through the air.
But Frank Wenham saw the flaw in this – a pesky circular wake messing up results. So, in 1871, he gifted us the first wind tunnel, a 12ft tube with an air-blowing fan.
Fast forward to the 1970s, and the Formula 1 world is falling head over heels for wind tunnels. By the 1990s, F1 teams were so infatuated that they were investing in private, specialized wind tunnels for bigger, better, and year-round testing.
How does a wind tunnel work?
A wind tunnel is a tool used to simulate the effects of air moving over or around an object – in this case, a scale model of an F1 car. It’s essentially a large tube with powerful fans generating controlled wind conditions.
Formula 1 teams often use special tunnels called closed-loop tunnels. A big fan at one end of the tunnel pushes the air around.
The fan is usually much larger than the area where the car is tested. The bigger the fan, the slower it needs to spin to push the air at the right speed.
Everything in the wind tunnel is designed to keep the air moving as smoothly and predictably as possible. Even the walls are made super smooth to avoid causing any disruptions in the air.
After being pushed by the fan, the air enters a section of the tunnel that gets wider. A wider tunnel slows down the air, making it easier to control and keep smooth.
Before the car testing area, the air goes through a section filled with devices that help maintain its smooth and straight flow.
Finally, the air reaches the testing area, flowing over a model car. The car is held in place by an arm, and the wheels spin freely on a moving road that simulates a real track.
The model car can only be up to 60% of the real car’s size, and the air can’t go faster than about 180 km per hour.
The Process of Wind Tunnel Testing in F1
💻 Preparation & Initial Designs
Wind tunnel testing begins with the use of computer simulations (Computational Fluid Dynamics – CFD) to create initial designs. A scaled model of the F1 car is then developed based on these designs.
🚇 In the Tunnel
The car model is outfitted with various sensors. Visualization techniques, such as smoke or lasers, are used to map the airflow over the vehicle visually.
📈 Data Analysis & Iteration
The gathered data allows engineers to understand critical factors like pressure points, drag, and downforce. This information is then used to make adjustments to the car.
🚫 Challenges & Limitations
Recently, F1 has enforced a budget cap and placed restrictions on wind tunnel usage, making time in the wind tunnel a scarce and highly valuable resource. Teams now face a considerable challenge in optimizing their resources for the best results.
Budget cap and restrictions
Here it gets a bit complicated, so I’ll try to simplify how rules are applied for wind tunnel testing.
The FIA lays down the rules based on periods they call Aerodynamic Test Periods (ATP), and there are six such periods in a year. ATP 1 starts on January 1, and ATP 6 ends on December 31. The fourth period has an extra 2 weeks added for the mandatory summer break.
The team that finishes 7th in the Constructors’ championship is given a standard 100% limit for wind tunnel testing.
The other teams get a different percentage of this 100%, which varies from 70% for the team that comes first to 115% for the team that finishes tenth.
The percentages are decided twice a year. At the start of the year, they’re based on the previous year’s Constructors’ standings. For the second half of the year, the percentages are recalculated based on the standings as of June 30th.
All Formula 1 teams are racing under a budget cap to keep control of their spending and encourage a more level playing field. If the teams don’t play by the budget rules, they’ll be hit with a penalty.
Like Red Bull. They got a $7m fine and a 10% reduction in wind tunnel time this season for breaching the 2021 budget.
Could F1 ban wind tunnels?
Apparently, there’s a plan to put the brakes on using wind tunnels for aerodynamic testing within the next decade cause F1 wants to be carbon-neutral by 2030.
Also, there’s a hefty price tag attached to these wind machines.
Just building one of these costs you an arm and a leg. Then you have to shell out on the staff, build exact mini versions of your cars, and cough up crazy electricity bills to simulate race-like wind speeds.
Head of aerodynamics at Haas, Aaron Melvin, says it’s something that the F1 shouldn’t do.
So I’d be very receptive to regulations that change the balance. But the industry is so good at wind tunnel testing, it’s not something that we need to ban, you certainly can phase it down to a much lower investment level.
The most effective discussions on environmental responsibility are those that are complete and inclusive, so we shouldn’t just pick on the wind tunnel, we should talk about our all of our activity as an industry and our source of power.