How Do Formula 1 Cars Generate Downforce?

If you have ever watched a Grand Prix, you may have asked yourself, ‘how do Formula 1 cars generate downforce?’

Motorsports is all about speed. Being the fastest around will mean victory. But there is a limit to how fast one can travel on the ground without the car taking off. For attaining great speeds a car needs to remain firmly on the ground and have a good grip on the racing track. This means that all cars need to generate a downward force sufficient enough to keep them firmly on the ground for the speed that they intend to attain.

One way to remain on the ground at great speeds is to increase the weight of the car. But an increased weight will need more power to drive the car and make the handling of the car difficult. The alternative to this is to create the required force to stay grounded. Downforce can be generated from the air flowing around the car and will increase as the speed of the car increases.

The wings of an aeroplane help it to take off in the air at a specified speed. The same wing, if installed inverted on a car can make the car stay firmly on the ground. Just like in an aeroplane, as the speed of the car increases, the wings will press the car more firmly on the ground. This force that presses the car to the ground is called down force.

Aerodynamic downforce plays an important role in the performance of Formula One cars, DTM, Indy cars and touring cars. Good grip on the racing track is equally important as the power generated by a racing car engine. Good ground adhesion gives the car stability and better cornering ability. Hence a racing car must generate a ground force equal to several times its weight.

Modern Formula One cars can generate as much as 5G down force. That means, at full speed, the effective weight pressing down on the track will be 5 times the weight of the car. Almost all the surfaces of a Formula One car are engineered to produce down force. The down force by the front portion of the car has to be balanced by the down force produced by the rear portion.

While the down force on either side of the car can be balanced by symmetry, the down force between the front and the rear cannot. This down force has to be balanced by design. Most of the down force in Formula One cars is produced by the wings and by diffusers. The down force required by the car for ultimate performance will vary from track to track and on the conditions of the track.

While too much front downforce could lead to understeer, too much downforce generated by the rear portion could lead to oversteer. The balancing of the downforce between the front and the rear can be done by careful designing of the body parts of the car. The balancing act of the downforce also comes with an increased drag on the car.

How Do Formula 1 Cars Generate Downforce?

How do different parts of an F1 car create downforce?

Down force is the force that presses the car on to the ground. This force is generated by using the air that is moving around the body of the car. To balance the down force between the front and rear of the car careful design of the bodywork of the car becomes essential. Car constructors achieve this by engineering design and aerodynamic trials.
While the front wings produce around 25 per cent of the down force, the rest of the bodywork contribute 5-10 per cent. The under body of the car and the diffusers produce the maximum amount of down force at 45 per cent. The rear of the car along with the rear wings contributes the balance of 25 per cent of down force.

How do the front and rear wings create downforce?

F1 front wings along with the splitter, canards and vortex generators contribute to at least 25 per cent of the downforce in a Formula One car. Front wings not only produce downforce but also streamline the flow of air around the car. As a leading part of the car, the front wing is the first component to disrupt the air.
Front wings use aerofoils to create downforce as well as regulate the flow of air around the car. The air is directed in such a way that it does not create a drag on interacting with the trailing parts of the car. Much of the air is directed toward the underbody to help it minimise the drag and create a downforce of its own. Air is directed toward the side pods for engine cooling and is kept away from the rear wings.
The rear wing of an F1 car contributes as much downforce as the front wings and balances the downward force of the car. The aerofoils in the rear wings are designed and shaped to maximise the downforce and minimise drag. The downforce and the drag created by the rear wing will depend on the track and the driving conditions and cars have different rear wings for different tracks.
Rear wings are adjustable; the angle of attack of the aerofoils can be adjusted to either minimise the drag or to increase the downforce. This gives the driver a chance to overtake and to increase the speed of the car on longer straights. The system is monitored by the FIA. A light in the cockpit tells the driver when he is eligible to change the angle of the aerofoils.

How do splitters, canards, vortex generators create downforce in the front?

Splitters, also called dams, are used to reduce the gap between the ground and the car. This ensures that very little air passes beneath the car reducing the lift induced. Most of the air is directed towards the side of the car and the rest towards the underbody. If a car underside is not very smooth, the airflow below the car turns very turbulent. This results in less drag on the car and might well contribute a little downforce of its own.
Canards and vortex generators are small plates that are attached at the front ends of the car. They are so fixed that their inclinations contribute to the downforce of the car in a small way. A badly inclined canard or vortex generator can affect the performance of other aerodynamic devices or the rear wings.

How do side skirts, side ducts and vortex generators create down force in the middle?

Side skirts primarily reduce the amount of high pressure on the sides of the car. This prevents the air from going under the car from the sides. If the air from the sides goes under the car it will diminish the ground effect and the down force created. The edge of the side skirts should be less than 2 cm from the ground. If the gap is too large, the effectiveness of the side skirts reduces drastically.
Side ducts facilitate the smooth flow of air along the side of the car. The air also helps in cooling the engine as well as in braking. The side skirts and the canards generate turbulent air in the front of the car. The smooth flow of the air through the side ducts ensures that the air does not interfere with the turbulent flow initiated by the side skirts and the canards. This helps in reducing the drag on the car and increases its velocity.

How do spoilers and diffusers create down force in the rear?

A spoiler is a plate attached to the body of the car that interrupts the smooth flow of air around the car. A flow of smooth air contributes to a lifting force. The spoiler interferes with this flow to spoil it. The turbulent flow in the wake of the spoiler either reduces the lift or cancels it to contribute to the car’s aerodynamics.
The rear spoiler on an F1 car creates turbulence just before the flow of the air. This turbulence causes the air to flow to move more slowly which causes a low pressure just in front of the spoiler plate. If a rear spoiler is correctly designed, it will not only eliminate the lift generated by the airflow but will contribute with down force of its own.
Diffusers are mostly located in the rear and after the wings and generate down force in the rear of a car. Diffusers help in reducing the pressure of the airflow under the car. In doing this, diffusers increase the velocity of the car. The increased velocity enables other components to produce more down force on the car.

How much down force do Formula 1 cars generate?

That is a really difficult question to answer because the downforce generated in cars vary. It is also the most closely guarded secret among teams. The reason for this is that a higher downforce gives the car greater cornering speed. This is a distinct advantage when entering a long straight. It helps the car overtake and leave the field behind.
From time to time the FIA brings in regulations to limit the downforce generated in cars and even out the competition. But whatever the FIA throws at teams, the best engineers in the business find a way around the rules and regulations. Generally, a formula one car speeding at 240 km per hour will produce a downforce of 2.5 Gs or more.
Between 2010 and 2013, Red Bull won four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championships with Sebastian Vettel driving the Red Bull RB6. Red Bull’s chief technical officer Adrian Newey promptly claimed that the Red Bull RB6 was “probably the car with the most downforce in the history of F1”. But he did not state the exact amount of downforce.
Romain Grosjean experienced claims that he experienced a downforce of 8 g at Suzuka in 2018. That means his 738 kg car weighed approximately more than 5904 kg at that time. Down force is a function of speed. The faster a car travels, the higher is the down force generated. Generally, Formula One cars produce a down force of 5 G’s.

Can a Formula 1 car drive upside down?

Modern Formula One cars develop as much as 5 Gs of downforce. In some instances, cars have produced much more downforce. Theoretically, it means that a car weighs five times its weight at that particular speed. That means a Formula One car could technically drive upside down in a long tunnel provided it attained the required speed before going upside down.
There are a few things to consider before a driver tries to drive his Formula One car upside down. Among them is the fuel supply to the engine. Also of concern is the lubrication of the engine. The most important thing is whether the driver will remain coordinated for the length of time that he is upside down in the cockpit of the car.

How will the engine get lubrication and fuel supply?

Lubrication of the engine should not be a problem because F1 cars are fitted with dry-sump engines. The oil is in an external tank and the oil outlet of the oil to the engine is not solely on the bottom of the tank. The oil is pumped from the external tank to the front of the engine and the engine should be fine in a short upside down run.
There is however the lateral G forces on the car which may force the oil towards one side of the tank. In this case, the engine may run dry. However, a modification of the plumbing of the oil system should solve this problem. The oil goes directly to the parts of the engine that need lubrication.
The same goes for the fuel supply system. A few modifications will do the trick and allow the car to drive upside down. The oil and fuel tanks have to be adequately filled to keep the engine from stalling. Fuel and oil supply systems in aeroplanes allow them to fly upside down and these systems can be implemented in an F1 car.
A regular Formula One car will however find it difficult to stay on the roof of a tunnel for a substantial length of time. If the engine stalls at an inopportune time, the consequences could be disastrous for both the driver and the car.

Will the driver be able to drive the car upside down?

Planes do summersaults and fly upside down for more than a few seconds. The question is will a Formula One car driver get disoriented when driving upside down? Will he be able to manoeuvre the car and bet it safely on the ground? Will the blood rush to the brain despite the down force and render the driver incapable of handling the car.
In any case, the tunnel that a driver attempts an upside-down ride should not be too high. At the same time, the car has to be cushioned at the top to account for a crash landing if things get out of hand. An astronaut who is used to weightlessness or even an air pilot could manage to drive a car upside down. They will have to first master the cockpit of an F1 car for there is no coming back once you are upside down.