For most drivers, aquaplaning in Formula 1 is probably one of the most frightening things to experience behind the wheel. Imagine a rock skipping on the surface of a lake, completely on its own and in the hands of the laws of physics.
During wet weather conditions, water builds up on the race tracks. When a tyre skims through the surface of such wet tracks, it results in loss of traction and steering abilities. This is aquaplaning and when this happens, skill is completely irrelevant.
What leads to aquaplaning?
Formula 1 relies greatly on its tyre technology to bring a driver and their car from the starting point to the checkered flags.
Tyres are specifically designed to provide great gripping performance so the cars can reach maximum speeds and provide the best racing experience to drivers and fans. But due to different weather conditions, teams and tyre manufacturers can only do so much in this regard.
Despite precautions and dedicated engineering, tyres are sometimes aren’t able to disperse enough water to achieve grip on the surface of a track. Levels of traction and control go down as a tyre loses contact with the ground. The loss of control over the steering due to this incident is dangerous not only to the drivers on the field but also to the spectators located near the scene.
Is aquaplaning possible when a Formula 1 car is slow?
Since Formula 1 racing is quite unpredictable, drivers can report differences in their aquaplaning experiences. The pattern of the tyres’ tread is primarily responsible for “evacuating” water out of the road’s surface in order to allow the tread pattern to make contact with the track’s surface. Aquaplaning resistance can be influenced by factors such as tire pressures, depth of water, vehicle speed, and—the most important—tread depth.
Special tyres are provided for wet racing by Pirelli—the sole tyre manufacturer and provider of Formula 1 since 2011. These tyres are able to skim through wet tracks and remain in contact with the track even at the highest of speeds.
While aquaplaning is more common at high speeds—when water can pass underneath the tyres and cause the tyres to ride on a cushion of water, possibly causing the vehicle to lose all traction—sometimes, aquaplaning can also occur at low speeds. This is why it’s important that teams observe their cars carefully during wet races. Excessively worn or underinflated tyres on already deep water can cause aquaplaning in this instance.
Is there a wet track tyre for Formula 1?
Pirelli provides the teams with three compounds out of five slick compounds and three colours at each race. The range is numbered C1, C2, C3, C4 and C5. C1 is the hardest and C5 is the softest. Additionally, as mentioned above, there are also special tyres specifically designed for wet tracks in Formula 1: Intermediate tyres and full wet tyres.
The intermediate tyres are deemed the most versatile. They work well on tracks that have no standing water and also a drying surface. At 300km/h, this tire evacuates 30 litres of water every second. As seen at several past races, the compound expands the working range, ensuring a wide crossover between wet and dry tyres.
The full wet tyres are much better options during heavy rain. When raining heavily, visibility becomes a problem rather than grip. These tyres have the ability to evacuate 85 litres of water per second per tire at 300kph. These tyres are also designed to resist aquaplaning quite well, allowing more grip during a heavy downpour.
Wet tyres are very heavily grooved and designed to provide the most reliable evacuation of water at the highest of speeds. However, as mentioned previously, there is so much these tyres can do against aquaplaning.
What is a wet setup in Formula 1?
In Formula 1, water can build up both between the tyres and track and between the car’s underbody and the track. In both cases, control over the steering wheel is lost and there is no solution to regain the control lost.
Aquaplaning however provides more risks in Formula 1 other than the loss of traction when the latter occurs. When there is water on the race track deep enough to submerge a car up to its underbody, the car is lifted off the surface of the track.
The reason for running plank so close to the ground is aerodynamic, but when there is little ground clearance, the risk of aquaplaning increases. To reduce the risk of plank aquaplaning in wet conditions, teams raise ride height further. This is referred to as a “wet setup”. The generation of the downforce under the car will, of course, be sacrificed, but in the wet aerodynamics become much less of an issue.
Did Formula 1 ever postpone a race because of heavy rain?
Formula 1 races are too expensive to cancel. This is why the tyre manufacturers of Formula 1, in the past and now, have to develop and design special tyres that will work even in the rain. However, there are moments when the weather is just too treacherous and can only threaten everyone’s safety out there in the pouring rain. During these instances, the tracks are deemed too wet and the visibility too low and the race is postponed.
This happened just last year during the 2021 Russian Grand Prix’s final practice session after torrential rain left the Sochi circuit underwater. The month before, during the race at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, a deluge brought the race to an abrupt end after just three minutes, with Max Verstappen (Red Bull) winning ahead of Williams’ George Russell and Lewis Hamilton. According to the rules, each driver received half points.
Which Formula 1 drivers are good at racing on wet tracks?
While skills are irrelevant once you aquaplane, there are drivers who can manage wet tracks well in general.
Among the current drivers still racing today, Lewis Hamilton—the seven-time world champion—is deemed one of the bests when it comes to racing on wet tracks. He can notch high-speed laps even in the rain. His brilliance no matter the conditions was best demonstrated during the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix, where he managed to dominate everyone on the newly resurfaced track under very wet conditions.
From the Formula 1 legends comes Ayrton Senna who illuminated the race tracks in whatever conditions. Much like Hamilton, he was an expert in keeping control of his car on slippery tracks. In fact, his first Formula 1 victory was during the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix which was held in the rain. In the 21 wet races he ran, he won 14 of them.
Conclusion: What is aquaplaning in Formula 1?
Aquaplaning is a serious problem in Formula 1 and while Pirelli continuously designs tyres that can work even in the heaviest rain, it is still completely impossible to get rid of it completely as doing so can give rise to other issues like visibility.