Understanding Ground Effect: How The Effect Impacts Formula 1

Some will perceive this as an unfamiliar phenomenon, although almost everyone has probably experienced it. We are talking about an effect that partly explains why a racing car can take curves at breakneck speed without leaving the track. In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the ground effect and how important and impactful it is in motorsport, particularly in Formula 1.

Science Behind The Ground Effect

Ground effect is the phenomenon that occurs when the speed of the air flowing through the underside of a vehicle increases. Reducing the distance between the bottom of the car and the track causes the effect, which is broadly used in elite motorsport competitions to increase downforce. 

The ground effect in motorsport is applied to create high-pressure zones on top of the vehicle and low-pressure zones on the bottom. It is common in cars with high-end features, as it improves cornering without adding as much aerodynamic drag as, for instance, a spoiler would. 

The intention is to grant the atmospheric area pressure to circulate above the car and not below it. As a result, the vehicle will be closer to the ground and allow better grip, making overtaking easier.

The closer the car is to the asphalt, the more downforce it generates because by reducing the space, the air circulates with much more speed and creates pressure that pushes the car to the asphalt.

Chaparral Cars were pioneers of this technology in the North American Can-Am championship. It was only definitively successfully implemented within the Lotus Formula 1 team in the 1970s.

Emergence In Formula 1

In Formula 1, the ground effect will always be associated with the genius of Colin Chapman, the man responsible for developing and enhancing it. 

Over the years, many fascinating prototypes wanted to explore and take the ground effect to its full potential. Thanks to this phenomenon, the mythical Lotus was able to secure the constructors’ and drivers’ championships in 1978.

Chapman and his team came up with the idea of placing skirts to seal off the low-pressure zone and prevent surrounding air from entering the circuit. 

Furthermore, to ensure that the air circulated through the floor and energy was not lost when escaping through the sides, they placed a diffuser system in the aft, responsible for producing a depression that sucked the air to the rear.

This way, the floor and diffuser would work simultaneously and make it the part of the vehicle that generates the most downforce, much more than the ailerons.

The impact of this innovation was so extraordinary that the rest of the grid started to create their responses to the ground effect but it quickly became clear that safety was compromised.

Bans And Deadly Accidents

All good things come to an end quickly. After a while, the ground effect became controversial, resulting in being cancelled from the sport. 

The first situation occurred with the prohibition of an air suction cup underneath the car. Shortly after, the side skirts were also discarded. In 1982, the FIA banned any type of curved bottom in single-seaters.

All these bans were the outcome of various accidents that occurred between the late 1970s and early 1980s. The speed and forces acting on cars with drivers taking corners at historic maximums sometimes resulted in fatal accidents.

The most known episodes happened with Patrick Depailler in 1980 and Gilles Villeneuve in 1982. Afterwards, the novelty of the effect lasted several years, during which five drivers from four teams were champions.

Reintroducing The Ground Effect

In 2022, the ground effect has returned nearly forty years after being abolished due to safety concerns in Formula 1. The FIA was intent on having more balanced races and competitive overtaking.

The ultimate goal is to equalise forces much more so that almost any team can win races and even fight for the championship. It would also allow teams to build more impressive cars and reduce costs.

The new approach to aerodynamics has little to do compared with the 1970s. Times have changed, and since then, there has been an increase in security measures both on the circuits and in the cars.

New Gains

Ground effect was trending again last year, as now single-seaters have larger channels and oversized diffusers than in previous years. 

This also made it possible to simplify the wing and reduce the aerodynamic elements of the car. Higher top speeds are achieved compared to vehicles with heavily loaded wings.

The modern airflow form makes the car generate less turbulence for the driver who comes right behind and gives a new look to the car’s downforce. 

Turbulent air will move upwards, thus generating a clear zone and allowing cars to approach each other without stability loss or overheating of the engine and tires.

Between the gains, it also has the finest performance in curves. When saying that the car will be better when going through them, it is because now the ground effect combined with the adequate distribution of the car weight, the centre of gravity makes the vehicle stick to the ground.

Without a doubt, this renewed ground effect is yet another incentive for the spectacular show of Formula 1 to continue to be the king of motorsport.

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