Aerodynamics in Formula 1 – The GSAL Journal

Ayushman – Year 12 Student

Editor’s Note: Year 12 student Ayushman writes here for the GSAL Science Magazine, exploring the complexities of aerodynamics in Formula 1 motor racing. He focusses in particular on the creation of all-important downforce that allows cars to manoeuvre at high speeds without losing grip. This is Ayushman’s third article to be published in The GSAL Journal; you can read more from Ayushman here. CPD

[Featured image: Pierre Gasly at F1 British Grand Prix. (

How does aerodynamics dictate Formula One?

Formula One: the pinnacle of motor racing; where designers spend millions of dollars seeking to shave milliseconds off lap times. In 60 years, the presence of aerodynamics in Formula One has gone from being non-existent to an integral factor in a car’s performance – all to produce downforce. (1)


  • Downforce – force acting downwards – the opposite of lift;
  • Ground effect – where the pressure of air under the car is lower than the pressure above the car, creating a sucking effect that pushes the car to the ground;
  • Vortices – turbulent air that spins rapidly about an axis.

The Importance of Aerodynamics in Formula One

The role of aerodynamics in F1 is similar to that in road cars: to reduce drag and to increase stability.

However, aerodynamics in F1 is centred on the production of downforce. Aircraft use wings to generate lift, to take off, achieved by accelerating the air passing over the wings, thus creating an area of low pressure above the wing and an area of slower moving, higher pressure air beneath the wing. This imbalance in pressure generates the upwards force of lift – allowing the plane to take off. F1 reverses this principle, as designers invert an aircraft wing to accelerate the air underneath the inverted wing, creating an area of lower pressure underneath the wing, with the pressure imbalance generating downforce. (2) Downforce is crucial in F1 as it aids traction to increase cornering speeds and reduce tyre wear, despite increasing drag. This allows supercars to beat an F1 car for top speed but to still be much slower through the corners.

F1 cars create downforce in two areas: the front and rear of the car. Front wings and bargeboards generate downforce at the front, with the diffuser and rear wing producing downforce at the rear – with most of the car’s downforce being produced at the rear. Too much downforce adds drag, slowing the car down in a straight line.

How aerodynamics affects the design of a modern Formula One car

This section explores how an F1 car is designed to maximise downforce production.

Previously, the front wing’s purpose was simply to maximise downforce production but nowadays, its purpose is to direct the airflow around the car so that the aerodynamics of the whole car are optimised – the front wing working synchronously with the rest of the car to maximise overall downforce production. The front wing has two main sections: the endplates and the cascades. (3) The direct the airflow around the front tyres to reduce the drag of the car. As tyres have gotten wider, endplates have curved at the rear to ‘kick’ the air around the tyre itself. Endplates also prevent the production of uncontrolled vortices due to high pressure air going over the wing and low pressure air to the sides of the wings (causing turbulence) – to reduce drag. Designing the cascades posed a dilemma: is it better to have smooth air flowing underneath the car or turbulent vortices? The solution? ‘Controlled turbulence’: hence F1 front wings are sharply pointed and fine edged, to promote the creation of turbulent vortices, which the cascade elements direct underneath the floor of the car. Designers want to create vortices that they can control, but without endplates, both on the front wing and rear wing, uncontrollable vortices are produced, which add to the drag coefficient of the car but don’t increase downforce production, so are undesired. The fast moving vortices now travelling underneath the car are of higher speed and lower pressure than the air going over the car, thereby turning the whole car itself into an inverted wing, and thus sucking the car to the ground, massively increasing downforce with a negligible increase in drag: ground effect.

Bargeboards (4) smooth the air round the sidepods whilst adding to the ground effect of the car via forming a vortex seal where the vortices generated by the front wing travel towards the bargeboard, where small flaps called turning vanes create their own co-rotating vortices – many small vortices co-rotating in the same direction being more powerful than one large vortex. Turning vanes guide vortices towards the floor of the car, sealing off the air underneath the floor from the air around the car: a vortex seal – adding to the ground effect.

The rear wing, like the front, has sophisticated endplates to minimise the creation of uncontrolled vortices. (5) However, in having endplates, supplementary vortices are created as the air goes over the endplates, caused by differences in pressure in the air either side of the endplate (high pressure air over the wing, low pressure air around the wing). Reducing these vortices prompted cut-outs in the rear wings, known as louvers to allow air of different pressures to mix to reduce the turbulence. The angle of the elements of a rear wing can be configured to the circuit: on a high speed circuit where downforce isn’t pivotal, the wing is nearly flat, but on a twisty circuit where downforce is crucial, the angle of the elements on the wing is nearly ninety degrees. (6)

The rear diffuser accelerates the air as it leaves the car, creating an area of low pressure increasing underside downforce production. (7) The diffuser is responsible for producing half of all the downforce produced by the car. Designers can alleviate this by adding rake to the car – where the car is tilted at an upwards angle of around 0.5 degrees (8), so that the air is compressed at the front of the car, accelerated to even faster speeds – further increasing downforce produced. Modern day diffusers have strakes, which create a tunnel like effect as the air leaves the car, compressing the air and accelerating it to greater maximise the produced downforce.

The Future of Formula One

F1 constantly innovates to remain the pinnacle of motor racing: future innovations seeking to maximise ground effect with shape-shifting aerodynamic parts to reduce drag on the straights and increase downforce through the corners – McLaren themselves have created a concept of F1 in 2050: maybe it isn’t as far-fetched as it looks (9). A final point, this article is just the tip of the engineering iceberg – most of which is far beyond my understanding, but that’s what makes Formula One the pinnacle of motor racing.

Reference Images

[Editor’s Note: All images are referenced below. CPD]


Collantine, Keith. “Banned: Brabham-Alfa Romeo BT46B ‘Fan Car’ · RaceFans.” RaceFans, 22 Aug. 2016,

“F1 360.” Formula 1® – The Official F1® Website,

“Front Wing of an F1 Car: How to Optimize Its Design with CFD.” SimScale, 21 Mar. 2019,

“McLaren Applied Technologies.” McLaren Applied Technologies,

Piola, Giorgio. “Formula One Drawings.” Formula 1, 2018,

Published by F1Engineering Blog, Engineering Blog, et al. “How Do Vortices Seal the Floor of an F1 Car?” F1 Tech Blog, 24 Sept. 2018,

“Renault F1® Team Tech Meets Track.” Microsoft In Culture,

“Six Appeal – 6 Fascinating Facts about Tyrrell’s Six-Wheeler.” Formula 1® – The Official F1® Website, 23 June 2016,

Somerfield, Matt. “Retro F1 Tech: The Ground Effect Era.” F1 News, MotoGP, NASCAR, Rallying and More, Global, 19 Feb. 2017,

“TECH TUESDAY: The Lotus 79, F1’s Ground Effect Marvel.” Formula 1® – The Official F1® Website, 21 Aug. 2018,

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