Over the past few revolutions in Formula One, cars, especially before the start of 2009 and 2014 seasons, went slower rather than quicker around most circuits than their predecessors, watching Lewis Hamilton beat the lap record at Suzuka during last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix made me realize the great stride Formula 1 took this year in tweaking the regulations to allow for more mechanical grip and though the championship was effectively sealed, it was nice to see the Mercedes driver set a new benchmark around a track where the aerodynamic package plays a big part on whether a team is competitive or not.
One of the biggest technological revolutions that have a significant impact on today’s modern Formula 1 cars can be traced back to roughly 40-years ago when British engineer Colin Chapman, the man behind the brilliance of Lotus, introduced the Formula One community to a concept called ground effects. Now during this time, engineers focused on streamlining their cars and reducing drag as much as possible. This, in turn, created something known as aerodynamic lift (think aeroplanes) that made the cars extremely unstable to drive especially through high-speed turns. What Chapman and his crew of engineers set out to achieve was to create a car that was for all intents and purposes an inverted wing that would keep the car glued to the track instead of creating lift, especially through high-speed corners. Using inverted wing shapes within the sidepods and large side skirts that created a phenomenal amount of downforce. The Lotus 78/79 was the class of the field in the 1978 season (reliability was a major issue in the previous year) winning 8 out of the 16 races, with Chapman continuously evolving the concept through the year. In fact, the car was so good that it led Mario Andretti to comment, “Its like it’s painted on the road.”
The first ever use of ground effect however can be traced back to 1970 where American Jim Hall first used the concept when creating his Chaparral 2J “sucker car” which had two fans powered by a two-stroke engine from a snowmobile at the rear of the car and also featured skirts similar to the Lotus 78 which left a minimal gap to the ground, the car was eventually banned from competitive sport at the end of the year after several rival teams lobbied for its exclusion. In fact, the famous Brabahm Fan Car took inspiration from the 2J before it was eventually banned after winning one race.
How does ground effect work? Well, the premise is based on the Bernoulli’s principle which states that “ An increase in the speed of the fluid occurs simultaneously with a decrease in pressure or a decrease in the fluid’s potential energy.” So similarly the side skirts in a car that features ground effect act as a seal between the high-pressure air that goes over the car and the low-pressure air going under the car which in turn creates a much lower pressure under the car thus reducing drag. To simplify things further the concept of ground effect is to simply keep the car pinned to the track by using sidepods and side skirts to create more downforce while cornering, in turn allowing the car to carry a greater amount of speed around a turn.
So if a ground effect gives you such a huge advantage why did it get banned? Well simply because during the 1980’s a series of accidents were in part caused by ground effect and the cornering speeds that came as a result. The problem was if one of the skirts broke then the chances of the car flipping on its side were quite high. Another accident that can be attributed to ground effect was when the suspension on Rene Arnoux’s Renault collapsed under the enormous pressure being generated. Drivers were suffering from exhaustion under the strain of enormous G-Forces and cars were going airborne when they came in contact with one and another. Given that Formula One has seen zero deaths since the passing of the late great Ayrton Senna, it comes as no surprise that the FIA is less than enthusiastic when addressing the topic of ground effect.
There is no doubt that the concept of ground effect has had a lasting impact on the automotive world as a whole. These days Formula 1 cars carry on the legacy of ground effect through their rear diffuser while track-focused road cars coming out of the stables from Ferrari and Mclaren all feature movable flaps and spoilers that are designed specifically to create more downforce. Who knows given the rate of development that is happening in Formula One right now, maybe we’re not too far away from having a new more modern version of the ground effect concept.
On the 40th anniversary of Formula One’s ground effect era, the international historic motorsport show Race Retro will be bringing together some of the iconic ground effects Formula 1 cars on display at the Motor Sport Hall of Fame Live at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire between Feb 23 – 25, 2018. The display would include the 1979 British Grand Prix winning Williams FW07, that went on to bring Australian Alan Jones the world championship in 1980. There is also a possibility that the car would be joined by the Lotus 79. If you are from the U.K or plan to visit at this time, the show is a must visit to cure one’s nostalgia with motor racing.