Something in the air

Once dismissed by Enzo Ferrari as a science for those who didn’t understand engines, aerodynamics proved to be manna for those who understood racing cars…
Writer Adam Cooper

This was a period of tumultuous change for Formula 1– and the greatest developments came in the field of aerodynamics. Just consider the arc of evolution between the Lotus 49B, which Emerson Fittipaldi raced at Brands Hatch in 1970, and the Brabham BT49 that his countryman Nelson Piquet drove in the last two Grands Prix of the decade. The two machines shared similar designations and Cosworth engines, but otherwise had little in common.

Everything changed in 1977-78 when Peter Wright and his Team Lotus colleagues harnessed ground effect, first with the 78 and later the 79. Those cars moved the goalposts for ever, helping to forge an emphasis on aerodynamics and the pursuit of downforce that would intensify during the following years.

For decades, if car designers paid any attention to aerodynamics as opposed to styling their goal was purely to minimise drag.

It wasn’t all guesswork – prior to WWII Mercedes used a wind tunnel when developing its record-breaking cars. In the 1950s Jaguar designer Malcolm Sayer was a pioneer of efficient streamlining, while former de Havilland man Frank Costin was perhaps the first aerodynamic specialist to make an impact on Grand Prix racing with his work for Vanwall, although he wasn’t formally qualified in the field.

As for downforce, there was a famous false start when Swiss engineer Michael May entered his bewinged Porsche 550 Spyder for the 1956 Nürburgring 1000Kms, only to have it outlawed after rivals objected. May gave up on his concept, but the genie was out of the bottle...

Nobody successfully followed up, however, until Jim Hall – backed by the might of the Chevrolet R&D department – added an adjustable spoiler to his Chaparral sports car in 1965. That led to the pukka high rear wing seen on the 2E Can-Am car in 1966.

“They were the first people who really got it,” says Peter Wright. “The reason they got it is because they measured things on the car, like suspension deflections, and they had a very, very crude lap time simulator. It could tell them the car was lifting and then compute how much time was lost. Very quickly they realised what they needed was downforce.

“They went straight to the right solution for wings, which was to mount them on the uprights. They then played around a little bit with the underneath shape of the car – having realised it was generating lift, they went towards trying to get rid of that. So they got the use of downforce. It was a combination of science, plus Jim Hall’s innovation. And it worked partly because the tracks in America didn’t have long straights, they were twiddly.”

“I thought the Chaparrals were extremely interesting cars,” says Tony Southgate, who worked for rival Lola. “But Europe was very slow in picking it up.”

In 1967 the Chaparral 2F ran with a high-mounted rear wing in the World Sportscar Championship, famously winning at Brands Hatch. The F1 world could hardly fail to take note. BRM’s Tony Rudd was one of the first to fully appreciate the gains to be had from aerodynamics. He’d learned a lot about the 2F from Mike Spence and, even before F1 cars began to sprout wings in 1968, BRM had engaged Dr John Harvey, head of the aeronautics department of Imperial College, for some consultancy work. Although some teams made use of scale and full-size tunnels at MIRA, or other facilities such as that at Kingston Technical College, Imperial was key to what followed.

Rudd also hired Cambridge graduate Wright, the first formally qualified aerodynamicist to work full time for an F1 team – a distinction he would retain for some years. Rudd and Wright understood the principles of ground effect long before the phrase became common parlance in motor racing circles. Wright was particularly influenced by John Stollery, another Imperial man who had consulted on Donald Campbell’s car and boat projects.

“In the ’60s we had Jim Hall and Chaparral,” Wright says. “And there was a guy called Buckley in the States, who had a modified Citroën DS in which he was sucking the boundary layer from underneath of the car and measuring pressures. Lotus and Colin Chapman funded him. I think one day Fred Bushell said, ‘This is a waste of money, we have to stop it!’ The other key guy was John Stollery, who did the seminal work on a bluff body, like a car, and what happens when you bring it near the ground. And in that paper is ground effect.”

Rudd gave Wright the task of developing a BRM that didn’t generate its downforce from high wings, which were banned amid much controversy during the weekend of the 1969 Monaco GP. “Tony Rudd said, ‘I hate these wings, go and figure out how to make the body produce the downforce’. That was the clear objective he set. I started ferreting about and I designed a ‘wing car’.”

The project was carried out amid some secrecy within the politically charged BRM camp. However, everything changed in the organisation when John Surtees arrived, followed by new chief designer Tony Southgate. Rudd soon left for Lotus.

“They had a car in the system that was referred to as a wing-car,” says Southgate. “They’d made a wind tunnel model and were going to Imperial College. I looked at the project and thought it was so way out compared to anything else. The sidepods were like a great big aerofoil, and had the radiators in them. It had quite a high centre of gravity, which was a bit worrying. I was too scared of this project and thought I’d be dead if it didn’t work. So I decided to make a more conventional car.”

Wright did at least get as far as testing his wing-shaped sidepods on a standard P139.

“We ran a car with pannier sidepods, which were empty,” he says. “We measured some pressures and figured out that they didn’t do any harm, but they didn’t achieve very much.”

“The car didn’t go any quicker,” Southgate adds. “Nobody had realised at that stage that if you sealed the shape to the floor, so the air didn’t spill in from the side, you generated low pressure and you wouldn’t lose it. It would then react on the rest of the car and pull it into the ground. Later Peter said to me, ‘It’s lucky we didn’t make that car, because it wouldn’t have worked!”

With his project canned, Wright left BRM to join Specialised Mouldings. When the company was engaged to supply the fledgling March Engineering with bodywork, his BRM sidepod design was recycled for the new 701.

“I showed a picture of the BRM to Robin Herd,” he recalls. “Robin said, ‘We need more fuel tank capacity, make some like that’.”

The 701 thus raced in 1970 in a configuration that was one step away from sparking a revolution, although nobody knew it at the time. Wright also built a wind tunnel at Specialised Mouldings – years later it would be acquired by Williams – and continued to conduct experiments.

“I did a lot of work underneath sports cars, for Lola and Eric Broadley. I also did a very interesting project on a racing hydroplane boat, which was a ground-effect lifting device.”

In 1970 Chaparral unveiled the 2J ‘sucker’ Can-Am machine, the first racing car to successfully harness ground effect, albeit somewhat artificially. The concept, developed by Chevy in Detroit, was quickly outlawed.

Southgate continued to use Imperial through his BRM days and, after he joined Shadow, worked closely with the university’s leading lights, John Harvey and Peter Bearman.

“We used to call a lift force towards the ground ‘negative lift’,” recalls Bearman, now a professor at Imperial. “But Tony wondered how many non-aerodynamicists would know what that meant. John and I had a brief discussion about it and we said to Tony, ‘OK, in future we will call ‘negative lift’ downforce.’ He liked the term and we never looked back. Whether this was the first use of the term ‘downforce’ in connection with racing car aerodynamics, we shall never know.”

A major breakthrough came in 1974, when they decided to utilise an ex-Farnborough rolling road that had been in place since Stollery used it for his pioneering ground-effect research. However, it had never been used for racing car development because nobody had appreciated its potential. Wind tunnel testing suddenly had far greater relevance and Southgate was first to take advantage. “The DN5 was the first F1 car developed on a rolling road,” he says. “You realised that all the figures you’d been working with were wrong, they were 10-20 per cent out. Aerodynamically, of its time, it was the best car. It had a very efficient aerodynamic split. Nobody knew about that – you could have a lot of downforce, but if it was all at the back, it was no use. You had to have it roughly in the same split as the centre of gravity, 40/60 or something of that nature.”

Despite the efforts of Southgate and his contemporaries, F1 aero development had stalled – it spoke volumes that cars like the Lotus 72 and McLaren M23 could be competitive for season after season. But that was about to change.

Rudd had recruited Wright to Lotus, and in 1975 had given him the task of creating what would become the 78. Working closely with Ralph Bellamy, he set to work at Imperial, taking full advantage of the rolling road.

“We started the Lotus programme by asking what we wanted to put in front of the front wheels,” says Wright. “We played around a lot with noses and wings, and played around a lot with the position of the wings relative to the wheels and the ground. All that correlated with the Stollery data. The key to a ground-effect car is getting control of how much air goes over the car and how much goes under. And then you’ve got to shape the underneath.”

What Wright and Bellamy ended up with was something akin to the BRM/March 701 wing sidepod shape, but now enclosed in a box-like section. One day downforce caused the model’s sidepods to sag downwards, a result of high temperatures compromising the clay and sticky tape construction. The gap to the rolling road was inadvertently sealed, and downforce numbers jumped up.

“We noticed that the readings were changing during a run,” Wright says, “and then we saw the things moving. Then we wire-braced the sidepods, and put some cardboard skirts on, with a tiny clearance underneath so they didn’t rub on the belt. And the forces just went berserk. And we said, ‘Of course!’”

The principle of skirts sealing the edges of the sidepods had been discovered – although there was still much to be learned. F1 teams had been playing around with various forms of skirt for a while, although little was really understood of what they achieved. They also tended to wear out, which had been a problem with the Chaparral 2J, the first skirted car.

“The next few years were about how to seal them effectively. I spent a long time developing skirt systems, mounted on the back of a Renault 4 van, running around Hethel airfield. I was hanging out of the rear door, watching...”

After early experiments with brush skirts, Lotus eventually found a solution. A key breakthrough was the use of a ceramic material as a rubbing strip, as recommended by a helpful academic from Imperial’s Royal School of Mines.

“Nobody else knew what the hell was going on,” says Southgate, who joined Lotus as the 78 was being developed. “Lotus was the only team that could understand it. People thought the car went quickly for other reasons.”

The 78 proved successful in 1977, winning five races. It was just the starting point for the following year’s 79, which would prove so dominant in the hands of Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson.

“The 78 was the car in which we sorted it all out,” Wright says. “Then Colin went off to Ibiza on holiday and came back with some sketches. He said, ‘Forget the 78, this is what we’re going to do next’. He did the tub, the central fuel tank and all that, and basically defined the layout of the current Grand Prix car. But I’ve got better memories of the 78. It was a time when we were making real strides every time we went out.

“With the 79 the rest of the car was quite compromised, so there was a lot of time spent sorting it out. It had magnesium callipers, which used to ‘gas’ when they got hot, and it had exhaust pipes that fell off because they got too hot. In some ways the underneath of that car was too extreme, and it took quite a lot of sorting out. We started to learn where the limits were.”

Rivals scrambled to find out how the Lotus worked. One avenue for development was represented by the Brabham BT46B fan car, partly inspired by the Chaparral 2J, and so brilliantly executed by Gordon Murray. Wright and Chapman had begun to explore a similar route before peer pressure forced Bernie Ecclestone to withdraw the car after its 1978 Swedish GP victory.

“We developed a model where we put a fan in the exit of each tunnel,” Wright says. “We didn’t get very far proving it, but the concept was that the fans would work at low speed and the airflow through the tunnels would work at high speed. Mario had reported back that the Brabham was better at low speed, he was better at high speed. We wanted both!”

In 1979 Chapman and Lotus overstepped the aforementioned limits with the 80, which was launched with no wings and full-length skirts. It didn’t work: “That was typical Colin,” Wright says. “He just wanted more, more, more! It started to porpoise. We couldn’t control the skirts properly.”

The fact that pioneer Lotus could lose the plot indicated just how complicated the pursuit of ground effect had become.

“It was such a new art that every time you went near a tunnel you came out with something different,” says Southgate, who had moved on to Arrows. “It was inevitable because nobody knew what you were looking for, or what was the best.”

The team that took the ground-effect car to the next level in 1979 was Williams. Patrick Head knew that Lotus used Imperial, so in the summer of ’78 he simply rang up and asked for the Department of Aeronautics. A receptive John Harvey said there was indeed some spare tunnel capacity, alongside regular customers Lotus and Arrows. A young engineer called Ross Brawn oversaw the programme for what was to become the FW07.

“It was myself and Nigel Buckingham, who was actually the pattern maker for all of the bodywork,” Brawn says. “He became the model maker, because there was no one else to do it. Then Frank Dernie came along, and that was about it, just two or three of us cobbling these models together and going off to Imperial College.

“The key was that it had a moving floor, and that opened up a better understanding of ground effect and how influential it was. The tunnel had a fairly crude balance system for measuring the loads. It was like a set of scales you stand on and then slide a brass weight across until it’s balanced. The first time we ran a ground-effect model we moved the scales and ran out of range. We were convinced there was something wrong with the system, because the numbers were far too big. And then it slowly dawned on us that this was the reality, and we understood why the Lotus was so quick...”

Dernie was an Imperial graduate, but like most people coming into F1, he was a mechanical engineer. Brawn himself had no specialist aero qualification. “I’d taken a personal interest in aerodynamics, and I’d bought all the classic books, which I’ve still got somewhere. John Harvey and Peter Bearman were two prominent characters and I formed quite a strong friendship with them.

“In the early days, when I was there by myself before Frank arrived, they used to spend a reasonable amount of time with me in the tunnel, discussing principles.”

“Ross was responsible for model changes which involved climbing in and out of our relatively small Donald Campbell Tunnel,” says Bearman today. “He never once complained!”

“It was pretty empirical for everyone in that period,” adds Brawn. “In those days, an understanding of a racing car and a rudimentary understanding of aerodynamics were quite a powerful combination. I don’t think teams had any great inclination to employ [qualified] aerodynamicists, because people didn’t think they understood racing cars well enough. They knew the theory, but unless they knew how to apply it they’d sit there and tell you the minutiae of some aerodynamic aspect, but they couldn’t translate that into reality.”

That was about to change, and one man would spearhead a revolution. As the Williams FW07 emerged as the sport’s dominant force in the latter half of 1979, taking over from where Lotus had left off, an ambitious aeronautics student was in the final year of his course at Southampton University – home of the UK’s second moving ground wind tunnel, after Imperial.

“Typically Brabham used it one week a month, and March one week a month for their F2 and Indycars,” Adrian Newey says. “They were reasonably open, so I was able to talk my way in to watching the tests. Towards the end of the autumn of 1979 McLaren started using the tunnel, and that was definitely a case of no students allowed!

“The models were very basic metal and wood, no ride-height adjustment systems or anything like that. I did my final year project on ground effect applied to sports cars, and I managed to wheedle about four days and then a further two days in the tunnel with my model.”

Keen to find a job, Newey wrote to all the British F1 teams, but the only reply came from Fittipaldi’s Harvey Postlethwaite. When Adrian showed up for an interview wearing bike leathers, Postlethwaite recognised a kindred spirit. If he’d harboured any doubts hiring a nerdy aero graduate they were forgotten. Newey started work in July 1980.

“My project helped me get that first job at Fittipaldi.” says Newey. “I was hired as junior aerodynamicist, but when I started it turned out to also be senior aerodynamicist! The aerodynamics team was me, as a graduate, straight out of university, and a model maker.

“We were using Imperial one week a month. The wind tunnel was underneath a lecture hall and, of course, the strut was suspended from above the tunnel. When lectures changed the ride height of the model changed. There was a period around 2pm when you had to stop, wait for the lecture hall to fill, reset the ride height and carry on...

“It was a period of huge change, using very few people. Now if we find something that’s one per cent better, it’s a huge step, whereas then you could find 10 per cent at a time. There was a lot of detail about skirts that I don’t think all the teams got right, which I think probably singled out the Brabham and Williams as being the best cars of that era, simply because they had the best skirt systems.”

Newey later took a sideways career step when he left Fittipaldi to join March. Overseeing sports car and later Indycar projects, and engineering cars in the field, he acquired knowledge in all areas – but at heart, he was an aero man. At March/Leyton House and later Williams Newey would emerge as master of the art, the man every team wanted, and who every student aspired to be. F1 teams acquired their own wind tunnels and, later on, super-computer facilities.

As aero departments grew they became increasingly populated with graduates from Imperial and Southampton.

“I think when CFD came along and aerodynamics became ultra theoretical, it went beyond the range of someone like me,” Brawn says. “Now you have young aerodynamicists being brought into organisations that are big enough and robust enough to give them the right knowledge and training they need to apply their theory.

“The aero side actually peaked when I was at Ferrari. We had almost 200 people involved. Ferrari was really the first team to go 24/7, before there were FIA restrictions. We had three or even four teams all working with their own models, all under the control of the chief aerodynamicist. We just took it to a different level, because we realised that it was the most important performance factor. Ground effect had first woken everyone up as to how important and critical it was.”

It can all be traced back to the work of a handful of pioneers. “I met Jim Hall once, at the Festival of Speed,” Wright says. “He was this wonderful tall Texan and you couldn’t miss his Stetson. I went up to him and said, ‘You’re Jim Hall, I’m Peter Wright. I think between us we wrecked motor sport!’”

Greatest cars
Website poll results

1 Porsche 917
Either in closed or open Can-Am form, short-tail or Langheck spec, this beloved monster is a true sporting icon. Scored first two of Porsche’s record 16 Le Mans wins.

2 Lotus 79
The 78 was the ground-effects gamechanger, but this delivered on the promise, giving Mario and Ronnie a dominant edge in 1978.

3 Lotus 72D
Memorable in Gold Leaf colours, unforgettable in JPS black. Carried Emerson Fittipaldi to his first title. A design so good Lotus made it last six seasons.

Greatest drivers
Website poll results

1 Niki Lauda
‘The Rat’ was astute, cunning – and fast. Would have scored a title hat trick for Ferrari, were it not for ‘that’ accident.

2 Jackie Stewart
Defined the parameters of the modern professional, on and off the track. For all the safety crusading, we must never forget how quick and brave he was.

3 Gilles Villeneuve
A whirlwind of talent, who blew James Hunt’s socks off in Formula Atlantic. McLaren let him slip away to Ferrari and a legend was born. Outscored Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson in our poll…

From Motor Sport April 1978

The South African Grand Prix certainly was a remarkable race, with five different drivers leading in turn and the winner leading for the last half a lap. Even more remarkable was the fact that Peterson won the race from the sixth row of the starting grid; the whole affair was a classic example of how unpredictable Formula 1 racing can be and a good indication that a driver should never give up hope. Too many drivers in Formula 1 over the years have settled for not winning even before the race has started, yet everyone knows the age-old rules about racing, such as “never give up trying”, or “the race isn’t won until the chequered flag falls”. Peterson’s performance throughout the race was exemplary and a wonderful example to all budding racing drivers. He lost most of the first day of practice doing development driving with the Lotus-Getrag gearbox, which is showing signs of being very good when the bugs are ironed out, and on the second day when everything went right for him, the wind and track were against fast times. Although he made a good time for the conditions, it did not compare with the first day’s good times. This was why he was back in row six on the starting grid.

In the race he found his Lotus was lacking in top speed compared with cars around him, like the Williams, Ligier, Ferrari and Renault, but it was handling beautifully. What he made up on the bends the others pulled back on the straight, which is why he took so long to break away from the midfield bunch. On that final exciting lap he was able to use the Lotus’s handling to the full in his chase of Depailler’s Tyrrell and was happy to take corners on the wrong line and ‘sit it out’. As the two cars went into the right-hand Sunset bend side by side, Hector Rebaque’s Lotus 78 was ahead of them and it seemed he was going to be in the way, but in fact Peterson never caught the private Lotus in that last half a lap. This was not because the little Mexican pulled out a phenomenally fast time, his best lap was 1min 19.53sec on lap 53, but because Peterson and Depailler were going relatively slowly in their wheel-to-wheel dice. When you are on the wrong line through a corner, sliding about and banging wheels with another car, you cannot be near the limit. It was exciting to watch, but was being done at the pace of the slowest cars in the race. This does not detract from Peterson’s performance, it was heroic stuff and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Afterwards, Depailler said: “Ronnie was very determined…”

Of course, the big question was why Andretti had run out of petrol at the crucial moment, and this time the answer was simple and uncomplicated; he did not start with full tanks, and the decision on that one was made by Mr Lotus himself. Yes, Colin Chapman can make mistakes like the rest of us. A miscalculation, an error of judgement, an obsession to save 30lb of weight, desperation to win, it could be any or all of these things. One thing about Chapman is that he gets it right more times than he gets it wrong, unlike some people who seem to be wrong all the time. If he had taken as long as Watson or Reutemann to get past the “yellow chicane”, he would never have been in the right position at the right time to take over the lead on lap 27.

A lot of people wondered why Reutemann, Ferrari and Michelin did not shine like they had done in Brazil, but they probably overlooked the fact that in South Africa there were a whole new set of circumstances. The T3 was in its first race and is a completely new design. Having little or nothing in common with the established T2s, it wasn’t that bad.

A disturbing trend that has spread this year is that of allowing ‘graphic artists’ to influence the racing numbers. Numbers on a racing car are principally for the benefit of the time-keepers and spectators and should be simple and clear to read. Too many of the cars at Kyalami had numbers painted on by the team’s ‘graphics man’ who viewed the number as part of the overall design, so they were anything but clear to read. Those on the Brabhams were poor, those on the Lotuses looked identical when glimpsed at 175mph. The Ferrari numbers were placed on a sharply curving surface so that only one digit could be seen from some angles and many more had funny-shaped numbers that could be confused at speed. A number looked all right in the paddock, but in a 150mph corner or on a 175mph straight it did look different. If the time-keepers miss a lap the teams get very excited; if spectators cannot read the numbers the teams couldn’t care less. Illegible numbers are irresponsible. Let’s hope the CSI takes its foot out of its velvet boot and gives Mr Ecclestone and his lot a kick up the backside. DSJ