MPH: New 2026 rules could finally wean F1 off downforce drug


F1 has had to design its 2026 chassis regulations around the limitations of a new hybrid power unit. But in doing so, says Mark Hughes, it may have found a way to reduce cut the downforce that cars generate — for the long term

2026 prototype F1 car



The release by the FIA of the 2026 F1 chassis regulations has brought the new era into much sharper focus. We’ve known about the power unit regulations since 2022, but so far have had only a general outline of the cars they will be fitted to.

That sequencing is actually how it happened behind the scenes too: first the power unit then work out how to format a car around it later. This has brought some challenges but these latest regs are showing how F1 has gone about meeting them.

So now we can run through that sequence, showing the problems that came up and in solving them how we’ve got to where we are, with a smaller car of greatly enhanced electrical but reduced combustion power and with a very different aerodynamic concept estimated to bring a 55% reduction in downforce and a 30% drag reduction. A car with active aerodynamics and no DRS. These are all consequences of that power unit decision.

2026 prototype F1 car overhead profile

The automotive manufacturers asked for a 50/50 split between electric and combustion power (currently around 80/20), the abandonment of the current ERS-H technology (recovering heat energy via the turbo isn’t road-relevant, and is too complex and costly) and the incorporation of renewable fuels. The FIA and F1 were keen to meet these requests and it’s believed the VW Group’s entry (Audi) was contingent on them happening, but the changes were generally supported by the existing PU suppliers too.

Technically, it was easy enough to accomplish that in isolation. A bigger battery, almost three times the ERS-k power (which recovers energy from deceleration), a reduction in the ICE’s fuel flow and the deletion of ERS-H. Done. Confirmed in 2022 for adoption in ‘26.

Now the difficulties began. That power unit gave the car designers a real headache. Because of the deletion of the ERS-H (which currently supplies around half the electrical energy) and the reduction in combustion power, now there’s not enough energy over the lap to cope with the downforce of a current car. Pushing a car loaded with downforce costs a lot of energy. A Formula E car with F1 levels of downforce would only be able to race for about 15 minutes, for example. A current F1 car with a ’26 PU would run out of energy down the straights and be suddenly bereft of around 470 of its 1000bhp.

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Under the new regs, the absence of ERS-H means there is nowhere near enough energy being recovered to get close to full deployment of the bigger battery. They are ‘energy-starved’. When current PUs begin clipping they lose the extra 120Kw (160bhp) from the battery. These ones would not only begin clipping much earlier (because of the ERS-H deletion), but they’d lose 350Kw (470bhp) rather than 120Kw (160bhp) and the combustion engine would be only able to help out with 400Kw (535bhp) rather than the current 600Kw (800bhp).

This energy starvation is what has driven the drastic reduction in drag. Hence the ’26 car has by necessity to have less downforce. 55% less is the target. But still with the same basic ground effect concept, as that gives a cleaner wake than cars relying more on wing-derived downforce. Reducing the downforce also means more of the lap will be driven on part-throttle – which allows energy to be recovered, further easing the energy starvation. On part-throttle the ERS-k can deliver the required level of electrical power to the wheels and the rest to the battery. On full-throttle it all goes to the wheels.

So given the requirement of a drastic downforce reduction we arrive at a smaller car and therefore smaller downforce-generating surfaces of both underbody and overbody. There’s only so far it can be shrunk though, because those batteries and motors take up a lot of space, so a greater proportion of the underfloor will be flat, with correspondingly less for the ground effect tunnels. There will also be a less aggressive diffuser and the deletion of the rear beam wing which joins up the flow from the diffuser to the rear wing underside.

Sparks and red light from rear of Sergio Perez Red Bull at 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix

2026 regs are designed to reduce clipping — shown by rear wing red lights show clipping, when engine power is used to charge the battery

Will Lester/Getty Images

An initial target of a 60% downforce reduction was going to allow the tyre diameters to reduce from 18 to 16-inch, thereby helping with the weight reduction the energy starvation was demanding. However, when it was realised that 60% was optimistic even with the shrunken, flatter floor and tamer diffuser, then the 16-inch tyre became unfeasible. It would have resulted in a tyre more prone to overheating even than the current one. So the 18-inch diameter will be retained but combined with a reduction in width.

The revised target of a 55% reduction in downforce still brings the drag down (by an estimated 30%), reducing the energy demand. Also the smaller size offsets the weight penalty of the bigger battery (with an estimated net 30kg reduction in total car weight). All helpful for an energy-starved formula.

But simulation showed that would still not be enough to prevent the cars running out of energy on the straight. Hence the move to active aero. That way you don’t even use all of the more limited downforce all of the time. So we have X and Z modes. X mode is the low-drag mode, Z the downforce mode. These are achieved through wing settings which can be changed on the hoof (as we had back in late ’68 before the feature was banned after it put Chris Amon’s Ferrari up in the trees at Monza).

2026 prototype F1 car side profile

Low drag configuration will be available to every driver in certain zones on each lap


Jason Sommerville (FIA head of aero and ex-Williams aerodynamicist) explains: “X-mode gives you your high top-speed and that’s the state you’d be in when you’re on a straight or past exiting a corner. As you approach the braking zone, you’d then pop into Z-mode, which is where the downforce is required to get through braking and around the corner.

“So we have these two modes that would be set up in terms of zones around the lap, and the drivers would be able to switch between these two modes when permitted. There may be Sporting Regulations, that for example prevent use in wet conditions, but otherwise we would expect the drivers to have access to both modes around the track for every lap.”

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Sommerville explains how a secondary complication arises from solving this problem. “From our simulation work with the teams and their drivers, as soon as you have a rear wing that moves to reach the target drag level, it was clear that you needed to have an active front wing to match the balance characteristics. There were certain conditions where the drivers didn’t feel comfortable with a large forward aero balance, meaning lots of downforce on the front and not much downforce on the rear. So that led us towards the need to have an active front wing, as well as an active rear wing.”

The reduction in drag required by the energy starvation from the ERS-H deletion brought with it potentially huge terminal speeds (of up to 250mph on certain tracks) and this was deemed unsafe. Hence the electrical power had to tail off beyond a certain speed and cut off entirely at a pre-defined velocity.

There’s a further complication too! The low-drag of the car, particularly in the X mode, means that DRS will be ineffective. Because there’s not much drag to shed in the first place and you don’t want to be running the drag of the current non-DRS mode as that costs energy.

So how do you replicate DRS given that the drivers will have a low-drag mode down the straight anyway? With the extra electrical deployment, triggered the same way as current DRS.  A manual override system will allow the following driver to use the electrical boost beyond the speed at which it tails off on the lead car.

2026 prototype F1 car overhead nose view

Front wing will feature active aero in addition to the rear


For all that the regulations are an ingenious way around a self-created problem (ie the new PU spec), maybe they are inadvertently helping F1 wean itself off downforce. Downforce will always be chased as that’s where the lap time is. But if it is limited, then what happens as teams develop their cars? As FIA Single Seater Technical Director Jan Monchaux (ex-Sauber) says: “Being able to decouple your straight line performance from cornering performance, I think it’s going to be a very interesting journey.”

F1 could become less dependent upon the drug of downforce. A positive unintended consequence of the move to greater electrification? Maybe that will be the legacy of the ’26 regulations. Maybe in 2030, when we might ditch hybrids on the justification of renewable fuel, we could revert to lighter, smaller, noisier cars but with a fraction of the downforce we currently have.