Why 2026 F1 rules are an aero headache — by an F1 aerodynamicist


Downforce levels on 2026 F1 cars will be slashed to accommodate a new generation of power unit. Aerodynamicist Chris Bull explains why the new regulations will have designers tearing their hair out

F1 2026 car with front airflow

2026 prototype car

Chris Bull is a Formula 1 aerodynamicist who has helped design championship-winning cars for Brawn GP and Mercedes. He currently co-owns the Pro-Aero aerodynamics consultancy.

Frustration might well be the most common reaction to Formula 1’s new 2026 regulations.

For fans, it’s the prospect of another set of new rules in 18 months, just as Red Bull starts facing a challenge from Ferrari and McLaren.

But for aerodynamicists, it’s a different source of frustration, as many of the elements that they have been working to understand, improve and innovate for for years are thrown out with the new technical regulations. It can take a long time to fully learn the details and sensitivities and you do get attached to them.

Tough challenges are why you join F1 though. When the design work starts and they begin testing some options, they’ll start to learn the different sensitivities and be more enthusiastic about what can be done.

Although we have only seen the initial outline of the 2026 regulations, there’s no doubt that they represent an extreme change, introducing plenty of problems for aero teams to solve, and they should also make the racing closer and unpredictable.

Adrian Newey Red Bull 2024 F1 season

How quickly can Newey settle in to a new team and start to make an impact?

Red Bull

And don’t forget that this comes at a time when several teams are making major changes to their aerodynamic departments. Adrian Newey is leaving Red Bull and, wherever he lands, it will take him time to settle in to a new team and for people to understand how he works.

Mercedes has lost its chief aerodynamicist; McLaren’s technical director left three months after starting; and Alpine is restructuring. Now there’s the suggestion that Ferrari’s technical director, Enrique Cardile could move to Aston Martin.

Being competitive in 2026 could have a lot to do with how quickly each team can gel and come up with a brand new concept.

Rethinking ‘dirty’ air

Modern F1 aerodynamics are focused on controlling pressure fields: the wheels generate a large volume of ‘dirty air’ — low energy flow limiting the downforce potential further back on the car. The aim is to avoid this wheel wake from interfering with the high-energy airflow directed underneath the floor through tunnels to generate maximum downforce with ground effect.

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At first glance, the new regulations limit the potential of controlling that wheel wake, with the aim of reducing downforce.

Mark Hughes has explained the need for this, given the reduction in engine power and the increased reliance on electrical energy. The FIA has described a downforce reduction of 30% in 2026.

The decrease could be even larger, assuming that the FIA is basing its figures on the initial projections for the last major regulation changes in 2022.

Since then, teams have been working non-stop to add more and more downforce to their cars, which would make the drop more significant.

Narrower tyres and front wing


2024 Red Bull RB20 front view

2024 Red Bull

F1 2026 car with front airflow

2026 prototype car

One of the measures has been to decrease the width of the tyres; the reduction in tyre surface area will lead to a significant reduction in drag and also a reduced wheel wake.

But that wheel wake will be far more difficult for aerodynamicists to control, starting at the very tip of the car. One obvious change for 2026 is the narrow-span front wing will generate more inwash compared to current regulation cars that have wider span front wings. The angle of the elements and endplates will direct air inwards, drawing the wheel wake to precisely where it’s unwanted: the leading edge of the floor.

It’s the opposite of what you want as an aerodynamicist, and it’s going to take some ingenuity to minimise the effect.

The wider footplates on each end of the wing will be welcomed though. If these are damaged, it will have less effect on the aerodynamic load than the loss of an endplate on one of this season’s cars — so light contact is less likely to ruin a driver’s race.

Floor leading edge

The leading edge of the floor, where airflow is directing into the underbody tunnels, as well as up and around the sidepods is a critical area. The cleaner the airflow, the more downforce you’ll generate.

Turned wheels airflow on prototype 2026 F1 car

That objective won’t be helped by the new vanes that extend beyond the leading edge of the floor and obviously direct airflow inwards.

From the images and detail we’ve seen so far, these vanes look to be aligned for the wheels in a straight-ahead position — funnelling the wake unhelpfully towards the floor. But the wake’s trajectory changes when the wheels turn, which will then affect the turbulent air directed by the vanes.

The narrow span front wing and inwashing vane could make the cars more steer sensitive — where they behave very differently and unpredictably when cornering, affecting driver confidence and the ability to find a competitive set-up.

And it doesn’t stop there: the detail we’ve seen so far suggests that floor fences won’t be permitted: these strakes at the leading edge of the floor generate strong vortices that increase floor load but are also responsible for making the current generation of cars sensitive to ride height change. Removing the fences will reduce load but help to make them less sensitive to changes in ride height.

Active aerodynamics

Some of the changes will be easier to adapt to. Active aerodynamics will see both front wing and rear wing flaps open on higher-speed sections of circuits.

While the front wing doesn’t generate a large proportion of overall drag, making two of these elements active will allow cars to run softer front suspension, as the car will compress less at higher speeds. This will make it more stable when combined with the similarly soft suspension (soft in F1 terms) at the rear.

More to come

But this is just the start. There’s a lot of detail missing, particularly when it comes to the freedom to design the floor vane and the floor edges. This will all be added in the coming months when we’ll have a fuller picture of the challenges — and opportunities that lie ahead.

What appears to be evident though is that we’ll have closer racing. If you reduce the potential downforce, the cars are going to be closer, and some of the changes, like reducing the height of the rear diffuser will help to limit the turbulent wash at the back, which will help cars to follow closer.