Formula 1 Insight

Ground Effect Memories
Over at F1 Fanatic, Keith Collantine has written an excellent article entitled Banned! Ground Effects. That era has special significance for me because it coincided with my return to England after many years in Africa and so I was able to watch the televised races as they happened.

Lotus 79
Lotus 79

Although I saw a few races in 1977, it was not until 1978 that I viewed a full season and got back into the swing of things. I was a Brabham fan at the time (as ever, I am swayed by the look of the car and Gordon Murray's offerings were always so pretty) and so I had mixed feelings about the dominance of the Lotus 79 that year. The idea of ground effect seemed fairly obvious to me (I had been thinking about the airflow under the cars since the late sixties) but it was the implementation in practice that proved Chapman's genius.

His key invention was the introduction of skirts. Any attempt to suck the car on to the road by creating a low pressure area under it was bound to fail because air would be drawn in from the sides; some form of device was required to prevent this happening and Chapman's first solution was the same as imagined by me: brush skirts. He tried them on his first ground effect car, the Lotus 78 of 1977, and they worked well enough to produce impressive downforce for the time. But the real breakthrough came when rubber skirts were tried, soon to be replaced with rigid ones that moved up and down within a groove at the edge of the sidepods. This invention allowed the ground effect period to take off and cars began to corner at incredible speeds.

But I think the governing body missed a trick at the time. They could have put a stop to the whole idea without altering the rules and we would never have experienced that time of horrendous crashes caused by a sticking skirt, crashes that claimed the lives of far too many great drivers. The point is that the skirts were movable aerodynamic devices.

Whatever you do with the airflow over or under the car, you are utilizing aerodynamics and ground effect is an aerodynamic effect. Any device that moves and is designed to assist in the use of such an effect is, therefore, a movable aerodynamic device, something that had been banned in F1 after the primitive wings of the late sixties began to break off and cause accidents.

So the rule was in the book and skirts were clearly illegal as a result. They should have been thrown out from the first. Why FISA missed this point I do not know; perhaps their attention was distracted by the coincidental rise of turbo power in the sport. But in later years, when they were trying everything to end the use of ground effect, the obvious does not seem to have occurred to them.

How different a world it was from today's, when the FIA can maintain that mass dampers are a movable aerodynamic device (huh?) and ban them summarily. I have to be thankful that there was a time when the designers could run rings around the regulations with such clever innovations as the Brabham fan car, Tyrrell's sneaky "water-cooled brakes", and cars that altered their ride height as soon as they hit the track. What a glorious free-for-all that was!


I agree with the glorious free-for-all that was. Perhaps I'm a bit thick, but I can't understand why the regulations and restrictions against free-for-all are necessary. Why can't the designers try every possible idea? Why not rear bodywork that lifts when brakes are stomped, like the pre-war Auto Unions? Why not some of Jim Hall's crazy schemes, like chain saw engines spinning fans to suck the car down onto the road? Why not? It's a game. The contestants should be able to think up any revolutionary idea they can. It's a competition after all, and to the innovative go the spoils... maybe.
Date Added: 08/06/2007

Gone Away
The problem with total freedom is that the cars get so fast that it becomes beyond human capability to drive them, Barry. I feel that there must be some limits set to keep the designers in the real world but those limits should be boundaries within which there are many possibilities. Take the modern engine limitation, for instance - 2.4 liters, V8, max rpm set at 19,000. It's too constrictive, making decisions for the engineers when they do not need them. Make the limit 2.4 liters and then let them decide what sort of engine they want to build to make the most of that capacity.

Jim Hall may have had some crazy ideas but most of them worked! Many people think Colin Chapman got some of his ideas from Jim.
Date Added: 08/06/2007

Your piece here indeed corrects the comment I made on Collantine's piece moments ago; skirts are not the reason for the moveable aerodynamics rule, and frankly, could've been a very fast cure. I think the hindsight is noted by FIA since they are very quick to declare things as 'movable aerodynamics' though I think it'd be better for them to say 'We're disallowing that because we just don't want it in this competition.'

True racers will not police themselves enough to halt development on a car that might kill them or take them to bankruptcy.
Date Added: 08/06/2007

Gone Away
Hah, that "we just don't want it" is an excellent statement of the FIA's apparent attitude these days, Chunter. The movable aerodynamics clause seems to be a catch-all for everything.

I have always thought that Gordon Murray's fan car was a deliberate statement by the designer, pointing out the unfairness of allowing one constructor to get away with something while another is not - he knew perfectly well that FISA would have to ban the fan, in spite of his claim that it was for "cooling". Of course, he might have been more effective if he had whispered the words "movable aerodynamic devices" into Balestre's ear.

Your final sentence is so true that I am tempted to steal it and use at as my motto!
Date Added: 08/06/2007

RSS feed icon RSS comments feed

Back to the main blog

Have your say

You may use some HTML in comments. For bold text use <strong></strong> and for italic text use <em></em>. If you know what you're doing feel free to use more complex mark-up but please no deprecated tags, break tags or JavaScript.

Enter the code shown above:

Name *

Comment *

Email *


Copyright disclaimers XHTML 1.0 CCS2 RSS feed Icon