The idea of automatic control introduces regulatory issues for 2026, including safety concerns already raised by the unrestricted use of DRS in 2011.
Little is currently known about the aerodynamic regulations for 2026, except for what emerges from statements by key figures. Among the most recent is Max Verstappen’s revelation that the current plans involve active aerodynamics with automatic control: “And then there’s active aerodynamics, which you can’t control, because everything will be controlled by the unit. In my opinion, this makes driving very uncomfortable because I prefer to control it myself.”
Active aerodynamics will be a crucial tool for the new Formula 1 cars since the upcoming power units will face the challenge of saving energy due to the high consumption of the hybrid part. Adjustable aerodynamics would allow retaining the necessary downforce in corners, and then flattening the aerodynamic elements once on the straight. However, automatic control by the electronic control unit (ECU) raises several questions.
Active aerodynamics for the upcoming regulations will be significantly different from the current system. The Drag Reduction System (DRS) is an on-off mechanism, adjustable in only two positions. The plan for 2026 is to have a continuously adjustable system, meaning the level of downforce can be adjusted within a range based on the type of corner. As Max Verstappen anticipated, the control wouldn’t be in the hands of the driver but would be delegated to the ECU.
The idea is far from being approved, mainly due to technical feasibility. Onboard the cars, a larger number of solenoid valves would be required compared to what’s currently present. This is essential for cross-checking safety control. Valve redundancy is necessary to prevent the risk that a malfunction of a single component could compromise the overall functionality, potentially putting a driver in a low downforce configuration while in a corner. Increasing the number of valves onboard is possible, but it would lead to additional weight, already at critical levels.
Practical aspects are accompanied by regulatory ones. Continuously adjustable active aerodynamics is designed to allow adjustments from corner to corner, not just on straights, as is the case with the current DRS. However, this would resemble what was permitted in 2011, when in qualifying, drivers could activate the DRS freely throughout the lap, including fast corners. This freedom was quickly removed due to incidents caused by drivers’ overconfidence. Although in 2026 control will be automatic rather than manual, the issue re-emerges in a different form, raising questions about how to limit engineers’ aggressiveness in writing control software.
The question is whether the ECU software will be standardized for all or developed by teams. The former scenario appears unlikely, as a single control software developed by the Federation would have different effects on individual cars, given the aerodynamic differences among the various models. However, the FIA could still impose limits on reducing wing incidence based on input parameters such as steering angle and car speed.
On the other hand, the possibility for teams to develop software for active aerodynamics would open up an intriguing new area of technical competition. Aerodynamic research would no longer only concern the shapes of individual components but also their utilization in a continuously adjustable system. Depending on the ability to adjust the software during race weekends, this would effectively become a new parameter for car setup. It will be interesting to see how the FIA approaches this matter, whether by imposing constraints or granting teams a freedom similar to what drivers had in 2011.