The FIA, through regulations, has constrained wind tunnel research with stringent rules, but teams continue to evolve wind tunnels, aware that it’s possible to improve research quality to find performance gains. We have reached a point where mobile metal matrix treadmills are covered with plastic material films that can reproduce the granularity of the asphalt. In the rubber components, which already have a deformation similar to real tires, inflation pressures are also being studied.
The hope in F1 is to one day eliminate wind tunnel aerodynamic development, aiming to further reduce costs with research conducted only virtually using Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) systems. Computational Fluid Dynamics is a method that uses numerical analysis, algorithms, and recently, artificial intelligence to solve and analyze fluid dynamics problems using computers with ever-increasing computing power.
Nick Wirth was the first, in the early ’90s, to believe in designing a car without a wind tunnel, but the Simtek’s CFD-only approach was not a virtuous example. Simulation systems have made extraordinary leaps forward, and the role of the wind tunnel has changed radically due to the enormous costs it requires. In the past, F1 teams mounted all proposed modifications on the scale model, and only after selection were the parts that produced the best results chosen to create update packages.
The aerodynamic evolution of a race car was quite slow because once the scale model was approved in the wind tunnel, it was produced in full size and manufactured to be mounted on the car. Today, screening occurs through CFD studies, while the approval of approved changes occurs with a check in the wind tunnel.
Modelers, extraordinary artisans who could create body or wing elements with wood or fiberglass parts, have seen their work change drastically: F1 now uses 60% scale models made of carbon fiber that must reproduce the characteristics of real cars, proportionally enduring the loads to which the car is subjected on the track.
With the introduction of 3D printers, there has been an acceleration in development times because composite material parts that needed to be laminated and then cooked in an autoclave can now be produced with rapid prototyping. Automation is complete because it has replaced the artisanal production of the prototype: 3D printers, thanks to additive technologies using powders, filaments, or resins, can define very complex parts that would be impossible to obtain with traditional subtractive techniques from a single block of material.
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The evolution of materials has led to increasingly sophisticated aerodynamic research, capable of reproducing more faithfully the data read on the track (the famous correlation that all teams seek). The investigation once involved the model being hit by the airflow from the fan only frontally with a maximum speed of 50 m/s, equivalent to 180 km/h, while more recently, the behavior of the car in yaw, i.e., with steered wheels, is also studied, as if it were in a curve.
The wheels, which were once made of wood, now have rims and tires produced by the single supplier. The first to introduce Wind Tunnel Tyres (WTT) was Bridgestone during Ferrari’s Schumacher era dominance, but Pirelli has since done thorough development work that allowed designing and building “tires” with the same profile as those used in GPs and with increasingly realistic shoulder deformation characteristics.
It may seem incredible, but Pirelli has a small team dedicated to the evolution of WTT, which simultaneously follows changes in 18-inch tire coverings. The only substantially different thing is the compound: in the wind tunnel, none of the five compounds approved for a season are used, but a specific compound is deliberated (usually harder).
Since the wake of the front wheel strongly conditions the aerodynamics of a modern F1 car, teams have paid more attention to the small tire. Each team receives 12 sets per season from Pirelli (those for 2023 must be returned to the supplier by February 28), and they must be sufficient for the entire championship.
It is emerging that all wind tunnels are constantly evolving: the mobile treadmill on which the wheels rest was a metal matrix tape capable of reaching the same speed as the airflow, while a sophisticated suspension mechanism allows the model to simulate all the maneuvers that an F1 car performs on the track: accelerations and braking, yaws, and even drifts.
The metal matrix net has become increasingly fine, but more recently, the treadmill has been covered with a rubber skin. The need was to reduce the friction of the WTT in yaw, also controlling its wear. Therefore, research has driven teams to develop layers of plastic films that can even reproduce the roughness of the asphalt.
In the hope of aligning the performance of top teams with that of customer teams, the FIA has imposed strict constraints on wind tunnel research, penalizing wealthier and more competitive teams: the reigning world champion Red Bull can use 605 hours in the first six months, compared to Mercedes’ 720 and Ferrari’s 768. There are no huge differences among the top three in the Constructors’ Championship, while the gap widens as you go down the ranking: Haas, last, can count on 1,108 hours, while AlphaTauri, Red Bull’s junior team, can reach 1,008.
The numbers say and do not say because it is increasingly clear that the quality and efficiency of the investigation matter more than the number of hours granted in the wind tunnel. So, contradictions can arise: is there an advantage in using fresher WTT with fewer hours available like Red Bull, or spreading them in a gradual consumption over the season?
We are entering increasingly extreme areas of specialization: there are teams that are paying particular attention to tire inflation pressure. We have moved from metal or wooden wheels to studying pressures. And certain research has intensified with the ground effect cars introduced in 2022.
Now, everyone understands how important it is to keep the car’s bottom as close to the asphalt as possible to generate aerodynamic load: teams that still have a wind tunnel with a metal matrix mobile treadmill cannot push too low because if the model were to rub on the floor, it could be destroyed, with serious material damage and in development times. Those who have adapted the treadmill with plastic films could dare to go lower with the bottom.
It emerges, therefore, how the growth of an F1 car is not only related to the ideas of the chief designer but also to the ability to adapt structures and tools with an evolutionary work that never stops. But at this point, a spontaneous question arises: if Red Bull, which uses the same tunnel as AlphaTauri in Milton Keynes (but similarly Ferrari could do it with Haas, or Mercedes – for a short time – with Aston Martin) devoted tire pressure tests to the team led by Laurent Mekies, could the world champion team benefit from the results without spending a minute of its precious tunnel time?
In the intricacies of the budget cap, there are many ways to optimize costs, and this is an example that can explain why the advantage would fall on both teams.