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Evolution of F1 Technology over the past 70 years

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

Aerodynamics are a big part of Formula 1, especially these days, where teams are always talking about the various aero packages they have developed for different circuits and how they produce various upgrades for their engines, chassis or whatever. But look back over the 70 years of F1 and things are very different. That is to be expected I suppose, as science evolves, engineers will figure out ways to implement it in such a way so as to give them a competitive advantage. Here are the most important technical revolutions of the sport.


1954: Mercedes W196


Yes, Mercedes did race in the 50s. This was an important car for being the only ever F1 car that ran with covered wheels. CONTROVERSY. SACRILEGE. Yes, it was, but all they were aware of was that this was a good way to speed the cars up in a straight line. After this one year of the closed wheels, the cars were mandated to have exposed wheels, and have remained that way ever since.


1955: Cooper's mid-engined T43



You would be forgiven if you had never heard of Cooper before. I hadn't until I did some research either, but it turns out they were very influential in forwarding F1 into the modern era. This is because they were the first F1 team to run a car with the engine behind the driver. At the time, nobody expected it to be any good, and it was a bit tricky at first. But after some time, they were able to make it work, and win a world championship double with the car. After that, every car in Formula 1 since has had the engine behind the driver, making this one of the most significant technological advancements in Formula 1.



1962: Lotus 25's Monocoque Chassis


The Lotus 25 was penned by Lotus' in house genius: Colin Chapman. Colin was always looking for a way to get any competitive advantage, and in this case he found one. He designed the Lotus 25 to have an aluminium alloy monocoque chassis. This meant that the body of the car itself was a load bearing device. This allowed the Lotus 25 to not only be stronger and stiffer than most cars of the time, but also be lighter than any other car on the field. As a result, the car went on to dominate the next 2-3 years of Formula 1. After it won both World Championships in 1963, all F1 cars were built with some form of a monocoque, representing another leap forward in F1 technology.


1967 and 1968: Lotus 49 and the Cosworth DFV



In 1967, at the Dutch Grand Prix in Zandvoort, the world of F1 was introduced to the legendary Ford-Cosworth DFV 3.0 Litre V8 engine. This was the single most successful engine in F1 history, winning over 170 races in its almost 20 year history. But that wasn't the only revolutionary thing to come out of 1967. Lotus yet again shook up the Formula 1 paddock with another advancement in car design, by making the Cosworth engine a stressed member. This meant that the engine was an active structural element of the chassis, allowing it to transfer the forces and torques of racing more effectively. This allowed the Lotus 49 to achieve much higher cornering speeds and totally dominate the rest of the season.

The car was made better in Monaco 1968, when Lotus installed aerofoils in the front and back of the car. These were essentially inverted plane wings and the first breed of F1 front and rear wings, the first iteration of downforce generating devices. Lotus was aware that they would be slower in a straight line, but after Graham Hill won the race comfortably, all the teams realised that being quick in a straight line wasn't the only requirement of a race car. This was when teams realised the cars needed to be good around corners as well as on the straights to win races. And the only way to give the cars enough grip to corner quickly is to add wings, which is what every team did from 1969 onwards. In a way, this car shaped the way F1 would evolve over the next 51 years, making it one of the most important cars in the history of F1 technology.


1970: The Lotus 72's side mounted radiators


The successor to the Lotus 49, the Lotus 72 was a game changer because of its side mounted radiators. These improved the car's weight distribution, bringing closer to the ideal 50-50. This improved the car's grip and corner exit speed, allowing the drivers to be more aggressive. This improvement showed the way forward, and from then on, all F1 cars have had side mounted radiators.


1977: The ground effect revolution from the Lotus 78


Calling this car the most influential car of the 1970s and 1980s would not be doing it a disservice. This car single handedly influenced the way F1 cars were designed for next 3-4 years. This is because Colin Chapman and the Lotus team had been closely studying Bernoulli's principle and fluid dynamics, and had come up with a way they thought could give them a substantial performance boost in the races. Their plan was to create a completely new floor design that would produce downforce, which was successful. What they came with was the Lotus 78, a car with MASSIVE side pods for the time. They did something very important, create Ground Effect. To understand this, first we must understand the design of the Lotus 78's floor, which featured a constriction at the middle.

This constriction in the middle actually lowered the air pressure inside, because the particles enter and exit the area at the same rate, so they increase in speed to compensate for the constriction. This means that there is an area of high pressure air flowing over the car's body and an area of low pressure air under the car, as this constriction is on the floor, remember? This pressure difference results in the car being pushed downward, creating downforce, with the added benefit of there being no drag as the aerodynamics were under the body, not on top. This constriction in the floor was named the Venturi Tunnel, and as a result, this was the fastest car in the 1977 season, but it suffered a design flaw.

The constriction was too close to the front of the car, meaning that the car's downforce balance was too far forward. This meant that with the planned rear wing, the rear end was far too nervous and just did not stick to the road properly, forcing the team to increase the size of the rear wing to be substantially larger than at first thought, meaning that the car suffered a low top speed. It was also plagued with reliability issues, because Cosworth gave them more powerful engines to counter the draggy wings, while sacrificing the car's reliability. The year after, Lotus introduced the 79, which featured a redesigned floor and the 79 eliminated all the problems of the 78, going on to dominate the 1978 season.


1978: Ground Effect taken to extremes; the Brabham BT46B, The Fan Car


How do I introduce this car? This is one of the most famous F1 cars of all time and really highlights what engineers always want to do: bend the rules to gain all the performance they can. That is probably the sort of spirit embodied in this car. In 1978, Lotus had dominated the season with the 79, and pretty much everyone was pissed. Nobody had an answer to the cornering speeds the car could achieve, and most were just sitting around grumbling for the time being, plotting their revenge for the following year. One team was a team with a grumbling brit for their designer who you may have heard of: Gordon Murray. Gordon knew that Alfa Romeo (who were Brabham's engine supplier at the time) were making a V12 for the 1979 season, which would allow them to add Venturi Tunnels, but only for the 1979 season. For the 1978 season, they would have to find a way of creating Ground Effect without the Venturi Tunnels, as the current Afla flat 12 engine was too wide and just would not allow for the addition of Venturi Tunnels to the underbody.

He was looking for a loophole to exploit, and found one. The rules stated that any movable device could not be used to create an aerodynamic advantage. But Gordon realised that if he could make an argument that a device was used to cool the engine, then he could design it in such a way that it had the added benefit of sucking air out of the bottom of the car, creating a low pressure zone under the car, creating the Ground effect phenomenon. The simplest way to do this was to add a colossal fan to the rear of the car, which sucked air from underneath the car and through the engine, cooling it while creating the Ground Effect phenomenon. This car was really, REALLY fast. Its first appearance was the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix, where it qualified 2nd and 3rd, with both cars having full fuel tanks. In the race, Mario Andretti in the Lotus 79 built an early lead but Niki Lauda in Brabham slowly caught up and passed the Lotus on the inside, and went on to win by an astonishing 34 seconds from 2nd-placed Riccardo Patrese.

But the BT46B had 2 flaws: being weird to drive and other teams. Niki Lauda said that, due to the extreme lateral forces present in such a high downforce car, driving it was "unpleasant." He said he had to develop a new form of driving: accelerating through the corners so that he had the insane grip given by the fan. But he eventually got the hang of it. However, the issue of other teams was even worse. They grumbled a bit when the Lotus 79 proved dominant, so naturally they grumbled a LOT when the BT46B came to Sweden. The grumbling began when they saw the car squat the moment the engine roared. Even the drivers grumbled, saying that the fan kicked up dirt and rocks into their faces, which turned out to be a complete lie. But because all the teams were grumbling, the governing body stepped in and told Brabham that they could run the car for 3 more races before being forced to withdraw the car. But the team manager (Bernie Ecclestone) told the team to voluntarily withdraw the car as he needed the support of the other teams in the FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association) to remain its president. So Brabham withdrew the car, and raced on with the BT46 for the rest of the season before fully exploiting Ground Effect in the 1979 season with the BT48. But still, the BT46B will forever remain one of the most important and controversial F1 cars in the sport's history.



Now hold up, don't get angry with me. don't say "Its only 1978. Where are the next 42 years?" I will get to them, but in another post. This is long enough already, any longer and I would bore you. So don't worry, I will finish this, but it may take a while. There are a lot of important cars to go through, and more research to be done. But I will do it for you. So fear naught!

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