Is this the end of the wind tunnel?

October 9, 2009

The windtunnel has been the basis of F1 design for the last thirty years

The wind tunnel has been the basis of F1 design for the last thirty years

Ever since Tony Rudd and Peter Wright used the wind tunnel at Imperial College London to perfect ground effect aerodynamics the wind tunnel has been the mainstay of F1 car design. Dr John Stollery first developed a moving ground wind tunnel at Imperial College in the early sixties to support Donald Campbell’s land and sea record breaking attempts, he also published his work in this area which was to become part of the stimulus for the work of Lotus and others in the mid seventies to develop a more sophisticated understanding of automotive aerodynamics.

Back in April 2000 I interviewed John Stollery (now Professor of Aerodynamics here at Cranfield University) on the subject of wind tunnels and their use in Formula 1. One of the questions I put to him was whether wind tunnels could ever be replaced by the emerging area of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) which used computer power to simulate the aerodynamics of an F1 car. He explained that this was unlikely as the main problem was that all airflow around the car would need to be modeled in great detail, involving millions, perhaps billions, of calculations, which at that time would involve many hours, if not days, of computations. The main problem with CFD was that if the designers then decided to try a different ride height or present the car at a different angle (or yaw) to the airflow then the whole thing would need to be completely re-run. In a wind tunnel such changes could be made in a few minutes and the designers would be able to instantly see the results. This meant that experimentation was relatively quick and easy, this is in fact was what happened with the Lotus ground-effect project when Peter Wright and his colleagues decided to place some card on the sides of the model and suddenly got some amazing downforce readings – and so skirts were introduced to F1 cars. Such experimentation was unlikely to happen with CFD.

Well that was in 2000 and it seems that for 2010 we will have the first F1 car developed purely by CFD. Nick Wirth’s Wirth Research operation is designing and building the car for the Manor F1 team using only CFD to simulate the effectiveness of the aerodynamics. Potentially this is the first F1 car designed and developed without the aid of a wind tunnel for over thirty years.

The interesting question is whether or not their car will be as competitive as their new rivals Campos, Lotus and USF1 who, as far as I’m aware, will be making use of wind tunnels. The two questions to ask are 1) how fast will it be versus the competition at the start of the season? And 2) how quickly can they develop the car during the season? Removing the wind tunnel from the equation is potentially a massive cost saving, there is no need to run these giant structures with powerful fans, and no need to build models of the car to be used in the wind tunnel and no need for teams of people working on calibration. As Clayton Christensen’s books on the innovator’s dilemma underline, established firms find it almost impossible to justify innovations that will destroy their existing capabilities and investments, whereas new entrants without the legacy of the old technology are able to come in with different structures designed around new technologies. In 1999 the Stewart Grand Prix F1 car was the first to have been designed using a full CAD-CAM system ie all drawings were digital to allow them to be manufactured straight from the design. As a new team having to build their design operation from scratch they were able to do this, whereas their competitors were not and had to translate manual drawings into machine code. Now all F1 teams use CAD-CAM.

The established teams will be watching the Manor car with interest to see if a competitive F1 car can be developed without the huge behemoths that they use to refine their aerodynamics. It is unlikely that the removal of wind tunnels will be widespread initially, but given the pressure to reduce costs and carbon footprint it is unlikely that Manor will be the only team to take this approach.


2 Responses to “Is this the end of the wind tunnel?”


    Hi Mark

    I am Vishnu Hariprasad. I am looking to design a moving wind tunnel. Could you share some literature regarding this

    • Mark Says:

      Hi Vishnu, probably the best place to start is to look at the research published by Imperial College London on the subject, and also John Stollery’s work at Cranfield. Good luck.

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