1982 – The reason why F1 needs to be careful if it returns to ground effect aerodynamics

September 7, 2010

The underside of a Williams ground effect car showing the sliding skirt (right of picture)

There has been some recent speculation on how the technological regulations for 2013 may shape up. In particular the idea that a four cylinder turbo engine would be used along with various energy recovery systems, the idea that some kind of fuel flow or energy usage limit would be defined and also that ground effect or under-body aerodynamics may be used to replace the current emphasis on over-body aerodynamics through the use of wings.

All of this is very interesting and I’m sure that the speculation will continue with different groups advocating different approaches. I have to admit though that the idea of ground effect did surprise me a little, I’m assuming that this would be ground effect without ‘skirts’ – the mechanisms that were used to seal the underbody area and which could, from time to time – particularly under braking – jam, creating some rather hairy moments for the driver. My main concern though would be one of safety.

I am currently re-reading what I consider to be one of the best F1 books ever written – ‘Life at the Limit’, Professor Sid Watkins’ account of his time as the FIA Safety and Medical Delegate from 1978. The Prof started at a time when ground effect was just beginning to become established, and it is interesting to see that he has a whole chapter dedicated to the subject of ‘1982 – Accidents and the Ground Effect Car’. Ground effect was one of the most radical and successful innovations to feature in Formula 1. Pioneered by the Lotus team with their Lotus 78 it used the airflow under the car to create downforce, allowing the car to corner at amazing speeds, 1978 World Champion Mario Andretti described it as like being ‘painted onto the road’. At the peak of ground effect technology in 1982 the cars were able to generate around six times their own weight in downforce, and could therefore technically drive upside down on the roof of a tunnel. However, the downside of ground-effect occurred if the car was launched into the air, such as when riding up against another car, at this point the ground-effect is broken releasing the car from its proximity to the track surface and effectively creating a sudden and massive change in loading which launches the car into the air. Professor Watkins describes how, at the 1982 Dutch Grand Prix, Rene Arnoux’s Renault had effectively taken off and ended up balanced on the top of the tyre barrier. However, a few months earlier the fatal accident which took the life of Gilles Villeneuve at the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder in 1982 was reckoned to be due to his colliding with the rear of Jochen Mass’s March during qualifying and launching the car into the air. Imagine how Mark Webber’s spectacular accident at Valencia would have played out if the car had been using ground effect – it doesn’t really bear thinking about. If ground effect is to return to F1 then it would need to be used in a way that would not create the kind of accidents that were experienced in 1982.

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