In a dynamic sport by its very definition like Formula 1, it is inevitable to constantly look to the future, while keeping an eye on the past. Precisely with regard to the judgment on the direction taken by the Circus in recent years, a discreet skepticism can be perceived in the public, perplexed in front of slower cars than those that preceded them at the beginning of the millennium. A trend that however becomes the manifesto of a different conception of progress in Formula 1, no longer limited to the sole pursuit of absolute performance, the result of a renewed trend that will be the basis of the future evolution of motor racing.
Rewinding the tape, we see that it has been thirty years and years that the increase in performance, understood as lap times, is no longer the primary objective of Formula 1. On the contraryprogress has begun to focus on achieving the same performance, making each area more and more effective. In the last decades, lap times have not changed significantly, while safety, thermal and aerodynamic efficiency, the prospects of sustainability of propulsion technologies, reliability and competitiveness have improved considerably, understood as the guarantee of being able to assist. to actual competition on the track. It is enough to look at the last two macro revolutions that have characterized the recent past of Formula 1 to have an example. With the advent of hybrid power units in 2014, accompanied by a regulation that imposes a limit on the flow of fuel, the thermal efficiency of the motors jumped from 30-32% to almost 50%, reducing the fuel needed to complete a race from 160 to 100 kg. The aerodynamic changes of 2022 have instead embarked on that long process of improving race dynamics which has now become indispensable. The protagonist cars from 2017 to 2021 had reached surprising load levels, at the price of a turbulent wake and excessive aerodynamic sensitivity that hindered chases and overtaking, central elements of motorsport. Having approached the same aerodynamic performance with more effective solutions, to the benefit of the quality of the action on the track, was a success that is hardly questionable, although still perfectible.
However, the improvement in aerodynamic cleanliness, efficiency and safety leads to weight increases, a reduction in the primary energy source and in general a limitation to performance. From this point of view, having managed over the years not to affect lap times while improving all the complementary aspects is the demonstration of how progress has never abandoned Formula 1. Progress which also includes the difficult calibration work compromises, the calibration of which is often the basis of the criticisms leveled at the decisions taken during the drafting of the regulations. Compromises that can be of various kinds, such as that between technology and entertainment, or the relationship between costs and progress. In this, the development of power units close to a thousand horsepower capable of completing up to seven Grands Prix is an engineering exercise extraordinary, but damn counterproductive on the economic level. Another compromise on the agenda is that between maximum technological expression and effective relevance for series production. The much-discussed MGU-H has long been at the center of the debate between those who criticized its excessive costs and lack of diffusion in industry and those who supported its forthcoming application on the road on a large scale.
It is in this twisted technical, political, economic and entrepreneurial scenario that Formula 1 is looking for new regulations for 2026. The direction for the power units has already been indicated, with the prospects, far from being certain, of environmental sustainability. of new fuels which represent real progress for the category. Different speech instead for the efficiency of the engines, because the abolition of the MGU-H and its failure to compensate with a second generator on the front axle will force it to burn gasoline to power the powerful hybrid system. Once the engine regulations have been approved, attention now shifts to the rules for chassis and aerodynamics, for which it will be appropriate to maintain contact with the reality of the industry.
Interesting in this regard was the recent publication by Porsche of a report on the main aerodynamic trends in the sector. With the increasing electrification of vehicles and consequently of Formula 1, the importance of external aerodynamics on consumption is also growing. On the regulatory homologation cycles, it is estimated that for a diesel or petrol car, aerodynamic drag is responsible for 10% of overall consumption. On fully electric cars, on the other hand, whose powertrain efficiency is about three times higher, aerodynamics are responsible for 30 to 40% of the overall energy losses. Although not yet 100%, propulsion in Formula 1 in 2026 will be increasingly electric, but with speeds well above those of a road car. The imperative is to improve efficiency, an indispensable parameter to allow the cars to complete the race distance with 70 kg of fuel, 30 kg less than the current values.
For the reasons listed, active aerodynamics is increasingly widespread in the automobile market, especially in the high-performance electric sector, achieved by means of solutions that go far beyond simple mobile flaps. Shape memory materials, capable of deforming in a controlled manner based on the voltage and temperature applied, are now a reality. The perspective is that of bodies whose shape can be corrected in straight lines and in curves to favor efficiency or stability. The research carried out at the University of Stuttgart, on the other hand, is decidedly peculiar, where thanks to small sound impulses emitted by the bodywork it was possible to alter the characteristics of the flow, anticipating the detachment of the surfaces and reducing aerodynamic resistance by up to 7%. Thus a panorama of solutions and possibilities is outlined which will not necessarily find application in Formula 1, but which demonstrates how the industry’s interest in active aerodynamics is both vivid and concrete.
It is much more realistic for 2026 the return of active suspensions, whose application on the road is already on the agenda to control height for aerodynamic purposes. An eventuality that arises almost as a requirement, with a Formula 1 that still relies entirely on torsion bars and mechanical elements that are now obsolete. The concern for the sporting aspect is understandable, with the fear that the electronics could take away space from the role of the pilot, but however, the effect will not depend so much on the solution itself, but on the way in which it will be implemented. If the control of the active suspension were manual, the tasks for the pilot would even increase, with the possibility of daring and thrilling. The exploits of Mansell who took Blanchimont with the throttle wide open and the diffuser stalled, or the 2011 Red Bulls, the only ones able to cover some Silverstone curves with the DRS open, are still etched in the memory. Undoubtedly, limits should be set to balance everything with safety, but the suspension and active aerodynamics in general could really be an added value for the Formula 1 of the future.
The big challenge will be combining progress with simplicity. Today’s already complex single-seaters cannot afford to become even less intuitive in the eyes of the public. In parallel, the adoption of new (and old) technologies in the maximum formula will have to preserve simplicity, above all for reasons of cost. The growing adoption of standard components could be a solution, leaving software development teams to implement hardware that is the same for all. A practice that could turn one’s nose upside down, but which would embrace the new dynamics of modern Formula 1, in which compared to forty years ago the engineering challenge fields have proliferated, above all the electronics, making it almost impossible to leave the competition free on each front. An observation that you may not like, but which is a natural consequence of progress.
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