Can ground effects drive Formula One to its former glory?

Regardless of whether you have an interest in Formula One (F1), the development of technology used in the sport has a far reaching significance. The pioneering technology introduced in F1 today may be implemented into commercial platforms 5-10 years down the line. The sport is underpinned by sponsorship money in which investors rely heavily on the sport’s popularity and viewing numbers. Since 2008 the sport’s viewership has declined by a third through a lack of exciting racing.


This article debates the reintroduction of ‘ground effects’ into F1. An F1 car can be designed in such a way that a region of low pressure is created under the vehicle which in turn generates high levels of downforce allowing faster cornering speeds. These cars are known as ground effect cars. An issue with this technology is the downforce can be suddenly lost under certain conditions leading to a loss of control and in rare cases the flight of a car.

Formula One governing bodies face a compelling moral dilemma; to reintroduce ground effects, formally banned in 1983, and risk the safety of drivers, or maintain the ban but potentially miss out on increased sponsorship and investment.

Ground effects, surely just a race to the death?


Utilisation of the ground effects was originally banned in 1983 due to concerns for driver safety. Driving over uneven ground or hitting a hump in the road could cause the vehicle to suddenly lose its downforce. This would reduce grip and may lead to the driver losing control of the car potentially resulting in spectacular aerial crashes. These crashes put the lives of both the driver and the spectators in danger with the potential to cause a similar incident to the Le Mans disaster. It is the responsibility of the governing body to mitigate these risks and thus a reintroduction of ground effects is surely counterintuitive?

In the 1982 season the ground effect was a major contributing factor for a number of the crashes during that season. One instance was during the Dutch Grand Prix where the enormous downforce created from a ground effect caused the suspension to collapse on a Renault car resulting in a high speed crash into the track tyre wall. Furthermore, the effect of cornering at higher speeds caused significantly greater G forces than normal leading to drivers collapsing at the end of races. These incidents put pressure on the governing body to introduce regulations stating only flat bottomed cars could be used for the 1983 season. These flat bottom cars can not realise the benefits of ground effects. This was inevitable as surely the value of human life is significantly greater than any advantage in speed that would arise from using the ground effect. In addition, if any fatal crash were to occur then this may contribute further to the decrease in viewing figures, losing more revenue for the sport.

group36pic2The reintroduction of the ground effect links to consequentialism, such that the morality of an action is based upon the consequences of that action. In this case the ground effect has the potential to make the racing more exciting for the viewer, and more profitable for the investors. The consequence of this is that the lives of the drivers and spectators become at risk. This far outweighs the pros of reintroducing the technology.

It could be argued that evidence and data is now becoming outdated relative to advancements in technology, however, aerodynamics is still the same troublesome beast as it was in the 1980’s. Even with advancements in simulations it may still be impossible to reduce the likelihood of a downforce loss. Some of the more advance teams may be able to mitigate the sudden loss of downforce, however, the weaker teams with less available resources are the ones at greater risk, with improperly designed vehicles.

Make Formula One Great Again

The beauty of ground effects is that it remains one of the only downforce generating concepts that remains unaffected by the influence of surrounding vehicles. Combined with increased cornering speed, overtaking potential is massively improved. Greater potential for overtaking undoubtedly makes for more exciting racing. Taking the utilitarianism approach, one could say that the excitement around bringing back the ground effect would give happiness to a much larger proportion of viewers than those who would be made unhappy by the failure of a ground effect vehicle. A greater level of excitement also leads to more sponsorship contracts awarded to F1 teams, providing money which can then be fed into further development of new technologies.

In the era of ground effects, race teams were basing design decisions on experimental results using wind tunnel and track testing with optimisation of solutions involving simple trial and error methods. These procedures were slow and did not accommodate testing of many different designs. In the past few decades the development of simulation software has allowed the aerodynamic effects of F1 cars to be better understood over a wide range of conditions. This allows for better vehicle design that may be more resilient to previous issues of downforce loss in ground effect cars. If advancements in simulations can be used to develop aircrafts keeping them in the sky, can it not be utilised to keep F1 cars on the ground?

As well as improvements in simulations, the safety of the track and the driver’s ability to withstand high G forces has significantly improved since the 1980’s. Surely it is worthwhile conducting thorough research and development to create prototype ground effect cars to trial the risk to the drivers rather than generalise the feasibility of the concept based on outdated evidence.

It is undeniable that F1 is dangerous, and always will be for that matter, but the element of danger enhances the excitement of the sport. The drivers are aware of the risk factors associated with the sport and the danger may even be one of the motivating factors. As indicated by the Freedom Principle, the driver is free to do as they like as long as they do not deny or hinder the pleasure of others.

Group 36: Anthony Costa, Duncan James, Lee Ryan & Simon Webbe

5 thoughts on “Can ground effects drive Formula One to its former glory?

  1. I believe that linking the popularity or spectator appeal with just ground effects is too simplistic. I would rather link spectator appeal to a range of technical factors that I believe contribute to the race spectacle. I’m ignoring all the other aspects beyond car design such as circuit facilities, TV presentation, ticket price, etc. These factors include speed, acceleration, braking, cornering, sound, car aesthetics. These then lead on to the spectacle of competition between cars such as overtaking, out-accelerating / braking, handling, better lap time etc,
    Ground effects is just one technical solution that influences these factors and it has arguably more negative aspects that other changes. The new F1 wing and tyre regulations have allowed higher cornering forces without these negative consequences for example.
    There is a strong argument that says that ‘spectacle’ would be increased if the front wing design was limited to a much simpler design and thus giving less downforce. The rear wing would have to be reduced too to maintain car balance. The consequence would be lower overall downforce leading to longer braking distances and slower cornering forces. This would increase overtaking opportunities and increase reliance on driver skill rather than the technical attributes of the car.
    Overall I don’t believe that bigger is best. The current F1 regulations (until this season) have limited engine power and thus top speed. Engines can easily produce more power. I believe that the logic is that the extra speed comes with greater danger from the consequences of any crash situation. In my view, ground effects comes in the same category.
    If you want to increase spectator appeal, keep the racing safe. Keep racing close and let there be consequences when a driver makes a mistake but let the consequences be benign (driver OK but car loses places in the race or is damaged). Engineer it to produce close racing where driver input is high on the priority list and where technical competition between teams is important but not dominant. Higher speed and faster cornering together with massive retardation rates are not, in my opinion necessary to provide the spectacle.

    Dave Robson


  2. F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, why not extend that to the technology used? This is a sport, entertainment should only serve as a secondary benefit. With the CFD packages that the teams use nowadays, they could easily study a wide variety of floor designs and then mandate certain areas to be a particular shape for safety and cost reasons (the edges in particular where you’re more susceptible to leakage and variable flow), leaving teams to exploit the other areas.
    Combine this with active suspension and the fact that circuits nowadays are a world apart from the 70’s and 80’s in terms of smoothness and safety features and you have a pretty safe system, with a load of “free” downforce that allows drivers to follow easily as a bonus.

    Overtaking isn’t the be all and end all by any means, but in this way, you get the benefit of the technological advancement, faster lap times without the draggy nature of winglets, drivers pushed to their physical limit and then potentially more entertainment in the form of closer racing. Surely that’s exciting to people?


  3. Although my understanding of aerodynamics is fairly limited, I understand that the main concern of this new season is that the over reliance on downforce from the wings. The turbulence created raises fears that cars can’t follow in each other’s slip streams, making over taking more difficult, and the race somewhat duller. A more boring race means fewer spectators, less money, and less advances (which is a dangerous downwards spiral).

    Now in terms of your proposal to bring back ground effects, surely there’s now more flexibility than either having it or not? Could regulations be put in place that would allow up to a certain amount of down force to reduce reliance on the wings, but also limit the chances of catastrophic failure? This would allow the sport as a whole to benefit, while not infringing on ethics by endangering drivers


  4. Bring it back, F1 should be about the fastest, most well engineered cars as possible. Drivers know the risks when they take on the job and as long as drivers are made aware of the new risks I don’t see it being a problem


  5. As a long time supporter of F1 I agree with you MAKE F1 GREAT AGAIN. I remember when I was a kid watching Formula 1 when it was just about the fastest car. You make good points about it should be about the best engineering possible. Surely with modern cars they would be much safer anyway, there used to be way more crashes than there are now and way less injuries because the cars are safer anyway. I don’t even like the engine change they brought into F1 it isn’t the purpose of the sport.


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