left to its own devices, Any motor racing concept would become too expensive, dangerous and uncompetitive to be a thriving business for all involved. The racing world has known this since at least the 1970s, when the gas crunch struck at the very moment automakers were running out of relatively easy ways to add speed at circuits like Le Mans and Indianapolis. This has become more true with the past decades, which makes raw innovation more difficult. The rules are getting stricter than ever, and for a while the racing has been closer and funnier. That stopped across NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1 about 20 years ago. the culprit? Polluted Air.
This story originally appeared in Volume 13 of Road & Track.
The basic principle that guides every modern racing car design is grip. Grip comes largely from downforce, which is produced on modern racers by controlling the air they travel through with wings, hood, and body components. For a single car, the only drawback is drag. I introduce a second car, and the problem becomes apparent.
The air that pushes the car into the curb is disrupted, creating turbulence behind. When the rear vehicle tries to follow closely, this air cannot be reorganized fast enough to create sufficient downforce. The effect benefits the leading car and harms the next car. It’s a problem that discourages the most exciting thing in racing: passing.
In 2021, Formula 1 champion Max Verstappen described it as a problem “at almost every track” where the series raced. “Once we’re up in two seconds, the car is really hard to drive, and we lose a lot of downforce,” he said.
A similar problem arose in both NASCAR and IndyCar, where the designers had less freedom but always sought more downforce, ignoring the effect on the rear car. After all, if your car is driving a battle on the site, the polluted air behind it is an advantage.
So it was a problem that the teams would not solve on their own. To rectify the situation, the three chains have recently radically changed their compressive force beams. The resulting new cars are slower, harder to drive, and most importantly, more compelling than ever.
NASCAR saw the writing on the wall in 2015. Years of racing with the “Car of Tomorrow” and its reconfigured 6th generation successor proved unsatisfactory, particularly on the many 1.5-mile ovals built during the 1990s boom and expansion. NASCAR considered two alternative solutions. In one plan, they would greatly reduce the power and throw downforce on the cars in order to create beam-like races on those tracks; In another case, they will significantly reduce the downforce to make the cars more difficult to drive. The series experimented with a hacked version of the low-power concept for a few years. Then, in 2019, it suddenly switched to the concept of high downforce and low horsepower on all medium ovals.
It does not work.
“It’s a tough percentage to get right,” says seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion-turned-IndyCar driver Jimmy Johnson. “You have a lot of variables that are constantly changing that make it more difficult, but the right track size and shape play a big part. I know NASCAR saw the Indy 500 in the 2015-2016 timeframe with so many passes, what seemed like passes in the lead every time. They quickly went to work to try and mimic it, and I worked on some tracks that were similar in format, but not all. As a series, it’s hard to find that right balance.”
The package did not produce the requested racing package. It has also dramatically increased the impact of polluted air and made traffic more difficult than ever.
The asymmetrical bodies modified by the teams exacerbated the problem, particularly when the teams realized that flexing and bending in the bodywork could create more downforce along the sides of the car. NASCAR has made eliminating these imprecise tactics a major goal while designing its 2022 car. The new car is built on the concept of reducing polluted air and, in theory, still allowing for higher levels of downforce while maintaining better racing.
So, while the current next-generation car was initially designed for higher downforce and lower power, it was also built from the ground up with a body that addresses the root causes of polluted air. The series forced symmetrical bodies, designed by the manufacturers and series together, keeping in mind the aerodynamic impact behind the car.
Bodywork production was outsourced to outside companies, with massive penalties if the team made any modifications to it, thus eliminating all ways of manipulating the bodywork to generate additional downforce. Some of the overall downforce of the vehicle underneath has also been moved up, with air now flowing into a floor-effect diffuser rather than a flat floor.
When early testing disappointed with another unprotected, driverless vehicle, the series made a quick hub. The 670-horsepower target, reduced from higher outputs in previous years – but still 120 horsepower above the limits imposed on larger tracks from 2019 to 2021 – has become the series-wide standard on most tracks. The chainring cut three inches off what was initially tested as a seven-inch wing, which dramatically reduced overall downforce and, most importantly, the unstable pioneer cars that held back the following racers.
The resulting package was a huge improvement. It’s not perfect, but on most average ovals, the race is the best NASCAR has seen in decades. The leaders still have the aerodynamic advantage, but it’s no longer so extreme that drivers will spend 40 or 50 laps waiting for the slightest chance to take advantage of a bug and make a pass. If the chain increases power again, the current downward power package may result in a perfect modern car.
Although it has little in common with NASCAR, Formula 1 has spent the past decade facing a similar problem. Unlike NASCAR, Formula 1 has not generally made its competition decisions with fans in mind. That changed with the 2022 Concept Car, a slower racer with streamlined over-the-body downforce balanced by ’80s-style ground effects.
Ground effects produce downforce thanks to shaped tunnels built into the floor of the vehicle. These tunnels work with the variable rate of velocity of air passing under the vehicle, causing the vehicle to pull itself down, as long as this seal is kept grounded. Downforce operates properly without the violent and disruptive aerodynamic chaos of conventional wings.
Ground effects were once the dominant mode of downforce production in racing, but alarming speeds led to specific efforts to ban such designs. Modern Formula 1 regulates this with specific tunnels designed to produce limited downforce.
By moving all that air under the car in a controlled and limited way, Formula 1 has made its cars a little slower while also increasing their ability to stick together and follow each other on the right track. This keeps drivers in a position to attempt passes more often, particularly through high-speed cornering complexes where polluted air significantly slows the overdrive.
“The biggest difference is following the car, which is great, because that’s what the rules set out to do,” says Williams Formula 1 driver Nicholas Latifi. “It’s very easy to follow now, and you’ll lose less power overall now as well. . . . I think the only negative thing to change is that the effect of the electric current is less strong now. But I think the improvement in the follow-up makes up for that, so overall it’s a good move” .
Verstappen praised the program by saying, “Of course, as a driver, you want to go as fast as you can.” But he continued, “If it helps the race and makes it more exciting, that’s fine for me.”
Alex Albon, Verstappen’s former teammate and current Latifi teammate, agrees. “In terms of how to drive, there is a middle ground between pure lap time and how downforce is generated,” Albon says. “There’s a real finesse in dancing with the car over the bumps, but I feel like it’s a great move. We don’t really mind if the cars are two seconds slower per lap, as long as they can follow and race well. That’s what it’s about.”
All of this aerodynamic theory was familiar to IndyCar by 2018. The series intentionally lowered downforce in large ovals from 2012 through 2014 to replace hazardous beam racing with a harder type of car versus driver racing. High downforce is back in 2015 with IndyCar’s highly complex, manufacturer-designed aerodynamic kits. When the unpopular stacks of ailerons retired, the chain knew it wanted to bring the concept of low power to every track on the calendar.
The resulting 2018 spec Dallara, the third iteration of the 2012 rider, produced the best on-track product in the world. While the 2018 aerodynamic package doesn’t have the benefits of ground effects, it does produce such a small amount of downforce in a way that aerodynamic drag isn’t much of a concern on road courses, street courses, small ovals or large ovals.
How does that compare to a pre- 2022 Formula 1 car in traffic? “It is much less than that [dirty air]. “A lot, much less,” says former Formula 1 driver and current IndyCar pilot Romain Grosjean. “They did a really good job with that, and racing in traffic is so much fun. Even on ovals at 230mph you can follow closely, so it’s impressive.”
Grosjean, like many others in the series, finds the car uniquely difficult to drive and too heavy for its own good. Still, he feels like he’s racing well.
“It’s completely different,” Grosjean says. “You have to work hard with IndyCar. The car is very basic in terms of technology in terms of F1, but it’s very powerful, everyone has the same thing, so it’s really good racing. The car doesn’t have power steering, so it’s very heavy. The aerodynamics is very streamlined, But it’s a good race, and the mechanical grip is very good. The very low speed is very nice. The high speed is a bit more complicated. It’s something about the driver a lot.”
When the series finally delivers a long-awaited new chassis, it has a unique opportunity to fix these issues with lessons learned from other series while retaining the old car’s strengths. The focus should be on those strengths. As 2021 Series Champion Alex Palou sees: “The racing in IndyCar is one of the best, if not the best, in terms of side-to-side racing and overtaking. We don’t need to change it much.”