Ariel built a fan car! This is not a car powered by fans, this is a car that uses fans to suck the car to the ground. It’s an old trick borrowed from 1960s Texan race cars and the banned Brabham F1 car from the ‘70s.

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The idea is that instead of using an inverted wing to pull the car down onto the ground, the car has two fans under its floor that do the same job. The difference is that a traditional wing generates a lot of drag and only works at higher speed and the fans generate no drag and work from a standstill.

Here’s how Ariel describes their fan car, which I’m going to quote from their news item on the car. I just still can’t quite believe they did this:

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Powered by two small, lightweight, high speed fans the Atom test car has an additional moulding and rubber skirts added to the bottom of the tub as well as ducting and a standalone battery pack.

And again, this is not just a fun exercise with a weird tech. This system really works, at least according to Ariel, which saw three times the downforce with their fans as they did with their production-style wings:

“When the system is turned on the car visibly squats on the ground so you can see it working, which is pretty exciting,” said Simon Saunders, “We’re already making about three times the downforce as aerofoils, but this really is just the first step and a very early stage in what is a large and complex project to bring to a production reality, so we have a lot more work to do.”

Look at how they have to seal the area under the car to get this system to work. I need a car that has ‘no step’ written on it somewhere.

Now, the car that this is based on is the Ariel Atom, which is a production vehicle (we’ve driven a couple of them over the years), but Ariel has sadly no intention of selling you one of their fan cars. How this thing would deal with rocks on the road I do not know.

But it’s amazing to see this technology, banned from racing nearly four decades ago, make a little comeback even in the design stage. It’s cool because it solves one of the annoying problems in sports car design — if you want more speed, you need more downforce, but the more downforce you make with big wings and spoilers, the more drag your car creates. Traditional wings always put you at this compromise between grip and top speed. It’s why cars like the track-ready and bewinged McLaren P1 GTR are slower flat out than the simple, non-winged cars on which their based, like the McLaren P1. Only when you’re cornering is the P1 GTR going to be faster than the regular P1.

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But a fan system works at all speeds and doesn’t give you lots of drag. It’s an ingenious little idea first implemented by the brilliant old Texan team Chaparral, and their so-called Sucker Car that raced in the legendary CanAm series. It was later re-used by the great Gordon Murray at Brabham in their 1978 Fan Car, which won its first and only race. It was banned before the weekend was over, for fear of dominating the series and putting all the other teams out of business.

Ariel’s director even name-checked these cars himself as inspiration:

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We’re moving towards the point where traction and therefore acceleration, particularly from standstill, are limited by mechanical grip so were trying to come up with ways of overcoming this. One of our targets was to minimise or remove the need for aerofoils and have ‘downforce when stationary’. Inspiration came from banned racing cars of the past, so there’s a big nod from us to Jim Hall’s 1970 Chaparral 2J Sucker Car and the Gordon Murray Brabham BT46B Fan Car of 1978. The Atom test car has been already been nicknamed The Vacuum Cleaner and hopefully it follows in the tradition of these two great cars.

Maybe we could see a return of fan cars at the top of the market. It certainly looks cleaner than a gigantic rear spoiler.