One of the big selling points of Formula One’s upcoming 2021 regulations is the fact that the cars should theoretically have a reduction in the dirty air that trails off the back of the car. Basically, it should be easier for cars to pass each other. Except... the cars are probably going to have a lot more dirty air than we thought.
When we talk about ‘dirty air’ in F1, we’re not talking about air quality so much as the disturbance left in the air in the wake of the cars. Any car going really fast will create disturbance in the air behind it as the air from the front and sides gets pushed to the tail end of the car—it’s unavoidable.
But the dirtier the air, the harder it is for a car to pass through it. That car will lose downforce to the point where you just can’t go as fast and therefore can’t overtake. The less dirty the air, the more downforce there is and the easier it’ll be to pass a car.
Aerodynamics will be simplified for 2021 in such a way as to reduce the dirty air in the wake of the car. Paired with a simplified front wing, research suggested that downforce would almost double when compared to the current F1 car. From Motorsport.com:
Current F1 cars only have around 55% of their downforce when one car length behind another.
When presenting the new regulations, the rulemakers claimed that this number could rise to 86% on a 2021 F1 car, with 94% of the downforce available at three car lengths (compared to 68% at present) and 98% when seven car lengths behind (79% currently).
That’s a pretty significant increase in downforce. In theory, we should have a hell of a lot more exciting races in the near future.
Except those are just numbers, and those numbers don’t take into account how teams will actually end up interpreting the rules.
Developing a car that’s easy to overtake is not exactly a priority for any F1 team, ever. The last thing you want is to enable a different team to have an advantage over you. Teams are going to find a way to twist the rules just enough to stay within the regulations but also make it real tough for that car behind them to make any moves.
We can keep our fingers crossed that the regulations will at least increase the following car’s downforce a little bit more.