Following the Portuguese Grand Prix at the end of October, the F1 Commission held a meeting to discuss the future of the sport. One of the ideas brought forward in this meeting to reduce not only costs for teams, but also to meet the sport’s needs for meeting sustainability goals. Wind tunnels take a lot of energy to operate, after all. Significantly more than comparable designs done in computational fluid dynamics.
The most recent, and to my knowledge only F1 car to date to have been designed without the help of a wind tunnel was the 2010 Virgin Racing VR-01. A full decade ago this all-computers technology was far enough along to produce an F1 backmarker that was, well, let’s be honest it wasn’t good. But what it was was functional. Team drivers Lucas di Grassi and Timo Glock couldn’t get the damn thing to finish any higher than 14th throughout the season, scoring zero points and retiring fifteen times from 19 Grands Prix.
Anyway, the F1 Commission discussed the idea of implementing such a ban by 2030, which sounds great to me. Anything to shake up the F1 aero institution and democratize the process sounds great to me. It also means an increase in the use of advanced computational technology, which is ostensibly what Formula One is supposed to be for. What good is the sport if it doesn’t advance tech?
While Virgin’s CFD-based car from a decade ago wasn’t exactly good, that car was supposed to launch on a live stream on the team’s website, and that didn’t work either. Look how far a simple technology like livestreaming has come in the last ten years and then think about how much more computing power we’ll have access to in another decade from now. And that’s to say nothing of how much more advanced the computers are at an F1 design facility than, say, the laptop I’m writing this post on right now.
Back in 2010 before Nick Wirth’s Virgin design was tested in the real world, Adrian Newey (then chief aero for Red Bull Racing) was cautiously pessimistic about the whole idea. He told Autosport, “It is a different route, and my personal belief is that you still need to combine the two at the moment. But maybe their car will go very well and I will have to revise my opinion.”
Today you have Mercedes-AMG’s Toto Wolff saying that a CFD-designed grid of Formula One machines would be wholly unsafe. “We must not forget that these cars are the fastest on the planet, with the most downforce, and we don’t want to experiment live with drivers in the cars based on CFD.” He admitted that a goal of 2030 gives teams enough time to work on their CFD designs to make sure it won’t be any less safe than the cars are today.
McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl had this to say, “We definitely see there is a possibility in the long-term future to ban at some stage or to reduce massively the use of wind tunnels, with CFD progressing fast, but at the same time, if you look at what CFD can do nowadays, we are still far away from not using wind tunnels, for various reasons.” Interestingly, McLaren just broke ground on a new wind tunnel. I’m sure his comments are unrelated.
Is it possible to transition away from wind tunnels altogether? Absolutely it is. The sport is already limiting teams on how many hours of wind tunnel they get to use in a season, so the obvious path is to gradually reduce the amount of hours per season until it is zero. Here’s hoping it gets accomplished. It might spice things up a bit.