Here's A Modern Aerodynamic Analysis Of A 1980s F1 Car

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The aero cars of Formula 1 in the late 1970s and early 1980s were already playing with modern concepts, but they were doing so without the aid of anything close to the modern computer analysis of aerodynamics today. So what would it look like if we plugged the legendary McLaren MP4/2 of 1984 into some new software?

I saw this video from Nelson Phillips pop up on the Twitter feed of the excellent F1 aerodynamics expert Craig Scarborough, and I’m glad I did. It’s fun seeing such a successful car of its era (winning titles in 1984, ’85, and ’86) with fresh eyes. The MP4/1 is a relatively successful car in terms of its aerodynamics. It’s not the most refined, Phillips explains in his conclusion, but the principles of a modern aero car are present.

“This is a highly innovative car that does all the basic aerodynamic things right. Not brilliantly, but right,” Phillips notes, having already modeled the Brabham BT52 that won the championship the year before. “The floor creates downforce from the diffuser contributing 30 percent of the total. The total produces 300 percent more downforce than the previous year’s World Champion.”

That BT52 comparison is interesting. The GT52 was an arrow car. That is, it came out of a school of aerodynamic thought that had F1 cars shaped like little arrows. Tiny pointy fronts, radiators spread out at the far back. The MP4/2 was different, as McLaren recounts in its company history:

The new car shared much in common with the outgoing MP4/1 E, but the monocoque was redesigned to accommodate the shorter engine and the larger, 220-litre fuel cell that it required. The curve of the sidepods changed too, as the turbochargers were positioned as far forward as possible so that the pods could curve in at the rear to maximise the coke bottle and enclose the engine and gearbox in the most aerodynamically efficient way.

Remarkably, McLaren would dominate the season using just three cars: MP4/2-1 for Niki Lauda, MP4/2-2 for Alain Prost, and a T-car numbered MP4/3. Lauda, indeed, used just that one car throughout the entire 16-race season, the odd knock never severe enough to compromise the strength of the Hercules-built CFC monocoque.


The MP4/2 pulled its bodywork in compared to the MP4/1, using a coke-bottle shape with radiators forward enough to be beside the driver, pinching back as it gets to the rear wing. This was what F1 design needed. It was moving past the incredibly fast but dangerous ground effect era of aero, effectively banned over the course of the 1981 to 1983 seasons, and into modernity. It’s a treat to see it in CFD.