Dirty Air in Formula 1: Understanding the Turbulent Wake Effect

- Dirty Air in Formula 1: Understanding the Turbulent Wake Effect
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – NOVEMBER 06: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing RB16B Honda during qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on November 06, 2021 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202111060584 // Usage for editorial use only //
Last Updated on May 9, 2023

The disturbed air left behind a fast-moving car is referred to as a turbulent wake or dirty air in Formula 1.

Turbulence is caused when an automobile travels at a fast speed because it disturbs the airflow around it.

The following vehicles’ aerodynamics are affected, making it challenging for them to retain peak performance.

The way F1 cars race and overtake other cars is significantly impacted by dirty air.

A automobile experiences a smooth airflow in clean air that enables maximal downforce and grip.

However, following a car in a choppy wake diminishes downforce and degrades the performance of the following vehicle.

How Turbulent Wake Affects F1 Car Performance

Several effects directly affect an F1 car’s performance when it travels through polluted air:

  • Reduced downforce: The turbulent air decreases the overall downforce on the following car, making it harder to maintain grip on the track and navigate tight corners.
  • Decreased engine cooling: The hot, disturbed air surrounding the trailing car can cause overheating issues, forcing the driver to slow down or risk damaging the engine.
  • Increased tire wear: With less downforce and grip, the tires of the following car have to work harder, leading to increased wear and potentially forcing an earlier pit stop.
  • Hampered visibility: The dirty air can also impair the trailing driver’s visibility, making it harder to judge distances and react to changes on the track.
Dirty Air simulation with F1 cars

Key Factors Contributing to Turbulent Wake in F1

Several factors contribute to the formation of dirty air in Formula 1 races:

  • Car design: The complex aerodynamic features of F1 cars, such as wings and air vents, are designed to optimize downforce and performance. However, these same features contribute to the creation of turbulent wake behind the car.
  • Speed: The high speeds at which F1 cars race cause significant disturbances in the air, leading to the formation of dirty air.
  • Tires: Spinning at high speeds, F1 car tires also contribute to the creation of turbulent wake by throwing up dirt and water.

The Two Sides: Slipstream versus Dirty Air

The idea of slipstreaming, which happens when a trailing car positions itself closely behind a leading car to benefit from the decreased air resistance, is sometimes contrasted with dirty air.

On long straightaways, slipstreaming can temporarily increase speed, creating overtaking possibilities.

Slipstreaming has its advantages, but there is a trade-off because the trailing car also has to deal with the consequences of foul air on its performance, particularly in bends.

One of the most important components of F1 racing strategy is weighing the benefits and drawbacks of slipstreaming and foul air.

YouTube video

Strategies Drivers Use to Overcome Dirty Air Challenges

Formula 1 drivers and teams employ various strategies to overcome the challenges posed by dirty air:

  • Finding clean air: Drivers may alter their lines on the track and search for pockets of clean air to minimize the impact of turbulent wake on their performance.
  • Pit stop strategy: Teams may plan their race strategy to minimize the time their car spends in dirty air, including timing of pit stops and managing tire wear.
  • Positioning and overtaking: Drivers may use strategic positioning to exploit the benefits of slipstreaming while minimizing the negative effects of dirty air.

F1 Technical Innovations to Minimize Dirty Air Impact

Over the years, Formula 1 teams have introduced various technical innovations to minimize the impact of dirty air on car performance, such as:

  • Active aerodynamics: Some cars feature active aerodynamic components that can adjust in real-time to maintain optimal downforce in dirty air conditions.
  • Improved cooling systems: Advanced cooling systems help keep engine temperatures under control while racing in turbulent wake environments.
  • Tire management: Teams continually work on tire setups and strategies to counter the increased wear caused by driving in dirty air.

The 2022 F1 Regulation Changes and Reducing Dirty Air

The 2022 Formula 1 regulation changes are aimed at reducing the impact of dirty air on racing, making overtaking easier, and improving the overall spectacle of the sport.

These changes include:

  • Simplified aerodynamics: The new regulations mandate simpler and more standardized aerodynamic components, helping to reduce the turbulent wake produced by F1 cars.
  • Ground effect: The reintroduction of ground effect through the use of Venturi tunnels under the car floor is designed to increase downforce without contributing significantly to dirty air.
  • New tire specifications: The introduction of new tire specifications and regulations aims to improve grip and manage tire wear more effectively in dirty air conditions.
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