Does F1 need wind tunnels?

The wind tunnel is (by far) the most expensive bit of machinery needed by an F1 team. There was a phase when everyone sought to have their own facility, and some even built two, but these days things have changed: teams are now sharing facilities and increasingly the use of the wind tunnel is being restricted, in an effort to cut costs. The budget cap will add to pressure for more changes but there are two of the 10 teams currently building new tunnels – while others are talking about getting rid of them.

Such talk is not new. Back in 2010 Virgin Racing produced the VR-01, which was the first F1 car designed entirely with computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which models air flows in a virtual way, rather than using traditional wind tunnel development. This was not a success. The technology was not sufficiently mature at the time.

Despite the impressive development of simulation tools, the wind tunnel is still part of Formula 1 today, although teams can only use their tunnels for limited periods and they cannot use models larger than 60 percent. In truth, wind tunnels are now used more and more for real-world validation of CFD results than for actual development. The building of intricate scale models is a vastly expensive and labour-intensive activity and there is a strong argument that it would be wiser to use actual cars and carry out experiments in full-scale facilities, although there are not many with the kind of rolling road technology that F1 requires.

However, there is now also another option, which will soon be provided by the Catesby Aerodynamic Research Facility (CARF) in Northamptonshire (above), where a stretch of tunnel on the old Great Central Railway, nor far north of Silverstone, has been converted by Aero Research Partners Ltd into an aerodynamic testing facility, allowing full-sized cars to be monitored as they move through the air, rather than pushing the air over a static car, as happens in a conventional wind tunnel.

This could provide the validation testing that F1 needs, without the vast sums spent on model-making and while there might be competition for time in the facility, such things could be

Getting rid of wind tunnels would give F1 the added bonus of getting teams to focus more on developing CFD technologies, which would be good for the sport’s reputation for innovation.

Red Bull’s Christian Horner believes that wind tunnels are “dinosaurs of machinery” and says that a wind tunnel “isn’t particularly efficient and it’s not very environmentally friendly”.

“Formula 1 should be the cutting edge of technology,” he says. “We’re seeing more and more investment from the tech sector, so why not be the showcase for that tech?”

It is hardly surprising that not everyone thinks this is a good idea.

“Banning it completely, if you would do it today, the testing would be on track and that will be even more expensive rather than doing it at the wind tunnel,” says Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto.

“I think we all use wind tunnels, and it’s all still a very important tool,” says Jost Capito of Williams. “Computing needs a lot of energy as well, so we have to look at all the details and then come up with a well-thought and agreeable position on that.”

The good news is that F1 wind tunnels can be used for many different things and this means that there is businesses that can be developed even if F1 teams shift the tunnels off their books. Most teams rent out their tunnels when they do not need them and several teams have developed businesses from this. Mercedes came up with a more adventurous and moved one of its two wind tunnels to Silverstone, where Mercedes-Benz Applied Science is now using the facility.

Philosophically, Christian Horner is right, but convincing all is rivals that they can do without their wind tunnels may not be an easy task, although when they start looking at future budgets they will probably see the logic…

36 thoughts on “Does F1 need wind tunnels?

  1. Yes it’s absolutely vital. F1 cars are upside down aeroplanes without wind tunnel expertise they would take off.

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  2. Cool story about the ex-railway tunnel in Northamptonshire. Sounds conveniently located for a few teams… I think Chip Ganassi’s Indycar team had a similar setup with a disused tunnel in Pennsylvania, some time in the late-1990s-2000s.

      1. I did not fully understand the part regarding the tunnel in UK. Would it be like a tretch of road where wind is blown into a full sized car?…. But it is written they’d actually move through the tunnel.

        What would be the difference if 1:1 car compared to running aero tests at a track?. Do not see the cost saving advantage.

        C. Horner is full of what Toto said. Worried about energy consumption of a wind tunnel, compared to fuel, transportation, marketing used by f1, night races, and specially Red Bull.

          1. Won’t the FIA see this as an attempt to circumvent the ban on use of 100% wind tunnels, and alter the phrasing of the rules accordingly? Or have they already explicitly green lit this?

        1. Yeah, what BS huh. Worried about energy consumption, but quite happy to have motorhomes ferried around the world, on 20+ articulated trucks.

  3. My simple brain Joe tells me, a wind tunnel is a controlled environment where as, racing round a race track is open to the nature, wind gusts changes in direction driver contribution etc, so may as well get rid of the expense especially as computer’s can do most of that work anyway. just my thoughts. Chris

  4. You would assume if the teams share the use of the full scale tunnel, they would save a lot of money.

    Not long ago there was some news about a new partnership between Oracle and Red Bull on AI. I was wondering whether this was about AI to support CFD development.
    It would be great to know more about that.

  5. Quite frankly, I don’t see the hubbub about windtunnels. They run on energy, and it’s in the team’s hands to responsibly source their energy.

    Also, as you say, Nick Wirth would tell you windtunnels have no use, and then fail to qualify with his CFD-only designs.

  6. As this is from the complex and self serving world of F1 team management I’d be checking if the Red Bull tunnel is about to need an expensive upgrade.

  7. The Catesby tunnels are just up the road from me and as kid we used to play in the them (wouldn’t be allowed now, with H&S and all that). I had a tour around the new facility when they started to build/refurbish it and it’s mighty impressive.

  8. An interesting development. A quick online search give the tunnel length to be 2.7 km. For comparison, the AlphaTauri website says that the Baku straight is 2.22 km. The Chip Ganassi Laurel Hill tunnel is claimed to be 1384 km, with a working test section (where the cars run at constant speed between sensors) of 420 m. Would the FIA allow this to be used for F1 cars? I see no difference between cars running in a tunnel and running in a straight line at an airfield – which is restricted.

  9. This article rang a bell about the test tunnel developed, and used, by Hendrick racing of Nascar fame in Laurel Hill, Pennsylvania, starting back in 2003. I believe its use was banned in 2014. Here’s an article which also references a future facility in Northamptonshire. I recall from other readings that the cars would have one way clutch devices installed in the hubs to eliminate any drivetrain influence on the cars during the coast-down phase.

  10. Sounds a bit like the Laurel Hill Tunnel (originally built to be a railroad tunnel, then highway and finally abandoned) that Chip Ganassi Racing was using for this sort of car development (maybe the GeForce car?) back in the early 2000s. I recall an article in Racecar Engineering about it some time ago which might still be available online.

  11. Chip Ganassi Racing used Laurel Hill Tunnel in the US (which seems similar to CARF) in 2004 for some secret testing. There are a few interesting articles about it around.

  12. As you say, the key here is correlation of simulation models to reality, so allowing for aerodynamic testing of the actual cars will be key to allowing for the obsolescence of wind tunnels, model making etc. and their costs.
    The problem here is the limitation of testing. If testing is more efficient/cheaper with the actual cars, then it should be allowed, being controlled by the limits for aero testing rules and the cost cap. After all the purpose of the cost cap is to promote efficiency, allowing the team who best allocates their resources to be more successful than its fellows.

  13. It seems mad to think that Barnard, Murray, Byrne, Dernie etc all asked for it and got it…now they spend 10x as much and can’t seem to garner the budget to use it! Oh to return to the times when one person could have such an impact.

  14. The problem with CFD has always been unsteady flow. It has been excellent for steady flow for years but wheel wakes are unsteady, they flop from side to side at about 2 Hz and the upper shoulders shed vortices which may be alongside each other or one on top of the other or sometimes flopping from one to the other. It may have changed but code dealing with unsteady flow was very expensive, computer intensive and not close to accurate.
    Since 50% of optimising the aerodynamics of an open wheeled car is managing the wheel wakes this shows a glaring shortcoming for CFD.
    It is fine for aircraft and, probably sports cars but for open wheelers certainly nowhere near close enough for finalising a design. Some sort of fudge factor has to be used to account for the wheel wake being wrong.
    I was familiar with the Ganassi use of a tunnel because I spent lots of time discussing it with Ben Bowlby when he was building it but in F1 testing the full size car in the wind tunnel was banned years ago so rules would need relaxing to allow it.

    1. Thank you. Please come back and explain more Mr Dernie, very interesting stuff, even though I barely understand it 🙂

  15. It would seem that in a cost cutting move, as well as a means of validating CFD models, F1 or the FIA could invest in their own industry-leading wind tunnel and then lease time to the individual teams, monitoring usage in accordance with current rules and restrictions. Individual team-owned wind tunnels could then be banned.

  16. Sauber back in the day constructed a full scale rolling road wind tunnel; I’m sure that still exists. If I recall correctly it was pretty wide to negate tunnel wall effects.

    1. I may be wrong, but I believe it is their current tunnel, just used for 60% models after the rule change. Traditionally, the problem with full scale tunnel models was that the cost and effort of making representative model parts was more or less the same as making real car parts.

      As the estimable Mr. Dernie says above, CFD code for unsteady vortical flows was always very expensive, computer intensive and not close to accurate. My understanding is that only one of those still applies (the computationally intensive part).

      I am not sure how they compare at the moment, but the time and expense of running a car through a full sweep of ride heights, pitch angles, yaw etc. was often as expensive as building and running a model in a wind tunnel. I can’t comment on the energy consumption comparison of the CFD and a typical F1 tunnel.

  17. The cost of running a real F1 car is no small thing, engine, tyres, instrumentation etc. so doing the sort of work you do in a wind tunnel would be very expensive. It would however, be highly valuable for test work such as aero pressure mapping, flow vis and coastdown where you have no ambient wind effects, much of this is done for tunnel/CFD(Internal flow) validation. Straight line testing in a tunnel would give no yaw data either which is also highly valuable for an open wheeled, winged vehicle.

  18. If the FIA would be brave and regulate to ban all the stupid, fragile and frankly worthless, except in ideal conditions, sticky-out bits on F1 cars, the time and expense required to test in a wind tunnel would be reduced. The tunnel allowing actual travel of the car sounds interesting and could maybe incorporate vents to simulate crosswinds? It could also be a shared facility for some teams, reducing cost, but increasing the possibility of espionage!

  19. Well, if the F1 teams stopped using their wind tunnels at least there’d be somewhere to store the toasters!

  20. Being a cynic, if Red Bull thought wind tunnels were irrelevant, would it not have a lot more credibility for Adrian Newey to make the statement rather than Christian Horner.

    Out of interest, how old is the Red Bull tunnel? Might it be in need of renewal in the next 5 years, and if the amortization for the F1 budget is 10 plus years, making that investment when it could be shut down would be rather risky (yes it can be outsourced, but still…)

      1. That must be the triggers broom of wind tunnels with the amount of upgrades it’s had. A British Aerospace/Concorde one?

      2. Built for the National Aerospace Establishment (NAE)/ Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), the 13 x9 foot and originally meant to be one of a series of low speed (meaning a Mach number less than 0.3) wind tunnels built on that site. Story goes that, in the 1970s, the Clapham/Twinwoods airfield area was being considered as a site for a new London airport, so they built the next RAE low speed wind tunnel in Farnborough instead.

        In terms of energy consumption, the 13×9 is small compared to the transonic 8×8 foot tunnel (or 3×4 foot high supersonic) that used to be on the same site. They used (I think) about 10 times the power (about 10-12 MW) So an F1 wind tunnel is really just a toy compared to a big wind tunnel some of which will burn through 50MW or more.

        1. I did a structural survey of the RB tunnel back when they were Jaguar, and looking to lease it from what were the bones of Arrows. Was told at the time it was aerodynamically known as a fine tunnel (with a 16:1 reduction ratio if I remember correctly, which I beleive is large in WT terms). The problem at that time was it had no mechanical cooling, as the Aeronautical use was intermittent and they didn’t need to worry about heat build up. I believe that mechanical cooling was added to allow more concentrated usage.
          There was a 33kV o/h supply up to it if I remember correctly, that allowed the installation of the cooling.
          Also remember lots of old aeronautical test pieces around the place, lots of them delta wing shape!

  21. I assume if Horner wants to get rid of wind tunnels, he says that because he has an alternative that he thinks it’s better than the other teams alternatives. In other words he wants to gain an advantage.

  22. Probably no co-incidence that IT companies appear to be one of the fastest growing sectors involved in F1 sponsorship. Look at McLaren, Mercedes Red Bull for all the IT companies. Big development from when designers would stick knitting wool on their cars and study photos of them taken at speed during testing.

  23. Thank you for this.

    I now can’t shake the fantasy in my head of an anxious James Allison telling Toto that Mercedes have got a big problem because Red Bull have switched testing of the RB18 to the transonic tunnel…

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