Formula One engineers are just as competitive as the drivers. They constantly search for new technology and innovations to outpace the competition, what driver Mark Donohue famously called “the unfair advantage.” But that means F1 teams sometimes push the envelope too far.
F1 claims to be the pinnacle of racing tech, but every clever new idea often runs the risk of being banned. The history of F1 is littered with examples of forbidden tech. Some ideas bent the rules, while others outright broke them. Some became the victims of rival teams’ jealously. Others were just plain crazy. The tech listed here is no longer used in F1 for one reason or another, but some of it has transitioned to the road, demonstrating potential for racing to influence everyday cars.
Race cars rely on airflow pushing down on them to generate grip – a phenomenon known as downforce. There are two main ways to generate downforce: stick wings to the top of the car or create a low-pressure zone underneath to suck the car onto the track. The latter does the job with minimal added drag.
In 1978, British F1 team Brabham took the concept of suction to the extreme with its BT46B. Designer Gordon Murray (who went on to design the McLaren F1 supercar) added a fan, which sucked air out from underneath the car through the engine bay. A similar idea had previously been tried by American designer Jim Hall on his Chaparral 2J, in the Can-Am Series.
The Brabham BT46B debuted at the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix, and Niki Lauda drove it to victory after qualifying third. He and teammate John Watson had been instructed by the Brabham brass to take things slow in qualifying, so as not to tip the team’s hand. That was probably a good idea. Murray had exploited a legal loophole, claiming the fan was primarily for engine cooling. Other teams didn’t buy it, and the anger grew after Lauda’s win. Ever the politician, Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone decided to retire the BT46B, rather than risk a fight over its legality.
More power is always a good thing, but what about more wheels? Designer Derek Gardner thought so. His Tyrrell P34 had a pair of normal-size tires at the back, but four 10-inch tires at the front. Why? Gardner said the four small front tires offered more grip, but there may have been an aerodynamic advantage as well, since the smaller tires tucked neatly behind the front spoiler. At any rate, the P34 wasn’t successful. Over two seasons of competition (1976 and 1977) it only won one race. But the P34 remains one of F1’s most iconic cars.
Tyrrell’s lack of success didn’t stop other teams from trying the six-wheeler concept. March unveiled a car with four full-size rear wheels in 1977, but couldn’t find the funding to finish it. Ferrari toyed with the idea of putting four wheels on a single rear axle – like a “dualie” pickup truck. Finally, Williams built a prototype six-wheeler – the FW08B – in 1982. Like the March, it had two wheels in front and four in back – all the same size.
Williams believed the six-wheeler design would make it easier to package aerodynamic aids, and got some promising initial results in testing. But the FW08B never raced. Six-wheeled cars were banned ahead of the 1983 season.
Active suspension, which automatically adjusts settings in response to changes in the road surface, is common in production cars today. But you won’t find it in F1.
Lotus kicked things off in the early 1980s with a computer-controlled hydraulic suspension system, but the name most associated with the technology in F1 is Williams.
While Lotus never had much success with active suspension, Williams stormed to back-to-back world championships in 1992 and 1993 with its FW14B and FW15C, respectively. Williams’ suspension system made the cars come alive, in more ways than one. Peek into the Williams garage ahead of a race, and you’d see the cars dancing around as technicians tested the suspension components. Some drivers complained that it was hard to predict how a car would behave on track, requiring them to trust that the system knew what was best.
As is often the case with successful innovations in F1, Williams drew the ire of other teams, and the wrong kind of attention from rule makers. Critics claimed active suspension made cars too easy to drive, and that the complex technology was out of reach for poorer teams. F1 ultimately banned active suspension, along with most electronic driver aids, at the end of the 1993 season.
Like active suspension, traction control is a technology that has become common in modern road cars, but is no longer used in F1. Traction control uses electronics to monitor for wheel slippage, and intervenes to stop the wheels from losing grip completely. It can be a lifesaver on a slippery road, as well as a handy advantage on a racetrack.
Traction control was eliminated in the sweeping ban of electronic aids at the end of the 1993 season. Rule makers wanted to make driving more challenging, and lessen the advantage of the most well funded teams. Ironically, traction control arguably had its biggest moment in F1 while it was banned.
In 1994, the Benetton team was accused of using traction control, prompting an investigation by F1’s governing body, the FIA. Analysis of the Benetton B194 race car’s computers showed suspicious software, which the team claimed was inactive. With investigators unable to prove that Benetton had actually used the software to enable traction control, the matter was dropped. Michael Schumacher went on to win the 1994 championship – the first of seven for the German – but the traction-control caper is still a topic of debate to this day.
The FIA ultimately found the traction control ban too hard to police, and the driver aid was reintroduced in 2001. It was banned again in 2008, when the FIA instituted a standardized electronic control unit to prevent teams from using illegal software.
Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, you couldn’t have a winning F1 car without ground effect. It’s a phenomenon first notice in aircraft design, in which air flowing around a wing near the ground generates extra lift. Beginning with Lotus, F1 teams eventually figured out that ground effect could also generate more downforce with minimal drag.
Ground-effect F1 cars directed air into side pods with wing-shaped elements. Sliding skirts sealed the bottom of the car to the track surface, creating a low-pressure area that effectively sucked the car onto the track (it was this effect that Gordon Murray tried to multiply with the Brabham BT46B “fan car”). The Lotus 78 was the first car to use ground effect, but other teams quickly seized on the concept. By the early 1980s, ground effect, along with powerful turbocharged engines, had taken F1 to new levels of performance.
The good times wouldn’t last however. Beginning in 1983, all F1 cars were required to have flat floors, effectively putting an end to the ground-effect era. The ban was instituted over safety concerns, owing to the higher cornering speeds of the ground-effect cars, and the alleged possibility of a catastrophic loss of downforce if the underbody seal was broken.
F1 teams work hard to maximize every aspect of the car – including the fuel that powers it. Oil companies have long invested in F1, looking to extract maximum performance from their products in the same vein as suppliers of engines, brakes, or tires. This all came to a head in the 1980s, when lax rules led teams down a rabbit hole of exotic fuels.
Even F1 teams value fuel efficiency. More fuel means more weight, and weight is the enemy of performance. Extracting more energy from a given amount of fuel means a car doesn’t have to carry as much of it. A cap on car fuel capacity and a ban on refueling added urgency to the quest for more potent fuels. This led to some extreme measures. Honda and Shell created a fuel that was almost pure toluene – a known carcinogen. The two companies were so proud of their toxic concoction that they published a technical paper on it, according to Autoblog.
Carcinogenic fuel is not a good thing, and new rules were eventually instituted to curb these excesses. Beginning in 1993, organizers mandated that F1 fuel must be similar to regular gasoline and put an end to most shenanigans. Teams still try to tweak their formulations to gain a performance advantage, however. Some have even tried burning engine oil in order to extract more performance.
Toward the end of the 1990s, McLaren decided that two brake pedals were better than one. The 1997 McLaren MP4/12 had a second brake pedal, which controlled braking for the rear wheels only. This “brake steer” system was designed to help cars turn into corners more easily.
Specifically, McLaren engineers were looking to dial down understeer. As the name implies, it’s the sensation that a car is continuing to plow straight ahead even as the driver steers into a corner. Actuating the brakes on one of the rear wheels midway through a corner was designed to counteract this. McLaren has claimed the brake steer system cut half a second per lap in initial testing, and drivers liked it.
McLaren kept the system a secret so as not to tip off rivals. But a photographer eventually noticed that the brake discs on McLaren’s cars were glowing mid corner – a place where drivers wouldn’t normally be braking. The secret was out, and pressure from other teams led to the system being banned early in the 1998 season. It wasn’t all bad, though: McLaren won that year’s championship using a car with conventional brakes. The company has also used a version of brake steer on some of its road cars.
Modern F1 cars are all about aerodynamics. But with most of the low hanging fruit either banned or fully exploited, it’s all about incremental improvements. That’s why current F1 cars are festooned with add-ons that look like carbon fiber Chihuly sculptures, and why they briefly grew fins.
Shark fins were introduced as part of a major overhaul of F1 car-design rules for the 2017 season. The engine-cover fins were designed to work with smaller rear wings, changing the aerodynamic equation somewhat. Some teams tried to find performance gains with the new setup. Others found the fins to be a handy place to put car numbers.
However, shark fins were nixed after just one season. They just didn’t prove popular with teams, some of which felt they made the cars look ugly. In what ended up being the deciding vote on the matter, McLaren boss Zak Brown complained that shark fins didn’t leave enough space on the car for sponsor logos.
It’s hard to imagine a continuously variable transmission (CVT) being used in a race car. CVTs use belts instead of gears, which improves fuel economy and provides smoother acceleration. But, in road cars at least, CVTs are usually a performance buzz kill. Yet, in the 1990s, one of F1’s biggest teams tried to make a CVT its secret weapon.
In 1993, Williams fitted a prototype CVT to its FW15C. The car, which would go on to win that year’s championship, already featured a then-revolutionary semi-automatic gearbox, as well as active suspension. Williams hoped a CVT would take it to the next level. The transmission did offer some potential advantages. Eliminating gear changes could shave fractions of a second from lap times, and the lack of fixed gear ratios may have made it easier to keep the engine in its power band.
Williams never got the chance to find out though. New rules for 1994 stipulated that transmissions must have a specific number of fixed gear ratios. It was part of a sweeping change meant to curb use of high-tech gadgets in F1. The shift had an outsize effect on Williams, which was the biggest user of electronic driver aids. However, CVTs are now commonly used in road cars from automakers like Nissan, Subaru, and Honda.
Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s most famous line was “simplify, and add lightness,” yet Chapman seemed to do the opposite of that when he designed the Lotus 88. The car had not one, but two chassis – one inside the other.
The “twin chassis” design was an attempt to harness ground effect, a concept Lotus first introduced into F1. By the time the 88 was introduced in 1981, rule makers were already starting to push back against ground effect. They banned the sliding skirts that dropped down to seal the underside of a car to the track, and mandated a gap between the bottom of the car and the track. The new rules made an underbody seal – the vital ingredient of a ground-effect car – impossible.
Chapman’s solution was to create a secondary, outer chassis, which all of the bodywork was mounted on. The outer chassis could move independently of the inner chassis, which served as the main structure of the car. Aerodynamic forces would push the outer chassis down onto the track, creating that all-important seal.
The Lotus 88 never raced. It was quickly banned after protests from other teams. In 1983, new rules put an end to ground-effect cars for good.
Modern Formula One doesn’t offer as many examples of unorthodox tech as the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Many fans argue that the racing has become boring and predictable; the same can be said of the tech. Decades of dealing with anomalies like Brabham’s fan car or McLaren’s brake steer have created incredibly pedantic rules, and a level of technological homogeneity never before seen. But teams are always looking for that unfair advantage, and continually scan the rules for loopholes like high-octane lawyers. With a complete overhaul of the rules set to take effect in 2021, maybe something new and exciting will finally arrive to spice things up.
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