Insight: F1 Wind tunnel technology reaches amazing new levels
Posted By: James Allen  |  12 Feb 2018   |  6:46 am GMT  |  81 comments

Here at JA on F1 we like to take readers’ questions direct to people who know the answer. That’s how the original FOTA Fans Forum started in 2010.

We had this question about the level of sophistication of F1 wind tunnels and we put it to Professor Mark Gillan, formerly chief operations engineer at Toyota and Williams in F1 and a leading expert on wind tunnel development.

His answer shows how amazing the level of technology has become – with teams even able to introduce exhaust flows into the testing model – but also raises questions about how there is this whole side to the sport which is hidden away and secret.

Question: What do you know about or have heard about centrifugal forces research in F1? What if any differences are there between a stationary wind tunnel model. A rolling road wind tunnel model and a engine running, wheels turning wind tunnel model/actual car.

Hell, it keeps bikes running upright as if they have a ghost rider. There’s a strong force there. It has at least been looked at? Is there any exploitation of it in F1?

Prof Mark Gillan’s answer: Recent developments over the last decade in motorsport wind tunnel testing have been transformative.

However it should be noted that some of what goes on within an F1 tunnel facility is somewhat artificially directed by the restrictions in facility usage (via the F1 regulations), especially with regards to model size (now at 60% max scale in F1 through regulation), speed, wind on time, number of runs and tunnel occupancy.

During the last decade there has been a dramatic push in the following areas:

i) Aggressive application of enhanced efficient wind tunnel testing methodologies, including continuous motion systems, high speed data acquisition analysis, with ultra-quick model changes;
ii) Shape, aeroelasticity and turbulence intensity matching of model scale to full scale;
iii) True cornering studies with proper interference correction methodologies;
iv) Steel belt rolling road systems with eccentric wheel drive units for tracking tyre contact patch movement and measuring wheel lift through the belt;
v) Real time robotic flow visualisation and automatic minimal interference full flow field interrogation;
vi) Remote health monitoring of facility and Key Performance Indicators (or KPIs) tracking tools.

So to specifically answer your reader’s question; over the last decade the wind tunnel model testing process has transitioned from fixed steady state single ride height, yaw and steer systems to fully dynamic continuous motion models, integrated with high speed balances, pressure sensors and acquisition systems that map the entire operating envelope of the car within a few minutes of wind on time.

Typically this sweep is done with a roof-mounted hexapod system (see below)

The rolling road systems and integrated boundary layer bleed systems not only give a more realistic flow field around the car – particularly in the diffuser region – but also allows you to measure wheel-lift through the belt using the eccentric wheel pads that sit underneath the tyre contact patches.

The teams can also run pseudo exhaust flows using integrated pneumatic systems or on board high speed electric motors.

There are even attempts to represent cornering manoeuvres, but this activity and process is secret.

As the teams drive their continuous motion systems faster and faster they do come up against limits and inertial effects play into this.

The teams then feed these complex multi-dimensional aero maps (measured in the tunnel) into their driver in the loop simulators.

The simulators help the teams better understand the importance of transient effects and stability criteria though performing “what if” studies.

These studies help drive the weighting criteria and KPIs in the tunnel and pinpoint what the test programme should include.

With each week F1 wind tunnel testing becomes more advanced, more dynamic and more realistic, with continuous improved correlation between CFD, the tunnel and the track.

How the hexapod works

The picture (courtesy MTS Systems Corporation) shows a modern F1 rolling road set up with hexapod, fairing strut which connects the hexapod to the 60% model and the rolling road itself.

The top of the fairing strut is aligned with the ceiling in the wind tunnel so the hexapod is completely hidden in the ceiling. The hexapod provides 6 degrees of motion for the model and forces and moments are taken from an internal balance that sits inside the model and is about the size of a large shoe box. To be exact whilst the hexapod can provide yaw motion, yaw is actually provided by a separate drive unit under the driver’s helmet in order to keep the faired strut aligned with the air flow in the tunnel and to have minimal blockage.

The model sits on a 1mm thick steel belt that is driven by the rolling road via a set of rollers. These rollers also steer the belt to ensure that it is not ripped off by the side forces that are generated by the wind tunnel model. The speed of the belt is the same as the airflow and the boundary layer ahead of the belt is removed using suction plates and then re-injected aft of the road. The belts range in sizes but modern rolling roads are over 3m wide and about 9m long.

All photos: LAT Images.

What do you think of the level of wind tunnel testing in F1? Should the sport look to tell its capability story or should this kind of work remain secret from fans?

Leave your comments in the section below

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Three things immediately Spring to mind. First is that the driver now is most definitely the weak link in the F1chain. Number Two : Whilst this may well be an engineers dream,it is a sporting nightmare. This kind of tech brings no value from a customer (fan) perspective, illustrates just how crazily expensive F1 has become and has no place in F1. Thirdly, if this device is powered by a V10, it will serve to keep


I can’t image that this technology is less expensive than live testing on real circuits. As far as leveling the playing field this technology must be propitiatory to only the wealthiest manufacturers. And with the regs prohibiting circuit testing the small teams are further disadvantaged. No wonder it’s secret!


Amazing stuff, even more so when you consider that Adrian Newey sees it all with his own eyes,


The F1 fan base has many facets: on-track action, getting closer to the drivers via interviews and magazine articles and the tech, to name just 3. If the sport is to maintain/increase its popularity it has to provide more for the fans, including design, engineering and testing info. If this compromises team secrets then perhaps closer racing might be the result as teams copy others’ ideas.


I need racer’s. Otherwise it would be robot v. robot. But for me it has always been the cars. Loved this. Thank you so much for investigaing and writing the article.


I find interesting the contrast between such sophisticated aerodynamics with how un-aerodynamic the rules make the cars – i.e. open wheels.


Fascinating and intricated piece James, this kind of content is part of what makes this site an absolute must for any motorsport fan. Honestly, thanks a lot to Mark and you for this jewel!


I didn’t know what a Hexapod was so I looked it up. Based on the context of the article the closest match must be what is also referred to as a “Stewart Platform”. Typically a movable platform that allows an object placed on it to be manipulated around six axes. Since these are “overhead hexapod”

So basically I get a mental picture of an F1 car sitting in a wind tunnel on what is essentially a treadmill with wheel pressure sensors below the belt underneath the tires. The vehicle is then manipulated on the treadmill via the hexapod while the belt is in motion and the wind is on.

It’s either that or the car is stationary on the roller, while the hexapod moves guide vanes around the vehicle, changing the angle in which the air hits the vehicle, but this makes less sense to me. The first option sounds more accurate.

Can you clarify, James?


Yes that first version is correct. There was a good series of youtube videos a year or more ago ’bout the Sauber F1 wind tunnel. It showed and explained most of these things.

Aside from that:

As pointed out by others .. concidering the cost of this simulation .. this can’t be much less expensive than real live testing at a track. Wouldn’t F1 be better of with offering this “experiance” to it’s fans (as the new owners tend to do) to give back open-sight live track testing .. rather than “force” teams to make CFD and windtunnel tests and test riggs all sorts which are all hidden from fans sight ? What remains an advantage at this point of banning track testing ? Don’t get me wrong here .. I find CFD and windtunel tech very fascinating stuff as well .. and it’s awesome a sport like F1 can advance that type of tech as well .. that’s a good thing. But not if it’s not brought to the fans .. kept all behind closed doors.


Very glad you told me about this video, it was excellent. Thank you!


James it would be nice and interesting if we could get a weekly or fortnightly update on where a team are with the development of their car right up until the launch.

For instance right now in realtime where would we expect a team to be in the development of their car’s engine and chassis.

Have they finished one or the other.


Great article, thanks. There is obviously a “virtuous loop” which includes each one of wind tunnel, CFD, simulator and car on the track. That is to say, predictions based on results from one can be validated and/or improved by results from one or more of the other three. I would be interested to read how the teams set up and manage the feedback loops required, which are essential to accurate modelling, testing and development.
Also, could we have more information about the “eccentric wheel pads that sit underneath the tire contact patches”? I can’t figure out what these could be from the information provided.


So technical I understood about 20% of it.


Or as a politician would say, 100% of 1/5 of it 🙂




I find this sort of thing fascinating
and ofc totally road relevant


I believe all wind tunnel testing results should be made public.

Especially those where massive errors have been made – viz Ferrari.
Red car – red face.


“I believe all wind tunnel testing results should be made public”

To what end?

In effect we do see the results when one car works and another doesn’t, but if you’re talking about the technical details and raw data how many people are actually going to be able to understand and digest it?

Even with this article where Mark explains it all in something sort of resembling English people are scratching their heads 🙂


Absolutely fascinating, even though i struggle to understand completely what the prof says.
However i do feel it’s a shame that the regs of F1 require teams to spend squillions on WT and CFD in order to eek out a whisker of speed.
I know there are already limits to the time in the WT and petaflops of CFD processing but a less aero dependant formula has got to be beneficial for enticing more teams onto the grid.


Dropping the $100 Million FIA entry fee would be beneficial to enticing more teams.


Brilliant James
Good insight & knowledge sharing that shows the engineering detail of F1


Like so much of F1 these days this subject offers so much but ultimately delivers so little due to the secrecy surrounding it.


Briatore convicted of tax fraud. 18 months jail sentence given on appeal!


Maybe they can sentence Briatore to 18 months in a wind tunnel! I’d pay to the video of him being tested in on 😉


And you didn’t even mention Singapore – Proud of you Sebee 🙂


Importing planes via a string of companies based in the Isle of Man to avoid paying Value Added Tax?


Should have added on 6 months for Crashgate.


Does the FIA have a rule regarding the use of CFD? Are teams restricted by the number of processors used?


CFD is restricted like wind tunnel time yes

CFD is much more useful now than when Virgin tried to do it all CFD with Nick Wirth


Think what Dr. Kamm would do with this.



How has all this helped the racing? How has it helped passing, with the need to overcome all this with Drag Reduction System or rather Designated Racing Spots?


Don’t forget the noise Sebee. Never forget the noise!


It helped cars going faster.
I’d say that was the target of those who built such expensive piece of kit.


Great article as always. Now I’m really looking forward to Adrian Newey’s NEXT book.


Few years ago Sauber had great series of videos on YouTube, among them was the one where Willem Toet explains everything about the wind tunnel.

Also, I’d like to know how exactly does FIA police the wind tunnel usage (also CFD since it’s being limited too).


Thanks for sharing the video link. Willem Toet does an excellent job explaining wind tunnel and the use of F1 models in some significant details. I recommend anyone interested in this subject to watch the video.


They have ex F1 engineers visiting and auditing


Surely they can only go to the F1 teams’ tunnels, what about all the others in the world? There are over 50 in north America, many of which can be hired out.


At 60% scale models? Plus if you get caught you get disqualified – so it’s not something they are likely to try.


sounds like there is room for improvement in the wind tunnels.
i thought by now, they are at a stage where they’d be able to simulate an entire race lap with changing weather conditions such as air temperature, track temperature and sudden gusts of wind.


Maybe once they get the basis information from the wind tunnel. They can enter that onto a simulator and replicate various tracks and conditions.


Another example of how regulations ostensibly aimed at cost control (60% scale, tunnel time etc…) have actually driven costs upwards. All those innovations don’t come free….

And yet people keep harping on about the costs of the PU’s….


Yes, that is ironic, isn’t it? Milton Friedman [US economist] used to say over regulation of free markets “a nobel idea in theory but full of bad unintended consequences in reality…………..”


I think the level of Wind Tunnel testing in F1 is very minimal, as the regulations have imposed. However, absence can be the mother of invention, & to this end, the level of advancement in data aquisition is almost frightening.
The model preparation & pre wind on preparation is astounding, & brought about by the restrictions imposed by the FIA.
If you put a smart person in a difficult situation, they will get smarter.
As much as I would like to see these technologies & processes opened up to public viewing, we must remember that they are very expensive intellectual properties, & must be hidden from rivals.


If you put a smart person in a difficult situation , they will find another way to get the answer even if it actually costs more.


Does this suggest that the gains in aero tunnel use of the available time under f1 rules is actually growing (ie the effective use they can make of the tunnel has grown more than the restrictions have curtailed it over recent years)


Well since the testing ban, I guess they had to spend the money on something but,… WOW!

For sure they should tell the fans what they are at. Not the details of course but we should be told that there are details to begin with. The things that are common to all the teams.

No wonder Lewis was asking the team to only send him one email a day. I need to rest for the remainder of the day after reading this article.


So, how are regulations on wind tunnel testing enforced? I mean, what’s stopping someone ‘independent’ setting up a 3rd party wind tunnel (somewhere in the world) and breaking all the regulations and ‘offering’ the data to one of the teams [wink wink]?


I would expect they do it through auditing.


I can’t wait until this article is available in English.


I ran it through Google Translate Engineerish to English.

It spit out:
“It sucks that cars can’t pass because of aero. And these engineers are part of the problem, not part of the solution.”


Sebee, F1 has always been primarily about engineering, whoever engineers the best car wins. This has been true since day one, and with tegard to aerodynamics, that has ruled the sport since the seventies, with no real benefits to anyone else.

The PUs were brought in to reflect the shift away from high capacity naturally aspirated engines to smaller capacity forced induction engines that all manufacturers are putting in their road cars. The hybrid element was to be increased in order to reflect the ever increasing sales of hybrid road cars. Again you make claims without anything to back them up, in the EU hybrid car sales rose by nearly 60% between the first quarter of 2017 and 2016. You can see the figures for yourself here;

As ever, if you wish to post a link to any figures that back up your claims, I would be happy to look at them, but as ever I won’t be holding my breath.


you don’t like aerodynamics, you don’t like engineering or engineers


I like chocolate.

It doesn’t mean it’s all I want to eat.

The balance has been lost. They’ve allowed these engineers to run the whole thing. To have too much say. And that’s the crazy thing that’s happened around here. Balance has been lost.

These engineers are engineering for themselves now. This isn’t helping the show. This isn’t useful anywhere else, in any product. If it was, you think this would be in public display like this for so long?

Honestly…if the PU was so great, don’t you think it would be delivered to the market to make billions from us, consumers? If the promise of it was so amazing, you think it would be here, shown and revealed and not available for purchase? Not able to generate any revenue from consumers? If hybrid was the silver bullet, would it have 2% of the car market, and shrinking?


Sebee, you don’t like aerodynamics, you don’t like engineering or engineers and you don’t like the idea of different teams having different cars. I asked you the other day why you continue watching F1, I’m beginning to wonder why you ever started?!


I particularly liked “eccentric wheel pads”.

What are eccentric wheel pads you ask?

Well they’re much like normal wheel pads, except that they’re a little bit crazy and have a lot of money floating around 🙂


I can’t +1 you anymore, so…Nicely done!

They’ve gone to a new comment engine at JAonF1. F1 wishes it could switch engines this easily and fuss free. This new JAonF1 Comment PU saves fuel by removing stars and improves efficiency (in F1 way) by removing up voting, thus generating additional time and data costs by having “agree” comments back.

To be honest, this looks like a previous comment engine. Has JAonF1 gone back to V8 era? 🙂


Excellent article James, very interesting.
I am surprised that wind tunnel science has continued to be developed to such high levels, because the emphasis seems nowadays to be so much on the simulator.
Do you anticipate wind tunnels to be allowed long into the future, in F1 with the high costs and the FIA restrictions. Icidentally how do the costs compare, wind tunnel vs simuator.?(Was it Manor who tried it with no wind tunnel?)


I figure the wind tunnel data is being used to improve the simulator model so you shoiuld look at both techniques as complementary.


Great stuff, love insights like this.

Wish I understood more of it in this case 😊


In the immortal words of the Fawty Towers waiter, Manuel…

“Keh” 😃

Good stuff but a flow diagramme or some pictures might be of help.


LOl – glad it wasn’t just me!


Transformative and what if studies indeed….downforce has been around for a long time we all get it! How about they put a second car behind the first in the wind tunnel and do some what if studies on the transient effects and stability criteria on the second car!

Large yachts and catamarans can hum along now with their hulls completely out of the water in all kinds of wind directions, surely the focus now should be on the turbulence/dirty air. DRS is getting old!


And yet everything in the field of automotive and aeronautical fluid dynamics can be traced back to that fateful day when Isaac Newton was sat in the orchard at Cambridge when a falling apple hit him on the head……….

Newton then concluded that “Air will only change its acceleration or direction if a force is exerted upon it” And that in a nutshell is what the wings, diffuser and floor is doing – trying to force the air to accelerate to generate down force – albeit some better than others…….


Not really sure I got any of that…..I seem to remember Manor coming up with an entirely cfd car that had no tunnel testing. Is thisthe future?


Manor Marussia née Manor née Marussia née Marussia Virgin née Virgin née Manor did indeed try a CFD only approach with Nick Wirth when they first started out, but they soon figured out that CFD is not magic and that to be competitive in F1 you need to build and test a real F1 car, even if it is just a mini-F1 car in a wind tunnel 🙂

CFD might progress to a point where it’s 100% accurate, but so far as I know the FIA still places limits on how much the teams can use it.


Virgin F1 did indeed do that. The trouble is that computers cannot simulate everything, sooner or later the car has to be built and any gaps in the program’s capabilities will become apparent. Marussia did not try it again for the second season.


Was that the one with the massive Snoz 👃on the front end of the car similar to Caterham.


Well it’s not a secret anymore if the new guy at Renault ex-FIA has anything to do with it.
Wind Tunnel analysis is a dark art that teams prefer to keep it to themselves. Though Ferrari got an extra bit of data from it’s so called assistance to Haas (even though it was abit hush hush) in wind tunnel testing.
Though it might be interesting to have a FIA test car in a wind tunnel to show how it’s all set up.
I remember when Brawn was showing an early car design being tested using smoke spray and a table fan in the 1990s showing air flow. Think it was for Williams . It’s come along way from that. The pictures ended up on Autosport plus the BBC F1 show. That seems way way back in the old days now.


May have been the 80s with Williams


Ross the Boss featured on a BBC2 QEquinox documentary in 1986 charting the progress of the first (and thus far only) Ford turbo engine when it was supplying the “original” and ill-fated Haas team.

Anyway, Ross explained that although downforce levels in 1986 were back upto what they were with the ground effects of the early 80s, because they were surfaced generated (ie pre dom front and rear wing generated) the downforce came with a huge penalty of drag, causing massive aerodynamic buffeting for the following driver. And this was in 1986!!!!!


That’s the one GazBoy !!!!👍


Fascinating insight. Cheers.


I thought exhaust simulators were used in wind tunnel tests in the days of the Brabham BMW BT52.

In many ways the wind tunnel testing is not as good as road cars because of the resource and scale restrictions. Full size wind tunnel testing is a required part of WLTP regulations for road car CO2 emissions, but F1 is only at 60%.

The main advances seem to be in how to test many different configurations, ride height, yaw pitch etc in a short time because of the limits on hours and runs. No mention of use of 3D printing to quickly try many different versions of components. No mention of laser measurement techniques (PIV and LDA) which help understand the flow and are good for CFD validation.


I am not sure 3D printing and wind tunnel testing would play together very well. Printed plastic parts are neither particularly strong nor accurate, so they would require a lot of finishing and would likely fail anyway once the tunnel was up to speed. Making parts out of printed titanium might work, but again needs a lot of finishing work and would be so expensive that only Merc, RB, Ferrari and Mclaren could realistically consider it.
I woud love to know how teams approach the problem of another car’s turbulence in the wind tunnel. Last year the Red Bull seemed to be barely affected by the wakes of other cars, Vers and Ric could seemingly drive up behind other machines at will, a trick I’m sure all the other teams are frantically trying to figure out.


All the bodywork and aero components used for the F1 wind tunnel models have been 3D printed for many years now.


F1 teams have the ability to 3D print in other materials. I’ve seen parts printed in metal that are raced.


Brilliant article 👍


Too early in the morning to read this!

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