Insight: F1 Wind tunnel technology reaches amazing new levels
Posted By: James Allen  |  12 Feb 2018   |  6:46 am GMT  |  86 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?

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Aero has killed F1. Introduce a maximum co-efficient of drag thus reducing downforce and increasing dependence upon mechanical grip.


Can a wind tunnel simulate windy track conditions?


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 suppose the wind tunnel fan has no objections either.


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.


This is cheaper because a large part of this workflow is “virtual”. This testing gives parameters which feed the CFD effort, which allows the designers to design parts and visualize how they might work without actually fabricating those parts.

For live testing, those parts will need to be fabricated, and so the iteration process will be slower and costlier.


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.

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