Front and rear wings have been in Formula 1 for decades. In the 60s and 70s, wings sprouted on different locations all over the cars as teams tried to figure out the best ways to harness this new performance aid, dubbed vehicle aerodynamics.
Through the years, the evolution of aerodynamics has continued with teams using additional wings in the middle of the car’s body, the sides pods, and seemingly anywhere they could think of to gain an advantage. No matter what teams tried though, the front and rear wings remained in place and became the mainstay of both the aesthetic and performance profiles of the car.
Fast forward to 2017, and the cars hardly resemble the cars of the 60s and 70s, with the exception of front and rear wings. In the modern era of F1 though, these wings have become ornately complicated pieces of engineering. Teams now admit they spend more time updating the front wing than any other part of the car. This is because it is where the battle against the air is first fought.
At the front of the car, you can move the air around or over the tires. From there, the air moves to the barge boards, which push the air around the side pods and then around to the back of the car. The hardest part of this battle is making sure the air stays ‘attached’ to the car after the front wing, otherwise too much drag is created. The front wing also moves the air over the top of the car, over the side pods, and towards the rear wing.
When you think about all that, it’s easy to tell why they have become so intricate. Each one of those 40+ wing elements is there to move air one way or another, to make sure maximum down-force is achieved with minimal drag.
Teams will introduce dozens of varying wing specifications over the course of the season. They will look to have the most efficient wing possible to put them in the best position to fight for wins, podiums, and all important points. This means any improvements found in those front and rear wings could add up to millions in prize money at the end of the season, which puts the team in a better position for the following year.
This year, Ferrari have had some of the most complex wings of any team on the grid, with the exception of possibly Mercedes. The main wing profile (the lowest part of the wing), has been extended between races, and has deeper elements to scoop up more air, adding additional downforce.
The addition of extra wing profiles, sometimes as many as five or six, helps to manage the extra air moved by the wing, without increasing drag. This is because each element above the bottom will have a slot in the middle, allowing the air from the lower element to move up the back of the element above it, minimizing drag. These slots allow the air to stay ‘attached’ to the wing as a whole, moving it towards its desired location.
The amount of money teams spend on front wing development is measured in millions, and into the tens of millions, but if they can place in the top 4 or 5 in the lucrative constructors championship, they can earn many millions more in prize money.