Sweeping changes to the rules dictating Formula 1 car design have upended the team standings this year.
For example, Haas, the sport’s only American team, enters the Miami Grand Prix on Sunday with 15 points from the first four Grands Prix, more than it scored in the previous two seasons combined.
The rules introduced this season by the F.I.A., the sport’s governing body, represent “the biggest aerodynamic overhaul in 40 years,” said Paul Monaghan, the chief engineer at Red Bull Racing.
A Formula 1 car is like a plane in reverse. While a plane uses its wings to generate lift, a force pulling the plane up, a Formula 1 car uses its wings to produce downforce, which pushes the car toward the ground, increasing grip and allowing it to turn more easily at higher speeds.
A car leaves turbulent “dirty” air in its wake. This dirty air disrupts a following car’s ability to sustain downforce, making it difficult for a driver in pursuit to get close, maintain speed and overtake.
The new regulations implement a series of design changes intended to lessen the impact of this dirty air in order to promote closer racing and easier passing.
To reduce the size of the car’s wake, the front wing was simplified and widened, directing more air through the body of the car.
Rounded end plates and dive planes on the bigger front wing reduce turbulence and help air flow around the front wheels.
Over-wheel winglets direct the airflow over the tires and along the sides of the car.
In past seasons, speeding cars pushed air to the side, slowing the cars that followed. The new design keeps the airflow closer to the sides of the car, creating a smaller wake.
The size of the wheels increased to 18 inches from 13 inches, lowering the height of the tire sidewalls. Less rubber in the tires means they’re less bouncy and more responsive.
After being banned for more than a decade, wheel covers have returned, further reducing turbulence.
New tunnels under the floor of the chassis direct the airflowessentially creating a vacuum that helps the car stick to the track, allowing for faster speeds around corners.
The rounded tips on the new rear wing help control the wake.
The beam wing redirects the air upward and above a trailing car.
But all of these changes have had an unintended consequence: porpoising.
Porpoising happens when downforce at high speeds sucks a car so close to the ground that it disrupts airflow, resulting in a sudden loss of downforce. The suspension pushes the car back up, and the car bounces as this cycle repeats.
Teams have struggled to get porpoising under control, each trying different solutions with varying success.
“It’s been an arms race between the teams to understand the physics because it’s a problem that’s going to be there for the next few years,” said Mike Elliott, the technical director for Mercedes.