Leonardo da Vinci, through his studies that amalgamated art and science, understood how that gaseous mixture we call air could fade colours as the distance from them grew, thus proving its inherent density. A density that sees further proof in the flight of birds and, since ancient times, by the dream of Daedalus and Icarus fleeing Minos using wings made of wax. Just like for aircraft, air has played a fundamental role in the development of the car. If flight has seen the challenge of progress go from “lighter than air”, with its balloons and airships, to “heavier” in the form of modern planes, for almost a hundred years the car has considered air its enemy. Car design has thus always leaned towards optimizing air penetration, inspired first and foremost, by bullets. The famous CX drag coefficient index would give car manufacturers more than a few challenges to overcome until car racing showed them that, rather than the enemy as was always portrayed as, air could indeed become a precious friend.
In order to lap a circuit as quickly as possible, designers soon realized that it was far more effective to go faster around the corners even at the expense of lower speeds on the straight. And so, in the late 60s, the first spoilers and the first inverted wing shapes began to appear – first of all with Jim Hall and his Chaparral, followed by Ferrari and Lotus – each of which sought to crush the car down towards the ground to increase speed when cornering.
To put the progress made in this field into perspective, when today’s Formula 1 drivers take their foot off the accelerator, the deceleration provoked by the “down force” is greater than the deceleration we’re used to when we brake hard in a normal road car.
To demonstrate this, think back to the accident between Schumacher and Coulthard at Spa in the rain when the German champion accused the Englishman of braking in front of him, causing a rear-end collision, the loss of the wheel and of the race. Faced with these accusations, Coulthard declared that he had not braked. And it was true. He simply raised his foot and the down force created the devastating braking effect.