CFD Gaining Ground in Formula One Racing

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f1Those insideHPC readers who are motorsports fans, especially fans of [what I consider to be] the pinnacle of all motorsports, Formula One racing; are probably familiar with the time and expense race teams put into designing and tweaking their respective platforms.  Traditionally, much of the black art of chassis dynamics was performed through lengthy sessions in expensive wind tunnels.  Chassis manufacturers and race teams simply trusted the empirical results elicited through blasting air at high speeds over their multi-million dollar carbon toys and utilizing computational methods as broad guides to reasonable platform mock ups.  However, this might be changing.

According to and article posted on Planet-F1, the Virgin Racing Formula One team will make history this season, before even beginning a single race.  Their cars were designed solely using computational methods and zero wind tunnel testing.  Nick Wirth, Virgin Racing Technical Director, is the leading the effort.  Previously, he directed the technical aspects of a CFD-centric design for team Acura in the American Le Mans series.  These efforts paid off as Acura took first in the LMP1 and LMP2 classes last year.

The point people seem to be missing is the fact CFD is just a tool, like a scale model or whatever, and it gives you a set of answers to a set of questions that you put into it,” said Wirth.

All I want to ensure is wherever we are in Bahrain (opening grand prix on March 14) we then show a rate of development during the year with this process which is faster.

“In Bahrain, you cannot say whether the process has worked or not. It will be about the rate of development, which is the most important thing in the world to a racing team.

The move by the Virgin Racing team certainly has its skeptics within the realms of Formula One design. Adrian Newey directs technical operations for the Red Bull racing and Dr. Mike Gascoyne, who is now with Lotus Racing, are both skeptical of completely dropping empirical testing.

I think CFD is a very powerful tool, there is no doubt about it, and it is another way of simulating the real environment, but it still has pitfalls,” remarked Newey.There are some areas that CFD physically doesn’t capture as well as a wind tunnel, like basic aerodynamic properties.

You look at BMW when Albert II was announced as one of the world’s biggest supercomputers dedicated just to their CFD,” said Gascoyne.  If you look at Renault, they built their environmentally-friendly CFD centre, with a huge computing resource.  I don’t think these guys are idiots, and they also have windtunnels.

Motorsports may sound somewhat benign as a place to innovate in the realm of computational fluid dynamics.  However, remember that these teams thrive on the millions of dollars in sponsorships anchored by a winning race team.  In a sport governed by hundredths of seconds in elapsed time, the slightest engineering edge could potentially propel a team onto the podium.

If you’re interested in reading more, check out the article here.


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  1. “After the first runs in Jerez this week, CFD was beginning to take on the initials of Complete ****ing Disaster.”

    Hopefully they made some improvements before the race but in the following article they were saying that the CFD only car was 14 seconds off the pace. I think you would get lapped every 5 laps at that rate.

  2. Chris, indeed, 14 seconds off pace in Formula 1 is technically “turtle mode.” Hopefully this will look up for the little Virgin Racing team. “The little F-1 team that could”

  3. CFD = complete f***ing disaster? That’s funny, now answer this question:

    You control an F1 team. You are given 3 options for aerodynamic optimization:
    A) CFD only
    B) physical testing only
    C) A combination of physical testing and CFD

    In a related question: Guess which of the above choices 100% of successful F1 teams have selected for the past 5-10 years?

  4. CFD like virgin racing 🙂