The quest for speed at the front of F1 demands constant development and the front wing has been a recent focus for several leading teams – but what changes have they been making and why?
The front wing may not provide as much downforce as other parts of an F1 car, such as the diffuser, but it is the most important aerodynamic element because of what it does to the oncoming airflow.
The wing itself needs to create manageable downforce and be trimmable to balance the whole car’s aerodynamic centre but the central section and pillars need to feed smooth flow down to the floor of the car and into the diffuser, while the outer edges need to add downforce and also steer the resultant swirling wake around the front wheels.
The new wider, lower but simpler front wing regulations were introduced in 2009 but ever since then teams have been working to develop far more intricate approaches within specific permitted areas.
The focus has been in three different areas – the nose pillars and bulge beneath the chassis, the tiered winglets on the outer section of the wing and the complex 3D integrated endplates at its outer ends.
Both Ferrari and Red Bull now run seven-tier wing arrangements, with the main plain topped by a variety of flaps and curved surfaces. The aim of this is to work the wing as hard as possible without it stalling – and also to limit the effect if it does stall, because only some of the small sections will suffer, rather than larger wing surfaces.
The top teams are now changing front wing designs almost every race, and in recent Grands Prix both Ferrari and Red Bull have made significant alterations.
In Barcelona, Red Bull revealed a new design with holes in the end plates to feed in air to larger and more curved upper flaps, with the aim of both increasing downforce and improving airflow around the tyres.
Their most recent development, in Canada, was the introduction of tiny vortex generators on the lowest portion of their front wing and also on the upper flap. These vortex generators have been appearing on the sidepods this year, but it is the first time they have been seen on the front wing.
Red Bull removed the under-chassis bulge for Canada – although that could have been to reduce drag and it could return later in the season, while Ferrari, in contrast, added one for the first time.
The Italian team introduced theirs right at the front of the nose, much further forward than Red Bull’s and similar to the ones on the Lotus and Force India cars. This is thought to help feed air downwards without compromising overall frontal area drag.
The new nose is a continuation of Ferrari's heavy focus on the front end, which saw even more significant changes to the wing introduced at the last race.
In Bahrain, they introduced an additional horizontal slot on the endplate – which is designed to feed in energised air when the flaps are in danger of stalling. In Barcelona they added another endplate slot and also changed the shape of the flaps.
In Canada, they were testing all sorts of different designs, including smoother nose pillars with straight trailing edges and alternatives with curved trailing edges.
The wing remained the same, but they made a big change to the front cascade flap, with it now curving down to attach on the wing rather than attaching straight to the endplate. This allows more air to flow onto the main wing and flaps and prevents stall due to blockage from the wheels.
The advances in CFD, which allows flow visualisation in these areas, coupled with more flexible manufacturing techniques, allows engineers to explore increasingly complex shapes.
And all these quite unique new additions show how teams are continuing to think innovatively, even on an area that has been around for years...