By a sadly ironic piece of timing, Formula 1 finds itself going to Hockenheim this weekend just as plans are revealed for a possible return to so-called ground effect.
Thursday 1 August will mark the 39th anniversary of Patrick Depailler’s fatal accident at the Ostkurve, a very fast corner at the top of Hockenheim in its original form. The Ostkurve linked two long straights that formed the bulk of the banana-shaped circuit’s 6.79 km (4.22 miles) length.
Depailler had been testing his Alfa Romeo in preparation for the German Grand Prix when it flew off the road. Most of the blame for the loss of the diminutive and likable Frenchman was laid at the circuit’s door for the absence of catch-fencing – which was rolled up behind the barrier in readiness for installation, suggesting that accidents when testing would be less hazardous than during a Grand Prix. Depailler had slammed into the metal barrier at in excess of 265km/h (165mph) but there could be no shying away from the effect of a rapid rise in cornering speed created by ground effect.
This revolutionary concept had been the brainchild of Colin Chapman and his small but talented design team at Lotus. By channelling the flow of air and creating a venturi effect inside the sidepods, low pressure sucked the car to the ground. To complete the outer seal, however, sliding skirts would need to be in constant contact with the ground. The effectiveness of the skirts was therefore crucial, any failure to perform creating a sudden loss of downforce with obvious disastrous effect.
The use of skirts became not only a contentious issue but also a focal part in a political struggle between the sport’s governing body (FISA) and the majority of the F1 entry dominated by the British teams. When FISA (with whom Alfa Romeo and the few major manufacturers were aligned) banned skirts for 1981, it led to farcical scenes as crafty constructors such as Brabham drove through massive loopholes with cars that could be lowered to the ground at speed and yet meet the regulatory height check when at a standstill.
When flexible skirts were allowed the following year, FISA had not only thrown up their hands but also closed their eyes to an inevitable increase in ground effect so severe that suspensions would collapse as readily as one or two drivers exhausted by g-forces. Flat-bottomed cars for 1983 meant ground effect was then banished for good. The ban made sense, if only because of the reduction in performance.
So, ground effect is possibly making a return 38 years later. The immediate assumption that cornering speeds will go off the scale once more has to be offset by the ingenuity of aerodynamicists in their search for downforce. As mentioned in a previous column, a few minutes standing at Silverstone’s Copse would have told you all about incredible grip as drivers took the right-hander absolutely flat in eighth.
If anything, it is to be hoped that the 2021 rewrite will rid F1 of much of this expensive-to-produce performance from aerodynamic parts that look as daft as they are complex. But, beyond that, if ground effect allows cars to run in close company and do what they’re supposed to do by going racing then, with the greatest respect to Patrick Depailler and other brave men like him, we should look forward rather than back.
Having helped sort the aero, all that’s needed is attention to over-weight power units and tyres that can’t cope. Don’t hold your breath.