Revealed: Can an F1 car defy gravity and drive upside down?

Uros Radovanovic
Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) and Nico Hulkenberg (Haas) race closely at the start of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix sprint race. Baku, April 2023.

Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) and Nico Hulkenberg (Haas) race closely at the start of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix sprint race. Baku, April 2023.

As we know, Formula 1 cars generate incredible downforce. Engineers in the world of motorsport have calculated that an average F1 car at a speed of 200 km/h can generate a downforce equal to its own mass.

This raises an interesting question: Is it possible to drive this type of car upside down on a ceiling?

While it may seem simple at first, this question poses several challenges we would have to address.

Delving into the Problem

Unlike regular cars that rely on their weight for tyre friction, F1 cars achieve it with aerodynamic components that push the tyres onto the road. These forces are immense and allow the cars to navigate high-speed curves on the track. This is exactly the reason why car aerodynamics are so complex and require so much time to develop them to their maximum.

The main goal of all F1 teams is to make their cars have as much downforce as possible, and at the same time, as little drag as possible, so that the maximum speed is still very high. Of course, this comes with a big trade-off, meaning that if you want a car with a high downforce coefficient, high drag is almost inevitable.

What you also need to keep in mind is that the downforce is squarely proportional to the car’s speed – in other words, if we increase the speed twice, the downforce will increase by as much as four times. These facts are definitely in our favour, because we know that F1 cars can achieve incredibly high speeds, which means that we will also get great downforce.

If we observe an F1 car on the track, we notice that tyre grip depends on the generated downforce plus the car’s weight. However, driving the car upside down changes things significantly. The force of the car’s mass would act in the opposite direction, simply because of gravity. It means the force that ‘pushes’ the tyres towards the ceiling is equal to the downforce generated by the car minus the weight of it.

Therefore, we will need a much higher downforce to overcome the mass of the car and at the same time provide enough grip to the tyres so that the car can maintain a constant speed. We are talking about a force of 2-3 times the mass of the car, which is still physically possible to achieve with the enormous speeds of today’s F1 cars. recommends

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The engine is also a bit of a problem

However, our challenges don’t end there. Another consideration is the internal combustion engine, which isn’t designed to run upside down. These engines are complex, and even a small mistake or failure can lead to engine problems. In this case, the main issues are the engine’s piston lubrication and fuel supply systems.

They rely on gravity, and changing that orientation could result in oil leakage into the combustion chamber, potentially damaging the engine. Situations like engine explosions can occasionally be seen in drag racing with specialised cars, where failures of this type happen very often.

A possible solution lies in Formula E. Electric motors in these cars can function in any orientation, providing consistent force regardless of the car’s position. However, Formula E cars prioritise reducing drag to conserve energy and complete races with a single battery.

Consequently, they don’t generate the same level of downforce as Formula 1 cars. For instance, Formula E cars at 200 km/h produce only one-third of their mass in downforce, which is insufficient for our experiment.

Therefore, the only solution is to find a way to make the internal combustion engine operate upside down. This type of engine has already been developed for the needs of aerobatic propeller planes. Engineers solved the engine oil problem by installing two oil tanks – one to be used when the aircraft was in a normal position and the other when it was upside down. In this way, the internal combustion engine would function without problems regardless of what position it is in.

Another possibility is to incorporate a sufficiently powerful electric motor into the Formula 1 car. However, this introduces the challenge of heavy batteries, further complicating matters.

Where to perform such an experiment?

We also need to consider where such an experiment could take place. To achieve the required speed, we would need a perfectly straight tunnel with a minimum length of 4-5 kilometres. Additionally, the tunnel would need to be sufficiently high (around 20m) to allow for the necessary airflow around the car to generate adequate downforce.

Unfortunately, no such tunnels exist in the world, meaning we would have to construct a tunnel specifically for this experiment. If you think that this requires a lot of money – you are completely right!

So, what is the final answer to this intriguing question?

Given the current circumstances and the challenges outlined, we believe that this experiment is impossible (for now). It would demand considerable resources, extensive research, and a substantial investment of time and effort. Until then, we’re left to enjoy the amazing things these cars do on the track…and the right way up.

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