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Virtuous Vortex: Ferrari’s aero secrets

02 ottobre 2018

Chris Rees

We go behind the scenes to discover how Ferrari’s aerodynamics team draws airflow benefits from Formula 1

The phrase ‘shaped by the wind’ is often used to describe mountains, snowdrifts and sand dunes. But it’s also true – in a literal sense – of a Ferrari. How air flows over a car – the science of aerodynamics – has a huge impact on how fast it can travel, how well it corners, how refined it is, and also how efficient it is. One could perhaps say that the Ferrari team of aerodynamicists hold the very wind in their hands. Aerodynamics is not only at the heart of extreme performance, it’s also the key factor at the very start of the process of creating any new Ferrari. Matteo Biancalana, in charge of aerodynamics within Ferrari’s road car development team, explains: “We come up with the initial concept - a theoretical model - which is given to the styling department to work on.

From there on we’re involved in constant feedback loops for the rest of the project. All Ferrari designers today must have an in-depth understanding of aerodynamics.” Ferrari has the capacity to tell, in advance, how aerodynamics will affect the driving experience, using a highly sophisticated computer modelling process. A conceptual car is then ‘driven’ virtually in simulators that have aerodynamics factored in. 

“In the simulator, drivers can tell us exactly how performance and stability are affected by aerodynamic changes,” says Biancalana. “Only after weeks of intensive effort does testing switch to physical models in the wind tunnel.” The wind tunnel is an almost mythical tool – and for very good reason. Physical 1:2 scale models are vital for testing aerodynamic theories. Ferrari’s models are extraordinarily sophisticated – in some ways, almost as complex as a full-size finished car. Models can consist of as many as 500 components, crafted to meticulous standards using exotic materials such as carbon fibre and ceramics, and including working scale replicas of the suspension, wheels and tyres. As ever with Ferrari, speed is of the essence.

When the team wants to alter a part, it uses ‘rapid prototyping’: parts can be 3D-printed in just a few hours by a team of dedicated modellers. Wind speed in the tunnel is 180 kilometres per hour. If doesn’t sound like much – after all, a road-going Ferrari is capable of well over 300km/h – remember that loads passing over a half-scale model must be multiplied by four (or so my mathematics tutor tells me). 

The link between Formula 1 aerodynamics and road cars is crystal clear: the methodologies are identical, as is the development software. The F1 and road car aero teams regularly meet to share ideas. Some aero parts actually share Formula 1 technology directly, like the 488 GTB’s under-body ‘vortex generators’ that direct airflow in exactly the same way as F1 ‘barge boards’. The similarities go even deeper with the 488 Pista. Ferrari was the first team in Formula 1 to use an S-Duct, which releases back pressure at the front end, providing crucial extra downforce – and that’s replicated on the 488 Pista road car. For all the similarities with F1, the aero challenges for road cars are, in many ways, even more demanding than for racing cars.

For instance, parts have to be robust enough to last a lifetime. Keeping the engine and mechanicals cool is another very challenging area. The air-flow around a Ferrari creation parallels the company’s streamlined development process. After all, the experiences gained via the 488 Challenge and 488 GTE racing cars fed directly into the Pista road car – truly a ‘virtuous vortex’.