The planned increase in electrification, with a 50-50 power split from the battery and internal combustion engine, has raised concerns that drivers will run out of energy on the straights and need to downshift to recharge.
There has also been some skepticism about whether the need for less draggy F1 cars can be achieved without taking away some of the spectacle.
But behind closed doors, F1 bosses and the FIA have been quietly working to put in place designs robust enough to erase such problems.
That’s why F1 technical director Pat Symonds recently dismissed the idea that F1 was heading for trouble with its 2026 car plans – as the work going on behind the scenes was much more advanced compared to the simulations teams were currently working on.
“The performance profile of a 2026 car in simulation now doesn’t look very different to 2023,” he said.
“So all this stuff about hitting top speed in the middle of the straight, it’s not like that anymore.”
The reason F1 and the FIA feel so confident is because of the computer processing powerhouse that powers the CFD simulations that help create the new set of rules.
Tanuja Randery, AWS CEO, EMEA, online with Stefano Domenicali, CEO, Formula 1
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
It’s all part of a relationship F1 has with Amazon Web Services (AWS), which helped create the all-new ground-effect cars coming in 2022.
Leveraging AWS’s servers and cloud infrastructure, F1 had CFD performance equivalent to that of a state-of-the-art supercomputer—and at a fraction of the cost.
As Symonds explains, the way things worked to arrive at the 2022 cars has given it faith in where things are going in 2026.
“For 2022, going into it, we knew we had to rely heavily on CFD,” Symonds told Autosport.
“Yes, there was some nervousness about it, but to be honest, the problem with CFD in the past hasn’t really been about the software. It’s the amount of computing power you can throw at it.
“So it was really quite transformative when we teamed up with AWS. We had to learn together, it wasn’t about here’s some software, you load it and run it. We had to do a tremendous amount of work to to make it work properly But it gave us this ability to run these incredibly complex models.
“This included what we called our gold standard, with two full cars, going after each other in a corner and a completely unsteady flow. And that trains the computers a little bit.
“Once we were able to do things like that, yes, we had some confidence. We’re still doing wind tunnel testing, but it’s come back and given us even more confidence I would say in the CFD work. So I think the lessons from 2022 are very useful for 2026.”
Ferrari wind tunnel
Photo by: Ferrari
Level the playing field
What AWS has given F1 and the FIA is the ability for its fairly small team of engineers and aeronautical experts who come up with the rules to have a chance to fight back against the hundreds of staff the teams have at their disposal to remove them.
While those in the pitlane are now strictly limited in their computing power, thanks to grand prix racing’s aerodynamic testing limitation rules, the sky is really the limit for F1 itself when it comes to harnessing the mighty computing power of AWS.
As Dr Neil Ashton, Principal CFD Specialist Solution Architect at AWS, explained: “To transform the sport into what was originally 2021, but eventually became 2022, they created this small team (of experts).
“But they were a small team of five or six people with the goal of essentially producing a new car that you would normally need 50 aerodynamicists or more to do.
“The way I see it with AWS is that we’ve been there to try to give them everything to kind of smooth it out and give them all the resources they need.”
This manifested itself in the use of AWS servers and cloud computing capabilities, which allowed F1 to run CFD simulations at the highest possible quality.
Before AWS got involved, a single run for F1 took about 60 hours. Now it’s down to 10 hours. But it’s even better than that.
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Dr Ashton adds: “It’s quite a jump, but it’s also a matter of how many they can do at once. They can do 10 of them at once if they want, so it’s not just a job that’s faster. It’s the ability to submit many different jobs at the same time.”
And, referring to what Symonds called the “gold standard” for analyzing two cars running close together, Dr Ashton thinks it was a game-changing approach to understanding the physics at play in close racing.
“Most teams, for obvious reasons, would never really look at two cars, because they always assume they’re the front car,” he said.
“When you have to look at two cars, you immediately double the calculation. But it’s also quite a factor in that it’s not just one car at a certain distance behind, you have to check it from a number of different areas.
“So because they were looking at it from 10, 20, 30 and 40 meters behind the car, it was really a big simulation. And to add to that, they also wanted to look at cornering.
“It was much bigger than I think anyone had really done before in relation to F1 CFD.
“And without a shadow of a doubt, I think if they hadn’t had the AWS resources, I think they would have really struggled to run such a large model.”
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari F1-75, battles with Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18, at the restart
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
While the 2023 cars may not be as good for close racing as the original 2022 versions when they hit the track, that’s due to the inevitability of teams pushing for performance and diverting airflow to places that aren’t ideal for chasing driver.
But while the current cars aren’t perfect, Symonds says it’s important to remember that they’re vastly improved over what we’d have now if the rules hadn’t changed.
Asked how different the 2023 cars are compared to the original plan, Symonds said: “In terms of downforce, they definitely came further than we thought they would.
“We deliberately gave the teams an original version (of the 2022 car) in a development mode that was low, because our team is small and their team is huge.
– We knew it would develop very quickly. And in fact, they developed faster than we expected.
“When did we achieve what we wanted in terms of wake control? All the evidence is that the cars that came out in early ’22 were actually not far from where we thought they would be: a big step up from ’21.
– We have continued to monitor it. Yes, there is a small decrease in wake control, a small increase in load, but still it is really significantly better than 2021.
“What you have to remember is that ’21 wasn’t a fixed point. It was moving. So if we hadn’t done anything, the 23 cars, the 24 cars, the 25 cars would have been even worse after. So we didn’t just connect back it, we accepted that it was going to change. And we learned.”
McLaren is among a number of teams slowly rolling in Red Bull
Photo by: James Sutton / Motorsport Images
Symonds also points out that while it’s next to impossible to create cars that don’t lose performance when following closely, the current generation isn’t unwieldy in another’s wake.
“The one thing we’re absolutely certain of, and this is from the driver feedback and the data that we’re seeing, is that with the 2021 cars, when they followed, not only had they lost a huge amount of downforce, but they were very, very unpredictable .
“With the current cars, the balance is actually very, very good in the wake of another car. Of course you lose your grip, but you don’t suddenly have understeer turning into oversteer and the like. You know what the car is supposed to do. So that’s one aspect I’m happy with.”
Symonds said the most valuable lesson F1 took away from its work with AWS was to focus on the impact car design had on subsequent cars – as it was vital to racing.
However, he says it is important that the rules are not too restrictive for the teams as they need to have freedom to chase performance. And, as everyone looks to 2026, he hopes the ambitions of rulemakers and competitors can be fully aligned.
“The important thing in developing the 2022 car from an aerodynamic point of view was to understand what was important for the following characteristics and make sure those things were not destroyed.
“But it was also to give the teams enough surface to play with because at first they all said it was too prescriptive. Now even Adrian (Newey) is saying, ‘Well, there’s quite a lot you can do.’ we knew all along, because we had lived with it for a few years.
Audi will join along with the new rules in 2026
Photo by: Audi Communications Motorsport
“With the 2026 car, the ambition is to try to achieve something where the teams’ goals are the same as our goals.
“With the 2022 cars, the goal for the teams was to wash out and ours was to wash in. We’re now working on areas where we hope the two can go in step. So there’s a lot going on.”
While there’s still a long way to go before the 2026 cars hit the track, and almost certainly some hurdles to overcome, it’s fair to say that the technology F1 uses to evaluate rule changes is now a world away from how it was in the past tense.
Symonds rolls his eyes when he thinks back to the failure of the 2009 rules, which was the previous time F1 radically overhauled car design to improve overtaking.
“I did that project and, to be honest, if an engineering student had done it for their final year project, I’d say, not bad, but no more than that,” Symonds said. “I mean, it was really laughable.
“It was almost all wind tunnel testing. It was incredibly low economy and it was very naive. The rules that were written, even as a result of the research we did, were very bad. That’s something I learned as well.
“I think it was significant that the worst cars of 2009 were produced by the three people involved in the overtaking task force because when we wrote the regulations we knew what we meant.
Jenson Button, Brawn GP BGP001
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
“Everybody else said, ‘these aren’t very good because we can do this, that and the dual diffuser and all sorts of things.’ And that was a big lesson for me.
“So when we did the 2022 car, we got to the point where we released the first model of it and then we also put on our team hats and said, ‘well, how can we get performance out of this car?’ we break the rules?
“And that led to some little adjustments where we said, ‘oh crikey, we hadn’t realized that the area is quite sensitive, so we just need to revise the rules there a little bit.’ But overall it wasn’t that bad actually.
“That was a real lesson from 2009. And it doesn’t compare to the sophistication of what we did for 2022 compared to 2009. One was prehistoric.”
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