It’s been a long-discussed idea; could an F1 car really drive upside down – and we’re not talking about a loop-the-loop – we mean driving upside down for an extended period of time, thanks to the high levels of downforce created from its wings, underside and other aerodynamics?
In fact, the statement is even boasted about on the official F1 website, where they say:
“A modern Formula One car is capable of developing 3.5g – which is three and a half times its own weight – thanks to aerodynamic downforce. That means that, theoretically, at high speeds they could drive upside down.”
This statement from a few year ago and so is an underestimation, as the 2017 rule changes have increase aerodynamic forces substantially.
However, in order for the F1 car to drive upside down, we’d require much more than high levels of downforce.
- There are, of course, many other things to consider, which we’re going to look into in this video:
- Would an inverted Formula One engine work, or come to an untimely halt?
- Would the oil, water and fuel systems function and could they realistically be altered to perform correctly?
- Are there any other systems that might not work? For example, would the brakes and clutch work properly?
- What kind of construction would be needed to give enough space and time for the car to get upside-down and back again?
- Is it possible to find a driver willing to take the risk?
- Who would realistically fund and have the expertise to make a stunt like this happen?
The first issue to discuss is whether a Formula One car can produce enough downforce to support its own weight and give enough traction to move forwards while upside down.
There are lots of mathematical formulas out there and even a few research papers to confirm this and the consensus is yes, a modern F1 car would create enough downforce.
Former Jordan F1 technical chief, Gary Anderson, told the BBC that:
“The forces reacting on an F1 car push it into the ground and make it lean on its tyres, but the car doesn’t care if the ground is above it – or below. So, in theory, the car could probably drive along upside down, in the roof of a tunnel, at about 120mph and it would support its own weight, which is how aerodynamics work in aeroplanes.”
The article featuring Anderson was published in 2012 when F1 downforce levels were approximately 25% lower than they are today.
Another thing to bear in mind is that this is based on a standard F1 car – which has been built to F1’s tight regulations.
If someone did decide to build a car that could drive upside down, it would obviously be best if it produced as much downforce as possible, in order to drive as slowly as possible when inverted.
Engineers could certainly use some techniques, that are now banned in F1, to increase the car’s downforce and reduce the speed needed to support its own weight.
Areas of design that are heavily restricted by regulations – and would make a huge difference to downforce – are the size and shape of the diffuser and floor area of the cars.
It’s a conservative estimate to assume that the speed needed to create enough downforce to support its own weight – with some redesigns by aerodynamicists – could be below 100 mph.
Engine, brakes & clutch
The next matter that would likely be an issue, is whether the F1 engine would work inverted. Formula One engines never need to work upside down, and so in their standard form simply wouldn’t.
Nevertheless, aeroplane engines have been working inverted for decades, so it’s entirely plausible for a racing engine to be adapted to function too. However, is it possible for a highly-strung F1 engine to deliver power upside-down?
To answer this question, I spoke with David Salisbury, Chief Designer at Judd Engine Developments who used to design and build F1 engines and currently design and build Le Mans Prototype engines.
David told me that “the engine itself wouldn’t need modification, other than to control the fluids, which wouldn’t be in their designed locations.
He said “the oil control is probably the biggest issue to overcome on an existing racing engine.
“The standard engine is designed to pick-up the oil from the lowest point. When inverted, there would be nothing to prevent the oil from draining into the pistons and running down (or effectively “up”) the cylinder walls to the chamber. When inverted there would be a strong risk of hydraulicking, which would simply stop the engine.
However, David went on explain that “Engines which are intended to run inverted would have shelves and deflectors and oil pick-ups to try and remove as much oil as possible from “under” the pistons, or in the case of an inverted engine, above the pistons.
He went on to say that “these features may be a challenge to retrofit into an existing engine, as it was never designed to have enough space for them, but it wouldn’t be totally out of the question.
David also explained that there would need to be some alterations to the oil tank, and the water and fuels circuits, but these weren’t such difficult problems.
When I asked him if it was possible, he told me he was “sure a Judd engine could be modified to run upside down. And that “the performance would be compromised slightly due to more oil inside the pistons, extra oil burn and extra piston mass due to needing more piston rings”, but he was sure it could be done.
In terms of price David couldn’t be sure, however he said “a total guess would certainly be in the tens of thousands of pounds.”
So, we have enough downforce and an engine that will function inverted. There’s other important systems – such and the brakes and clutch that would need to work for this stunt.
The brake and clutch systems are mechanically quite similar to each other and are a sealed arrangement, so wouldn’t require any modifications to run upside down.
However, the reservoirs, where the extra brake and clutch fluid is held, would require a slight alteration as it would leak when inverted, though, this is a simple fix.
In order to carry out this stunt, a space and structure where the car could accelerate up to around 100mph, then drive up a curved section of the structure eventually reaching the ceiling, where the car would be driven for a period of time, would be needed.
The car could accelerate on normal ground, get up to speed and then begin the inversion. To make the stunt worthwhile, we’d want the car to be inverted for quite some time, so let’s say ten seconds.
A car travelling at 100mph – or 160kph – for 10 seconds would travel 1466 feet or 447 metres. That means we’re going to need quite a long structure!
When people talk about driving an F1 car upside down, most speak about the use of a tunnel. It’s an obvious choice and something that would seem fitting for the job.
However, F1 cars are very sensitive to bumps and the ceiling of a tunnel would certainly be too uneven and would likely have other fixtures such lights and vent that would obstruct the car.
Also, the use of a tunnel would mean the stunt is difficult to watch, therefore in my opinion a purpose made, ‘C’ shaped structure would be the best idea – if somewhat expensive.
A purpose-built structure could be manufactured with an extremely smooth surface, be perfectly straight and the open part of the ‘C’ means people and cameras would have an excellent view of the action.
Who could pilot the car?
For obvious reasons, driving an F1 car upside down is going to have some risk attached to it.
Primarily, the structure would need to be tall and so if something stopped working while the car was inverted at 100mph, there would be a long, dangerous drop to the ground.
For this reason, all of the current F1 drivers would be out of the question, as the risk is too high. Ideally, a driver with experience of F1 cars, who is not presently in F1 and is happy to take a risk would be found.
I’m sure there are many drivers out there who would and could do this – but now’s the time for my unabashed self-promotion: I’d happily drive!
For those of you who haven’t seen the racing tutorials on this channel and driver61.com, and don’t know my profession; I’m a driver.
I’ve been lucky enough race and coach around the world and have driven more than 20 different F1 cars. If the opportunity ever presented itself, I’d jump at the chance to be part of such an exciting project!
Who could realistically make it happen?
To make this stunt happen there would need to be some serious investment – to adapt a car and create a suitable structure.
While it wouldn’t be cheap, I believe it’s feasible that a company with enough marketing budget could attract sufficient publicity to make it worthwhile.
While there are many companies such as Monster, Rockstar and GoPro who could fund a project like this, there’s only one who loves this type of marketing and has an F1 team.
Of course, Red Bull would be the perfect fit – they have the resources, facilitates and technical knowledge to accomplish such a stunt.
I’d love to see an F1 car drive upside down for many interesting technical reasons, but primarily because I’d like to prove that it is indeed possible.
If you’d also like to see if it’s possible, let’s all try and make it happen! Take a minute now to send @redbull a tweet – and include me too @scottkmansell.
If enough of us tweet them I’m sure they’ll be interested and we could start the ball rolling. Would it be fantastic to see this happen?
Finally, let me know in the comments below if you think this stunt would be possible and whether you would take the risk as the driver!
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