Welcome to the first in our new series of “The Science of an F1 Car” articles, providing you with the opportunity to learn more about F1 cars, why and how they work.

F1 cars are designed to operate at the extreme edge of the sport’s technical regulations. As such, it is always interesting to talk about how F1 engineers get as much downforce and overall performance out of the cars as they possibly can, and how they go about it while adhering to the strict regulations.

Over a series of articles we’ll be explaining how various sections of the bodywork and key components function, as well as how these functions relate to the other areas of the car. We’re going to start at the front of the car, working our way back.  First up is the front wing.

How important is the front wing?

Since the technical regulations were shaken up at the end of the 2008, the new lower and wider front wings for 2009 and beyond make up about a third of the overall downforce produced by the entire car. The wings are profiled to perform the job of an upside down aircraft wing. While an aircraft’s wing is used to produce lift, the front wing (and rear wing) of an F1 car is used to force the car into the track as much as possible, providing high levels of grip, traction and helping the tyres stay in contact with the track surface.

The front wing, unlike the rear, does not just provide downforce. As it is the aerodynamic device that precedes the entire car, it is also responsible for directing airflow back towards the rest of the car. The optimal direction of this airflow is of critical importance to the overall downforce levels produced by the entire car.

One very important part of the front wing is the endplate design. The endplate is used to redirect the airflow around the front tyres; the tyres are certainly not designed to be aerodynamically efficient and can create a lot of drag. By directing the oncoming airflow around the front tyres, this minimises the amount of drag resistance produced and allows the airflow to continue back to the sidepods and the cars floor. The upper and main flap also helps direct airflow over the front tyres, reducing drag as well as producing airflow towards the rest of the car.

The way the cars look changed dramatically in 2009. What happened to the front wings?

The 2009 changes were introduced to reduce the amount of ‘sprouting’ bodywork on the cars and reduce overall downforce levels to allow closer racing. The front wing was changed from 1400mm to 1800mm in width and was also lowered from 150mm to 75mm from the reference plane (the lowest point of the car).

The drivers were also given the ability to perform adjustments to the main flap of the front wing. The idea was to be able to reduce downforce levels (and thus drag) at certain points to allow closer racing. The drivers could change the angle of the flap by 6 degrees twice a lap. In reality though, the adjustable flap was mainly used to provide an optimal car balance around the lap rather than being an overtaking aid. This ability was removed for the 2011 season and the front wing can now only be adjusted manually in the pit lane.

The endplates were very bulky looking in 2009 – how come?

In order for the adjustable upper flap to function, the servo and associated electronic equipment, in the case of the Williams, Ferrari and Red Bull, were stored within the endplate. While this now does not look terribly efficient, the engineers were still grappling with what could or could not be achieved with such a large change in technical rules. As time went on the design became more efficient to the point that we now have very complex and thin looking endplates on the front wing.

Also, the front wing is able to store ballast. While there is a minimum weight limit to the cars (640kg), they are often designed to be under weight and ballast is then used to increase the weight of the car to the FIA requirements. This means that the engineers have the ability to the move weight around (although with limited range front to rear) and fine tune the balance of the car. To provide a good front end and a lower centre of gravity, ballast is often found built into the endplates of the front wing and into the mainplane of the front wing as well.

The front wings certainly look more complex in 2012. What are the major differences?

2012 has seen a common design pattern for front wings starting to emerge, coined first by Red Bull and, surprisingly, Williams. Upper cascade winglets have been added, which are connected via the endplate and the mainplane. These provide additional downforce and also aid in guiding the airflow over the front tyres, reducing drag.

The mainplane of the front wing and the various flaps have now been merged into one, with various slot gaps appearing in the wing. This has given 3, 4 or 5 elements to the design of the front wing, depending on the amount of slot gaps that appear. The gaps are primarily to allow airflow under the wing where the air pressure is lower, increasing downforce and reducing the chances of the wing “stalling”.

The major change which all the teams seem to have implemented is that the mainplane and the flaps no longer connect directly to the endplates at either end of the front wing. Instead, the mainplane and flaps now form their own “endplate” in the form of a turning vane.

This allows improved airflow redirection and improves the efficiency of the overall endplate design.

Are we likely to see any surprises in front wing design during 2012?

The design trait talked about above is now in use by nearly all the grid, even including the likes of Marussia and Caterham. There will be variations in the upper flap design from race to race, but it’s difficult to see any major changes to this part of the car. Major front wing changes during the season are very rarely seen in one go because the rest of the car relies on the front wing design so much from an aerodynamic point of view.

I heard a lot about “flexi-wings” in 2010 and 2011 – is this likely to continue in 2012?

Red Bull pioneered the art of making the front wing flex during 2010 and 2011, much to the annoyance of their rivals. All front wings flex however, and it would be impossible to develop a front wing that cannot flex due to the sheer amount of load that is put through the wing out on the track.

What made Red Bull’s front wing so different was that it could be seen to flex to a large degree, allowing the wing to be closer to the track surface thus creating additional downforce and giving the car the ability to turn into corners much better than other cars at high speed.

Ferrari pioneered this idea as far back as the Japanese Grand Prix in 1997 with the F310B and, if you managed to find video footage of this coming down the main straight, it’s remarkable to see how much it moves about.

The front wings have to be 75mm from the reference plane to be legal, but there are allowances for flexing for which the FIA check. Prior to the Belgian GP of 2010 the test was to apply 50kg of force on the top of the endplate. The allowances with this force applied were 10mm of flexing. Due to protests, this was increased to 100kg with 20mm of flexing at Spa 2010. The Red Bull wing passed the test both times.

However, to try and put the story to bed in 2012, the FIA has now introduced stricter allowances. 100 kilograms is still applied to the wing, but the flexing allowance is now only 10mm. Another reason for the change is that the FIA believed that the wings were being engineered around the FIA scrutineering checks – Charlie Whiting revealed he saw a flexing test result of 19.9mm from the tests in 2011!

The front wing is a crucial part of any F1 car’s performance, not just as a singular component but in order to allow the rest of the car to perform to its aerodynamic potential. Changes during the season may be small but, with the amount of complexity now clear to see, they can often lead to significant gains.