Downforce is a downward lift force on a vehicle accentuated by its aerodynamic features. In a car, downforce increases vertical force on the tires, increasing grip and thus allowing the car to travel faster. Downforce also applies to other vehicles — in a fixed-wing aircraft, for instance, downforce applied to the horizontal stabilizer allows for increased stability and pilot control.
Increased grip on the road gives the driver more control over at the high speeds enabled by exceptional downforce production. The increased grip enabled by increased aerodynamic downforce is sometimes referred to as “aerodynamic grip” — which is itself distinct from (and complementary to) the “mechanical grip” generated by the vehicle’s tires, suspension, and overall weight.
The reason that Ferrari and other exotic car makers place so much emphasis on aerodynamic devices and innovations is that every engineering innovation that increases the amount of downforce the car generates in turn allows for more speed and more driver control. In the world of supercars and hypercars, even something that can produce downforce at an incremental level can result in shaving precious time off of a vehicle’s acceleration speed. And in any race car, even a fraction of a second can make a difference between victory and defeat on the track.
This is why you will often see spoilers on sports cars and exotics. A spoiler creates downforce relative to its size; which is to say that a larger spoiler will generate more downforce but also increase drag. Moreover, a more severe tilt, or angle of attack, on a spoiler will create more downforce and apply more pressure to the rear wheels. Rear spoilers work similarly to front and rear wings in the world of vehicle aerodynamics. To summarize: a car spoiler’s downforce will be determined by its shape, its size, its orientation, and the car’s speed.
Modern Formula One cars can typically generate around 750 kg — or 1,653 pounds — of downforce at speeds of 100 mph. Because downforce has direct implications for grip, this means that an F1 car that weighs less than the downforce it produces could theoretically drive upside-down on the ceiling!
Obviously, pushing the limits of downforce is a central goal of any F1 team, and automakers like Ferrari are continually pushing the limits of Formula 1 cars.
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