Innovation has always been at the heart of Formula 1. In the early days Mercedes introduced the first fuel injection system, Vanwall were the first to use disc brakes and Lotus pioneered the monocoque chassis.
Over the last thirty years or so, there has been times when the teams hard word (and millions of pounds) have seemed to be wasted when their new technology has fallen foul of the powers that be!
In 1977 Team Lotus unveiled the first ground effect car, an innovation that was discovered almost by accident! The team was testing new wings in the wind tunnel when the engineers first noticed being sucked towards the floor by the faster moving air under the car. They attached cardboard ‘skirts’ to the scale model to increase the effect and ground effects was born. The following year the Lotus 79 took 10 wins (out of 16) giving the team a one two in the championship to Andretti and Peterson. In 1979 most team had their own skirts in place and ground effect cars dominated Formula 1 until it was outlawed in 1983 in a bid to curb ever-increasing cornering speeds.
One notable variation of ground effects came midway through 1978 when Brabham turned up for round eight in Sweden with the BT46B ‘fan car’. The Brabham’s Alfa Romeo engine was too bulky to run the standard type air channels under the car so to get around this they connected the fan to the real of the car. Connected to the throttle, the fan accelerated the airflow under the car sucking it down like the skirts on the Lotus. The team claimed that it was to aid cooling but it fast became apparent that this wasn’t the case as Piquet romped off into the distance, winning by over half a minute. This was the only outing for the fan car as rival teams protested after the race. The win was allowed to stand but the BT46B was outlawed.
After the banning of ground effects, Lotus started looking into active suspension for their next big performance gain. In 1982 the Lotus 91 became the first car to be equipped with active ride technology although the early systems were still ‘reactive’, involving driver input to change the hydraulic settings. Ayrton Senna gave an active suspension car its first win in 1987 before being shelved at the end of 1988.
It wouldn’t be seen again until the final round of the 1991 season in Adelaide on the William FW14B. The race was too wet for the team to gather any decent data but as winter testing got under way it became clear how good the car was. During 1992 and 1993 the FW14B and FW15 chalked up 20 wins out of 32 racers, delivering two drivers and constructors titles in the process. Active suspension was banned at the end of 1993 and is probably the most expensive item in the F1 dust bin.