Can F1 cars drive upside down? This question has been asked for decades. And as Formula 1 car design evolves over the years, so does the answer.
Fundamentally the question asks whether the amount of downforce an F1 car produces is more than the weight of the car. If the answer to that is yes – which it is – then it stands to reason that the car would stick to the roof of a tunnel in a glorious marriage of engineering and physics.
So why hasn’t anyone done it yet? Well the answer to this question is in fact much more complicated than it first seems.
Other considerations such as traction, drag, running an engine upside down, the geometry of the tunnel, the crazy speeds involved and the massive safety risks mean that it would be (nearly) impossible to actually do this in real life. Nearly, but not quite. Yes I’m looking at you Red Bull Media House.
This article takes a full look at this question and explores just what it would take if someone was brave (stupid) enough to give it a go.
aerodynamics and downforce in F1
First a very brief recap of the principles of aerodynamics and downforce. Without these we wouldn’t even be able to ask ‘can F1 cars drive upside down’ and if someone tried it the car would fall flat on its halo.
the role of Aerodynamics in F1 car performance
Aerodynamics, or simply ‘aero’, is the way an object moves through the air. F1 cars reach over 220mph / 354kph on certain tracks and at those speeds the effect of the air over the car has a drastic impact on the way it performs on the straights and through the corners.
The two main aspects of aero that take effect in F1 are drag and downforce:
- Drag is how much the car is slowed down by the air hitting it, and Formula 1 car designers try to minimise this as much as possible.
- Downforce comes as a result of drag and is when the car is pushed down harder on to the track by the air rushing over it. This is great around the corners as it results in more tyre grip and higher cornering speeds.
As the two are linked, engineers are constantly working on car designs to produce as much downforce as possible whilst minimizing the amount of drag created. They’re looking for the most efficient design possible.
how do F1 cars create downforce?
There’s four main sections of an F1 car that produce downforce:
- Front wing
- Rear wing
- Underbody, floor and diffuser
- Rest of the body (e.g. sidepods)
Typically the front and rear wings combined produce around 50% of the total downforce, the underbody, floor and diffuser accounts for around 40-45% and the rest of the body makes up the remaining 5 – 10%.
more downforce than weight
how much does an F1 car weigh?
In 2023 F1 cars weigh 798kg. This is the minimal allowable weight after the race and it includes the driver.
The 2023 FIA technical documentation says that the minimum weight is 796kg, but in fact all the teams agreed to keep it to 798kg from the year before to give them some additional margin to help counteract porpoising.
how much downforce does an F1 car produce?
F1 cars are set up differently for each track they visit. High speed tracks such as Monza and Spa Francorchamps would see cars being given lower downforce setups to reduce the drag on the long straights in a bid to reach higher speeds.
Other tracks such as Monaco, which has no real high-speed sections, will see the cars being setup with maximum downforce in an attempt to increase their minimum cornering speeds.
Mercedes AMG ex-Technical Director Mike Elliott stated that at 150kph or 93 mph their 796kg F1 car would be producing the same amount of downforce as it weighed. As speeds increased it would produce three or four times that amount.
Whilst the 3000kg mentioned in the post below might be a little high, there’s no question that at fast enough speeds F1 cars produce much more downforce than they weigh.
how much downforce is needed to drive upside down?
If the Mercedes F1 car was driving upside down at 150 kph and producing exactly the same amount of downforce as it weighed, it would effectively be floating on the surface of the tunnel.
The downforce would perfectly cancel out the force of gravity, but it would have no extra force on its tyres to provide any grip or traction. The torque from the engine would simply spin the driven wheels in free air and the car would have no forward propulsion to overcome drag. Its speed would reduce, followed by the downforce it was producing, and it would come back down to earth with a bump.
Additionally, if the centre point of where the downforce was acting wasn’t aligned with the car’s centre of gravity the car would be likely to flip in one direction.
So whilst 150kph / 93mph produces enough downforce to cancel out gravity, it would need to be going a lot faster, and producing a lot more downforce to be able to gain traction whilst upside down and move forwards. Somewhere over 260 kph / 160mph should just about be enough for an F1 car to drive upside down.
do engines work upside down?
The next problem we encounter when asking ‘can F1 cars drive upside down?’ is with petrolhead’s best friend, internal combustion. Even though modern day Formula 1 cars run hybrid power units, the majority of their performance comes from the petrol engine.
Unfortunately internal combustion engines are not designed to work upside down. If you tried it you’d quickly be faced with a few major issues.
Whilst fuel is provided to the engine via a high-pressure pump, it sits at the bottom of a tank waiting to be sucked up by a fuel pick up. That draws fuel from the bottom of the tank, so turn it the other way up and we’d have an issue. Just like trying to drink from a straw cup when it’s turned upside down.
Fuel starvation would be pretty catastrophic for our upside-down driver. No fuel means no power and without it the car would begin to slow down. Dropping below the speed needed to maintain enough downforce would again result in a dramatic fall from grace.
oil and lubrication
There’s two immediate issues posed by the oil and lubrication system; seizing and hydrolocking. Both of these would result in a dramatic lack of propulsion and a F1 car plummeting back down to earth halo-first.
An internal combustion engine relies on a constant feed of oil to keep all the moving parts lubricated and to prevent them seizing up.
F1 cars run a dry sump system. Rather than a convential wet sump where there’s an oil pan at the bottom of the engine, a dry sump has a remote oil reservoir which pumps the oil around the engine components. The risk of seizing the engine with a dry sump is pretty slim, but it’s still a possiblility when suddenly inverted.
When working correctly the internal combustion engine’s main chamber sees a mixture of air and fuel being compressed by the piston. The lubricating oil never reaches the combustion chamber, instead it lubricates the undersides of the piston and gravity helps it run back down towards the sump at the bottom of the engine.
If you invert the engine gravity now pulls the oil down past the piston and in to the combustion chamber. The oil cannot be compressed, so once the piston reaches its compression stroke it can’t complete its full range of travel, and something’s got to give. Usually there’ll be a pretty catastrophic component failure thanks to this phenomenon known as hydrolocking.
can electric F1 cars drive upside down?
Electric motors don’t need fuel, oil, coolant or any other annoying liquids that run away from where we want them once they’re turned upside down. So it stands to reason that an electric car would solve all of our problems when asking ‘can F1 cars drive upside down?’
And maybe the perfect car for the job exists already. Or maybe not…
Formula E cars, at a glance, look like the electric versions of F1 cars. But there are a few key differences.
Firstly, the weight. Whilst F1 cars way just under 800kg, Gen 2 Formula E cars have a minimum weight of 900kg. That’s largely thanks to the weight of the battery packs – around 250kg on their own – which is the main drawback of going electric.
With the extra weight we’d need a lot more downforce to keep the car upside down. Unfortunately that’s where we hit the second major no-go for a Formula E car.
Wouter Remmerie, an aerodynamics expert and founder of online aerodynamics simulator AirShaper, compared the downforce of Formula 1 and Formula E cars at 50 metres per second (110mph / 180kph).
Thanks to some virtual simulation the results are in. Formula 1 cars produce over 3 times the amount of downforce compared to a Formula E car.
So why do Formula E cars produce relatively little downforce? Well without an internal combustion engine their main concern is battery range. More downforce means more drag, and more drag means more effort is required to push the car through the air. That extra effort uses up crucial battery percentage.
The cars have therefore been designed to be much more sleek, running lower drag and lower downforce bodywork. The speeds a Formula E car would need to reach to produce enough downforce to drive upside and provide traction to its rear wheels are higher than their current top speed of 174mph.
getting upside down
Now for the final hurdle – getting the F1 car upside down on to the ceiling. If you’re like me you’ll be picturing an F1 car scaling the walls of a traditional tunnel before reaching the roof. But that’s not going to do the trick.
Whilst AMG made it appear they managed this with Schumacher, some nicely sculpted ramps and their mighty SLS, it was in fact nothing more than a clever PR stunt with some fancy CGI.
If an F1 car tried the same thing, as it moved up the side of the tunnel wall it’s likely one of the front wheels would lift off the ground. That would raise the nose higher off the floor and cancel out a lot of the underbody aerodynamics, reducing downforce dramatically.
The car would already need to be doing over its critical minimum speed of around 160mph to sustain inverted driving, so add in the loss of downforce during the transition and that speed is even higher. The potential for getting it seriously wrong is massive.
an inverted track
Some clever guys at the University of Santa Catarina in Brazil may well have the answer. Their idea of an Inverted Track combines a wall of death with the inside of a doughnut. The result is a track that allows a car to smoothly transition from upright to upside down.
The benefit is that if their speed drops below the critical point they’d simply slide back down the track, rather than dropping like a stone on their head.
They even tested it with a model car and it worked. Now we just need someone to commission Herman Tilke to build us a full size version of this track.
so... can F1 cars drive upside down?
So after all that what’s the verdict? Can F1 cars drive upside down?
We know F1 cars develop more than enough downforce to overcome gravity when travelling upside down. That’s the easy bit.
The internal combustion engine poses a problem, so the obvious solution would be to go electric. Formula E cars don’t produce enough downforce so transplanting an electric power train in to a Formula 1 car makes sense.
That leaves the track. However perfect wall-riding a tunnel may seem in our imagination, the reality is that would be pretty impossible. A full-size version of the inverted track idea above may well be the way to go. Or a massively long gradually inverting road like the one below on BeamNG.
That just leaves one other thing. The driver. Now where would we find someone who’s mad enough, ready to strap themselves in to an F1 car seat, has some free time on their hands at the moment and is used to being upside down…?
Danny Ricciardo has to be the best man for the job. Hopefully he doesn’t follow in ex-Red Bull driver Mark Webber’s footsteps and decide to be another F1 driver who pees whilst driving as doing it upside down would make more of a mess than ever.