Saturday 9 April 2011

Looking back: The original Drag Reduction Systems

Of all of the regulation changes for the 2011 F1 season the Drag Reduction System, or movable rear wings, has perhaps caused the most controversy. This is a system wherein a driver, operating the system from their cockpit, can flatten their rear wing plates, thus reducing aerodynamic drag and increasing speed where the downforce from the rear wing is not required, such as on the straights. The system can be used to the driver's heart's content in practice and qualifying, and only when within a second of the car infront, and at a certain point of the track, in the races, the aim being to create more overtaking. The system in action on the Sauber can be seen in the film below:

The criticisms have been widespread, and have included claims that the system is potentially dangerous due to the increased speed differential of cars it creates, as well as that operating the system could distract the driver. More substantial criticisms have been made by those seeing the system as somewhat false and 'gimmicky' (Mark Webber said it belongs more on a PlayStation), and not in keeping with F1's heritage.

Such claims aren't entirely true though, as movable rear wings in fact have a previous in F1. To find them and their previous creation one has to go back to 1968.

Indeed, the creation of the movable rear wing largely happened in tandem with the establishment of the rear wing itself. And for this one has to go back a further couple of years, to 1966, and outside of F1, to Can-Am sportscar racing in North America. F1, unusually, was behind the curve when it came to innovation in this case.

Negative-incidence wings had appeared sporadically on racing cars going all the way back to 1928, but they were first established seriously by the Chaparral 2E, designed by Texan Jim Hall for the inaugural Can-Am series in 1966. The car was stunning, featuring as it did a large wing suspended high above the rear of the car. It was effectively an aeroplane wing upside down, generating downforce for extra grip and traction (as an interesting aside, the first wing they tested with was literally carved from pine!). Further, by pressing a pedal where one would ordinarily find a clutch (which was not needed as the car had automatic transmission) the driver could flatten out the wing, and therefore reduce drag and increase speed where the downforce was not needed. This was so to try to get the best of both worlds: more grip through the corners while minimising the resultant aerodynamic drag on the straights.

It took F1 a little time to twig to the benefits of this new system. Jim Clark, taking part in a race at Teretonga in a Tasman Championship tour of New Zealand early in 1968, and far from Colin Chapman's gaze, convinced his mechanics to bolt a similar system to the Chaparral onto his Lotus 49T, using a rather rudimentary sawn-off section of scrap helicopter rotor blade acquired from a nearby dump! Clark practiced with it, but he and his team thought better of using it in the race as Chapman had no idea what they were up to and there would be 'hell to pay' if anything went wrong. Unfortunately for them, a young Ferrari engineer called Gianni Marelli, there as Chris Amon was taking part in the same race in his Ferrari 246T, noted Lotus's scheme and photographed the winged Lotus from every angle.

The early 1969 McLaren M7C
with high-position wings attached
By the Monaco Grand Prix, the third race of the 1968 championship, Lotus appeared with rather modest, and fixed, front wings on their cars and a wedge shaped tail. However, it was the next race, at Spa, that things really took off, with Ferrari, using an evolution of the concept seen by Marelli (though Ferrari designer Mauro Forghieri was insistent that the wings were developed independently of that), and Brabham, thinking along the same lines, rolled in with large strutted (but still fixed, i.e. non-movable) wings suspended above the car's gearbox. From that point, as is usually the case in F1, wings were rapidly honoured by imitation and developed, seemingly being wider and higher on a race-by-race basis. By the Canadian race, the third last of the season, the whole F1 field of cars featured a wing of some sort.

So to the movable rear wings, which is where we came in. It didn't take long for movable rear wings to be developed throughout the pit lane in 1968. This was no doubt inspired, as Jim Hall was, by a desire to have the best of both worlds by benefiting from the downforce while minimising the drag, though minds may also have been concentrated by the fact that it wasn't clear the extent that the first breed of F1 wings gave a performance advantage, with many believing that the benefits in extra cornering grip were broadly offset by the straightline speed loss. Indeed, Chris Amon lamented this very characteristic of his winged Ferrari in 1968 on his recent interview on the excellent The Flying Lap podcast (see below), while Denny Hulme managed to win the Italian Grand Prix at Monza that year having left the wings off his McLaren.

Episode 3 - The Flying Lap with Peter Windsor - Chris Amon from Smibs TV on Vimeo.

A variety of movable rear wing devices, some more sophisticated than others, started to appear on cars in the second half of the 1968 season. In the German race at the Nurburgring one of the Matra V12s was fitted with an electronic device to flatten the rear wing, operated by the brake pedal (though it didn't work very well, it transpired that the rear wing was still incredibly bulky even when flat). Other devices were more rudimentary, operated by straps connected to the rear wing, still invariably worked by the driver pressing pedals. Cooper developed a self-adjusting system that was feathered by speed.

Ferrari came up with by far the most ingenious movable rear wing device however. It moved the rear wing automatically using engine oil pressure, dropping the rear wing to a steep angle when in first, second and third gears or when on the brakes, but flattening it out when in higher gears and when the throttle was open (with a manual over ride in the cockpit). The system did however have teething problems, with Amon being denied a potential 'home' win at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza when the system leaked oil onto a rear tyre, causing a violent accident that he was lucky to walk away from.

The Lotus 49, complete with high wings
Given that they were the first to experiment with the system, as well as Chapman's reputation for innovation, Lotus were surprisingly slow to have a movable rear wing on their cars. They eventually attached a device to Graham Hill's car for the final race of the year, in Mexico, with Hill driving for the championship, leading the table three points ahead of Jackie Stewart and six ahead of Denny Hulme going into the race. The wing movement was actuated by a pedal next to the clutch, which the driver would press on the straight to flatten the wing, using cables, which when the driver pressed the clutch pedal instead for a corner the pedal to move the rear wing would be released, and the tension in the cord would pull the wing to its downforce-creating attack angle. And the device damn near cost Hill the title, as the Englishman explained at the time: 'soon after the start of the race I felt this pedal (to operate the movable rear wing) go light, and I saw in my mirrors that one of the two rubber straps - which operated this system - had broken. The World Championship, therefore, rested on a single rubber strap...that one, fortunately, held together but it seemed like an endless race...'. Hill did take the win in Mexico, and the championship.

Movable rear wings didn't last much longer however. After a practice session in the Monaco Grand Prix early in 1969, the CSI (the governing body of the time) banned wings immediately, following two rather frightening accidents for Hill and Jochen Rindt in their Lotuses in the previous race in Montjuic in Barcelona. These were caused by the flimsily-strutted high rear wings collapsing while clearing the same brow on the pit straight a few laps apart. By the Dutch race at Zandvoort new wing regulations were in place, severely restricting their dimensions and banning movable devices. That was until 2011, when F1 to a large extent went back to the future.

UPDATE 12/04/11: It turns out that the first Drag Reduction System can be traced back even earlier than 1966. An earlier Chaparral, the 2C, featured a movable rear wing in the autumn of 1963, though it wasn't raised high above the bodywork as with the 2E. More details can be found here. Thanks very much to George Daszkowski for pointing this out!


  1. A beautifully detailed and informative post. I'd heard mention of the origins of DRS but failed to find much written about it elsewhere. I'll definitely be back with writing this good.

  2. Thank you very much for the compliments Jackie, it's very nice to read that you like the post. It was definitely good fun putting it together! Hope you like other posts just as much! Do let me know what you think of them.

  3. Fascinating, I had a feeling that racing must have looked at moving wings as they always look towards aircraft for inspiration, but I had no idea that F1 had actually used them.

  4. Yes, it was a bit of a surprise to me as well when I stumbled across in a book that movable rear wings had been used in 1968. It also amazes how, even then, the concept spread so widely and developed in so many interesting ways in a short period of time. I guess in F1 some things never change!

  5. This is just brilliant, Graham. Tons of information put together in a very thorough way, and really entertaining to read!

    Congratulations, and thanks for the great work!