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The Importance Of Aerodynamics In Sports Performances

What impact does it have on certain sports?

7Aug

Aerodynamics have become one of the cornerstones of several sports today. Formula 1 teams fight to have the most aerodynamic cars, athletes wear skin tight lycra and cyclists wear skin suits so tight that they need assistance just to put them on.

The importance of these is never more important than in Formula 1, where due to the forces being exerted on the cars and the drivers, it would be impossible to drive without effective aerodynamics.

Rather than just being the best way for a car to travel through the air, aerodynamics in Formula one creates downforce, essentially acting as the opposite of a plane’s wing. This allows the cars to corner significantly faster than they otherwise would be capable of. Each car can produce 3.5 g of lateral cornering force, which is 3.5 times the weight of the car. This would clearly be impossible to keep on the road if it were not for downforce.

One of the most interesting aspects of modern Formula 1 cars is that their aerodynamics are so effective that in theory they could be driven upside down. There have even been attempts to artificially create suction underneath the car, such as the Brabham BT46B in the 1970’s which had a huge fan that sucked the car to the road. However, the importance of aerodynamics on speed is also vital and not creating disturbed air on a car is equally important, as this is what causes drag and slows it down. Therefore the downforces created by the car cannot disrupt the flow of air across the top of the car, it is a complex process and is why Formula 1 is considered to be the most complex aerodynamics sport in the world.

Aerodynamics are not only important in motorsports though and cycling has seen a huge impact from the use of aerodynamics.

The idea of ‘marginal gains’ has only realistically been well known since Team Sky started using it to great success in 2010, but was having a considerable effect almost 30 years ago. In fact the 1989 Tour de France was won by aerodynamics as Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon in the final stage time trial by 58 seconds, due to his superior aerodynamics.

The importance of aerodynamics when in the saddle are certainly not to be sniffed at, as far back as 1990 Rainer Pivit published in German magazine Radfahren that: ‘In a 40-km time trial the rider equipped in such a way [with aerodynamics in mind] is 3 min 6 seconds faster than his conventionally equipped colleague with the same power, because his aero drag is less by around 21%’.

We are seeing that new bikes are being built with aerodynamics at their heart, such as the new Specialized Venge, which goes as far as placing the front brake caliper behind the fork to reduce drag. This was after taking data from Specialized own wind tunnel, which also found that shaving their legs can save a cyclist between 50-82 seconds over 40km, which in cycling terms is a massive amount.

It is not only in endurance sports where it has an effect though, we have seen that marginal gains can be found in sprint events. A Study as far back as 1986 showed that by reducing wind resistance by only 2% across 100 metres would save a sprinter 0.01s, certainly a marginal gain over a competitor. With modern materials and construction techniques, this 2% is simple to find and athletes can save up to 10%, or 0.05 seconds.

The gains that we can see from effective use of aerodynamics for everyday amateur athletes are clear and we are presently working on an article to investigate the use of aerodynamics, which we will be releasing in the next few months.

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