Can a Formula 1 Car Drive Upside Down?
Stated proudly in the “Understanding the Sport” section on the official Formula One website, reads a simple, assured sentence.
A modern Formula One car is capable of developing 3.5 g lateral cornering force (three and a half times its own weight) thanks to aerodynamic downforce. That means that, theoretically, at high speeds they could drive upside down.
The idea of an F1 car—of any car, for that matter—driving on a ceiling is quite sci-fi. Who remembers Agent Kay taking the MIB Ford LTD Crown Victoria for a short upside-down blast through the Queens-Midtown tunnel in Men In Black?
It’s a question which fascinates both the casual fan and the science aficionados of our sport.
The advance technological side of F1 thrills in many ways; not least because the cars resemble fighter jets more than they do the cars on our drives and in our garages.
There is, however, a lot more to the theory of an F1 car driving upside down than the rather simplistic statement on the official website.
The Science Behind It
There’s some disagreement over how fast an F1 car would need to go to generate the necessary downforce, but it is scientifically sound. So long as a car is producing a force equal to its weight, anyway.
One belief is that only speeds in excess of 150mph would produce enough energy to suck the car onto a ceiling, for example.
Dr Afzal Suleman was the go-to guy for the Canadian Discovery Channel when they investigated this theory. The aeronautical engineer from the University of Victoria reckons only speeds of 90mph would be need.
However, former Jordan F1 technical chief-turned-media pro Gary Anderson told the BBC:
The forces reacting on an F1 car push it into the ground and make it lean on its tyres but the car doesn't care if the ground is above it - or below. So in theory the car could probably drive along upside down in the roof of a tunnel at about 120mph and it would support its own weight, which is how aerodynamics work in aeroplanes.
Will The Engine Work?
One key assumption from detractors of the theory is that the fuel and oil tanks would not be able to function if the car was upside down.
It’s not a terrible assumption: The fuel would settle in the top of the tanks where there would not be a pickup line, thus starving the engine of fuel.
Similarly, the assumption is that the engine would seize because the oil would settle at the top rather than course through.
However, the latter is not appropriate here. This is because F1 cars utilise "dry sump" engines, which means the oil tank is external and isn’t picked up exclusively at the bottom of the tank.
Because of the lateral G forces F1 cars experience, oil is pulled to one side of the sump and leaves the engine at risk of oil starvation. In the dry sump system, as F1Technical.net explains, oil is pumped from the external oil tank on the front of the engine into a "distribution network".
This is within the cylinder block and heads, which ensures it gets directly to all critical engine components, thus keeping the necessary parts properly lubricated.
That's not a problem for an F1 car, then. And fuel and oil systems on aircraft which have a tendency to fly upside down are designed so they work correctly when doing so.
A few tweaks to the F1 fuel system would enable it to do so as well.
How would it affect the driver?
The obvious concern is whether a driver would be able to cope with driving upside down, whether they would be too disoriented to operate properly and if their body could cope with the experience.
There is plenty of experience from F1’s history to suggest that motion sickness would be a big problem. Races at the mountainous Clermont-Ferrand, for example, were notorious for drivers struggling with sickness during the race due to the track rising and falling in such steep grades.
However, there’s a similarly obvious counter-argument. Fighter pilots and display pilots are capable of flying upside for several seconds.
Removing the science for a second, and if you’re obliging, take a situation you could find yourself in right now. Sit upside down on your sofa, or bed. Hang your head of the edge, and prop the back of it against the side of the bed or sofa.
Now imagine, as the blood rushes to your head and you start to feel a bit sick, that you’re doing 90mph, as Dr. Suleman suggests.
Now imagine 120mph, as Anderson suggests.
Now imagine the track incorporates an upside-down stretch of road, the top speed of which at the end is 180mph.
Would a driver suffer from spatial disorientation? Would they need experience in an Aerotrim-esque gyroscope? We all know how drivers are subject to forces three-and-a-half times the force of gravity at certain tracks. But that is driving the right way up. The suggestion is that forces excessive of 4G would be problematic.
A Sound Theory
Ultimately, it would depend on what you wanted to achieve. Barrel roll through the Monaco tunnel? Implement a loop-the-loop onto a race track? Drive solidly along a ceiling?
There’s no questioning the theory. F1 cars do generate the necessary downforce to be sucked onto any surface—right side up, or upside down.
A few more details would need to be tidied up, but it would serve as a successful exercise if you carried it out.
Now you just need to find a sufficiently long ceiling, a car, and a fighter pilot who knows his way about an F1 cockpit.
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