How a day driving high-downforce cars at VIR taught me I’m OK being slow
When the invitation to try out the new formula and sports prototype cars at Virginia International Raceway arrived in my inbox, I was pretty sure I’d have to politely decline. I could hear the boss’ response immediately: “So, you just want to spend a day at the track doing laps?”
But this invite stayed on my mind longer than I anticipated. The cars I’d be driving—a Radical SR1 and Ligier Formula 4—both offered something I’d yet to really experience: genuine aerodynamic grip. Maybe there actually was something to be gained by saying yes. The powers that be seemed to agree, and so it was I found myself making the five-and-a-bit-hour drive south from DC in the height of summer, all to find out more about the invisible hand that the racing world calls downforce.
A brief history of aerodynamics
Little attention was paid to the concept of aerodynamics during the first few decades of the automobile. This is not surprising; although foundational work by Bernoulli and Euler dated back to the mid-18th century, any practical applications that existed were focused on taking to the skies. When thought was given to the way a car moves through the air, it was in the aid of top speed. If you could lower the amount of drag on a car, you could make it go faster with less horsepower. This practice was exemplified by the streamlined bodies given to Grand Prix cars from Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz in the 1930s, an effort by German industry to boost the precious ego of its Nazi dictator.