The recent revelation that Formula 1 chiefs briefly evaluated the idea of fan cars being part of a new rules set from 2026 was fascinating on two levels.
Firstly, it showed that F1’s Liberty Media era is not afraid to think outside the box, and has ruled nothing out, when it comes to ensuring that grand prix cars are as raceable as they possibly can be.
For the 1978 Brabham fan car, which Niki Lauda took to victory in that year’s Swedish Grand Prix, remains an iconic machine and will be a talking point forever because of its uniqueness.
Secondly, it proved that the battle that rule makers have always faced – in coming up with regulations that help produce a great spectacle – is something that is unlikely to ever end.
Here we take a look at the fan car choice, and the problems F1 is trying to solve.
The thinking behind a fan car option
The news about the fan car popped up at the Autosport International Show last month, when F1’s chief technical officer Pat Symonds spoke about just how open-minded the sport was being about the future direction of cars.
With the current rules set pretty much in place until 2025, plans are well underway to do something different for 2026.
Looking at the work done on potential changes, Symonds said: “When we studied the ’26 project, we did have another clean sheet of paper, and we investigated all sorts of things.
“We actually went right back to a skirted ground effect car to get some kind of idea where the ultimate was. We looked at fan cars, all sorts of weird things. The ’26 car will be quite conventional, because that's the way we want it to be. But the following performance actually can be even better than the ’22 cars.”
Formula 1 designers do have a knack of looking at the past for inspiration, so it’s of no real surprise that, with modern development tools at their disposal, Symonds and the technical working group decided to take a look at how skirts and fans could be employed in the latest ground effect era.
Undoubtedly, thinking about ground effect machinery, we need look no further than the Lotus 79, or ‘black beauty’, as it was more affectionately known at the time, owing to its stunning black and gold livery.
The 79 owed much of its success to its predecessor, given the growing pains that had to be overcome for the team to extract performance from the ground-effect venturi tunnels and make use of sliding skirts.
The trials and tribulations of the 78 were actually a good thing for Lotus, as its competitors hadn’t reckoned on them being able to find the level of performance it did with the 79. This resulted in everyone else being late adopters and needing to catch up.
That’s how the other concept studied by FOM came into being, as Brabham deployed its B-spec BT46, or the fan car as it’s more widely known, at the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix and immediately ‘blew’ the competition away.
The fan sucked the car down on to the ground, so the faster it went the more downforce it had.
The BT46B was not only rapid, but also an ingenious workaround for a problem that Brabham had no quick answer to in terms of using ground effect venturi tunnels.
Its problem lay in the car being powered by a flat-12 Alfa Romeo engine, which encroached into the space needed to make the tunnels work.
The performance was so potent that rival teams got upset. And, with pressure mounting on Bernie Ecclestone, who not only owned Brabham but was also head of FOCA (Formula One Constructors’ Association) by that stage, the car was withdrawn after just that one outing and victory.
Ultimately, motor racing’s governing body would go on and see fit to ban sliding skirts and introduce a minimum ride height, owing to safety concerns as the teams continued to look for more performance.
In the 40 or so years that have passed since these concepts were last used in the sport, the technology and safety of F1 has improved significantly so there could be grounds for a return.
But, ultimately, FOM is only interested in delivering cars that can race – and there are better solutions out there to allow that to happen.
F1’s historical problem
The key driving force is the answer to the age-old problem of tackling the wake turbulence created by a lead car, and the impact it has on the cars that trail it.
The sport’s last major attempt at dealing with this was made in 2009, when the complexity of the cars was dramatically reduced in comparison with their predecessors.
However, while the intentions of that rule set were great, they weren’t as comprehensive as the plan set out for 2021, which were inevitably postponed until 2022, owing to the implications posed by the pandemic.
In 2009 an Overtaking Working Group (OWG) was tasked with finding ways to reduce the issue, but lacked the time and resources that FOM had at its disposal this time around.
This led to a sound but rather broad stroke approach that teams quickly resolved to overcome, resulting in the erosion of those efforts both through technical and political will.
Another reset of the car’s aerodynamics occurred in conjunction with the introduction of the turbo-hybrid power units in 2014.
But, given the loss in performance relative to the previous era of cars, a knee-jerk reaction followed, resulting in a more aerodynamically powerful regulation set to be formed for 2017, with much larger bargeboard structures one of the key ingredients back in the recipe.
The consequence of this change required the governing body to make another course correction, using some of the information already gained in the study of the 2021/22 project to reduce the potency of the front and rear wing.
This resulted in the cascades being removed from the front wing, strakes on the underside of the wing being limited and the number of elements also reigned in.
Meanwhile, the rear wing louvres that teams had used for over a decade to help alter the tip vortex were also outlawed, and the dimensions of the wing were also altered significantly.
The plan for 2022 was much more overarching though, with not only a larger team tasked with redesigning the car’s platform, but the regulations also being rewritten from the ground up.
This sought to resolve some of the inefficiencies posed by years of overlapping regulation changes, which had often opened the door for loopholes being discovered.
To fortify these efforts, changes were also made to the sporting regulations, in order to alter the power dynamic amongst the teams.
And, while the current regulations have set out to curb the issues posed, there’s an inevitable point at which teams always find ways to reduce those efforts and another reset will be required.
Knowing this, 2026 has been earmarked as the waypoint at which to perform the operation, which is poignant given the curtain will also fall on the current crop of turbo-hybrid powertrains, having graced the sport since 2014.