High-downforce tracks vs power tracks in F1 – differences explained
Any Formula 1 viewer will have heard the term "downforce" before, but what is a downforce track and how does it differ from a power track? Find out here.
If you’re a regular viewer of Sky Sports and Channel 4’s F1 coverage, you’ll no doubt have heard the pundits and commentators talk about high downforce and power tracks.
Although these aren’t official terms, they help describe the different characteristics of each new circuit and explain why teams don’t simply qualify in the same order every week.
Ideally teams want to design cars that produce as much downforce as possible to boost speed through corners, but the challenge is to do this in such a way that doesn’t result in too much aerodynamic drag.
More drag will slow a car down in a straight line, and consequently more power is needed to overcome this resistance and achieve the best possible acceleration and top speed.
This equation is why some cars perform better at certain types of track than others, and why it’s impossible to build a car that’s tailor made for every single grand prix.
Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35, Sergio Perez, Racing Point RP20
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
What’s a high downforce track in F1?
A high downforce track is a circuit where most of a car’s performance over the course of a lap can be attributed to the aerodynamic downforce it produces rather than the power of its engine. High downforce tracks will have fewer and shorter straights than low downforce tracks, with more of an emphasis on corners.
What’s a power track?
A power track is more or less the opposite of a high downforce track. Most of a car’s performance is tied to the power, acceleration and top speed made possible by the engine. Long straights and short, slow corners are typical features of power tracks.
How does driving style change?
All drivers have a subtly different approach to driving an F1 car, and the fastest drivers tend to be the ones who can adapt their style every week to get the best performance out of their car in the unique circumstances presented by each track.
More downforce creates more grip in corners, which allows drivers to carry more speed and post quicker lap times. However it can also reduce performance in a straight line by causing drag, and great drivers are able to work out if they need to be later on the brakes heading into a turn or earlier on the throttle coming out of it to extract the most speed from their car.
The flipside of this is that more aggressive cornering tends to wear tyres out more quickly, so smoother steering wheel inputs might be needed in order to make the rubber last longer. Most cars will stop once or twice over the duration of a race, and knowing which strategy is faster can decide what style a driver needs to adopt to achieve the best possible result.
What’s a Red Bull track? What’s a Mercedes track?
In recent years, certain teams have followed aerodynamic philosophies that have made them stronger at some circuits than at others. As teams have built up historic success, those tracks have become known unofficially as ‘Mercedes tracks’ or ‘Red Bull tracks’.
Sochi is a prime example of a Mercedes track: the Silver Arrows have won there every year since F1 began racing at the Russian coastal city in 2014, having emerged from qualifying in pole position in five out of seven attempts.
A Red Bull track is a little harder to define, given that the team has only won more than three races in a single season once (in 2018) since Sebastian Vettel secured his fourth world title with the outfit in 2013. And even in that 2018 season, it only won four.
Red Bull has traditionally performed well at circuits that reward downforce more than power, but counter-intuitively its most successful tracks in recent seasons have been the Red Bull Ring in Austria and the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico. Both of these circuits feature long straights and few high-downforce corners, but other factors have made Red Bull a force to be reckoned with at these venues.
Max Verstappen dominated Mexican Grand Prix from second on the grid in 2018, and recovered from an awful start to win the Austrian Grand Prix the following season having fallen from second to eighth on the opening lap. On both occasions it was the Dutchman’s second consecutive victory on those circuits.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB14
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
High downforce tracks
There’s no official guide to what constitutes a high downforce track, but the teams’ approach to each circuit shows where they think downforce is a priority and where power is less important.
Hungary, Imola, Singapore, Spain and Monaco are all examples of high downforce tracks, with relatively short straights and lots of turns putting a greater emphasis on cornering speed. In particular, Sector 3 in Barcelona - which features a series of low-speed turns - is historically a good gauge for how cars will perform in Monaco, which normally follows Spain on the F1 calendar.
Tracks like Silverstone and Spa feature high downforce sequences that can see the drivers pulling up to 6G in some cases. However the long straights and high-speed corners on these sectors mean that power still has a big influence on the pecking order.
The Italian Grand Prix at Monza is the closest you’ll get to a true power track in F1. Drivers are believed to spend 75% of the lap at full throttle around Monza, and the fastest laps ever recorded in the history of the sport are typically set here. Lewis Hamilton holds the record for the highest average speed recorded over a single lap, averaging 164.267mph (254.362km/h) on his way to pole position at Monza in 2020.
Other power tracks with long straights include Russia, Mexico, Canada, Baku and Austria, among others.
Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-20, Nicholas Latifi, Williams FW43
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
How do teams prepare for different types of track?
Monza is a special case in F1, with most teams bringing a unique package to the track that isn’t used again during the season. With so little downforce required throughout the lap, teams tend to run extremely low-profile rear wings that significantly reduce drag compared to a normal set-up. Allowances also have to be made for the extra strain placed on the engine for the duration of the race, and the number of times the cars need to brake from full speed.
Spa is another circuit with long straights, and the section of track from the exit of Turn 1 until the end of the Kemmel straight is one of the longest stretches where F1 cars are at full throttle during qualifying. However there are several high-speed corners in Sector 2 and Sector 3, so teams are always trying to find the right compromise between straightline speed and downforce in Belgium.
The Mexican Grand Prix at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is something of an outlier. Its long straights and low- to medium-speed corners should make it a pure power track, but teams usually run full downforce set-ups here. This is because the circuit is located 2,285 metres above sea level, and the air is so thin that teams can afford to run as much downforce as they like on their cars without developing excessive levels of drag.
Some analysts believe this is why Red Bull has fared so well in Mexico in recent years despite the team having a power disadvantage when the team used Renault engines until the end of 2018.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
What’s a high degradation track?
Power and downforce aren’t the only things that dictate how well cars will perform at a track. Teams also have to account for degradation, which is what causes a tyre to lose grip when it gets too hot.
Different circuits use different types of material in the construction of the track surface, which means degradation can be more of a threat at some venues than at others. High degradation tracks force drivers to drive in such a way that their tyres don’t build up excessive heat and lead to a loss of lap time.
Degradation shouldn’t be confused with wear, which is the gradual erosion of the tyre tread as a result of friction caused by the track surface.
Street tracks like those used in Baku, Monaco and Sochi are considered low-deg circuits, and the track surface isn’t as abrasive as is typically found on a custom-built race track. The F1 circuits used in Canada, Austria, Mexico and Abu Dhabi are usually kind to tyres too.
High degradation can be caused by a mixture of two things: the roughness of the asphalt and the force going the tyres as a result of moving at speed. Silverstone, Spa and Suzuka have some of the highest cornering speeds on the F1 calendar, so these tracks are naturally quite tough on tyres. Bahrain is also thought of as a high-deg track, and Pirelli has selected its most durable compounds for the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch Grands Prix in 2021.
Degradation is also linked to downforce: on some tracks, high downforce can be a good thing as it helps bring the tyres up to their preferred operating temperature, helping cars to go faster. But at others it can cause the rubber to last fewer laps, and if drivers have to make an extra pitstop compared to their competitors then this can sometimes be slower overall.
What other factors do teams consider?
Temperature also has a huge bearing on how cars perform in qualifying and in the race. A warm track can make it easier to heat up tyres, but temperatures that are too high can make it difficult to stop the rubber from overheating. Meanwhile higher air temperatures will produce less resistance than cooler air temperatures, also affecting performance.
The most extreme, recent example of all these factors playing out occurred at the Turkish Grand Prix in 2020. A combination of a new, low-grip surface and relatively cool track temperatures meant that most of the field struggled to get their tyres up to temperature around Istanbul Park, leaving championship frontrunners Mercedes in the middle of the pack and Lance Stroll’s Racing Point on pole position.
The car’s ability to generate temperature in the tyres better than the rest of the grid in those conditions is why he and team-mate Sergio Perez ran in first and second for more than half of the race. But the reason Lewis Hamilton took the chequered flag is that the Briton - realising he would need several laps to bring a new set of tyres up to temperature - was able to nurse his intermediates for almost the entire race distance, effectively wearing them down into slicks as a drying line appeared on the otherwise soaking wet track.
The car of Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W11, 1st position, in Parc Ferme Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG F1, climbs out of his car after winning the race, to take his 7th World Championship title
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
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