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Aerodynamics is about controlling the flow of air that surrounds an object, including a race car. Downforce in race car aerodynamics is akin to lift in an airplane — it makes the object do what it was designed to do. In the case of a race car, downforce is the component of aerodynamics that makes the vehicle efficient. This vital component of race car aerodynamics is what ultimately allows the vehicle to reach and keep excessively high speeds while making tight and narrow turns. Even with the same amount of thrust, or power, a car that is more aerodynamic will move more quickly than one with hindrances in its shape.
Driving a race car, of course, is all about speed. Designing these cars is a similarly competitive process where speed is of the essence. Car makers use wind tunnels and track surfaces to test race car aerodynamics. The faster that a car is designed to go, the greater impact that aerodynamics has on the performance of that vehicle.
In designing one of these competitive vehicles, developers need to strike a balance between the forces that govern aerodynamics, and those factors include downforce and drag. While downforce is the component that keeps a car moving at top speeds, excessive drag, which is a component of downforce, can slow the race car down. Race car aerodynamics is about building a vehicle that limits the effect of drag while still applying the appropriate downforce.
Getting this right becomes increasingly important when a car accelerates, because the faster the car, the more downforce is applied. The less aerodynamically sound that a race car is, the more wear and tear on the brakes will occur. Certain characteristics that help race car aerodynamics include the use of a grille near the front bumper and headlights that are small in size, a short amount of space between the grille and the ground, and a steep windshield.
Vehicle designers can apply certain techniques that will help race car aerodynamics to work in a racer's favor. Race cars are often designed with inverted wings, a technology that works to press the car lower and trigger traction between the vehicle and the track. This helps vehicles to gain speed more readily and allows the brakes to work faster. Also, a scoop for the hood of the car can improve engine performance due to the flow of air that can be harnessed by the vehicle.