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Science Society welcomes F1 engineer

Bryanston Science Society welcomed F1 engineer Frank Dernie to give the first lecture of the summer term. Read a report of Frank's fascinating lecture from our Head of Science, Mike Kearney, below.

After studying engineering at Imperial College, Frank Dernie started his career in motor racing in 1976 and before long was hired by Williams to work with legendary designer Patrick Head. Together they developed not only some of the finest racing cars of their generation, he also pioneered the inclusion of technology from active suspension, to using carbon fibre, to aerodynamics. Working with a range of teams before returning to Williams, Frank was a key player in this most high tech of sports for over 30 years. We were delighted to welcome him to Bryanston and hear about his career and work.

Frank wanted to get involved in a sport where the engineer made a difference. It has always been the case that the best car will win races and the best drivers eventually get into those best cars. Very rarely is the world champion driving a lesser car. The driver is important, but they are not the deciding factor in F1. The teams with the cleverer people beat the less clever people.

Technical information you read in racing magazines will probably always be false. Race teams release red herrings all of the time and never tell the press the truth, because they never know what the opposition may already know. Frank started by designing suspension systems, but in 1975 he realised that aerodynamics was the only significant way to make a car faster. It took a long time for the press and public to realise that. The arrival of wings on racing cars began in the late 1960s and quickly evolved as rules changed.

Open wheel racing cars produce very strong wheel wakes and controlling the terrible flow they produce is a crucial part of being competitive. Ground effect cars dominated racing for a few years by producing fast low-pressure air under the car. Lotus developed ground effects by accident when Peter Wright, while trying to develop a cooling system, found the low pressure under the car produced a lot of downforce. Frank took the idea and improved the side skirts for Williams to maintain the low pressure under the car. This led to a series of world beating designs. The sliding skirts were banned under pressure from some teams that were not competitive, hoping to narrow their disadvantage.


The ban of skirts reduced downforce by up to 80% in Frank’s cars. The new car still proved competitive, even with a flat bottom, and Frank's car topped the qualifying times in Brazil. Flat-bottomed cars were very unstable, but after the death of Ayrton Senna the ground clearance was raised and the cars became more stable.


The options in the 1980s for radical designs were much more open and trying to improve downforce and reduce drag included extremes like six-wheel cars. All part of the quest to reduce the impact of the wheel wake, the smaller wheels never proved very successful.

Frank worked with Michael Schumacher from his early racing days, when he spent some years with the Benetton team. Aerodynamic downforce and better grip can give much more advantage to lap times in middle speed corners. In fast corners all cars are on the limit of adhesion and at much the same speed, but significant improvements to lap times can be found by taking middle speed corners faster. This means working on more downforce when the car is higher off the ground (the suspension and tyres are less compressed) and that strategy took the Benetton cars of the late 1980s to many wins. The principle of getting a car at the right height and downforce working well is a simple mantra that has taken Frank to success with Indycar as well as Formula 1. Getting that right is, however, a matter of great skill.

Over time the development of wings has changed dramatically, often forced by rule changes. Front wings dipped in the centre, were split, became wider and many more elements were added. The much publicised drama of the double diffuser in the 2000s was a difficult technology to master, but it added very little performance compared to new diverters on the front wing end plates. The talk of the value of double diffusers was a smokescreen by the more competitive teams and other teams, and the press took a long time to catch on to the real difference-making technology.

Car engineering has developed so much in Frank’s time. Ferrari have a team of well over 100 working just on aerodynamics. Frank was the sole aerodynamicist for Williams for the 1970s and some of the 1980s. The money that has come into the sport through marketing has enabled the costs of racing to spiral and with it the engineering used and the people employed.