A 17th century scientist might not seem like the most obvious inclusion in a motorsport light relief column, but you should have worked out by now that I try to avoid the obvious.
Sir Isaac Newton is among the most influential minds in human history. His work in mathematics, physics, astronomy, and a host of other disciplines has had far-reaching consequences in the knowledge we hold to be true today. The publication of Newton's Principia Mathematica was one of the defining moments of the Enlightenment, and many associate the book with the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment.
While there have been one or two changes to our understanding of the physics of aerodynamics in the nearly 300 years since Newton's death, his three Laws of Motion can all be applied to the science. I'm sure everyone remembers the laws from physics lessons, so I won't repeat them here. Newton's theory of air resistance was a vital first step in our understanding of aerodynamic forces, although we have since learned it can only be applied to low flow speeds.
As always happens with scientific theory, Newton's theories have been tested and expanded by later physicists. Sir George Cayley is widely believed to be the first person to have identified the existence of – and relationship between – drag, thrust, lift, and weight. Francis Herbert Wenham was responsible for the world's first wind tunnel, built in 1871. While the work of countless others has contributed to the aerodynamic knowledge we have today, it was Cayley and Wenham's use of Newton's foundations that were major stepping stones.
Motorsport was changed forever in the 1960s, when constructors began playing around with what we now call ground effect. Jim Hall's Chaparral race cars were an early exercise in experiments with ground effect – in 1961, he first attempted to use a moulded underside to direct the flow of air under the car, creating a suction effect that would allow the car to stick to the track at high speeds. The first attempt was unsuccessful, and by 1970 his Chaparral 2J featured "two fans at the rear of the car driven by a dedicated two-stroke engine; it also had "skirts", which left only a minimal gap between car and ground, to seal the cavity from the atmosphere".
Experiments with ground effect hit Formula 1 in the late 1960s, although acclaim for its first successful implementation belongs to Lotus. Colin Chapman's legendary Lotus 78 'wing car' is widely credited – or blamed – for starting F1's love affair with ground effect. While working with a rolling road in the wind tunnel, Lotus engineers discovered that the faster the road rolled, the more the car's shaped underbody was pulled down. Experiments with different bits of cardboard led to a revolution in aerodynamic thinking that went on to encompass all of Formula 1.
While Sir Isaac Newton wouldn't recognise modern aerodynamics, the motorsport we know and love has its roots in his 17th century brain. For that reason alone, we should love him.
Kate Walker is F1 Editor of girlracer and Assistant Editor of GP Week. Follow her on Twitter @F1Kate, or read more of her writing at www.f1katewalker.com.