The night race is a relatively new phenomenon in F1 history. The first of its kind was at Singapore’s Marina Bay circuit in 2008. But as the sport has grown in the modern era, they’ve become much more common. Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and the upcoming debut for F1 in Las Vegas later this year are all night races too. But how do these night races affect how an F1 car runs, and what about them makes them go faster at night?
One of the ways that help F1 cars in night races is temperature. Night races generally have cooler air temperatures than in the mid-afternoon when races usually run. When the air is cooler, engines run cooler and slightly better. It’s easier to maintain the cooling elements of the car like radiators. The tyres produce more grip and don’t overheat as easily, which may allow a driver to use them more aggressively. And cooler cars produce more downforce, which means more grip and hence, more speed through the corners.
But one of the ways that may surprise you as to how a night race might make a car quicker, is in the balance of the car itself.
One of the biggest technical stories in F1 in the last 18 months has been the porpoising effect the cars have had, bouncing at high speeds. An element that can affect the level of porpoising, is the ride height of the cars and how much they sit above the ground. Ideally, an F1 team wants to have its ride height as low as it can afford to have.
A lower car generally produces more downforce, but also adds risk as to how the car handles bumps and the airflow underneath the cars, meaning a greater chance of the car becoming unsettled. Something we saw Mercedes suffer a lot in the first half of last season when their car was porpoising the most of anyone in the field.
When the air is hotter during the daytime, that disruptive effect kicks in sooner, so a team is likely to raise the height of their car to compensate for that. That means the car’s producing less downforce, and is slower. So when an F1 race is at night, and the air is cooler, the airflow is also smoother, so a team can run their car lower to the ground, produce more downforce, and hopefully, be quicker over the course of a race. It’s also why we tend to see a bigger jump in lap times between sessions during these night races compared to conventional grands prix.
In essence, teams have more options as to what ride heights to set their car at when an F1 race is at night. It’s also why the teams pushed to have pre-season testing in Bahrain with the resources for night running, over Catalunya, where the hotter daytime air and inability to run at night limits what a team can test and where it might be harder for a team to solve a balance problem with their car.
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