F1 2026 regulations: What are active aerodynamics?

Active aero was last seen in the 1990s but from 2026 it will be back in force to help combat drag issues...

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Formula 1 will introduce its biggest regulations shake-up in over a decade from 2026 and one of the key components is the use of active aerodynamics which returns to the sport after being banned for 30 years, but what is it, how does it work and how will it impact the next-gen cars?

Active aerodynamics are the use of movable parts on the car with the aim of improving or reducing the effect of a particular trait found in the sport such as dirty air or drag. For example, despite not being counted as active aerodynamics, the use of DRS to reduce drag from 2011.

After some flirting with the technology throughout previous decades of F1 cars, active aerodynamics were introduced in the 1990s when teams figured out they could automatically adjust the ride height of their cars through corners to retain a stable platform. Then came anti-lock brakes and traction control before driver aids were banned in 1994, although traction control was reintroduced between 2001-2008.

Reder of the 2026 Formula 1 car after regulation changes | FIA
Render of the 2026 Formula 1 car after regulation changes | FIA

Now it’s finally back in full as the front and rear wings of the 2026 cars will contain moving parts, allowing the drivers to choose between Z and X set-up modes around the lap. X-mode will be low drag for the straights, whilst Z-mode will be at the downforce level the driver and team would prefer through the corners, with the ultimate aim being closer racing and more overtaking.

It works by the front-wing and rear-wings having special movable elements, with the front-wing having two movable parts whilst the rear-wing will possess three of them to allow the innovative idea to come into fruition.

Hopefully that means the end of the “DRS train” effect that has caused significant problems at circuits such as the Autodromo Nazionale Monza during the Italian Grand Prix or the 2023 Azerbaijan GP in Baku, where Esteban Ocon managed to hold off cars with huge tyre advantages due to his straight-line speed and the dirty air effect impacting the cars behind.

How does Adrian Newey feel about active aero?

As the sport’s most legendary designer and someone who was around the last time F1 teams decided to tinker around with active aerodynamics, Adrian Newey is perhaps best-placed to comment on the technology, especially now he’s free from PR obligations after quitting Red Bull Racing

But the man who will be free to join a new team from 2025, when teams can start working on the aerodynamics in anticipation of the next generation of F1, doesn’t seem to be very fond of the new rules and appeared to suggest they’re a means to the end after the FIA overcommitted on the engine front.

Reder of the 2026 Formula 1 car after regulation changes | FIA
Render of the 2026 Formula 1 car after regulation changes | FIA

“It’s certainly going to be a strange formula in as much as the engines will be working flat-chat as generators just about the whole time,” Newey told Motorsport.com in April. “So, the prospect of the engine working hard in the middle of Loews hairpin is going to take some getting used to.

“It is fair to say that the engine regulations were created and pushed through without very much thought to the chassis side of it and that is now creating quite large problems in terms of trying to come up with a solution to work with it.

“But I think the one good thing is that it does promote efficiency. And I think anything that does that, and promotes that, has to be in line with what I said earlier: of trying to use F1 to popularise a trend.”

Brandon Sutton
Brandon Sutton
Brandon is an alumni of an NCTJ and BJTC Liverpool John Moores University course, and has been with Total-Motorsport.com for over a year now. He enjoys covering all forms of motorsport but particularly focuses on Formula 1, and Brandon loves to debate various topics of the sport and other interests, especially if that topic doesn't have an open/shut answer such as the GOAT debate.
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