Why active aero is part of the 2026 F1 regulations

The FIA has released its outline of the 2026 Formula 1 technical regulations, and a central component is the introduction of active aerodynamics.

As part of the new rules, cars will have a three-element active rear wing, with the beam wing removed and simplified end plates, coupled with a two-element active front wing. Those will work in tandem to allow teams to run their cars in two different specifications throughout a lap, with the high downforce setting known as Z-mode for cornering, changing to a low drag X-mode on straights.

Although the power unit regulations have been simplified with the removal of the MGU-H, the added reliance on the MGU-K — almost tripled to 350kW and now delivering nearly 50% of the overall power — means drag has a bigger impact on energy usage.


FIA head of aerodynamics Jason Somerville explains why the solution was active aero, and why it has taken nearly two years since the power unit regulations were confirmed for the technical rules to follow.

“One of the aspects of the 2026 power unit is the greater reliance on electrical energy,” Somerville says. “If you were to drop the 2026 power unit into a current car, given the underlying drag level, the energy required to push the car through the air is rather high, and that wouldn’t be very well aligned with the characteristics of the power unit. We would end up with a severe drop-off in speed on the typical main straights.

“So, the focus for 2026 aerodynamically has been to reduce the base level of drag of the car, while trying to maintain a good level of downforce in the corners, and that’s led us towards active aerodynamics.”

The initial exploratory work for an active aero approach focused on a version of DRS that could be consistently used on every straight, but then the FIA found that the amount of drag reduction that was required had a bigger impact on the overall handling of the car.

“One of the main changes for 2026 aerodynamically hinges on reducing the drag from the rear wing. In order to reduce the overall drag, we have an active portion of the rear wing — akin to the DRS system that we currently have, although with more moving elements — which move to a greater degree.

“From our simulation work with the teams and their drivers, as soon as you have a rear wing that moves to reach the target drag level, it was clear that you needed to have an active front wing to match the balance characteristics.

“There were certain conditions where the drivers didn’t feel comfortable with a large forward aero balance, meaning lots of downforce on the front and not much downforce on the rear. So that led us towards the need to have an active front wing, as well as an active rear wing.”

But Somerville insists the new regulations that have been released are not solely shaped by issues with the power unit characteristics. As with the 2022 rules change, the primary focus was on trying to make cars even more conducive to close racing and being able to follow each other despite high levels of performance.

“The main goal of the 2026 aero rules is really to focus on re-establishing following car performance,” he said. “We want great racing; we want to ensure that the cars can race closely so the 2026 rules are an opportunity for us to reset the baseline level of the car so that they can race well together.

“And we also aim to make sure that the aerodynamics package is closely working with the power unit. Clearly the 2026 power unit has different characteristics, with a greater electrical component and as the heart of the car, we really needed to make sure that the aerodynamics complement that power unit.

“We believe [we’ve got it right], but time will tell! Because of the lead-times needed to design and produce a new power unit, the regulations for the power unit were defined first. And then the technical regulations for the aerodynamics evolved afterwards — that’s really where we are now.

“We’re just at the phase where we’ve finished the broad outline of the technical regulations for 2026, covering the aerodynamics, and over the next few months, we will refine them so that they are ready for the teams to commence their wind tunnel and CFD development work in January 2025.”

Although active aero is a new addition as such a central aspect to the regulations, there was provision for an active front wing in 2009 so the FIA has experience of the concept. And when teams do get to begin the aerodynamic development, the FIA’s single seater technical director Jan Monchaux believes it both opens F1 up to technology already in use on many road cars, as well as providing a new engineering challenge to tackle.

“Our industry has decided to make quite a severe change of direction to try to align itself a little bit more with the world we’re living in in 2024,” Monchaux said. “And as an engineer, I find that after 20 years I’m happy to see we are capable of opening up ourselves to active aerodynamics, even if it will be regulated and limited.

“Every high-end premium car has active aero on the road and I think nowadays, thanks to technology, we are in a far better position than maybe 30 or 40 years ago to develop these systems in a safe and reliable manner.

“I’m glad that we are going to have tools that help to solve quite a few challenges engineers, especially aerodynamicists, are currently facing. Being able to decouple your straight-line performance from cornering performance, I think it’s going to be a very interesting, interesting journey.

“So I’m proud of the work that the team at the FIA, supported by the input of the F1 teams, has done and I’m very excited to see how the cars will look and how they will perform in 2026.”

Story originally appeared on Racer