What does the Brabham BT62, Lotus Evija, and Pininfarina Battista have in common? Nothing, if you can tell them apart. Line all three side-by-side and any casual observer will likely mistake them as the work of the same carmaker, or even mere variants of the same model.
More compelling is the fact that all three, which came out within the span of 18 months, hail from different countries. And not to mention, different backgrounds – two of which are the end products of former Formula One manufacturers and the other by Italy preeminent automotive design house.
If there is a common trait to be had between the three, it is to be found in the Evija’s design, which Lotus’ Design Director, Russell Carr, says takes after the aerodynamic principles employed by Le Mans racers. Interestingly enough, while Brabham doesn’t definitively state where the BT62 got it looks from, the company boss does mention that it was designed with the intent of going racing.
There are similar hints of aerodynamic influence in the Battista’s design as well. As expected, Pininfarina’s talks voluminously about its beauty, though to the average layperson it doesn’t take much squinting to draw the similarities between it and the Ferrari 488, an evolution of Pininfarina’s 458 design. According to Ferrari, the 458’s styling wasn’t just purely the work of stylists, rather it was “heavily influenced by the requirements for aerodynamic efficiency”.
From the shaping of forms that slice its way through the air to the use of fins to influence the flow of air to the car’s benefit, the quest to control the behaviour of air has changed by leaps and bounds since the idea was first mooted in the 1920s.
Despite all the progress and developments in aerodynamics over the greater part of the 20th-century, the sum total of knowledge was as encyclopaedic as the alchemy of the dark ages. All we knew was that smooth shapes helped you go fast, then upside-down wings kept you stuck to the ground, and that was pretty much it.
It was through the advent of computer-aided design that really allowed aerodynamicists the sort of minute insight with the mysteries of the unseen that was only previously perceptible to the atoms and God himself.
Gone was the need for costly trips to the wind tunnel and tossing enough shapes to the wind to see what sticks, both figuratively and metaphorically. So too was much of the guesswork as aerodynamicists could now fine-tune their designs to the nth degree.
However as the body of knowledge grew, it became increasingly clear that the flow of the air would only allow for so much expressive freedom in design. As manufacturers look to improve both emissions for legislative requirements and establish a distinguishable “design identity”, designers and engineers find themselves having to strike an increasingly precarious balancing act between art and engineering.
Of course, this would be a challenge for carmakers that have a concrete design language to adhere to. Though if one were to start from a clean sheet design, with no obligation to pay respects to the glories of the past, then it would be only logical that form follows function to extract the most performance benefits. As demonstrated with the three supercar newcomers, its greater reliance on aerodynamics as a pivotal aspect of its performance, its surface no longer serves as a canvas, but prime real estate to redirect the flow of the air for its own advantage.
It isn’t as though Brabham, Lotus, and Pininfarina are the only ones putting the need for aerodynamic performance over artistic pursuits, because if we are honest, no other brand has embodied this obsession for aerodynamic optimisation better than Ferrari.
Italy’s Prancing Horse might be one of the most storied supercar makers in the business with a legacy of road and track legends. Though strangely, one glance at its current line-up and you’d notice that it shares little in the way of exterior design themes aside from the odd tribute to a famed past model.
For such a famous brand, there doesn’t seem to be a shared design language besides brutal aerodynamic efficiency as evident in its adoption of trick aerodynamic aids from flying buttresses to flexible winglets. Then again, why limit a product line-up to a constricting design template when the average man on the street will mistake any red sports car for a Ferrari anyway.
If the three new supercar players are any indication, Ferrari may not be an exception to the rule of 21st-century supercar design but rather a sign of things to come. With an ever-increasing obsession towards lap times, aerodynamics has become a relatively cost-effective avenue for engineers to net positive returns. None exemplifies this paradigm shift better than Lamborghini, which wasn’t in the lap record game until their revolutionary Aerodinamica Lamborghini Attiva active hollow wing concept came about.
Just as how fashion and prevailing tastes had always exerted an influence on the design of supercars, science will become the new art form from which the supercar genre will shape itself around. And considering how computers have cracked open the Pandora’s Box, it is unlikely that we will ever put it back in again.