The "sucker car" concept returns after nearly four decades

First shown to the public in concept form in 1996, the Ariel became a production model in the 2000s and has spawned several variants since then. The latest to hit the street was the Atom 3S in 2014, but that’s not to say that Ariel has been resting on its laurels since then. Come September 2016, and the British company introduced its most revolutionary concept to date. Called the Aero-P, the Atom you’re looking at lacks the car’s familiar rear wing. That’s because Ariel fitted this prototype with two high-speed fans underneath, which minimize drag while producing downforce from a standstill.

Still a work in progress in cooperation with TotalSim and Delta Motorsport, the Aero-P, which is short for Aerodynamic Efficiency Requirements & Optimisation Project, aims to solve the negative aspects of conventional aerodynamic devices. Specifically, while splitters, winglets, and big rear wings provide subtantial downforce, it is only available at slow speeds and the drag that comes with the extra downforce at high speeds reduces top speed and has a negative effect on fuel consumption.

For the Aero-P, Ariel ditched the conventional rear wing and installed two small and lightweight fans underneath, as well as added moulding and rubber skirts to the bottom of the tub. The idea is for the fans to suck the car to the ground in order to provide extra downforce and increase acceleration and cornering speed, among other factors. According to the company, the test car makes about three times the downforce of the regular Ariel Atom, with plenty of room for improvement.

“When the system is turned on the car visibly squats on the ground so you can see it working, which is pretty exciting,” said Simon Saunders, director of Ariel. “We’re already making about three times the downforce as aerofoils, but this really is just the first step and a very early stage in what is a large and complex project to bring to a production reality, so we have a lot more work to do.”

Although spectacular at first glance, the idea behind the Aero-P isn’t exactly new. Keep reading to find out where Ariel took inspiration of this concept.

Continue reading for the full story.

Further Thinking

Ariel Trades a Rear Wing for Underbody Fans on Aero-P Atom High Resolution Exterior
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The technology was pioneered by race car builder Jim Hall, who invented it for the Chaparral 2J in the late 1960s. The Can-Am race car was fitted with two fans powered by a small snowmobile engine, while the side skirts were sealed off in order for the car to be sucked to the ground. The improvements versus traditional aerodynamics were remarkable, with the 2J being more than one second quicker than anything else during Can-Am qualifying and impossible to trail during races. Unfortunately, the car was plagued with mechanical problems and failed to win races, but despite that, McLaren, the then-dominant force in Can-Am, pressured the series to ban the technology.

The fans returned in 1978, this time in Formula One. After Lotus started meddling with ground effects in 1977, Gordon Murray conceived the Brabham BT46 with a massive fan under its rear wing. Much like the 2J, the BT46 was significantly quicker than its competitors and went on to win its first official race with Niki Lauda behind the wheel. But its success also brought it a ban from the FIA, after rival teams complained about the fan throwing debris from the track in front of cars that followed behind. The BT46 wasn’t allowed to race another event and the "sucker car" disappeared forever from the race track.

Ariel Trades a Rear Wing for Underbody Fans on Aero-P Atom High Resolution Exterior
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Ariel admits the Aero-P was inspired by both the 2J and BT46, but says it wants to take things up a notch by combining the downforce obtained from the fan with technology that will improve fuel economy and reduce CO2 emissions. The Brits are even considering a hybrid drivetrain since the fans already require a battery pack. However, the prototype is still in its infancy, and other than the tremendous improvements over the winged car, Ariel didn’t have much additional information to provide.

There are no plans to develop a streetable, production Atom based on this test car, but Ariel says that the technology could "trickle down from high-performance vehicles to conventional passenger cars over time." This will be extremely challenging though, as the rubber skirts are only a few millimeters above the ground and it might not be able to deal with rocks and speed bumps.

Source: Ariel

Press Release

The aims of AERO-P were to minimise aerodynamic drag with innovative aero concepts, in order to reduce comparative CO2 emissions, while at the same time improving vehicle stability and safety. Using both passive and active aerodynamic solutions the project also looks at cooling and airflow management requirements on electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as conventional ICE cars, in order to maximise vehicle efficiency and performance. Although much of the project is still in development and remains confidential, an interesting demonstrable output already is the Atom test car giving downforce at any speed, including standstill.

Said Simon Saunders, Director of Ariel, “Although it’s a large and complex project, covering a lot of areas, performance is core to us. We’re moving towards the point where traction and therefore acceleration, particularly from standstill, are limited by mechanical grip so were trying to come up with ways of overcoming this. One of our targets was to minimise or remove the need for aerofoils and have ‘downforce when stationary’. Inspiration came from banned racing cars of the past, so there’s a big nod from us to Jim Hall’s 1970 Chaparral 2J Sucker Car and the Gordon Murray Brabham BT46B Fan Car of 1978. The Atom test car has been already been nicknamed The Vacuum Cleaner and hopefully it follows in the tradition of these two great cars.”

Conventional aerofoils and aerodynamic devices give downforce at speed – the higher the speed, the higher the downforce. However the negative aspect of this is that downforce is not required for most of the time, particularly for road based cars during normal driving, and is not available at slow speed or when stationary. The ensuing drag of fixed aerofoils also not only reduces a vehicle’s top speed but has a marked negative effect on its fuel consumption as well as emissions. On the Atom drag can be increased by as much as 15% by adding conventional aerofoils with the resultant effect on fuel use and tailpipe emissions.

On the AERO-P Atom there are no aerofoils so drag is not increased, adding to the efficiency of the car as well as top speed. The downforce generated by the system not only improves cornering ability but also braking for track use and in emergencies, increasing performance while improving stability and safety.

Powered by two small, lightweight, high speed fans the Atom test car has an additional moulding and rubber skirts added to the bottom of the tub as well as ducting and a standalone battery pack. The ability to spin up the fans very quickly allows the system to be turned on and off when required, whether under acceleration, cornering or braking, either manually or automatically. Fans are therefore only running when there is a need and for brief amounts of time, for instance from start, when cornering or under braking. When not required at cruise and high speed conditions the system remains in stand-by, improving vehicle range and reducing CO2 emissions.

The Atom AERO-P demonstrator is just an initial mule test bed and doesn’t represent the production possibilities of the system which will be the result of further testing and development. The scope of the project also takes in wider passive aerodynamic design and the particular requirements of new technology power trains, not yet released and still under development.

“When the system is turned on the car visibly squats on the ground so you can see it working, which is pretty exciting,” said Simon Saunders, “We’re already making about three times the downforce as aerofoils, but this really is just the first step and a very early stage in what is a large and complex project to bring to a production reality, so we have a lot more work to do.”

The aerodynamic development was carried out utilising CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) by TotalSim, based in Brackley. From their original roots in Formula 1 TotalSim are now world leaders in aerodynamics and fluid flow problem solving working on all types of motorsport and volume production vehicles. Said Rob Lewis, Director of TotalSim, “CFD allows us to rapidly and cost effectively test different aerodynamic configurations, reducing the need for physical testing. The ability to create significant downforce at zero speed is very exciting.”

Simulated performance times and bench testing of AERO-P prototypes at full size were carried out by Delta Motorsport, based at Silverstone. With a background in technology transfer from motorsport, Delta’s multi discipline skills have seen them rise to the forefront of UK engineering consultancy and advanced technology projects. Nick Carpenter, Engineering Director of Delta Motorsport said, “We love working with creative, lateral-thinking businesses such as Ariel and TotalSim, coming up with – and then implementing – novel solutions to tricky problems. As with many of the projects we’re working on today, we see the trickle down from high-performance vehicles to conventional passenger cars over time, so it’s great to be ahead of the curve with these new technologies.”

The project was supported by Innovate UK via the Niche Vehicle Network and their annual R&D Competition. The AERO-P Atom will be on the Niche Vehicle Network stand on 14 & 15 September at Millbrook Proving Ground, Bedfordshire.

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