Pressurisation to productivity: clearing the smoke in F1 wind tunnels

Posted by Laurence Cockman on 11/09/20 13:30

Colt-Pressurisation-SystemPlanes, trains, speedboats, racing bikes and Formula 1 cars might not have been what they are today if it wasn’t for a key technological advancement - wind tunnels.

Wind tunnels are used by engineers to test the aerodynamics of an object. This allows them to determine how they can be made faster, more reliable and ultimately safer.

A number of factors are taken into account when aerodynamicists test vehicles. One of the observations they make involves utilising flow visualisation techniques. This often involves filling the test environment with artificial smoke, and watching how air moves around the vehicle.

In this post, we share how we applied our experience and expertise in smoke ventilation pressurisation systems to improve the productivity and the comfort of the engineers in a wind tunnel facility in the UK, owned by a leading Formula 1 racing team and constructor.

Applying our knowledge of pressurisation systems to clear the smoke

In high-rise buildings, one way to protect the stairwell from the ingress of smoke is to pressurise the stairs.

This can be achieved by installing a pressurisation system. These consist of three main components:

  1. Supply Air- injecting air into the area that is to be protected
  2. Pressure Relief-to avoid overpressurisation when doors are closed
  3. Air Release - air and smoke is released from the adjoining fire area

Combining these three elements produces a positive pressure difference that prevents lobbies and staircases from filling up with smoke.

This system protects the escape routes, allowing occupants to escape whilst also protecting the fire-fighting shafts.

In the wind tunnel facility, the engineers would enter a control room with a viewing window adjacent to the wind tunnel.

During tests, all personnel would leave the tunnel and go into the control room through the interconnecting doors.

As part of the tests to determine the aerodynamics of the cars an oil-based artificial smoke would be used. The smoke provides flow visualisation so that engineers can see how air is moving around the test car.

Once tests are over, and when doors are open again, the smoke transfers into the control room, which is undesirable, as they have to wait for the smoke to clear before they can run another test.

Given the fact that under the FIA regulations, only a certain amount of hours can be allocated to testing, this lag between tests was having a negative impact on productivity.

Our engineers applied their knowledge of smoke ventilation pressurisation systems to resolve this issue.

We installed a pressurisation system into the control room. This meant that whilst the tunnel is active and doors are closed, a positive pressure differential is maintained between the control room and the tunnel.

This prevents smoke from migrating into the room. Furthermore, it means that when the doors are open, there is an increase in speed to create a velocity through the open door to prevent smoke from transferring into the control room.

The system is very effective. In operation, it prevents 100% of smoke transferring into the control room, whilst aiding smoke clearance into the tunnel.

As a result of setting up this system and installing an air handling unit into the ceiling, a differential pressure sensor, ductwork and a weatherproof roof cowl, the engineers are able to get more done in the allotted time and reach their limits.

Providing a better working environment for the engineers

It is always important to consider how the installation of a ventilation system will impact workers. As part of the pressurisation system, air will be injected into the internal environment. During the wintertime, injecting this air into the work environment would make it too cold and unpleasant for the workers.

Therefore, the system includes a heater battery to warm up the air on colder days.


Smoke tracing is often employed in wind tunnels to understand how the air flows over surfaces, be they buildings, aircraft or cars, especially formula 1 cars.

Unfortunately, smoke has a habit of travelling where you don’t want it too, in this case, the control room when staff entered the adjacent wind tunnel to set up the next test making the control room unpleasant.

Our experience gained from pressurisation systems installed in high rise buildings and protected fire-fighting shafts was transferred to this problem enabling Colt engineers to provide a dynamic ventilation solution to keep the smoke under control.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post! If you have any questions or would like to discuss a project, do not hesitate to get in touch with us.

If your building is too hot or too cold, if your process gives off fume or moisture, if your product requires specific conditions during its manufacture or storage, or if noise is a concern, then we may be able to help you.

We can survey your building using a range of techniques and equipment to identify your problem. Once established, we can then recommend a solution based on proven design work.  

Request a no obligation consultation with one of our technical experts

Laurence CockmanLaurence Cockman is a Technical Manager for Colt UK Climate Control Division and specialises in the design and product application of energy efficient HVAC systems.

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Topics: Climate Control