Fighter Planes vs Racecars: same tech, same physical laws, same charm

Hands On Throttle And Stick, Variable Geometry Intakes, Movable Ailerons and Wings, Boundary Layer Control, etc. are only but few technologies common to Military Aviation and Formula One.

Aerodynamics is also the same, even if it is applied in reverse: while airfoils of cars’ surfaces are used to create a downforce needed to push the tyres onto the track, wings’ surfaces have to generate lift to sustain the aircraft’s weight. Everything is ruled by a simple physical principle: by having to travel different distances over the same time along the contours of an airfoil, air flow generates a difference in pressure: where distance is greater, speed has to be higher and pressure will be lower. As pressure tries to balance, a force in the direction of low pressure is generated. A modern F1 car is capable of developing +3.5 G lateral cornering accelaration while an aircraft can produce +9 G vertical accelerations.

However, not only technical things make the two worlds so similar:  both are based on teamwork, beyond the envelope research and endless practice and the “communion” is often sanctioned by the use of the same symbols. For instance, the famous symbol of Scuderia Ferrari, the black Prancing Horse, is the emblem that  the Italian WWI ace Francesco Baracca used on his planes and that it is currently used by many Italian Air Force units as the 4° Stormo.

Races between fighter planes and Formula One cars or Motorbikes have been organized too. One of the most famous ones took place on Dec. 11, 2003, at Grosseto airport, where the Ferrari F2003-GA piloted by six times world champion Michael Schumacher challenged the Eurofighter Typhoon flown by the astronaut (and former Italian Air Force test pilot) Maurizio Cheli.

The race between Schumacher’s Ferrari and the Eurofighter was not the first of its kind. The previous and most famous precedent dates back to 1981 when Gilles Villeneuve and other Formula 1 drivers, competed on the Istrana runways against the 51° Stormo’s F-104s. The race ended with a clear victory of the four wheels due to the fog that forced the airplanes to take off weighted down by extra tip and pylon tanks.

This event is still engraved in the memory of aviation and motoring enthusiasts and contributed to the Italian Air Force’s decision to present Ferrari with F-104G MM.6546/4-47, painted red overall with the team’s badge on the air intakes and re-coded 4-27 to represent the 4° Stormo (“4”) and the race number of the late Villeneuve’s Ferrari 126 CK Turbo (“27”). The fighter is still on display at the Fiorano course.

[Read also The Pagani Zonda Tricolore and the MV Agusta F4: the guest stars of the Rivolto airshow]

Dealing with motorbikes, in 2003, an Italian AF F-104 was painted with the red, white and black colors of the 10° Gruppo and boasted a flashy “999”  in homage to the 9° Stormo and to celebrate the twinning with the Ducati. The “999” is in fact a famous motorbike model of the Italian Racing Team which sports a similar colour scheme to the one devised for the special Starfighter. The special coloured aircraft was involved in a speed race against a Ducati 999 held in Grazzanise on Oct. 14, 2004.

[Read also the Lotus “Evora” S of the Italian Police on display at the Italian Armed Forces Day]

The following gallery cointains a small collection of images taken during races between fighter planes and racecars or during Open Days, air shows, public events and shootings during which cars or motorbikes (even in special colour schemes) were presented next to an airplane. Some are famous photographs released by companies and manufacturers during marketing campaigns while others were provided by the fighter pilots involved in the photo sessions. There are also pictures of historical automobiles owned by fighter squadrons and an image of the U-2 chase car.

Many come from the archives of the following reporters: Alessandro Palantrani, Luca La Cavera, Maurizio Moreale, Michele Carrara and Raffaele Fusilli.

Image sources: Alessandro Palantrani, Luca La Cavera, Maurizio Moreale, Michele Carrara, Raffaele Fusilli, Pagani, Alitalia, US Air Force, Italian Air Force, 4° Stormo, 6° Stormo, 23° Gruppo, Internet.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. Thank you, David. Quite a few years ago, a match race was laid on between a Grumman F-14A “Tomcat” and a AA fuel dragster. Conventional Wisdom gave the win to the drag racer but, to the astonishment of many, the “Tomcat” edged out the race car. Even though the aircraft enjoyed quite a boost from the US Navy’s only land-based catapult, the very idea of the 60,000 pound plus fighter plane getting moving that quickly in that short a space in competion with a 1500 pound highly specialized race car seemed impossible, but it happened!! Joseph Volpendesta

  2. Racecars tend to get some technology from aviation, although perhaps not the parts many might suspect. For instance, while racecars have borrowed airfoils from aircraft, these days, airfoils tend to be developed specifically for race cars since the conditions are quite different from an aircraft (due to ground effects, the short wingspan for instance). The hydraulic system you find in a F1 car on the other hand is more or less directly derived from aircraft systems. The first carbon monocoque was also developed by an aerospace company, Hercules Aerospace. A company that make fuel systems for aircraft also used to make the refueling rigs and their couplings previously used in F1. The friction material used in brakes and clutches is also borrowed from aircraft; reinforced carbon carbon (not to be confused with the carbon brakes that are optional on some high end sportscars). The fuel tanks found in F1 and many other racing cars are made by a company that also makes fuel tanks for aerospace and military applications.

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