F1 races on a variety of circuits, some like Monaco are tight and twisty, and the speeds are comparatively low. Others have longer straights, and the speed gained on these straights can outweigh the lap time lost in the corners when the car is in a low downforce (and hence low drag) configuration. The recent race at Baku, with its long start / finish straight is one such circuit, and teams introduced low drag rear wings that may only be used on one or two other circuits. Although Valtteri Bottas recorded a speed of over 370 km/h in 2016 thanks to slipstreaming cars in qualifying, no-one managed to reach those speeds this year, the fastest this year was recorded in the race being Daniel Ricciardo at 344.4 km/h.
In the earlier days of the championship, the variety of circuits was perhaps far greater, Reims for example was an 8.3km long circuit which is usually described as triangular, and comprised some very long straights and two tight hairpin bends. In the 1950s this prompted some manufacturers to develop streamlined bodies for their cars, and several cars were raced with bodies that covered the wheels. Juan Manuel Fangio didn’t like the Mercedes streamlined body, and after hitting the oil drums used to mark out the corners at Silverstone, he preferred to race with the open wheel version of the same car, as he could place it better on the track.
By the end of the front-engined era, streamlined bodies were banned from F1. Colin Chapman instead mounted the engine at an angle, so that the driveshaft passed beside the driver rather than under his seat, the result was a lower driving position and a smaller frontal area for the Lotus 16. When he went to rear-engined cars, the driving position was even lower, which allowed an even smaller frontal area. These changes were not specific to the faster circuits though, and produced a benefit at every circuit. It wasn’t until Chapman copied the idea of wings from the Chaparral sports-car team that high and low drag set-ups came back into Formula 1.
With the introduction of wings into the sport, the tyres grew in size as the added downforce allowed the wider tyres to be sufficiently loaded that they became an advantage. This also created drag, and in 1976 Tyrrell began racing its P34, a six wheeled car with four small 10” diameter front wheels. The idea was that the four smaller wheels would give the same grip as the conventional front wheels that other cars were using, but have less drag. The car worked, and won the Swedish Grand Prix that year. However advances in the standard tyres that weren’t matched by the smaller front tyres provided only to Tyrrell left the car increasingly uncompetitive in 1977, and the concept was dropped by the end of the year. Other constructors (Williams and March) looked at using four wheels at the rear (but with front tyres on them) to achieve the drag reduction, however the FIA banned six wheel cars before they could be raced. Ferrari also build a six wheel car, but used all four wheels on the same axle, much like a 1930s hill climb car, to gain added traction. This was also affected by the ban on cars with more than four wheels.
In 1986, the Brabham team introduced the BT55, this use an in-line four cylinder BMW engine, compared to the V6s that were used by many of its competitors. To package this tall engine, Gordon Murray tilted the engine so that it was nearly horizontal (18° away) and re-introduced the lay down driving position that had been common in the 1960s. This allowed a much clearer flow of air to the rear wing. While the concept was not particularly successful for Brabham, it proved to be very effective for the MP4/4 which was the next F1 car that Murray had an influence over (there is a disagreement between Murray and Steve Nichols over who designed it).
In 1996 Tyrrell had fallen a long way from their championship and race winning beginnings. They could only afford an underpowered Yamaha engine, and so for the fastest circuit of the time, Hockenheim (at that time still with its long straights through the forest), they put front wheels on the rear of the car. These were narrower and reduced the drag, however the tyre supplier Goodyear told the FIA after practice that the tyres were not up to putting the power down and the concept was banned. Further innovation came from the team in Monza, when they ran a solid top wishbone on their front suspension in order to reduce drag. The FIA banned it for being a moveable aerodynamic device.
In 2009, Force India designed their car around a very low drag set-up. This enabled them to be the fastest through the speed traps at most circuits, but they were slow through the corners. However at the two fastest circuits on the calendar (Spa and Monza) it allowed them to have much better results, and they scored points (and a podium at Spa).
The most extreme example occurred in 2006 when Honda engineers wanted to show that a ‘virtually standard’ F1 car could achieve 400km/h. They took the 2005 car as raced by Jenson Button and Takuma Sato and removed the rear wing (replacing it with a central vertical rudder for stability) and changed the gearing. After a test run at the Mojave Desert that showed a 413.205km/h top speed it was taken to the measured mile at Bonneville Salt Flats. Needing a five mile run up to avoid wheel spin on the low grip surface, the car recorded a one way speed of 400.454km/h, however the return leg was slower, so the record stands at 397.360km/h.