The technology behind an F1 car

November 16, 2017

- Grant Whittington

Have you ever looked at a Formula One car and wondered how on earth they function?

If so, you’re not alone, as the advanced technology and innovation that underpins these vehicles has to be seen to be believed.

From their raw speed to the incredible aerodynamic performance that defines the best Formula One constructors, the technology behind F1 cars is fascinating enough to engage even those who don’t follow the sport.

In fact, explaining this technology is far harder than appreciating it, which is why we’ve put together this brief guide to help you get to grips with the functionality of F1 cars. So, without any further disruption, let’s get started!

Starting with the engine – What drives F1 cars?

We thought we’d begin with the basics, and more specifically the typical engine type that you find in an F1 car. Clearly, this is one of the components that set Formula One vehicles apart from regular cars, even though constructors are now compelled to use more Eco-friendly engines.

Prior to 2014, F1 cars deployed 2.4 litre, v8 engines, which delivered up to 18,000 rpm and consumed an average of 450 litres of air per second. Over the course of a typical Grand Prix, this equated to a consumption level of around 75 litres per 100 kilometres.

During the last three years, constructors have integrated v6 hybrid engines, with Renault Sport one of the first constructors to embrace this technology. Boasting 760 horsepower and 1.6 litre capacity, this engine type combines traditional fuel with an electric motor to devastating effect (while also minimising harmful emissions from vehicles).

Make no mistake; the engine is the single most stressed component of an F1 car. This is why teams can use up to eight engines per season (or one every two races, depending on the length of the campaign), as otherwise vehicles would barely be able to function for one that a month.

We can’t talk about the typical F1 engine without also considering the gearbox, of course, as these two components work hand-in-hand to optimise performance and execute transitions during a race. Sequential and semi-automatic, F1 gearboxes are extremely sensitive and don’t require drivers to lift off the accelerator when switching up through the individual gears. They contain a total of seven gears, which can be activated simply by flicking a small paddle that sits behind the steering wheel in the drivers’ cabin.

Teams tend to modify gearbox rations at different circuits to ensure the optimal performance from their engines, placing a considerable strain on gearboxes as a result. These are typically changed every four races, depending on the rations used during that period of time.

Now for Aerodynamics – Holding the key to every successful F1 cartoon-like

Now we come to aerodynamics, which represent the heartbeat of modern F1 cars and truly elevate the Formula One driving experience. Remember, today’s team spend millions on refining and enhancing the aerodynamics of individual vehicles, as they strive to provide adequate downforce while enabling cars to take corners quickly with minimal drag (optimising both performance and safety in the process).

In simple terms, the aerodynamics of an F1 car are similar to that of an aeroplane, with the only difference being that they function in reverse. While an aircraft’s wings are specifically designed to provide lift, the same, front features on an F1 car create downforce so that they remain grounded. The leading F1 cars can generate around 3.5 g of lateral cornering force, which theoretically makes vehicles capable of becoming airborne and being driven when upside down.

Aside from the wings, all vehicle components are optimised in terms of their aerodynamic performance, to create a seamless ride and enhance the air flow than runs throughout each car. If even a single component is overlooked in this respect, drivers will encounter turbulence, drag and may ultimately find that the car is incapable of reaching its top speed.

Like the gearbox, it’s interesting to note that the Aerodynamic profile of an F1 car can be amended depending on the track that it’s set to perform on. Constructors often utilise maximum-sized wings during the Monaco Grand Prix, for example, as the lack of long, fast straights at Monte Carlo mean the car will not suffer as a result of the additional drag. Conversely, relatively straight tracks like Monza in Italy demand minimal wings that reduce drags, so that drivers can maximise their speed for as much of the race as possible.

Considering tyres and fuel – How even the smaller details make a big difference

When it comes to determining success and failure, tyres are arguably the single most important component of an F1 car. Thanks to the high degradation and diversity of modern tyres (and particularly Pirelli branded products), this seemingly small detail can have a huge impact on performance and a constructor’s choice of tyres can be pivotal from a strategic perspective.

F1 tyres function in an interesting way too, with the grip predominantly reliant on an internal change in chemical composition in relation to temperature. If tyres overheat or are unable to reach their optimal temperature (due to constructors choosing a tyre that doesn’t suit the track), they’ll provide less grip and pose a huge challenge to drivers.

In general terms, F1 tyres are manufactured using a number of heavy, steel-belted radial plies and exceptionally soft rubber compounds. The grip capacity of even high grade tyres will only last for up to 200 kilometres on average, although constructors can at least control and alter pressure levels thanks to the inclusion of nitrogen-rich air.

Perhaps the least fascinating component of an F1 car is the fuel that it uses, as this is very similar to that utilised by regular vehicles. The major difference is that constructors will often form different fuel blends in an attempt to secure a competitive advantage and maximise their power output, although there are strict guidelines in terms of the type of concoctions that can be used.

The type of blend used also impacts on the performance of individual cars, as while rich mixtures create more engine power they also increase wear and fuel consumption levels. Conversely, a more balanced blend affords an engine less fuel, decreasing the power but enabling cars to run for longer without making a pit-stop.

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