Many auto-racing enthusiasts consider Formula 1 as the pinnacle of motorsport, where the very best drivers on the planet compete for world championships while driving some of the fastest, most agile cars ever developed. F1 cars are capable of accelerating from 0-60mph in just around 2.6 seconds and can reach speeds of up to 246 mph. How are they able to achieve such speeds?
Formula 1 engineers are some of the brightest and most competitive minds in the auto racing industry, and because of this, F1 cars are able to perform unlike any other race car in the world. While regulations change slightly from year to year – dictating vehicle specification limits and such – the current generation of F1 cars is one of the fastest and safest. In this article, we will go over some of the basic elements of a modern Formula 1 car.
One of the reasons the modern Formula 1 car is able to travel at such breakneck speeds is due to how engineers design the cars with aerodynamics in mind. A racing car must be sleek and minimize air resistance to travel more quickly. However, F1 cars must also generate a lot of downforce in order to hug the racetrack and maintain traction through corners while staying at relatively high speeds
The front wing is a sleek piece of bodywork that directs airflow to other parts toward the middle and rear of the vehicle to optimize aerodynamic performance. The main goal of a front wing is to create the right kind of air pressure shape to pull the car down to the ground.
Image: Scuderia Ferrari
Downforce is one of the most important aspects of an F1 car's performance. More downforce means higher speeds through corners, which can be critical for getting ahead of the competition. As such, it’s vital for developers and engineers to get the design of the front wing just right so that they give their drivers the best chance to fight for wins.
At the opposite end of the vehicle, you have the rear wing. Similar to a spoiler on a road or sports car, the wing provides rear downforce to keep the rear tires tightly gripped to the surface of the track. Additionally, the rear wing can also provide a way to reduce drag on some sections of racetrack. The rear wing is also where the Drag Reduction System (DRS) is located.
Image: Red Bull Racing
A Drag Reduction System is what it sounds like – a system designed to temporarily reduce the drag generated by the rear wing to provide F1 cars with greater top speeds on circuit straights. Introduced to Formula 1 in 2011 with the goal of making overtaking other drivers somewhat easier, DRS refers to a portion of the wing that folds flat when triggered by the driver during special ‘DRS zones’, granting drivers an additional 6 or 7 miles per hour on straights.
Speed & Power
F1 engines have changed drastically over the years. In the 1950s and 60s, F1 cars utilized supercharged engines, throughout the 80s and 90s, F1 engines relied on turbochargers and larger engine sizes. Nowadays, however, F1 cars must use a four-stroke 1.6-liter turbocharged V6 engine with hybrid electric ancillaries.
Another fascinating aspect of F1 cars is their Energy Recovery System (ERS). As the name suggests, it enables the car to retrieve energy that would have otherwise gone to waste. This system has seen some evolution since its introduction to Formula 1 in 2009.
The initial system was Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). KERS used a battery or flywheel to store kinetic energy during braking and supplements the car's engine power when necessary.
Now, ERS is a combination of two generator units – the Motor Generator Unit Kinetic (MGU-K) and the Motor Generator Unit Heat (MGU-H). These two generators convert mechanical and heat energy into electrical energy respectively.
Much of the speed that F1 cars are capable of achieving is due to the ultralightweight design of their chassis. The greatest engineers in the world have put years of time into innovating ways of designing cars that are strong enough to be safe and fast enough to compete.
An F1 car chassis is mostly built using carbon fiber, a material with the ideal combination of strength and lightness. Another material used to keep drivers safe without sacrificing weight is Kevlar. The same material used in bulletproof vests is also used to protect the driver of an F1 car.
Image: Scuderia Ferrari
There’s also much more to Formula 1 cars than their power and aerodynamics. Millions of dollars go into the design, development, manufacturing, and maintenance of Formula 1 cars, and some of the most unassuming elements can offer unique surprises.
The Halo is a curved bar that acts as a crash-protector in the event that a car turns upside down or to prevent on-track debris from striking a driver in the head. While many race fans and drivers alike were reticent about the adoption of the Halo, it has since proved its worth time and time again by likely saving the lives of several race car drivers.
The Halo became mandatory during the 2018 season and has arguably prevented catastrophic injuries to race car drivers like Romain Grosjean and seven-time F1 World Champion, Lewis Hamilton.
The car’s monocoque (also known as the “survival cell”) is comprised entirely of carbon fiber and reinforced compounds. This survival cell provides a kind of cocoon in which the driver sits to drive the vehicle. Because of the high speeds at which F1 cars race, it is imperative that this cell is designed to withstand massive impacts in the event of an accident.
It must also be fire-resistant in order to minimize injury to the driver in the event of a fire. The survival cell is made from carbon fiber that has been molded to perfectly fit each driver’s body and features additional Kevlar for more protection.
While you’ll find complex setups on racing wheels in most high-profile professional racing series, F1 race car steering wheels are feats of engineering. There are multiple knobs, buttons, and other controls, and drivers must learn the functionality of each button and dial to pilot the vehicle to the best of their abilities.
Drivers also utilize the racing wheel to change gears – instead of using a clutch pedal (like older versions of F1 cars), drivers may now shift gears by pressing down on paddle shifters located behind the steering wheel. Paddles allow drivers to shift gears quickly and efficiently without taking up space in the cockpit or near the accelerator and brake pedals.
Image: Red bull Racing
To endure the rapid pace and extreme forces the cars place on them, the tires must be dense and hard enough to withstand the torque and rough racetrack. However, racing tires must also be soft enough that they provide grip and traction, which allows the driver to net faster lap times. Pirelli tires are specially designed to fit the cars and withstand the sheer speed and maneuverability of modern F1 cars.
Pirelli is always hard at work improving the suitability of their tires for F1 races, so they often change what’s available in their never-ending quest for the perfect racing tire. For 2023, the company offers tires in six different compounds. Teams can choose any of these to suit the racetrack and conditions during the race.