So you think you’re quite the F1 expert? Tally up how many of the sections below you’ve got covered, and impress your friends with fascinating details about fast guys in fast cars!
1. Zero error margins, please
One race car weighs half of what a Mini does, yet it is made of over 80,000 components of which 16,000 are individual parts. The chassis and the front and rear suspension of the F1 car are made of carbon fibre composite with Kevlar (a resilient plastic polymer) and metals in the mix – for example McLaren uses 34,000 metres of carbon fibre every year. Most teams also use 3D printed metal parts. There’s also more than a kilometre of wiring. The steering wheel of the car contains about 31 different buttons and dials.
To make driving a real challenge, traction control, stability control, anti-lock brakes and adjustable suspension are all banned.
When putting it all together, achieving accuracy of 99.99% in the assembly means that 80 of the components in the car are assembled wrong and that it probably won’t finish the race as a result of something breaking.
2. Safety first
To pass a safety test with flying colours, an F1 helmet will need to cope with projectiles travelling at nearly 500 kph towards the visor and withstand flames at 800°C for 45 seconds without turning the inside of the helmet into an oven (a fairly cold sauna is ok, though – the maximum acceptable inside temperature during the test is 70°C). If the dents left on the helmet are deeper than 2.5 mm, it fails the test.
Sturdy cars and protective equipment are needed when one looks at the speeds, temperatures and forces that the drivers encounter during the race – even in a normal race the drivers can lose three kilos just through perspiration thanks to the G-forces plus the heat from all the equipment around them, and the worst collision on record saw the speed of the race car drop to zero from 173 kph in just two seconds, meaning that the pressure that the car’s driver experienced in those two seconds was 198 times greater than their own body weight. Thankfully the driver lived and was able to continue racing, but not all drivers have been as lucky over the years.
3. High-performance fuelling
At maximum speed the engine ingests air at 0.40 kg per second. At that rate, one could fill up 500 balloons in less than a minute. At the same time, the fuel pump will be injecting fuel into the cylinders more than 500 times per second – your tap runs water a lot slower than that. This is what makes the car go from zero to 100 kph in 2.3 seconds.
The rig pumps used by the crew could pump 12 litres of fuel per second to the car. However, after refuelling was banned in the races, pit stop times have dropped significantly (if not noticeably for the average human being) – in F1 every second counts.
For some perspective, if one season has 19 races, all the cars on the grid burn roughly the same about of fuel as a single 747 does on a flight from the UK to Japan.
4. The little engine that could
The cars use hybrid power units that consist of a 1.4 litre V6 engine producing about 600 horsepower and an Energy Recovery System that harvests heat energy from the brakes and exhaust, generating an additional 160 horsepower for short bursts. Oh, and one such engine has a lifespan of two hours in the race.
Why? Revs in the engine can reach over 19,000 revolutions per minute… if the revolutions are around 7,000 the engine is probably idling. The pistons of the engine rise and fall 300 times per second, and accelerate to more than 7,000 Gs. The oil that separates and cools more than 200 moving components is at the same time withstanding a load of over 8,500 Gs.
If one is in a rush and can’t wait for hours, the easiest way to break an F1 engine is to start it cold.
To ensure optimal performance at race speeds and temperatures, the engine components are heated up when assembled. As a result, the tolerances between components in the engine are so vanishingly small that they need to remain correctly stressed through compressed air supply even when the engine is off. Before starting of the engine can even be considered, it has to undergo several heating cycles where pre-heated liquid is circulated around the engine to return it to the temperature at the time of assembly. This way the metals expand just enough and parts that need to rotate are able to do so. Failing to do the above is a shortcut to a very expensive disaster.
5. Exhaust fumes
Aluminium melts at 660°C, steel melts at about 1,350°C. The exhaust gases of the cars are emitted at temperatures of around 950°C to 1,000°C. This calls for extremely heat and corrosion-resistant materials for the parts that come into contact with the exhaust gases. The austenitic super alloy Inconel that the F1 exhaust systems use is also used in jet engines and nuclear reactors.
6. “Does my rear seem big with this down-force?”
One F1 car weighs about 650 kilograms with a full tank, which is half the weight of a Mini. Once they pass the speed of about 150 kph, the cars are generating more down-force than they weigh and thus could drive upside down on the ceiling of a tunnel if anyone should feel adventurous enough. 150 kph is also the typical take-off speed for a jet-liner.
When travelling at maximum speed of 330 kph, the cars are capable of manoeuvring corners of more than 90 degrees while the down-force generated by the car equals approximately 2.5 metric tonnes or 4 Gs. This also means that the pressure applied to the driver in these moments is four times their body weight. They have it easy though – the front suspension is required to cope with two tonnes of pressure.
60% of the down-force in an F1 car comes from the floor of the car and the rear diffuser, which is enough to rip open any manhole covers from the street tracks when the cars pass over them unless they are welded shut. There’s a 10 mm wooden plank under each car that prevents it from riding too low in order to gain advantage – if the plank has worn more than 1mm during the race, the car gets disqualified.
7. Burning rubber
Dry-weather tyres have the best grip when the surface temperature is closing on 1,000°C. Water boils at 100°C – due to the presence of vapour in the mix, air in these conditions would have an inherently fluctuating pressure. Instability is a very undesirable feature in F1 racing, which is why the teams use more manageable nitrogen for filling up their tyres.
The wheels of F1 cars are only about 33 centimetres in diameter and the fairly soft, treadless tyres of the race car rotate 50 times per second. Add to that all the friction from frequent accelerating and braking… As a result one set of tyres only lasts for about 100 kilometres during the race, and when it’s time for a pit stop they would have lost half a kilo of their original weight to wear and tear.
One driver would need to make an average of 2.3 pit stops during the race. During a pit stop the wheels are secured in place with wheelguns that consume in excess of 20,000 litres of air per minute. The fastest pit stop has been recorded for Infiniti Red Bull Racing: they first managed to break the two-second record with 1.923 seconds, and in their best performance the car was ready to zoom off again after 1.84 seconds.
A single tyre manufacturer has been known to supply various racing teams with 33,200 tyres in the space of one year.
8. Gearing up… and gearing down
An F1 driver changes gears on average every 1.3 seconds, and anything from 2,500 to 4,000 times during one race. The cars can keep up with gear changes faster than the average human can blink – the gears can be cycled from first to seventh gear and back again in a fifth of a second.
To enable such feats, the gearbox may contain over 1,500 different components and over 50 different gear ratios. The temperature of the oil in the gearbox will exceed 150°C, while the oil film holding the gear teeth apart and thus protecting them is 20 nanometres thick – that’s 0,00002 millimetres, in other words: there’s not an awful lot of room for anything that doesn’t belong there, which is why team scientists assess oil samples under microscope to ensure that no unwanted minerals or chemicals are in the mix.
9. The engine isn’t the most amazing part of an F1 car – the brakes are
The brakes in the car have no power assist, and the energy needed to slow the car from 315 kph to 185 kph would make an elephant jump 10 metres in the air. Generally speaking, the race car is doing a pretty good job at slowing down when braking power reaches 5 Gs whereas a space shuttle only generates a measly 3 Gs of force when taking off.
As anti-lock brakes are prohibited, the driver will have to apply the required braking force and at the same time ensure that none of the wheels actually locks up. Normally the wheel on the inside of the corner would be the one that stops rotating as there is less weight pushing it towards the track. When a lock-up happens, steering becomes more difficult, the tire may become damaged which in turn causes car-damaging vibration and less braking force is applied overall.
At this point the driver would be hitting the brakes literally with tears in their eyes, as the impact of the forces involved will be enough to squeeze water out of their tear ducts involuntarily – all the while the driver’s neck is coping with the unmistakable sensation of having a twenty-kilo sack of potatoes slammed to one side of their head. It’s probably a good thing that F1 helmets are some of toughest things in the word.
But if braking at full speed sounded pretty easy, a very slow-moving F1 car with cold brakes is actually harder to stop. The brake temperature has to be at least 500°C before they’re of any use for the driver pressing the brakes.
When the brakes are suitably warm (i.e. their temperature has reached about 1,000°C), a Formula One racing car can go from a speed of over 300 kph to a standstill in 3 seconds. To enable all this, the brakes have to cope with whittling away energy at rates that would make any dieter jealous. At best the brake horsepower produced is 2,200 which is roughly 1,640 kilowatts, which again is about 1,640,000 joules per second, or 392 calories per second if one wants to use a more familiar unit. The energy contained in one slice of a 14-inch pepperoni pizza is about 300 calories – all gone, in less than one second.
The maximal temperature for the carbon fibre brake discs is around 1,200°C – silver would have thrown in the towel and started melting already, joining the club with molten lava. Should the car containing such discs, as a result of particularly vigorous braking, start spinning and come to an abrupt stop, there’s a real risk of the brakes spontaneously catching fire due to the lack of airflow over the brakes. What a way to go for something that took a month to manufacture.
Conversely, the colder the brakes are, the longer it takes for the car to start decelerating since to warm up the brakes would have to rub against the pads. Unwillingness to stall in order to warm up the brakes can lead to very unfortunate pile-ups especially at the start of the race as F1 uses standing starts and the cars would also be shepherded around by pace cars at certain points, causing congestion especially at the first turn of the track. Lots of very expensive cars moving slowly towards each other with cold brakes. You can practically hear the shouting from the team radio, can’t you?
10. Where are the women?
Only six women have entered a Grand Prix between 1950 and 2016 – the number of men entering for that period was 822. Just three of the women qualified for the race, only two of them got to the starting grid, while one – Lella Lombardi – managed to score points from a race (or in the case of 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, half points). She competed on three seasons, starting in 12 races in total – sadly there have been no women qualifying for the starting grid since her last race in 1976.
After the retirement of Susie Wolff from Williams in 2015, only Lotus currently has a female development driver, Carmen Jorda who is yet to make an appearance in an official test session.
Finally, let’s hear some of the best quotes from the drivers..
- “I always thought records were there to be broken.” – Michael Schumacher
- ”Aerodynamics is for people who can’t build engines.” – Enzo Ferrari
- “Finishing second means you are the first person to lose.” – Gilles Villeneuve.
- “Leave me alone I know what I am doing.” – Kimi Räikkönen
- Team radio: “We believe there is a deer on track”
Juan Pablo Montoya : “A deer? Oh dear!”
Team radio: “Yes, a deer! Like a… horse with horns”
Montoya : “I know, I know.. Oh dear..”
- “The three Michaels: Michael Schumacher, Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson. I wanted to become Michael Jackson when I was young. It was painful to realise that I didn’t have the voice… ” – Sebastian Vettel
Thanks for reading, we hope you enjoyed!
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