With so much speed and power, how does a Formula 1 car work exactly? Formula 1 is a sport of finesse and agility so straight-line speed is only part of the equation for success. For an F1 car to perform well, every single inch of it needs to be created with an absolute intention and purpose. There is simply no room for spare parts, dead weight or unnecessary motion. That is why a Formula 1 team will pour hundreds of millions of dollars into designing, building and enhancing each of its cars. Only when the entire machine connects perfectly can you have any hope of being competitive on the track.
Perfection is ever elusive. Finding that perfect synchronisation and balance for a car is never enough. Teams must constantly keep ahead of their competitor’s tweaks to maintain that 100th of a second advantage, stay on their toes to make sudden adjustments for track and weather conditions, as well as adhere to FIA requirements for part sizes, weight minimums and budgets.
As well as the pressure of developing and enhancing the current track car (at the track), design teams and engineers are frantically building and perfecting the team car for the following season too.
Even in the offseason, there simply isn’t time to stand still. The factory team will need to keep momentum year-round to rework, re-engineer and test to exhaustion every part and part combination, from the wing at the front to the buttons on the steering wheel, Formula 1 teams are pushing the limits, hoping to find a set-up of power and agility never seen before.
How does a Formula 1 car work?
To get your head around the finer points of Formula 1 engineering, you’d need a few years worth of specialised qualifications up your sleeve. When it comes to the key factors of what makes a Formula 1 car work, (and work well) we can nut over those points easily enough in an article…or two.
In this article, we’ll be covering the essential speed and agility factors of:
- Aerodynamics and downforce (front wing, rear wing, diffuser)
- Power units
It’s logical to start the front wing, since it’s the very first part of the car to come in contact with airflow (and occasionally other cars and barriers).
Why is the front wing important in F1?
The front wing is one of the most important parts of an F1 car. It’s the first part of the car to encounter the oncoming airflow, which makes it fundamental for aerodynamic performance.
The wing has two main functions; one to create downforce, the other to slip the oncoming air around the front tyres so they don’t get held back by the force of high-speed air.
For downforce, this is achieved with endplates. When the air comes in contact with the wing, it slides over the top. The endplates are there to prevent the high-pressured air from spilling back underneath. The weight of this air pressed on the endplates drives the car down onto the tarmac, providing drivers with better handling, cornering and more responsiveness.
A fascinating element to the increased technology of front wing engineering has been Ground Effects, which is harnessing the area underneath the car to create efficient downforce.
It’s the tips of the wings (along with the specialised footplate) that perform the second function of airflow. These items create a vortex that improves airflow for the whole car body (but especially the front tyres). It basically creates a nice hole for the F1 car to slip into without as much force.
When that works well the handling of the car improves, more air is fed to the diffuser and the car becomes more streamlined, especially around the floor and underside.
A well-designed front wing will improve the car’s entire performance.
Getting the front wing set-up wrong is a drag, literally. A car without the perfect wing set-up will be more of a handful for the driver and will cost time. That doesn’t mean that the perfect set-up is possible, many teams struggle to get the front wing perfect, sometimes for the duration of a season, other times one track or another will throw things off. If a front wing design and alignment is proving to be an ongoing issue for a team, they will work hard to compensate in other areas, like the power unit, to help regain what’s lost.
What are the FIA rules on front wings?
The central section of every car’s front wing has to have a neutral section measuring 500mm wide.
With the wings widened to two metres in 2019 and regulations tightened, designers were forced to be much more restrained in their ideas than in the previous few years.
It was thought that by reducing airflow around the car, closer racing could take place on track.
Why do F1 cars have DRS on the rear wing?
The drag reduction system (DRS) was introduced to Formula 1 in 2011. The idea behind it was to increase opportunities for overtaking, bringing the competition closer and making it more exciting for fans.
DRS needs to be specifically activated by the driver (and can only be done so on certain parts of a race track). The device opens the leading edge of the rear wing wider (as much as 7 centimetres) to reduce the car’s surface exposure to airflow, thus reducing drag, and freeing up the power unit for a short time for a burst of speed.
For this to be an effective part of racing strategy, DRS has to respond instantly. This instantaneous movement of lifting and lowering the wing section on demand is achieved via an actuator which is mounted on the rear wing and connects to a linkage. The trade-off being less downforce is applied to a car with DRS activated.
While the DRS can be closed off via linkage, it also has an automatic cut off when the driver lifts off the accelerator. This provides instant downforce to assist with the corner by the time the car has reached the turn at the end of the straight.
There are several DRS zones located around each circuit. The favoured spots for these zones are on the straights, where there’s time to gather power and get ahead. It puts a lot of pressure on drivers to take into account the braking point of the corner (sometimes the next two corners) and be correctly positioned to stay ahead.
DRS is by no means an overtake guarantee, especially when the strategy can only come into contention when the following car is less than one second behind their target. To get into that close range they must combat dirty, hot air that will have an effect on their ability to stay with the lead.
Even when DRS doesn’t result in an overtake, it certainly creates tension, racing potential and excitement for viewers.
What are the FIA rules on rear wings?
Before 2017, the rear wing was much taller and narrower, but the new regulations made it significantly longer and wider.
The wing underwent another substantial modification for 2019. In an attempt to improve overtaking, the new rules made the rear wings taller once again and the flap size has been increased by 20mm, making DRS much more effective.
What does the diffuser do on a Formula 1 car?
The diffuser is designed and engineered to create downforce and provide stability. It’s positioned at the rear of the floor, with a flared opening for sucking in air, moving it through smoothly and creating a low-pressure zone. This low pressure works to enhance the force of the air pressing on top of the car, increasing downforce so drivers have more control when tackling apexes.
The job of the diffuser is to reduce the flow of turbulent air from beneath the car for improved performance.
Again, this has the potential to get really technical so stay with me. If you consider the work of the front wing, cutting the air as the car comes in contact, redirecting it around and over the car body, you can easily see that the airflow under the car will be moving at a different speed to the high-pressure airflow above. If that sounds like a recipe to trip over your own car, you’d be right.
The diffuser is responsible for maintaining an equal balance of pressure below the car so that driving conditions are predictable and stable and the downforce pressure above has some glue to stick to. Without the diffuser (or without a well-designed diffuser) high-pressure pockets of turbulent air would occur, disrupting the car’s stability and reducing the floor efficiency in streamlining movement.
By using a diffuser that is carefully shaped with that expanding flare, engineers are able to funnel air through (using the front wings to help with directing on target) and accelerate the underside airflow, at the same time the diffuser flare ensures there is no separation of airflow as it exits, allowing that sustained and controlled pressure.
What are the FIA regulations around diffusers?
The diffuser area is another part of the car that has been revised in recent years. Until 2017, the rules curtailed the varying designs of the diffuser but since then designers have been able to play with not only the vertical strakes on the diffuser and the shape of the diffuser itself, but also the area around the tyre to improve the airflow.
It is imperative that teams maximise the gains on offer from the diffuser, and understand how the airflow leaves the diffuser area in order to minimise the trailing drag produced by the car.
The edge of the diffuser comes equipped with small winglets around the top of the surface, and inside the diffuser there are strakes that create vortices to further develop the low-pressure zone under the floor.
Together with the rear wing, these pieces are responsible for creating as much downforce as possible for the car.
What do F1 Sidepods do?
When it comes to a Formula 1 car’s packaging, an important factor is the sidepods. Their job is to make the car body and small and tight as possible while being big enough to house the manifolds and radiators.
The engineering key here is the cold air intake to keep the radiator, Power Unit and essential components cool enough for high performance. Radiator inlets are used for this purpose with the main inlets positioned on each side of the car, carefully structured to let in the maximum amount of cold air while being as small as possible to reduce drag.
For tracks where the air is hot, teams put a flare on the opening to help increase airflow intake.
What are the FIA regulations around sidepods?
This is one area where teams have won out against FIA regulations with the current crumple zone now positioned on either side of the cockpit.
Up until 2016, this deformable zone was mandatory at the front of the sidepod with a fixed length and dimensions set by the FIA. Teams were frustrated by this set-up as it was terrible for aerodynamics and reduced the cold airflow to the radiator.
In only two years since the relaxing of those rules, almost all teams had moved the crumple zone off the sidepods and reduced the sidepod size considerably.
Over the past two decades, sidepod design has come to include undercuts to channel and direct airflow increasing cold air cooling volume and intake speed.
Can teams make adjustments to a Formula 1 cars suspension?
Once the suspension of an F1 car has been set, it is pretty much locked in with the rest of the car.
Because of the complex, highly technical and interlocking nature of the suspension’s multiple wishbones and rods, there really isn’t the ability to make drastic changes. When teams need to make adjustments to better suit changing track conditions there is still plenty of opportunity to tweak the spring rates, camber, ride height and toe as well as a host of other minor properties to help get a good match between car and road and tighten up lap times.
When wheels touch in a Formula one race, damage to the suspension and wheels is a big concern. The suspension, the link between a car and its wheels, dictates how the car reacts to the road and to the driver’s requests. On an F1 car, the multi-structure supporting each wheel is both complex and sophisticated.
FIA allows teams to have as many as six structural members per wheel, usually consisting of two double wishbones along with rods, a steering arm or track rod (differences in choices for pushrods, pull rods and steering arms will depend on if the mount is on the front or the rear suspension).
While there is a wide range of setup variations possible, most teams actually choose to operate the same member sets across the front and back wheels for the past few seasons.
As the wheel is moved up and down in its contact with the tarmac, the pushrod is engaged and the suspension spring is compressed. The pull rod is mounted in reverse (but will depend on front and rear positioning). Teams are looking for accurate responses to driver requests, and consistent performance around the whole track as well as great aerodynamics. It’s a lot of different information to take into account and requires hours of tinkering and testing to find the exact balance.
When the balance is achieved drivers will feel confident in pushing the car to its maximum power and won’t have to work as hard adjusting the car to the road.
The design of the suspension systems will depend on the car’s packaging but will consider a wealth of factors including tyre performance. In fact, one of the big factors that affect the speed and handling of a car when they come out of the pits with a new tyre compound is the suspension. The suspension system’s ability to handle a particular tyre compound can be vastly different. Teams must choose which tyre to favour in their initial suspension setup, cross their fingers and hope that is the tyre best suited to the track come race day.
Why are F1 brakes so powerful?
Unlike many comparison sports, where the aim is to go flat out for as long as possible, Formula 1 racing is about the ability to handle braking and agility through turns.
If it were about straight-line speed, the cars’ performances would be incredibly different. Instead, Formula 1 engineers have to carefully balance a tricky dance between setting up a car’s performance to do equally well both on the straights and through the curves.
The sector breakdowns on driver times are perfect for seeing which cars have the better straight-line performance and which do better under braking, which can effectively make or break a win, especially when you factor in the track style and weather conditions.
That makes brakes all-important to speed, I know it sounds crazy, brakes and speed should be opposites, not in this game.
Getting the brakes right enhances the speed of the car through a variety of factors. When a driver has confidence in the brakes they drive more aggressively and can push the absolute limits. When brakes are underperforming a driver will need to compensate and slow down or even take a different line through the apex in order to stay on the track and stay in contention.
Damage to the tyres is also a factor when brakes fail (or drivers fail to apply them correctly) as flat spots are worn in, meaning that additional pit stops might be required to keep the rubber fresh.
Brakes need to work to slow the car down at the right point with the right amount of pressure through the apex of a turn, allowing a driver to put the power down on the exit and maintain momentum to the next turn.
To learn how the brake system on an F1 car works, you can click here for our previous blog which covers everything from brake temperature to flat spots.
What are the FIA rules on brakes?
Probably the most crucial rule on Formula 1 brakes is that anti-lock braking systems (ABS), found as standard technology in regular road cars, is not permitted when racing. Meaning that drivers have less control and need to tackle longer stopping distances than standard road cars.
What is F1 power unit?
Yes, the term ‘power unit’ in reference to Formula 1 racing is pretty much the engine. The reason the term ‘power unit’ is used in place of engine is to capture the hybrid elements, now mandatory as part of racing regulations.
In 2014 Formula 1 entered the hybrid era, introducing modified components that made the cars less reliant on fossil fuels. That meant the use of the word “engine” also needed modification to reflect the changes.
Wrapping your head around this is no small feat. You can get an in-depth breakdown of how a Formula 1 internal combustion engine works by clicking through to our previous blog.
Otherwise, we’ll touch on the main elements that get the cars around the tracks as quickly as possible.
A Formula 1 power unit isn’t just an engine + battery (that would be too easy), instead, it is comprised of multiple elements including:
– The V6 Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) with a 1.6-litre displacement
– A turbocharger – to increase the density of intake air (and help produce heat energy)
– A full Energy Recovery System (ERS) – which captures the energy produced by the car while on the track. This uses two Motor Generator Units to function.
1) Heat (MGU-H) – the generator unit that is powered by converting heat from exhaust gases to electricity.
2) Kinetic (MGU-K) – is a combined motor + electric generator that captures heat under braking but also provides power under acceleration via the ICE connection
– Energy Store (ES) – essentially a battery that stores the energy captured by the ERS until needed
– The Control Electronics (CE) – a network of components that don’t fit into the above list but are required to code and connect it all together. The bulk of this is for the ERS communication between systems; MGU-H, MGU-K and ES.
For a Formula 1 car to work, each of these components is crucial. Even if a car is still drivable following an Energy Recovery System component failure, the resulting mechanical issues (including the loss of power and speed, and an increase in fuel consumption) would result in a Did Not Finish (DNF) result.
What are the FIA rules on Power Units?
Now that the Hybrid Era has had time to settle in and get comfortable, probably the rule that hits F1 teams the hardest is the limit of three power units per season.
Penalties for having to change Power Units (or any components) before the allocated usage are steep, however, so is running an ineffective power system, so most teams grit their teeth, take the grid penalty and hope to regain track positions over the course of the race.
Of course, there is always an engine/power unit shake-up on the horizon. The next generation of engines (due to be introduced in 2022) was delayed from being implemented in 2021 due to the pandemic.
The FIA has suggested simplifying engine designs to cut costs and promote new manufacturers, which will (by their estimation) address some of the complaints against the 2014 generation. Will we see a scrapping of that ultra-complex Motor Generator Unit-Heat (MGU-H) system? Time will tell.
Do F1 cars use normal fuel?
The fuel Formula 1 cars use is unleaded petrol, the same as your car, however, the fuel blend is optimised for the engineering setup and calibration (in particular the ignition) so they are equally responsible for the speed, rather than the fuel alone. So if you were to fill your car’s tank with F1 fuel, chances are your little red wagon is going to go slower than normal, because your engine systems are not designed to suck up every molecule of energy the fuel contains.
The quality and design of the fuel has a significant impact on the performance of the engine.
Obviously Formula 1 cars are not fully electric (yet) so something has to power the V6-engine: Fuel, however, there is no standard Formula 1 fuel. That’s right, there isn’t a big petrol tanker everyone takes their cut off, rather, every team designs and modifies their own fuel to optimise speed specific to the car’s requirements. It takes years of engineering on a micro scale to see results.
In terms of stability, the fuel is relatively safe, compared to airline fuel and other compounds that are highly combustible. Formula 1 fuel tank safety is taken into account and further enhanced with the elimination of refuelling stops, forcing teams to design their cars to manage an entire race on one tank.
How does a Formula 1 car work? – The Conclusion
What we can see as we cover the make-up of parts creating a Formula 1 race car, is that the cars are engineered to achieve a large number of goals that are not as straightforward as speed, and they are not limited to finding a winning combination, rather they are utilising what they can under regulation, to do their best on track.
Overall the FIA have a huge say in the performance of Formula 1 race cars. They regulate changes through the sport that (allegedly) make racing not only more competitive but also fair across teams and, most crucially, safer for drivers, teams and fans. And you can usually count on every change bringing controversy. Fans typically hate the look of a new season car, even slight adjustments to wing dimensions completely change the look of the car and therefore the entire branding of the sport.
The car is what makes the race recognisable, so the changing face of Formula 1 is often met with protest, from teams who find the limitations crippling, to fans who have lost defining features.
The most noticeable outcry in recent times would be the noise reduction that came with the regulation to move from V8 engines to V6 (hybrids) that left fans so outraged that volume enhancers needed to be added to get the F1 sound back. The introduction of the Halo too, an essential safety device is still annoying most fans.
FIA requirements are major factors to saving lives and reducing injuries as well as giving drivers the confidence they need to race with all they have.
One element no one complains about is the network of onboard cameras giving teams and fans close up and unique race footage. Just like everything on the race car, it needs to do its job perfectly without adding excess weight or drag to the machine’s performance, a factor teams have invested time and money perfecting, for their role in safety, training and research, reviews and entertainment.
This is why the question ‘how does a Formula 1 car work’ is so incredibly complex to answer. As well as the significant advancement of technologies that inch these vehicles closer to perfection, there is also the ever-growing need for safety in the sport, making FIA safety features, like the HANS device and the six-point safety harness essential for teams to build into their cars, in the most effective, lightest and most aerodynamic ways possible.