How Formula 1 Pedals Work
Have you ever wondered how Formula 1 pedals work? The clutch, brake, and accelerator appear from left to right in regular, standard shift cars. At one time, this was the order for racing cars, but that changed for Formula 1 race cars some time ago. Now they come with only two pedals.
When the FORMULA 1 World Championship began in 1950, pedals in the cockpit had a similar configuration to their street-ready counterparts. They were anchored to the floorboard and controlled the clutch, brake, and throttle. In some models, like the Maserati 250F F1 race car of the 1950s, they were arranged a little differently, with the throttle being the middle pedal and the brake located on the right. Outside of this anomalous arrangement, they operated the same as in any other race car, with the exception of the pedals being closer together.
Moving Away From Three Pedals In Formula 1 Cars
If you were lucky enough to look inside one of today’s Formula 1 race cars, one of the first things you would notice is that there are only two pedals now.
Why only two pedals? The answer is, all of today’s Formula 1 race cars come equipped with semi-automatic gearboxes, and it has been that way since 1989 when Ferrari introduced them. This was made possible by moving the clutch from the floor to two paddles on the backside of the steering wheel. The paddles use electronic signals that tell the gears to shift up or down. So, not only did Ferrari make the clutch pedal obsolete, they did the same for the gear shift also.
Another interesting innovation is that the throttle is no longer connected to the engine by conventional cables, but rather drive-by-wire electronics. Something called a potentiometer located behind the clutch pedal. When it is pressed, it sends a signal to the engine and the engine understands how much rev to put out. This makes operating the throttle feel less like a regular throttle and more like operating a light switch. More of a responsive feel than a resistant one.
During the 1950s, race car drivers perfected a technique that allowed them to keep the engine revved-up while braking, giving them the ability to re-accelerate instantaneously when the time came, a technique known as heel-and-toeing. The driver would angle the ball of the foot onto the brake pedal, while keeping the heel on the throttle, keeping the engine throttled-up as high as possible. Each driver would adjust the position of the pedals to accommodate the size of his feet, and also how he preferred to use the heel-and-toeing technique.
No major changes occurred with the technique or the pedal arrangement as the 60s rolled around, other than some racing teams began drilling holes in the pedals to further reduce the weight of the car. Later on, manufacturers began making pedals from titanium for strength and to further lighten the load.
Later, it occurred to race car designers that if they tapered the front end of the vehicle it would make the car more aerodynamic, so the cockpits became even tighter than they already were. Consequently, some drivers had to switch to smaller shoes. But they had to be different from regular shoes in two ways: 1) They could not have wide soles or risked catching onto the neighbouring pedal, and 2) the soles had to be made as thin as possible so that the driver could feel the difference in the pedals, especially between the brake and the throttle.
Formula 1 Pedals Technique
Some Formula 1 race cars still have three pedals, but only the middle and right pedals (brake and throttle) are attached. Some racing teams installed a third pedal, or plate, where the clutch used to be as a footrest for the driver. Drivers use it to brace themselves during hard turns.
While the introduction of the semi-automatic gearbox did drastically transform the cockpit, this did not mark the first that this configuration had been used. The Lotus company had tried the configuration in their turbine-powered 56B way back in 1971. The 56B had no need for a clutch or a gearbox.
Today’s Formula 1 pedals bear no resemblance at all to those found in regular automobiles, as both the brake pedal and the throttle have their own unique shape. The brake pedal is significantly larger than the throttle. This allows maximum force to be applied when braking, as it could take as much as four times the force of gravity to bring one of these bears to a full stop. The reason for this is that regulations require that the driver apply all of the braking force, so Formula 1 brakes are designed to be resistance-free. Besides, there is no need for gentle breaking in a Formula 1 race.
The pedals also have raised edges that prevent the driver’s foot from sliding off and hitting the other one accidentally. After all, the driver is practically lying down in the cockpit and is in no shape to look down and see where his feet are going. So it is no wonder then that there has been a steady migration of controls from the floor to the steering wheel.
From the 1950s to the 1960s drivers wanted the pedals close together so that they could perform the heel-and-toeing manoeuvre. But today’s pedal placement is dictated by the preferred driving style of today’s Formula 1 drivers – left-foot braking.
This technique requires the driver to brake with their left foot while maintaining revs by blipping the throttle with their right foot. It has the same effect as heel-and-toeing, but without one foot having to be occupied with the clutch.
Now that drivers can use the left foot for braking, the need for the pedals to be arranged so close together has been eliminated. Having the pedals placed farther apart gives the driver more room to shift his feet from one pedal to the other without accidentally striking one. Still, different drivers have different preferences. Some like having the flexibility of arranging them to meet the type of racing circuit they are driving in at the time.