Being that this site is pretty much predicated on the fact that there isn’t a very large Formula 1 following in America, we wanted to include a sort of educational experience on the site. Here I give you: Formula 101. 

“There are no drivers like Formula One drivers. They are engineers, in a way. They are driving manual cars one-handed at 200 miles per hour around streets in Monaco. These cars use the ultimate in technology.” –Asif Kapadia

Explaining how Formula 1 works, or why we like it, is difficult sometimes. Most people will say, “all they do is drive around in circles for a couple hours” or there are the NASCAR fans that aren’t used to the technologically advanced open-wheel cars and wait for a big wreck to occur and wonder why they aren’t bumping into each other. We’re Americans and we understand this sport might be foreign to the American mind; and that’s what this site is for: to bring Formula 1 to American fans, or potential fans, and vice-versa. I will attempt to explain some aspects of the sport below, and I will continue to come back here to update from time to time. Formula 1 the sport, it’s cars, it’s tracks and it’s drivers are always evolving. So too will this site evolve with it. I will be using outside sources, because I don’t personally hold all the knowledge I’ll be putting here, so everything I use from somewhere else will have a link behind it. I also will not be getting into everything in F1’s history here; such as legal disputes (of which there have been many), ownership transfers (it IS American-owned now, after all) and the departure and arrival of various engine suppliers, manufacturers, teams and all that jazz.

First, to explain exactly what Formula 1 is. And I will use the Wikipedia entry. It’s just easier.

Formula One (also Formula 1 or F1 and officially the FIA Formula One World Championship) is the highest class of single-seat auto racing that is sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). The FIA Formula One World Championship has been the premier form of racing since the inaugural season in 1950, although other Formula One races were regularly held until 1983. The “formula”, designated in the name, refers to a set of rules, to which all participants’ cars must conform. The F1 season consists of a series of races, known as Grands Prix (from French, meaning grand prizes), held worldwide on purpose-built F1 circuits and public roads. (Link)

Lewis Hamilton and Toto Wolff of Mercedes holding the championship trophies after the 2014 season.

Wikipedia goes on to explain how the points system currently works and that there is both a Drivers’ and Constructors’ championship. The driver with the most points at the end of the season wins the Drivers’ trophy and likewise with the Constructor at the end of the season. Points are awarded as follows (listed from first place to tenth place; they are the only positions in which points are awarded):

Position – Points
1st – 25
2nd – 18
3rd – 15
4th – 12
5th – 10
6th – 8
7th – 6
8th – 4
9th – 2
10th – 1

The 2011 Scuderia Ferrari team.

Teams (Constructors) have two cars each. The Constructor is awarded the same amount of points the driver is of that particular car. So, for example, if Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen place 1st and 5th respectively, Daniel will receive 25 points and Max will receive 10. Their team, Red Bull Racing-Tag Heuer, will receive the total of 35 points toward the Constructors’ Championship. Easy, right?

Ok, since we’re on the subject of Constructors, lets cover them here. The FIA defines constructor under Article 6.3 of the FIA Sporting Regulations as: “the constructor of an engine or chassis is the person (including any corporate or unincorporated body) which owns the intellectual rights to such engine or chassis” (Link) There are currently 10 in the 2017 F1 season, which makes up for 20 entrants per race currently. They are (in no particular order):

Scuderia Ferrari

Mercedes AMG F1

Force India

Red Bull Racing-Tag Heuer

Haas F1

Scuderia Toro Rosso

Williams F1

McLaren-Renault

Sauber

Renault Sport F1

 

The fast, flowing parts, the high-speed corners, that’s where a Formula One car is at its best – changes of direction, pulling high g-forces left and right. –Jenson Button

The 2017 Renault RS17. Big changes were made to make the 2017 cars more reliant on aerodynamics than cars in the past.

Ok, let’s get to the real star of the show here; the car. The Formula 1 car is a highly technical, superbly engineered amalgamation of aerodynamics, suspension, power unit, gearbox, brakes, tires….so on and so forth. I’ll try to cover some of all these.

As you can imagine, the Formula 1 car has evolved immensely throughout the years. Formula 1 as a sport has always been the exhibitor and showcase of technology and the car is front and center of that showcase. I will be using excerpts from Formula1.com’s explanation of the sport from their page “Understanding F1 Racing”. I will just link that page here and mark the sections that I’ve used with an asterisk. * Let’s begin:

Aerodynamics

In Formula 1, and 2017 especially, aerodynamics play probably the most important part in the building of an F1 car. Teams spend an exorbitant amount of money in designing, building and testing the aerodynamic properties of their cars. “Although always important in race car design, aerodynamics became a truly serious proposition in the late 1960s when several teams started to experiment with the now familiar wings. Race car wings – or aerofoils as they are sometimes known – operate on exactly the same principle as aircraft wings, only in reverse. Air flows at different speeds over the two sides of the wing (by having to travel different distances over its contours) and this creates a difference in pressure, a physical rule known as Bernoulli’s Principle. As this pressure tries to balance, the wing tries to move in the direction of the low pressure. Planes use their wings to create lift, race cars use theirs to create negative lift, better known as downforce. A modern Formula One car is capable of developing 3.5 g lateral cornering force (three and a half times its own weight) thanks to aerodynamic downforce. That means that, theoretically, at high speeds they could drive upside down.”* Aerodynamics nowadays are pretty much strictly regulated by the FIA and are somewhat the same across all cars. Though not always.

Teams have found and continue to find loopholes in the regulations to find an edge. Things like the BrawnGP “double diffuser” and the McLaren-Mercedes “F-duct” and my personal favorite, the Red Bull designed “exhaust blown diffuser” were all ways the team used to get around aerodynamic rules and find their own edge.

One great workaround to aerodynamics that has stuck and been added to the regulations in F1 is the addition to a Drag Reduction System or DRS. “An innovation that makes the driver’s task slightly easier, the Drag Reduction System (DRS) is an overtaking aid. Within designated DRS activation zones, a driver within one second of a rival car may activate his DRS. This alters the angle of the rear wing flap, reducing drag and thereby providing a temporary speed advantage. To ensure that overtaking is not too easy, the length and location of DRS zones are carefully controlled.”*

Red Bull RB8 with the DRS open.
Power Unit

I’m just gonna use F1’s description of the power unit. I can’t bear to think of today’s weak engines, reliant on recovered kinetic and heat energy. But you wanna know, so here goes:

“The internal combustion engine itself is a stressed component within the car which is bolted to the carbon fibre ‘tub’. Despite its relatively diminutive size and 15,000rpm rev limit, direct fuel injection, a single turbocharger and some remarkable engineering make it capable of producing around 600bhp.

ERS (energy recovery system) accounts for an additional 160bhp and helps ensure that the new units are not only just as powerful as the 2.4-litre V8s they succeeded, but considerably more efficient, using approximately 35 percent less fuel.

Today’s ERS take the concept of KERS (kinetic energy recovery system, F1’s older recovery system used from 2006 to 2013) to another level, combining twice the power with a performance effect around ten times greater. ERS comprises two motor generator units (MGU-K and MGU-H), plus an Energy Store (ES) and control electronics. The motor generator units convert mechanical and heat energy to electrical energy and vice versa.

MGU-K (where the ‘K’ stands for kinetic) works like an uprated version of the previous KERS, converting kinetic energy generated under braking into electricity (rather than it escaping as heat). It also acts as a motor under acceleration, returning up to 120kW (approximately 160bhp) power to the drivetrain from the Energy Store.

MGU-H (where the ‘h’ stands for heat) is an energy recovery system connected to the turbocharger of the engine and converts heat energy from exhaust gases into electrical energy. The energy can then be used to power the MGU-K (and thus returned to the drivetrain) or be retained in the ES for subsequent use. Unlike the MGU-K which is limited to recovering 2MJ of energy per lap, the MGU-H is unlimited. The MGU-H also controls the speed of the turbo, speeding it up (to prevent turbo lag) or slowing it down in place of a more traditional waste gate.”*

Mercedes 2017 power unit.
Gearbox

“Formula One cars use highly sophisticated semi-automatic, seamless shift gearboxes. Aside from when pulling away, the driver is not required to manually operate the clutch, nor is he required to lift off the accelerator when changing up through the gears. Instead, when another gear is selected the shift is completed ‘seamlessly’ (via a clever a system which uses two shift barrels), meaning the driver suffers from no loss of drive. As such, gear changes are not only significantly faster than they were with the traditional gear lever and clutch pedal approach (taking a matter of milliseconds), but the driver can also keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times.

But despite such high levels of technology, fully automatic transmission systems, and gearbox-related wizardry such as launch control, are illegal – a measure designed to keep costs down and place more emphasis on driver skill.

Gearboxes, which are electronically controlled with hydraulic activation, attach to the back of the internal combustion engine. But they do more than simply transfer the torque from power unit to wheels – they also form part of the structure of the rear of the car, with the rear suspension bolting directly onto what is usually a high-strength carbon maincase.

The rules stipulate that F1 gearboxes must consist of eight forward gears (the ratios having been selected ahead of the season) plus reverse, and although this may seem like a large number compared to a road car, it allows the teams to use the same transmission at low-speed Monaco as at high-speed Monza.”*

Brakes

With all this power, the car must have an efficient way of slowing down for what can be anywhere from 15-25 corners in today’s street circuits and dedicated race courses.

“In one area F1 brakes are empirically more advanced than road-car systems: materials. All the cars on the grid now use carbon fibre composite brake discs which save weight and are able to operate at higher temperatures than steel discs. A typical Formula One brake disc weighs about 1.5 kg. These are gripped by special compound brake pads and are capable of running at vast temperatures – anything up to 1,200 degrees Celsius. As such, a huge amount of effort is put into developing brake ducts which not only provide sufficient cooling but which are also aerodynamically efficient.

Speaking of efficiency, Formula One brakes are remarkably efficient. In combination with the modern advanced tyre compounds they have dramatically reduced braking distances. It takes a Formula One car considerably less distance to stop from 160 km/h than a road car uses to stop from 100 km/h. So good are the brakes that the regulations deliberately discourage development through restrictions on materials or design, to prevent even shorter braking distances rendering overtaking all but impossible.

Of course, the brake system on a Formula One car isn’t just responsible for scrubbing off speed – it’s also indirectly responsible for providing additional power, in as much as kinetic energy generated under braking (which would otherwise escape as heat) is converted into electrical energy and returned to the power train by the car’s sophisticated Energy Recovery Systems (ERS). In fact, ERS has led to several changes to the braking system of an F1 car, such is its powerful effect on the rear axle. Since 2014, teams have been allowed to implement electronically-controlled rear brake systems so that the drivers are able to maintain a reasonable level of balance and stability under braking.”*

Steering Wheel

In Formula 1, the steering wheel isn’t really a wheel at all. And its way more than just for steering. The steering wheel is basically the main control interface for the driver, in which the entire car’s functions (save for the throttle and brake pedal) can be controlled by the driver via buttons, knobs and switches. Most teams’ wheels include and LCD screen that conveys all the information the driver may need about the car, track, weather, lap timings and anything else the driver might need. The wheel also includes the shifting and clutch paddles on the backside, enabling the driver to always have two hands on the wheel. “One of the most technically complicated parts of the whole Formula One car is the snap-on connector that joins the wheel to the steering column. This has to be tough enough to take the steering forces, but it also provides the electrical connections between the controls and the car itself. The FIA technical regulations state that the driver must be able to get out of the car within five seconds, removing nothing except the steering wheel – so rapid release is vitally important.

Formula One cars now run with power assisted steering, reducing the forces that must be transmitted by the steering wheel. This has enabled designers to continue with the trend of reducing the steering wheel size, with the typical item now being about half the diameter of that of a normal road car.”*

Watching the drivers using the wheel is one of the most exciting parts of watching the race on tv. I have included on-board footage from this year’s race in Baku.

Tires or Tyres

“The racing tyre is constructed from a blend of very soft, natural and synthetic rubber compounds which offer the best possible grip against the texture of the racetrack, but tend to wear very quickly in the process. If you look at a typical track you will see that, just off the racing line, a large amount of rubber debris gathers (known to the drivers as ‘marbles’ because of their slipperiness). All racing tyres work best at relatively high temperatures at which point the tyres become ‘stickier’, although different compounds often have very different optimum working temperature ranges.

The development of the racing tyre came of age with the appearance of ‘slick’ untreaded tyres in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Teams and tyre makers realised that by omitting a tread pattern on dry weather tyres, the surface area of rubber in contact with the road could be maximised. Formula One cars ran with slicks until the 1998 when ‘grooved’ tyres were introduced to curb cornering speeds. The regulations specified that all tyres had to have four continuous longitudinal grooves at least 2.5 mm deep and spaced 50mm apart. These changes created several new challenges for the tyre manufacturers – most notably ensuring the grooves’ integrity, which in turn limited the softness of rubber compounds that could be used.

The 2009 season brought the much-welcomed return to slick tyres, following the FIA’s decision to use new aerodynamic regulations rather than rubber as a way of keeping cornering speeds under control.”*

Funny, the FIA was worried about keeping cornering speeds under control by going to groove tires but are now trying to increase cornering speeds with aerodynamics that see the cars reach 5 and sometimes 6g’s or more in the corners. These things are fighter jets on wheels.