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The Technology of Formula One Racing

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As befits the premier motorsport in the world, the intense level of competition is the primary factor in pushing forward the sophistication and performance of Formula One cars and their teams and drivers. Indeed, many aspects of the sport represent the peak of invention in those particular fields. The three broad subject categories below - Safety, Speed, and Spectating - each contain a few examples of the kind of innovation which is crucial to the appeal and success of Formula One.


Naturally, the first and most important factor is that the sport must be as safe as possible, for competitors and spectators alike. The latter group can be taken care of by maintaining a suitable distance between the track and the crowd, and the addition of multiple crash barriers and gravel traps. It is the people most at risk, the drivers themselves, who need the most protection. Magnesium is used to create the 'survival cell' which surrounds the cockpit and fuel tank, and the roll cage which lies inside the body work (in front and behind the cockpit area) In the event of a crash, the survival cell is intended to remain intact regardless of the force of impact, so that any energy released in the crash is directed against the rest of the car rather than the driver.

So, the driver will be safe if a collision or crash does occur. But a large portion of finance goes into crash prevention rather than cure, and this is where tyres play a large role. In the late 1990s, the Formula One Association (F1A) made efforts to slow Formula One cars down, as the speeds they were achieving were beginning to exceed safe limits for the circuits on which they were used. One of the measures they introduced was the use of grooved tyres - the thinking behind this was that with the lessened contact with the track, teams would be forced to slow their cars down in order to keep them controllable. The grooves did have an effect, but advances in car performance all but cancelled out this handicap, meaning the cars on grooved tyres were running as quick if not quicker than on 'slicks'.

This is one of the reasons why 'traction control' (where power to the wheels is computer-controlled depending on the amount of grip the tyres have) is an example of technology possibly being detrimental to safety. The FIA's stance is that teams will develop over-reliance on this system, allowing for faster cars but with the risk of catastrophic crashes should it fail. Teams are constantly working on ways to simulate the effect of traction control (as defined in the sport's technical legislation) using software control of, for example, gear-shift speeds. A risky approach, but one that may supply a competitive edge which is rewarded with Championship points.

Returning to the subject of tyres, another safety innovation which was introduced for the 2000 season was the use of 'wheel tethers'. These were ropes attached between the bodywork and the wheel rim, with the intention that in the event of a crash the tethers would prevent the wheels separating from the vehicle and causing damage to other cars, race marshals or possibly spectators. Unfortunately, the tethers were only designed to withstand crash forces of up to four times gravity, which was inadequate as demonstrated frequently during the course of the season. In fact, the tethers failed to perform their task with tragic consequences during the 2000 Italian Grand Prix, when a race marshal was killed by a loose wheel.


Even taking into account the various measures designed to slow them down, the fact remains that Formula One cars are among the fastest land-based vehicles on the planet. And as technology advances, this trend in increased speed is set to continue.

One of the biggest factors in determining how fast an F1 car can go is the aerodynamics of the design. Within certain limits imposed by the FIA, teams have a number of options available to them to reduce the drag co-efficient of their design and maximise the amount of 'down-force' on the car, which in turn increases the car's grip and stability. Most options involve the configuration of the two main wing areas on the car, one at the front, another at the rear, both of which are adjustable even during pit stops. Some teams have experimented with wings mounted either side of the cockpit, above the main air intakes for the engine. Even a few millimetres of movement can have a dramatic impact on race performance. To perfect their designs, many of the bigger teams have access to wind tunnels in which they can place scale or full size models of the car. Experimental configurations can be exhaustively tested before going into full production, saving time and money for other areas of the development process.

Another major factor in performance is, unsurprisingly, the engine of the car. Again, FIA restrictions limit most aspects of engine design - for instance, only steel or cast iron can be used to construct the basic structure of the engine. Also, the total engine capacity must not be larger than 3000 cubic centimetres. It is then up to the teams to come up with a design for maximum power from this capacity. Teams are allowed to build up to 12-cylinder engines, without superchargers. The best engines can generate in excess of 800bhp (brake horse-power), despite the restrictions imposed.

Power is a wonderful thing when it comes to racing, but if it cannot be applied properly it will not count for anything. That is why Formula One teams make extensive use of electronic sensors at testing and qualifying sessions, and analysing the resultant telemetry. Drivers can return to the pits from a test run and begin to study every aspect of their lap, from the car's performance under braking or with power applied, to refining his own racing line to find the optimum route around the circuit.


The amount of money involved in running Formula One means that public support and interest must be kept high. One of the best ways to do this is to give the public greater access to the Formula One experience, which is where in-car cameras come in. These give the illusion that the viewer is in the middle of the action, and they provide some sense of the sheer speed achieved during the course of a race. There are five possible positions for cameras on each car: the nosecone; under the rear wing; at the front of the cockpit, facing either the driver or the track ahead; near one of the side air intakes, facing the wheel in front; and on top of the car, above and behind the driver. Teams specifically take account of these camera positions when designing their cars, and even if they are not used during a race, the positions are filled with weights equal in size to the actual cameras (so as to eliminate any speed disadvantage from carrying a camera).

All this is great for spectators, but there is a darker side to such wide access into the sport. With competition as fierce and close as it is, inevitably there is scope for the use of espionage to gain an advantage over rivals. One recent example, from the 2000 season, involved the alleged use by some teams of traction control systems, despite being illegal under FIA rules. Was this merely rumour, or was this accusation based on covertly gathered information? The answer may never be found - the complexity of the electronics and associated software within Formula One cars has risen to such a degree that the FIA scrutineers experience great difficulty in determining the exact purpose and effect of any given system. Another example, this time on the subject of aerodynamics: whenever cars are parked in their garages, their wings will be covered for as long as possible to prevent other teams gaining an insight into their design strategy. Pictures and technical data on next season's cars are highly sought after, and consequently security around team factories and pit enclosures is usually very tight.

In Conclusion...

From the examples shown here, it is clear that balance is key to the success of Formula One. For the teams, they must employ the best technology available to them to produce reliable yet competitive cars. The FIA must make certain these cars race on a level playing field, with everyone conforming to an acceptable standard, and so they must police these complex vehicles and their methods of manufacture. But more importantly, all concerned have to keep in mind that any new inventions should add to the experience and thrill of the sport - after all, if that is lost, then the sport itself may also be lost.

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