A modern Formula One car is a single-seat, open cockpit, open wheel race car with substantial front and rear wings, and engine positioned behind the driver. The regulations governing the cars are unique to the championship. The Formula One regulations specify that cars must be constructed by the racing teams themselves.
See Formula One regulations for a summary of the technical and sporting regulations.
For a decade F1 cars had run with 3.0 litre naturally-aspirated V10 engines, but in an attempt to slow the cars down, the FIA mandated that as of the 2006 season the cars must be powered by 2.4 litre naturally-aspirated engines in the V8 configuration that have no more than four valves per cylinder. Further technical restrictions such as a ban on variable intake trumpets have also been introduced with the new 2.4 L V8 formula to prevent the teams from achieving higher rpm and horsepower too quickly. As of the start of the 2007 season all engines are now limited to 19,000 rpm in an effort to improve engine reliability and to cut costs down in general.
Once the teams started using exotic alloys in the late 1990s, the FIA banned the use of exotic materials in engine construction, and only aluminum and iron alloys were allowed for the pistons, cylinders, connecting rods, and crankshafts. Nevertheless through engineering on the limit and the use of such devices as pneumatic valves, modern F1 engines have revved up to over 18,000 rpm since approximately the 2000 season. Almost each year the FIA has enforced material and design restrictions to limit power, otherwise the 3.0L V10 engines would easily have exceeded 22,000 rpm and well over 1,000 hp (745 kW). Even with the restrictions the V10s in the 2005 season were reputed to develop 960 hp (715 kW). The new 2.4L V8 engines are reported to develop between and .
The more poorly funded teams (Ferrari spends hundreds of millions of pounds a year developing their car, while the former Minardi team spent less than 50 million) had the option of keeping the current V10 for another season, but with a rev limiter to keep them from being competitive with the most powerful V8 engines. The only team to take this option was the Toro Rosso team, which was the reformed and regrouped Minardi.
The engines produce over 100,000 BTU per minute (1,750 kW) of heat that must be dumped, usually to the atmosphere via radiators and the exhaust, which can reach temperatures over 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit). They consume around 650 liters (23 ft³) of air per second. Race fuel consumption rate is normally around 75 liters per 100 kilometers traveled (3.1 US mpg - 3.8 UK mpg - 1.3 km/l). Nonetheless a Formula One engine is over 20% more efficient at turning fuel into power than most small commuter cars, considering their craftsmanship.
All cars have the engine located between the driver and the rear axle. The engines are a stressed member in most cars, meaning that the engine is part of the structural support framework; being bolted to the cockpit at the front end, and transmission and rear suspension at the back end.
In the 2004 championship, engines were required to last a full race weekend; in the 2005 championship, they are required to last two full race weekends and if a team changes an engine between the two races, they incur a penalty of 10 grid positions. In 2007 this rule was altered slightly and an engine now only has to last for Saturday and Sunday running. This was to promote Friday running. In 2006, teams avoided running for long stints in an effort to save the engine and avoid a 10 place drop on the grid.
As of the 2006 Chinese Grand Prix all engine development was frozen until 2009, meaning that the teams must use existing engine specs for the next two seasons. FIA President Max Mosley has suggested the possible introduction of bio-fuel and reintroduction of turbochargers to F1 to improve the efficiency of future engines developed after the freeze is lifted.
Continuously variable transmissions have long been banned, thus creating contention in the introduction of the new seamless shift gearbox, a type of dual-clutch transmission which nearly eliminates the brief power interruption during a gear change. The ultimate advantage of this is said to be from five to ten seconds over a complete race distance, which is a significant gain when races are sometimes only won by three seconds or less. As of the 2007 race season, most of the top teams are using seamless shift transmissions. Shift times are around .05 seconds for the 2007 season.
As of 2008 race season, all gearboxes must endure for four consecutive events, although gear ratios can be changed for each race. Changing a gearbox before the allowed time will cause a five places drop on the starting grid.
The 'barge boards' in particular are designed, shaped, configured, adjusted and positioned not to create downforce directly, as with a conventional wing or underbody venturi, but to create vortices from the air spillage at their edges. The use of vortices is a significant feature of the latest breeds of F1 cars. Since a vortex is a rotating fluid that creates a low pressure zone at its centre, creating vortices lowers the overall local pressure of the air. Since low pressure is what is desired under the car, as it allows normal atmospheric pressure to press the car down from the top, by creating vortices downforce can be augmented while still staying within the rules prohibiting ground effects.
A substantial amount of downforce is provided by using a rear diffuser which rises from the undertray at the rear axle to the actual rear of the bodywork. The limitations on ground effects, limited size of the wings (requiring use at high angles of attack to create sufficient downforce), and vortices created by open wheels lead to a high aerodynamic drag coefficient (about 1 according to Minardi's technical director Gabriele Tredozi; compare with the average modern saloon car (sedan in the USA), which has a Cd value between 0.25-0.35), so that, despite the enormous power output of the engines, the top speed of these cars is less than that of World War II vintage Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union Silver Arrows racers. However, this drag is more than compensated for by the ability to corner at extremely high speed. The aerodynamics are adjusted for each track; with a relatively low drag configuration for tracks where high speed is relatively more important like Autodromo Nazionale Monza, and a high traction configuration for tracks where cornering is more important, like the Circuit de Monaco.
The cars are constructed from composites of carbon fibre and similar ultra-lightweight (and expensive to manufacture) materials. The minimum weight permissible is including the driver, fluids and on-board cameras. However, all F1 cars weigh significantly less than this (some as little as 440 kg) so teams add ballast to the cars to bring them up to the minimum legal weight. The advantage of using ballast is that it can be placed anywhere in the car to provide ideal weight distribution.
The driver has the ability to fine tune many elements of the race car from within the machine using the steering wheel. The wheel can be used to change gears, apply rev limiter, adjust fuel air mix, change brake pressure and call the radio. Data such as rpm, laptimes, speed and gear is displayed on an LCD screen. The wheel alone can cost about $31,000, and with carbon fibre construction, weighs in at 1.3 kilograms.
The fuel used in F1 cars is fairly similar to ordinary gasoline, albeit with a far more tightly controlled mix. Formula One fuel cannot contain compounds that are not found in commercial gasoline, in contrast to alcohol-based fuels used in American open-wheel racing. Blends are tuned for maximum performance in given weather conditions or different circuits. During the period when teams were limited to a specific volume of fuel during a race, exotic high-density fuel blends were used which were actually heavier than water, since the energy content of a fuel depends on its mass density.
To make sure that the teams and fuel suppliers are not violating the fuel regulations, the FIA requires Elf, Shell, Mobil, and the other fuel teams to submit a sample of the fuel they are providing for a race. At any time, FIA inspectors can request a sample from the fueling rig to compare the "fingerprint" of what is in the car during the race with what was submitted. The teams usually abide by this rule, but in 1997, Mika Häkkinen was stripped of his third place finish at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium after the FIA determined that his fuel was not the correct formula, as well as in 1976, both McLaren and Penske cars were forced to the rear of the Italian Grand Prix after the octane mixture was found to be too high.
By regulation, the tyres feature a minimum of four grooves in them, with the intention of slowing down the cars (a slick tyre, with no indentations, is best in dry conditions). They can be no wider than and at the front and rear respectively. Unlike the fuel, the tyres bear only a superficial resemblance to a normal road tyre. Whereas a roadcar tyre has a useful life of up to , in 2005, a Formula One tyre is built to last just one race distance (a little over ). This is the result of a drive to maximize the road-holding ability, leading to the use of very soft compounds (to ensure that the tyre surface conforms to the road surface as closely as possible). However, tyre changes were re-instated in 2006, following the dramatic and highly political 2005 United States Grand Prix.
Since the start of the 2007 season Bridgestone is the sole tyre supplier and have introduced four compounds of tyre, two of which will be made available at each race. The harder tyre is more durable but gives less grip, and the softer tyre gives more grip but is less durable. Both compounds have to be used by teams in a race and the softer tyre has a painted white stripe in the second groove. This was introduced after the first race of the season when confusion occurred because a small dot was put instead of the white stripe. Each team must use each specification during the race, unless wet or intermediate tyres are used during the race, in which case this rule no longer applies.
Slick tyres will return as a part of revisions to the rules for the 2009 season.
Disc brakes consist of a rotor and caliper at each wheel. Expensive carbon-carbon (the same material used on the Space Shuttle) composite rotors - introduced by the Brabham team in 1976 - are used instead of steel or cast iron because of their superior frictional, thermal, and anti-warping properties, as well as significant weight savings. These brakes are designed and manufactured to work in extreme temperatures, up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. The driver can control brake force distribution fore and aft to compensate for changes in track conditions or fuel load. Regulations specify this control has to be manual, not electronic.
An average F1 car can decelerate from 100-0 km/h (62-0 mph) in about 17 metres (55 ft), compared with a 2007 Porsche 911 Turbo which takes 31.4 metres (103 feet). When braking from higher speeds, aerodynamic downforce enables tremendous deceleration: 4.5 g to 5.0 g (44.1 to 49 m/s²), and up to 5.5 g at the high-speed circuits such as the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve (Canadian GP) and the Autodromo Nazionale Monza (Italian GP). This contrasts with 1.0 g to 1.5 g for the best sports cars (the Bugatti Veyron is claimed to be able to brake at 1.3 g). An F1 car can brake from 200 km/h (124 mph) to a complete stop in just 2.9 seconds, using only 65 meters (213 ft).
Grand Prix cars and the cutting edge technology that constitute them produce an unprecedented combination of outright speed and quickness for the drivers. Every F1 car on the grid is capable of going from 0 to 160 km/h (100 mph) and back to 0 in less than five seconds. During a demonstration at the Silverstone circuit in Britain, an F1 McLaren-Mercedes car driven by David Coulthard gave a pair of Mercedes-Benz street cars a head start of seventy seconds, and was able to beat the cars to the finish line from a standing start.
As well as being fast in a straight line, F1 cars also have incredible cornering ability. Grand Prix cars can negotiate corners at significantly higher speeds than other racing cars because of the intense levels of grip and downforce. Cornering speed is so high that Formula One drivers have strength training routines just for the neck muscles . Former F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya claims to be able to perform 300 reps of 50 pounds with his neck. Since most tracks are clockwise, most drivers have the neck muscles built up on one side of their neck, thus making counter-clockwise tracks (such as Imola, Istanbul Park and Interlagos) a much more testing race than even the high speed Monza or the tight and narrow Monaco.
The combination of light weight (605 kg in race trim), power (950 bhp with the 3.0 L V10, with the 2007 regulation 2.4 L V8), aerodynamics, and ultra-high performance tyres is what gives the F1 car its performance figures. The principal consideration for F1 designers is acceleration, and not simply top speed. Acceleration is not just linear forward acceleration, but three types of acceleration can be considered for an F1 car's, and all cars' in general, performance:
Unless a car is to be raced solely on high-speed ovals (where only top speed matters), all three accelerations should be maximised. The way these three accelerations are obtained and their values are:
The 2006 F1 cars have a power-to-weight ratio of /tonne (0.9 kW/kg). Theoretically this would allow the car to reach in less than 1 second. However the massive power cannot be converted to motion at low speeds due to traction loss, and the usual figure is 2 seconds to reach . After about traction loss is minimal due to the combined effect of the car moving faster and the downforce, hence the car continues accelerating at a very high rate. The figures are (for the 2006 Renault R26):
The acceleration figure is usually 1.45 g (14.25 m/s²) up to 200 km/h (124 mph), which means the driver is pushed back in the seat with 1.45 times his bodyweight.
The carbon brakes in combination with the aerodynamics produces truly remarkable braking forces. The deceleration force under braking is usually 4 g (39 m/s²), and can be as high as 5-6 g when braking from extreme speeds, for instance at the Gilles Villeneuve circuit or at Indianapolis. Here the aerodynamic drag actually helps, and can contribute as much as 1.0 g of braking force, which is the equivalent of the brakes on most sports cars. In other words, if the throttle is let go, the F1 car will slow down under drag at the same rate as most sports cars do with braking, at least at speeds above . The drivers do not utilise engine or compression braking, although it may seem this way. The only reason they change down gears prior to entering the corner is to be in the correct gear for maximum acceleration on the exit of the corner.
There are three companies who manufacture brakes for Formula One. They are Hitco, (based in the US, part of the SGL Carbon Group), Brembo in Italy and Carbone Industrie of France. Whilst Hitco manufacture their own carbon/carbon, Brembo sources theirs from Honeywell, and Carbone Industrie purchases their carbon from Messier Bugatti.
Carbon/Carbon is a short name for carbon fibre reinforced carbon. This means carbon fibres strengthening a matrix of carbon, which is added to the fibres by way of matrix deposition (CVI or CVD) or by pyrolosis of a resin binder.
F1 brakes are 278 mm (10.9 in) in diameter and a maximum of 28 mm (1.1 in) thick. The carbon/carbon brake pads are actuated by 6-piston opposed calipers provided by Akebono, AP Racing or Brembo. The calipers are aluminium alloy bodied with titanium pistons. The regulation limits the modulus of the caliper material to 80GPa in order to prevent teams using exotic, high specific stiffness materials for example Beryllium. Titanium pistons save weight, but also have a low thermal conductivity, reducing the heat flow into the brake fluid.
As mentioned above, the car can accelerate to very quickly, however the top speeds are not much higher than at most circuits, being highest at Monza (360 km/h in 2006), Indianapolis (about ) and Gilles Villeneuve (about ). This is because the top speeds are sacrificed for the turning speeds. An F1 car is designed principally for high-speed cornering, thus the aerodynamic elements can produce as much as three times the car's weight in downforce, at the expense of drag. In fact, at a speed of just , the downforce equals the weight of the car. As the speed of the car rises, the downforce increases. The turning force at low speeds (below 70 to about 100 km/h) mostly comes from the so-called 'mechanical grip' of the tyres themselves. At such low speeds the car can turn at 2.0 g. At already the turning acceleration is 3.0g, as evidenced by the famous esses (turns 3 and 4) at the Suzuka circuit. Higher-speed corners such as Blanchimont (Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps) and Copse (Silverstone Circuit) are taken at above 5.0g, and 6.0g has been recorded at Suzuka's 130-R corner. This contrasts with 1g for the Enzo Ferrari, one of the best racing sports cars.
These turning accelerative forces allow an F1 car to corner at amazing speeds, seeming to defy the laws of physics. As an example of the extreme cornering speeds, the Blanchimont and Eau Rouge corners at Spa-Francorchamps are taken flat-out at above , whereas the race-spec touring cars can only do so at 150–160 km/h. A newer and perhaps even more extreme example is the Turn 8 at the Istanbul Park circuit, a 190° relatively tight 4-apex corner, in which the cars maintain speeds between and 285 km/h (in 2006) and experience between 4.5g and 5.5g for 7 seconds - the longest sustained hard cornering in Formula 1.
Top speeds are in practice limited by the longest straight at the track and by the need to balance the car's aerodynamic configuration between high straight line speed (low aerodynamic drag) and high cornering speed (high downforce) to achieve the fastest lap time. During the 2006 season, the top speeds of Formula 1 cars are a little over 300 km/h (186 mph) at high-downforce tracks such as Albert Park, Australia and Sepang, Malaysia. These speeds are down by some from the 2005 speeds, and from the 2004 speeds, due to the recent performance restrictions (see below). On low-downforce circuits greater top speeds are registered: at Gilles-Villeneuve (Canada) 325 km/h (203 mph), at Indianapolis (USA) 335 km/h (210 mph), and at Monza (Italy) 360 km/h (225 mph). In the Italian Grand Prix 2004, Antônio Pizzonia of BMW WilliamsF1 team recorded a top speed of 369.9 kilometers per hour (229 mph).
Away from the track, the BAR Honda team used a modified BAR 007 car, which they claim complied with FIA Formula One regulations, to set an unofficial speed record of 413 km/h (257 mph) on a one way straight line run on 6 November 2005 during a shakedown ahead of their Bonneville 400 record attempt. The car was optimised for top speed with only enough downforce to prevent it from leaving the ground. The car, badged as a Honda following their takeover of BAR at the end of 2005, set an FIA ratified record of on a one way run on 21 July 2006 at Bonneville Salt Flats. On this occasion the car did not fully meet FIA Formula One regulations, as it used a moveable aerodynamic rudder for stability control, breaching article 3.15 of the 2006 Formula One technical regulations which states that any specific part of the car influencing its aerodynamic performance must be rigidly secured.
In an effort to reduce speeds and increase driver safety, the FIA has continuously introduced new rules for F1 constructors since the 80s.
These rules have included the banning of such things as the "wing car" (ground effect) in 1983, the turbo in 1989, active suspension and traction control in 1994, the introduction of grooved tyres in 1998 and the reduction in engine capacity from 3.0 to 2.4 litres in 2006. Yet despite these changes, constructors continued to extract performance gains by increasing power and aerodynamic efficiency. As a result, the pole position speed at many circuits in comparable weather conditions dropped between 1.5 and 3 seconds in 2004 over the prior year's times. In 2006 the engine power was reduced from 950 bhp to 750 bhp (710 to 560 kW) by going from the 3.0 L V10s, used for over a decade, to 2.4 L V8s. These new engines are capable of achieving over 20,000 rpm. The aerodynamic restrictions introduced in 2005 were meant to reduce downforce by about 30%, however most teams were able to successfully reduce this to a mere 5 to 10% downforce loss. For the 2007 season, teams are not allowed to make modification to the engines and they have been limited to 19,000 rpm.
In 2008, the FIA has further strengthened its cost-cutting measures by asking that gearboxes are to last for 4 grand prix weekends in addition to the 2-race engine lives. Further, all teams are required to use a standardised ECU supplied by MES (McLaren Electronic Systems) made in conjunction with Microsoft. These ECU's have placed restrictions on the use of electronic driver aids such as Traction Control and engine braking. The emphasis being on reducing costs as well as placing the focus back onto driver skills as opposed to the so-called 'electronic gizmos' controlling the cars. Proposed changes for the 2009 season include a return to slick tyres, as well as considerable reduction in aerodynamic grip via the banning of winglets and other aero devices now currently being used to better direct airflow over and under the cars.
Due to increasing environmental pressures from lobby groups and the like, many have brought into speculation the relevance of Formula 1 as an innovating force towards future technological advances (particularly those concerned with 'greener' cars). The FIA has been asked to consider how it can persuade the sport to moving down a more environmentally friendly path. Therefore, in addition to the above changes outlined for the 2009 season, teams will also be asked to construct a KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) device, encompassing certain types of regenerative braking systems to be fitted to the cars in time for the 2009 season. The system aims to reduce the amount of kinetic energy converted to waste heat in braking, converting it instead to a useful form (such as electrical energy or energy in a flywheel) to be later fed back through the engine to create a power boost. Such technology is highly likely to become a staple in the design and construction of road cars within the next 10 to 15 years, with increasing fuel costs and environmental concerns. It is through these technological breakthroughs that Formula 1 is striving to not only be the peak of what is technically possible, but also a platform from which environmentally friendly solutions for future use may be obtained, in a similar way to the development of technologies that have improved performance and efficiency in ordinary vehicles in the past.