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What makes an F1 car go so fast?

Snapshot: An F1 car is an engineering feat and the speed that it can achieve is mind-boggling. It's due to the way each part of the car is designed and the competent driver who drives it.

A Formula One car can do speeds in excess of 400 kmph and if you think that's not impressive enough, then you should know that they can attain such speeds in, well. under a minute. They are marvels that perfectly embody the engineering prowess of mankind. So what makes an F1 car go so fast? Let's find out.   

Engine

The engine of an F1 car is unique in a way that it is designed to offer a perfect balance between weight and power production.  Weight, in general sense, contributes to the life of an engine and it is built such that it would last for a season at max. Always operating at its limit, it is always at the brink of failure. There are three spare engines available for driver’s use in an event of failure. According to the latest guidelines, the rev range of these engines is limited to 15,000 rpm - not an impressive number if you consider that earlier engines did about 18,000-20,000 rpm before the restriction was put in place. But still, what makes the engines unique is their capability to operate at this speed during the maximum part of the race without failure. Higher RPM translates into higher power.

Precision plays an important role in an F1 engine, and the fit of piston and cylinder together with other components affect the power production directly. When an engine operates, the heat that’s produced expands the components and to prevent the engine from seizing, adequate tolerance is provided to the operating parts. To negate the effects of high temperature, components of an F1 engine are designed to be assembled while they are hot. The engines, as a result, can use parts that have the tightest operating fit and in turn produce more power from the same capacity engine. The fit between piston and cylinders is so tight that the engine can only start after it has reached its designed operating temperatures. This is done using hot water and fluid circulation around the engine.  While a normal road car is designed to be reliable, the engine of an F1 car is designed to deliver sheer performance at the expense of long-term reliability.  

Transmission 

Ideally, the transmission system of these cars should employ different gear ratios for each track since different tracks have different length of straights, amount of corners and hairpin bends. It becomes essential that a shorter gearing is employed on a track that has more turns and straights are considerably less so that the car can accelerate fast and likewise, comparatively taller gearing should be employed for the tracks that have long straights, so that fuel can be saved and higher top speeds can be attained. This was the case until the latest regulations were put into place, which required fixed gear ratios for the entire season.

All F1 cars use semi-automatic seamless shift gearboxes (8 forward and 1 reverse gears). Look at the gearbox as rather conventional transmission system that has adopted quite advanced control systems for operation. The driver can change gears even without releasing the accelerator paddle. The driver simply needs to flick the paddle, which, in turn, signals the ECU to cut the ignition and depress the clutch electronically for ratio change. All this happens automatically and a gear change is about 50 times faster (0.005 seconds) than a human can blink. The lightening quick gearshifts translate into minimal resistance and help attain high speeds quickly. All of this is further aided by low-weight drive components (carbon alloys, steel alloys, etc.) that form a part of the high-performance transmission system.  

Drivers 

Drivers of F1 cars can be compared with astronauts in regard to the G-forces that they experience. F1 race drivers have to cope with 3-5 g forces throughout the race, and most dominant accelerative/decelerative forces are experienced by the drivers in lateral and longitudinal directions. The race is physically and mentally demanding, and requires drivers to be in their best shape. Drivers need to undergo a period of conditioning to cope with the physical demands. Perhaps no other motor sport on earth requires so much in terms of stamina and endurance from the drivers. Drivers can easily sweat about 3 kg of their body weight during the hot course of a race, which puts additional strain. The level of concentration, hand-eye coordination and reaction time required from the drivers is a league of its own.

Although the cars use power steering, without high muscular strength, it would be impossible for the drivers to control the car for the entire duration of the race. Other than the ballast weight, which is carefully placed for efficient dynamics, drivers tend to lose weight and build just the right amount of muscle for the same reason.

Weight and Bodywork Aerodynamics 

The minimum weight for the car is dictated by FIA guidelines. It’s required that high level of structural integrity is achieved with lowest amount of material volume, and careful use of bonding, composites and other advanced materials. The low weight also increases the effective power-to-weight ratio and helps the car accelerate fast. It is important that the car not only has less weight, but also is in right place. The ballast weight is carefully placed to have an effective CG that’s in the middle of the car and is as low as possible to improve the overall dynamics of the car.

Every surface (suspension links, helmet, cooling ducts, etc.) on an F1 car is carefully designed, taking aerodynamics into account. The immense power that’s developed by the engine can be put to efficient use only if there’s enough down force to develop traction and the least amount of drag to attain high speeds on straights is maintained.  Diffusers and wings together on a Formula One car are capable of developing enough down force (three and a half times its own weight – 3.5g) that it can be theoretically driven upside down at high speeds.

Brakes and KERS 

To have fast lap times, it’s essential that the car carries the highest amount of speeds on all parts of the track (straights as well as on corners). The brakes need to be extremely efficient so that the drivers can apply brakes late before entering a corner and reduce the speed in less time. F1 cars use carbon fibre composite brake discs, which not only save weight but also can run on higher temperatures in comparison to the steel discs. The brake pads are made of special compounds that are capable of operating at extremely high temperatures (up to 750 degree Celsius) without failing. The bakes are aerodynamically efficient and cooling ducts are used to prevent brake fade at high temperatures. 

The kinetic energy that would have otherwise escaped as heat in a normal car is converted to electrical energy with the help of KERS and returned to the powertrain as additional power that’s available to the driver when required, and this boosts the power even further.   

Although the FIA guidelines are now extremely detailed and explicit, and dictate almost everything that goes into making a complete car, every once in a while, there comes along someone like Gordon Murray or Colin Chapman who successfully outwits the men who write the rules at FIA and sometimes this is what makes all the difference.

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