Field of Science

Formula One and Technology

When I was so much younger than I am today I went to an open-wheel car race.  It added really fast cars to the list (a list also including, but not limited to: robots, rockets, spaceships, hyperspace) of things I know are awesome.  This weekend is the Monaco Grand Prix.  It is perhaps one of if not the most prestigious racing event in the world (of course it has stiff competition from the 'greatest spectacle in racing' the Indianapolis 500 which is also this weekend).  I am not actually that big of a fan of racing, but the science and technology of racing is amazing so it interests me.  These cars are like grounded spaceships and until we get the Rocket Racing League they are the best thing going.

Formula One cars are ultimate racing machines. They contain state-of-the-art technology that you can't even find on the space shuttle. The philosophy is that you give race teams a rough formula to follow and let them design the craziest car they can. This indeed results in a crazy car, for example one of the regulations is that the engine must only be 2.4 liters, but the cars still produce upwards of 700 horsepower (by the way NASCAR employs a 5.87 liter engine that produces about the same amount of horsepower, however they then force the teams to install restrictor plates in the engines reducing the power to as low as 430 on some tracks. So basically you have a horribly inefficient choking engine pushing a brick through the air. If you still think this sounds remotely interesting you can check out the Physics of NASCAR and please lets never mention it again).  Another example of the design philosophy is that there is no actual limit to the length of the cars. There is a width limit and limits on other various components, but generally the designers again have free reign. The cars look similar because all the teams think they have found the best way to design something that goes fast. If someone could design something faster they would win. That is the philosophy behind Formula One, or we hope it is. This year the rules have changed radically.

Historically rule changes have been met with a lot of grudging compliance and this time is the same. However, rules changes have also spawned innovation. A few years ago the engine displacement was cut from 3.0 to 2.4 liters and performance dropped about 20% accordingly until aerodynamic and tyre technology caught up and lap times for the cars matched the previous 3.0 liter benchmarks. The new rule changes this year are causing big changes in the aerodynamics and energy recovery systems.

Aerodynamics is really the name of the game. At high speeds your wasting the majority of your engine's power fighting air. There is a need to keep massive amounts of power to the wheels at all times in order to keep pushing the air out of the car's way, but in order to apply this power to the road there must be sufficient traction between the tyre and road.  The trick is to use the air slowing the car also to one's advantage.  One way to increase grip is to increase downforce, however there is a basic trade off designers face which is downforce vs. drag.   Drag increases a vehicles high speed grip, but reduces that top speed.  Adding wings to the front and the rear of the car increases the grip at high speed by creating downforce, but also creates drag. You see performance gains with every nuanced design aspect of the car particularly parts of the car you rarely see, those are the undertray and diffuser. The undertray is simply the bottom of the car, all race cars have pretty much smooth undertrays, but they may also have special grooves and guides for air that suction the car onto the road surface. The diffuser is the trailing edge of your undertray (it is highlighted here) and has led to some controversy this year because some teams have designed questionable diffusers that are improving their lap times. Aerodynamics is a complicated and interesting field that may make for beautiful looking vehicles, strange looking vehicles (like the Aptera), or it may look like nothing at all until it all goes wrong.

Notice this is not a Formula One car. This is a Le Mans car and coincidentally 24 hours of Le Mans is also coming up very soon.
Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems, or KERS are kind of a big deal. Some teams embrace the technology others shun it, KERS is basically just saving the kinetic energy your car would otherwise waste in the form of heat from your brakes when you stop or more technically it is called regenerative breaking and is just like what you would find on a Prius, although with cutting edge F1 technology and weight savings schemes and of course more danger. Although the most common commercial application to consumer vehicles has been electric not all KERS are electric. Any method of storing energy can be applied engineers have tried many approaches including: chemical batteries, supercapacitors, and flywheels.  In the Formula One world they are most interested in specific energy and specific power. Specific energy is the amount of energy per unit mass that the system can store. And specific power is the rate at which that energy can be put in or taken out of the system per unit mass. Chemical batteries have the greatest specific energy. Flywheels have the greatest specific power. Supercapacitors are like the opposite of batteries with great specific power, but low specific energy. Each Formula One team can choose to use KERS or not and what type of KERS to use.  Their choice depends on many real world factors and on how these systems work under different conditions. For example batteries are dependant on such environmental factors as the ambient temperature or humidity and they have a limited lifetime determined by the number of charges. Supercapacitors can pack a deadly shock and at least one engineer has already been shocked. And flywheels can fly apart like a bomb. So KERS are tenative for most race teams, but more practically it may be the beginning of ultra light regenerative breaking systems that can be applied to all vehicles.   The physics and economics of specific energy and specific power are driving the electric car industry's bottom line when you think about it.

The 2009 McLaren team car.
One last thing is the design. Car people for all their talk about performance have an obsession with looks and design. Perhaps the whole sport is really just about glamour  (try watching the 08 Monaco for a glimpse), but they have found performance is glamour?  There is a huge uproar at the absurdity of the tiny rear wing and simply the fact that the cars look 'different'.

Formula One may yet have some kind of odd relevance to consumer technology and what you will be driving or flying in the future. It hopefully integrates design, technology, and relevance seamlessly. I have sworn to never buy a new car that runs on gasoline and so I welcome innovation from every perspective. Lets just hope they don't regulate the teams too much because for many it is as much about the technology of the racing team as it is a test of the drivers. The less rules imposed the more room there is for revolutions or is it with each rule imposed another revolution is forced?


  1. Tyres? What, are you British?

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