Motorsport is often viewed as the crucible where the latest automotive technology is forged. Through great heat and pressure, the base metal of the everyday vehicle is transmuted into creations that are lighter, stronger, and above all, faster. The desire for the glory of the checkered flag drives not only the individual behind the wheel, but those who create the machine as well. Racing pushes the limits of engineering and scientific advancement to new and greater heights, and as a result, mere mortals like you and I reap the benefits.

Many regard Formula 1 as the highest form of motorsport. This is for many reasons. First, there’s the money. The average F1 team spends several hundred million dollars in its annual efforts. The best drivers in the world flock to F1, with the crème de la crème earning tens of millions per year.

Second, there’s the history. Since the fifties, F1 has been pushing the limits of what four wheels and an engine are capable of accomplishing. In that time, it’s seen enormous changes and huge evolutions, but the result is always the same: better automotive technology.

Which brings us to our third point: the speed. F1 cars hold lap records at pretty much every track they race on. The modern F1 car can accelerate from a standstill to 60 mph in less than two seconds, reaching a top speed well over 200 mph. But the truly impressive thing about these vehicles is the way they take a bend, with up to 3.5 Gs of lateral grip possible thanks to outrageous aero. The faster these things go, the harder they grip.

F1 cars are essentially ground-bound rocket ships. The technology they use is as advanced as anything you’d find destined for orbit. That’s why in this week’s tech guide, we’ll take an in-depth look at what makes them tick.

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F1 History

Fangio's Mercedes Race Car Sells for $30 Million at Goodwood High Resolution Exterior
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The concept of Formula 1 was molded from some of the earliest auto racing organizations, with the European Grand Prix championship cited as the foremost precursor to the sport’s modern form. Running between 1931 and 1939, this series was halted at the outset of the Second World War. Then, in 1946, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) formalized its rules for a premier single-seat racing category, officially launching the F1 World Championship in May of 1950 at the UK’s Silverstone track.

Major Italian factory teams, including Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, and Maserati ruled the day, while other manufacturers, like France’s Talbot and Britain’s BRM, also competed. Several privateer entrants took part as well.

At the time, the cars were carryovers from before the war. Alfa Romeo, for example, fielded the Alfetta, a front-engined car with a supercharged, 1.5-liter straight-eight powerplant that produced upward of 420 horsepower. While quite powerful, fuel consumption was astonishingly poor, with an average of less than two mpg seen during competition (yes, <2 mpg), which made for too much time spent in the pits. This kicked off the push to develop new, more efficient engines, and the technological arms race began.

By the ’60s, the engine had moved from the front to the middle, while the original spaceframe design began to yield to an aluminum monocoque. Then came aerodynamics in the ’70s, which increased cornering speeds substantially. McLaren was the first to introduce a carbon-composite chassis in 1981. Meanwhile, engine configurations were in a state of flux, gaining and losing cylinders, adding and banning boost, and fluctuating in displacement. F1 cars sit at the edge of automotive development, representing the very latest in technology used both and off the track.

The Modern Day F1 Car

Chassis and Aerodynamics

USF1 releases first rendering of Type 1 Formula One car Exterior
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The cars you see buzzing onto the grid each Sunday are constructed from a carbon-composite-based monocoque chassis. Like every other component on an F1 car, the design process starts with the technical specifications laid out by the FIA. Working under these requirements, a team of engineers employ computer aided design (CAD) programs to create a base mold upon which carbon fiber is applied. Successive layers of the material are laid down in sheets. In this state, the woven material is as flexible as any other fabric. Aluminum honeycomb is also added for greater strength.

Next, the carbon/aluminum creation is put into a vacuum, which helps smooth the many composite layers onto the surfaces of the mold, giving them a tight fit across the entire structure. Finally, the whole thing is put into an autoclave, which heats and pressurizes the mold, giving the carbon its characteristic attributes of strength and stiffness. The new carbon piece is then popped from the mold, and is then prepped for testing.

Carbon fiber is ideal for a racing application. Not only can it endure the vicious loads placed upon it, but it’s also incredibly light. This year, the minimum weight for an F1 car is 1,548 pounds, including the driver. That means every ounce saved is critical.

Aerodynamics are another crucial factor in shaving those extra tenths on track. A good deal of development goes into tweaking the FIA’s wing specs to find an optimum balance between downforce and drag. While more downforce yields greater grip and subsequently higher cornering speeds, the excess drag that downforce creates limits top speed. Wind tunnels and computer simulations are essential in determining the optimum setup, with extensive attention paid to every surface of the car that’ll see air, even including the driver’s helmet. The result is ungodly amounts of stick. In fact, at speed, an F1 car could theoretically drive upside down because of its aerodynamic downforce.

Suspension and Brakes

2004 Ferrari F2004
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Like the chassis, the things that make an F1 car turn and stop are made of highly advanced materials. The suspension is composed of carbon fiber multi-link components, which bear some resemblance to the double wishbones of a road car. Push rods and bell cranks are in place to offer variable spring rates. Setup is hugely adjustable.

The brakes consist of six-pistons front and back, with carbon used for the calipers, discs and pads. These also offer substantial adjustability. Operating temperatures can get up to 1,382 degrees Fahrenheit. Roughly four seconds is all that’s needed for an F1 car to go from 185 mph to a complete stop. Under heavy braking, a driver can experience nearly 5.4 G.

The wheels are made from a magnesium alloy. Wrapped around these feather-light rollers is outrageously sticky Pirelli rubber, with P Zero slicks for dry days and Cinturato treads used in the wet.

Engine

Cosworth at the 2009 SEMA Show
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The shrieking heart of a Formula 1 car is its engine. This year, it’s an FIA-mandated turbocharged 1.6-liter 90 degree V-6 with a rev limit of 15,000 rpm. Total output from this unit is 600 horsepower. Mated to this is an electrical system that adds an additional 160 horsepower, making it a hybrid.

The new drivetrain is part of a concerted effort on the part of the FIA to encourage the development of fuel-saving technology. F1 hybrid systems were originally introduced in 2009, and currently feature two separate methods of creating more muscle.

The first is called the Motor Generator Unit – Kinetic (MGU-K), which converts energy expended under braking into electricity. Then there’s the Motor Generator Unit – Heat (MGU-H), which is connected to the turbocharger to convert heat energy from the exhaust into electricity. The MGU-H also controls the rate at which the turbo spins, either speeding it up to decrease lag, or slowing it down like a wastegate.

All that electricity can then be routed back into the drivetrain for a boost in output, which is available to drivers for a total of 33 seconds per lap.

F1 In Your Commute

Red Bull Racing runs wild in the Lone Star State Exterior
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Beyond the spectacle of watching these machines do battle out on track, what does all this technology mean for normal folks like you and me? What it means is we get a whole lot of fantastic hand-me-down technology.

Energy reclamation, for example, can be seen on a variety of sports cars, like the McLaren P1 and BMW i8. DSG transmissions, like the unit found on the new VW Golf R, are hitting the mainstream in a big way. Tire technology, brake technology, aerodynamics, even all those fancy sci-fi materials – they’re all trickling down to the everyday road car.

Safety is another major area of development. Between 1950 and 1960, 18 fatalities occurred in F1. In the last decade, there’s been only one (last year, Denis Welch died while driving a Lotus 18 in a historics race at Silverstone). This is testament to the enormous efforts that go into mitigating the effects of heavy crashes. Even though these cars are at the forefront of go-fast technology, the lives of those in the cockpit are still the priority.

Future of F1

Formula One's return to America will be on 2012 in Austin, Texas
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More than a few folks out there are saying that while the technology behind this sport is still mind-blowing, F1 racing has lost some of its luster. I’d have to agree with this. Perhaps we’re getting to the point where the machine is beginning to outpace the human, where the speeds are so high and the racing is so technical, passing is rare and the parade is done in an almost clinical fashion.

Maybe. But regardless of anyone’s opinion about the entertainment value of F1, one thing is for certain: the technology will continue to forge ahead, leading the way for newer, better, and most importantly, faster cars in the future.

But getting back to the whole entertainment thing… we’ve all heard an F1 car can drive upside down at speed, but has anyone actually seen it? Sounds like a great addition to a track like Yas Marina…

Is there a tech topic you want to see covered? Leave suggestions in the comments below.

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