The use of carbon fiber composites has played a significant role in Formula 1 racecars since the 1981 season when the newly designed McLaren MP4/1 revealed its carbon fiber monocoque. This introduction of the composite in the sport has produced some dramatic changes in the racing scene for numerous reasons. The three most iconic changes are in driver safety, driver comfort, and overall performance. This article will take a deeper look into these three examples.
Making sure that Formula One drivers stay safe is the highest priority for not only the racing team, but also for the regulators and officials of the entire sport itself. There are strict rules, regulations, and guidelines for Formula One racecars for everything from the engine displacement to the drag reduction system. These restrictions are in place not only for the driver and spectator safety aspect, but also in order to keep a level playing field by making sure that no one team has an unfair advantage over the other. The absolutely most important safety feature made of the carbon fiber is the car’s monocoque, or more commonly known as, “the chassis”.
The monocoque, a French word that translates into “single shell”, is the principal component which includes the driver’s cockpit and is surrounded by deformable crash protection structures which absorb energy during an impact. This vital component of the car was originally made of steel in the early days of the sport, followed by aluminum, and eventually evolved into the stiff carbon fiber which has become the standard today.
This modern shell is twice as a strong as steel, is made from threads five times thinner than human hair, and weight only an astonishing 35kg. The entire chassis is hand made in a pressurized clean room environment. It is vital that engineers do not transfer grease or oil from their skin onto the carbon fiber cloth because it will contaminate and weaken the final product.
The monocoque is equipped with a crumple zone on each end which will shatter mm by mm to absorb impact during a crash, but the entire “survival cell” remains completely intact even under the most extreme conditions. In fact, there hasn’t been a driver death in over 20 years since Ayrton Senna died from severe head trauma after hitting a wall at over 150 MPH in 1994.
Another notable safety feature that Formula One teams use to protect their drivers is carbon fiber helmets. These high-tech helmets are made to be as light as possible, typically under three pounds. It is important to keep the weight down because it reduces the g-forces that are experienced during acceleration, braking, and cornering.
Formula One drivers do not sit in their cars; they are actually lying down with their feet slightly elevated due to the design of the cockpit. It is essential that they keep a low center of gravity at all times and it is even difficult to see properly because they are sitting so low in the car.
Adding to the visual impairment, the cockpit of the typical Formula One racecar reaches over 120 degrees Fahrenheit and the driver wears two layers of clothing, one racing suit, and one fire-retardant suit as well. Drivers can even lose up to 6 lbs of water weight in a single race alone.
With all of these demanding conditions on the drivers, it is critical that racing teams make them as comfortable as they possibly can. This is done by building the cockpit of the car around the driver.
All teams have a driver mockup in which they give driver a “seat fitting” prior to the first chassis being manufactured. The entire chassis is then replicated to do a custom cockpit layout. The driver’s seat is actually molded to their body shape, and it is designed to be lifted directly out of the car in order to help prevent spinal injuries after a crash.
At this point of the cockpit fitting, making changes are very easy and modular compared to after the chassis is produced because everything becomes fixed and they become difficult to modify. It is very important that drivers are comfortable and they fit well for optimal performance. Everything is customized to the drivers need from the back of seat, to the petal area, and any padding in headrests. This customization of the cockpit will lead to less distraction to the driver so that they can focus completely on racing, and not being uncomfortable in their seats.
Besides the obvious benefits of using carbon fiber composites for safety and comfort, it also has a direct connection to a major increase in performance. Since carbon fiber is 5 times lighter than steel, Formula One racecars have experienced a major reduction in weight since the formation of the sport. These significantly lighter cars are able to maneuver the track more efficiently and they have a more powerful acceleration, all of which translates directly into faster laps around the track. Ultra lightweight carbon fiber is used on body panels such as the wings to achieve this reduced weight. In fact, 20% of the body panel’s weight actually comes from the paint and stickers; this gives you an idea on how lightweight these parts actually are.
Besides gaining a better lap time, components made of carbon fiber can handle a considerable amount more stress. Even drive shafts and gearboxes are now being manufactured out of carbon fiber and they can tolerate enormous amounts of torque over their steel counterparts. Basically, nearly every component, minus the engine, of Formula one racecars are manufactured out of ridged carbon fiber.
In conclusion, carbon fiber has played a hugely significant role in Formula One racing since its introduction. It radically improves driver safety, provides a much higher comfort level for the drivers, and greatly improves the overall performance of the car. Until a new composite is found that is lighter and stronger than carbon fiber; it is safe to say that this amazing composite isn’t going away from Formula One racing any time soon.