Under the skin of a Formula 1 car is about as pimped as technology gets | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 24.02.2017
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Under the skin of a Formula 1 car is about as pimped as technology gets

Formula 1 is back. Pre-season testing begins on Monday, ahead of the first race a month from now. The latest cars are bursting with exciting technology. But you won't find these innovations in your average people mover.

Formula One FERRARI C36 (picture-alliance/Keystone/SAUBER)

The Sauber Ferrari C36 was among a flurry of car launches this past week

The first thing you’ll think of when you see a Formula 1 steering wheel is a video game console. There’s a dizzying array of buttons, switches and levers. And in the middle there’s a large display, just like a tablet computer.

It may also remind you of all the automation technology in the average consumer vehicle: sensing technology to measure the distance between objects, like a parking sensor, cruise control, a lane departure warning system, emergency brake and other warning systems.

But in fact there’s a completely different philosophy at work here. While in consumer vehicles the trend is towards full or part-automatisation, a Formula 1 drivers maintains control at all times. That’s why he needs all the buttons.

Passenger cars and racing cars compared

There are some basic similarities between passenger vehicles and racing cars. For instance, there’s the way commands are sent from the cockpit to the wheels and brakes. These days it all happens via electronic data connections - so-called BUS systems. It’s also known as "drive-by-wire."

And it’s not just in passenger vehicles but in Formula 1 as well. Moreover, in Formula 1 it’s also about sending data on the condition of the car to the technical team back in the pit lane. They need to know all kinds of things in real time, like the temperature of the engine, petrol and oil levels, tire pressure and a lot more.

Today’s norm: electronic steering

Drive-by-wire originated in airplanes and found its way into consumer vehicles via Formula 1. That’s how innovations like the electronic gear box (Tiptronic transmission) and cruise control were implemented in passenger cars.

Cruise control is similar to at least one function in Formula 1 - the limiter control, which stops the racing car from going over 100 kilometres per hour. The driver presses the button just before entering the pit lane. There’s a strict speed limit in the pit lane. If a driver goes over the limit, they get caught on camera, just like in real life.

What heavy machinery’s got in common with racing cars

There’s another function that’s important in Formula 1, one which can also be found on the roads, but usually only in heavy vehicles, Off-Road-Vehicles, and construction machines. That’s the differential lock. This controls the power from the engine and the central driveshaft to the wheels.

The differential lock is important on rough terrain, especially in a four-wheel drive, so that the driver can distribute engine power as needed among the four wheels and avoid any slip. On a normal road, a truck driver will turn off four-wheel drive to allow them to drive faster and use less petrol.

Formel 1 2017 Williams FW40 (picture-alliance/LAT Photographic/WilliamsF1)

This Williams FW40 will be one of the cars taking part in F1 test drives from Monday

Formula 1 cars don’t have four-wheel drive. But as there’s no anti-slip control, differential lock has a role here, too. It prevents the wheels from spinning or locking. That’s very important on bends and can determine how well the wheels grip.

It’s also important no wheels lift off the ground - and it’s a science in itself. It’s complicated and gets set up before the drive. Each bend has three parts from the entry to exit. And at each point, the differential lock has to react differently. That’s why the steering wheel has various controllers for differential lock.

More than four carbon disk brakes

The brake settings can also improve performance around a bend. The position of the steering wheel, combined with other sensors, tell the car where exactly it is on the bend. And the ceramic disk brakes of a racing car react accordingly. If the brake of the rear wheel on the inside of a bend slows more than the others, it can help prevent understeering. The steering wheel has a variety of settings for brake balance. The driver can change these settings during a race when the car has used petrol and got lighter as a result.

The Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) is also special in Formula 1. While braking, energy is stored electronically, and it can be released later - for instance, when overtaking another car - through a boost-function on the steering wheel. This increases speed temporarily.

It’s also possible to convert excess heat from the exhaust system into power and likewise used for the boost-function. That’s known as a simple Energy Recovery System (ERS). But, here again, Formula 1 has strict rules: the power released by the KERS is not allowed to exceed 1000 volts, and a driver may only use the boost-function in particular situations.

A similar form of energy recovery is used in passenger vehicles, like busses and trains that have to stop and start regularly.

Settings for every situation

When a racing car stops in the pit lane, it may not only be that it gets a new set of wheels, but completely different ones if the rules demand it, or if it starts to rain. And there’s a button for that, too: different wheels, different settings.

The driver can choose various engine settings, too, depending on the conditions of a race track. The various engine settings can also help to save petrol or weight at different points in a race. If it rains, the driver can select a different engine setting to make the engine react softer when the drivers presses the gas pedal. This can also prevent the wheels from locking.

Formel 1 2017 Renault (Getty Images/AFP/N. Halle'n)

F1 cars maximize downforce, meaning they have to tolerate drag

Streamlining? We'd prefer downforce

Formula 1 cars may look streamlined, but their drag or levels of resistance are by no means low. The drag coefficient in Formula 1 cars is about 1.2 cw, which is a big difference to passenger vehicles. Even a vintage Ford Model T had a better rating at 0.9. Modern consumer cars have a drag rating of about 0.25, airplanes about 0.08, and penguins are almost unbeatable at 0.03.

The thing is, Formula 1 cars are not designed for straight-line speed, but to generate downforce. That's what pushes the tires into the ground and generates grip. The key to lap time is not straight-line speed, you can only make up fractions there. The way to win is to design a car than can corner faster than the competition - meaning drag is a necessary evil. The entire body is designed to funnel air over and under the car to create downforce, and the most obvious elements doing so are the front and rear wings. These operate with the opposite principle to those on a plane. They aim not to generate lift, but rather to press the car down, giving drivers the grip they crave.

Drag can, however, be a negative factor at the worst time: when the driver is trying to overtake a rival. That’s where the DRS button comes in - the drag reduction system. This opens a slit in the rear wing of the car - allowing air to rush through the gap, thereby drastically reducing the drag coefficient and increasing top speed. Formula 1 rules stipulate that the DRS button may only be used at certain points on the track, and when a driver is within 1 second of another car and trying to overtake. Critics lament the recently-introduced rule as a "gimmick" seeking to artificially create more overtaking.

No two steering wheels are the same

Formula 1 cars and their steering wheels change constantly. And drivers in the most prominent racing teams design their own steering wheels - naturally, with advice from the engineers.

Even then it takes weeks before a steering wheel becomes second nature for a driver. Drivers spend hours practicing in simulators - not least to reduce the cars’ impact on the environment - but also to get to know their very personal steering wheels.

So perhaps it’s true. They have at least this in common with video game consoles. The only way to move up to the next level is through repetition and a lot of practice.

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