Formula 1 racing pushes automotive technology to its limits and affords many the fantasy of driving a super-fast, super-sexy race car, if only from the comfort of your living room. While not as popular in the U.S. as NASCAR, Formula 1 attracts an audience of 500+ million worldwide. Drivers like Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, and Lewis Hamilton may not exactly be household names in America, but have been racing legends and international stars of the F1 circuit for many years.
Formula 1 cars, unlike cars on the NASCAR circuit, are designed to push the limits of vehicle efficiency and performance. Many improvements to Formula 1 cars -- and race cars in general -- have trickled their way down into mainstream technology for the consumer market, and in much more affordable ways.
Extreme performance demands extreme safety. Senna’s death in 1994 changed racing safety regulations, and his tragic accident was the last Formula 1 fatality until Jules Bianchi’s death in 2015. Safety technology is so deeply ingrained into our everyday cars that you might not even associate it with car racing at all.
One of the most important pieces of safety technology, the safety cell, is one you can't even see. In open wheel racing -- like F1 or IndyCar racing -- the car's body is made of strong carbon fiber, designed to protect the driver during an impact. In NASCAR and drag racing, a roll cage protects the driver. The roll cage is a network of steel tubes that absorbs impacts, protecting the driver. The same principles that go into NASCAR roll cages go into production car safety cages.
Can you imagine driving a car without rearview mirrors? In the early 1900s race car drivers discovered that they could use mirrors to spot the competition approaching behind them. Rearview mirrors have become an invaluable safety tool for millions of drivers ever since,
If you’ve ever been to a tire store, you know there many varieties to choose from -- do you know why? Most passenger car tires have grooves in them, which allow the tire to channel things like water and snow away from the car. If you have off-road or all-terrain tires, the grooves are likely very deep and the rubber very bumpy, giving your car “teeth” that can grip uneven or loose surfaces. However, if you have a sports car, the tires are likely softer and have fewer, shallower grooves, allowing more of the tire to maintain contact with the road and making the car handle better. All of these innovations and the development of different tire types came from racing.
Disc brakes started appearing on race cars in the 1950s. Racing teams liked them because they were powerful and easier to maintain than the prior drum brake design. The friction and heat generated when brakes stop a car actually reduces their stopping power. Disc brakes can be vented, which allows the heat to dissipate. Now, all but a few cars have disc brakes on at least their front wheels; most have them on all four.
Active suspension controls the vertical movement of the wheels relative to the chassis or vehicle body with an onboard system, rather than in passive suspensions where the movement is being determined entirely by the road surface. This system virtually eliminates body roll and pitch variation in many driving situations including cornering, accelerating, and braking. Active suspension was first used in F1 in Ayrton Senna's Lotus in the 1980's to improve cornering.
Race cars, especially in F1, can go so fast that features had to be created to keep the cars earthbound! The main goals of automotive aerodynamics are reducing drag and wind noise and preventing undesired lift forces and other causes of instability at high speeds. In racing cars, it’s also important to produce downforce to improve traction and cornering abilities. Race car designers were some of the first to use wind tunnel testing to create the most aerodynamic shapes, and racing engineers and designers created spoilers and air dams to keep the cars stable at high speeds. These aerodynamic components looked so good on race cars that automakers soon got into the game and have now added them to many production cars. Even though they are largely unnecessary on consumer vehicles, many car mod enthusiasts add them to increase their “cool” factor.
Dual Overhead Camshafts (DOHC)
Engines have valves that are opened and closed by a camshaft, or cam, to let air in and exhaust out. Dual cams can open and shut the valves more rapidly, allowing the engine to “breathe” for better performance.
Direct-Shift Gearboxes (DSG) and clutchless manual transmissions (paddle shifters) allow drivers to shift gears quickly and make sure that they shift into the correct gear, without having to take their hands off the steering wheel.
Race cars couldn’t help but influence consumer car designs. Their smooth, flowing shapes are associated with power, performance, and glamour, and these design elements are often translated in production cars. This is most evident in luxury sports cars like Lamborghini, Ferrari, Corvette, and Porsche, but can also be seen in many low-slung passenger cars like the Toyota Scion. While F1 cars are equipped with LED tail lights for rain and haze, it's too bad Formula 1 cars don't race at night -- we'd love to see some LED headlights as well! Do you have more of an appreciation for race cars now? It’s never too late to become a fan of Formula 1 racing. Check out their 2015 Race Calendar here.
And to feel like you’re a bit more up close and personal to the sport -- but at a safe distance! -- check out these popular video driving games in the comfort of your own home:
- Gran Turismo (PlayStation). Rated E
- Forza Motorsport 6 (Xbox One). Rated E.
- Drive Club (PlayStation). Rated E.
- Need for Speed (multiple platforms). Rating pending.
- Project Cars (multiple platforms). Rated E.
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