Formula One (F1) is arguably the most famous motor racing sport in the world, with almost 10% of the world's population following the races. Due to the fierce competition within the sport, coupled with the remarkable physical strain the vehicles are put under during a race (sometimes hitting speeds of up to to 350 km/h), the cars need to be constructed using the most cutting edge materials and processing techniques.
This articles looks at the important role that materials science plays in the construction of these famous vehicles, and which materials are utilized.
Role of the Material Scientist
Material scientists play a crucial role in the design and manufacture of a Formula 1 car, as they ensure that the materials chosen provide the driver with optimum safety as well as efficiency.
Technological advancements in materials have enabled F1 cars to become lighter, safer and faster than ever before.
For instance, the introduction of fibre reinforced composite chassis was a key turning point in the history of developing F1 racing cars. First introduced in 1980 by the McLaren F1 Team, carbon fibre composites are now used widely in many of the F1 components - almost 85% of the volume of a typical F1 car is made up of them!
Carbon Fibre and Other Composites
Three main precursor feedstocks, rayon, pitch, and polyacrylonitrile, are ususally used to produce carbon fibres. However, acrylic based composites are also common.
Increasing heat treatment temperature (HTT) and the application of tension during the processing of the carbon fibre helps to increase of the modulus of the fibres. This is because the morphology of the fibres begins to align along the fibre axis when the HTT increases. For
example, heat treatment of the fibres to more than 1800°C (3272°F) leads to high and ultra-high modulus fibres, with fibre diameters of about 4.4µm.
As mentioned, driver safety is a primary concern for F1 car manufacturers, and care needs to be taken when considering the use of certain materials.
For example, the composite monocoque of the F1 car is very stiff, and this stiffness enables the load from a point of impact to be transmitted into the structure, thereby resulting in higher loads being absorbed without damage. However, once the load in the area of impact crosses the absolute strength, then the composite can deform or tear. To counter this, energy absorbing properties of composites have been studied and improved, so as to increase the safety of the driver.
Other materials used for the construction of F1 cars include polymeric fibres such as aramids, Zylon, and highly oriented polythylene filaments. However, aramids lose out when compared to the higher strength intermediate modulus carbon fibres, coupled with thermoplastic toughened epoxies. Aramids are still mandatory for use within the front wing end plates and other aerodynamic fittings found at the front end of the car.
Zylon is a very strong fibre made up of rigid-rod chain molecules of poly(P-Phenylene-2, 6-benzobisoxazole) (PBO). A Zylon applique armour panel is a requirement in the monocoque of F1 cars, in order to stop penetration and protect the driver from injuries.
Highly oriented polyethylene filaments are known by their trade names 'Dyneema' and 'Spectra'. This material's specialty is high strength coupled with very low density, but it is not suitable for high temperature environments, as it melts at 133-136°C (271-277°F). In most cases, hybrids of these materials are woven along with carbon fibres for use in impact structures.
Further Formula One Car Components
Suspension and steering systems and transmission system - F1 cars have to be provided with conventional sprung suspension, and each wheel has to be tied to the body of the car with two tethers. The tethers are enclosed within a separate suspension member and have its own attachments at the ends. Regulations stipulate that the tethers must have specific tensile strength so as to be able to prevent the wheels from coming loose from the car in case of suspension failure or an accident.
Engines - The materials used to manufacture the engine and its components are strictly regulated. The crankcase and the cylinder block have to be made from cast or wrought aluminium alloys. Composite materials should not be used.
Likewise, the crankshaft and the camshafts have to be made from iron-based alloys, and pistons from an aluminum alloys. The valves are made from alloys based on nickel, cobalt, iron, or titanium.
Wheels and tires - Formula 1 cars are required to have four uncovered wheels, made from the same metallic material. FIA stipulates the use of magnesium alloys for this purpose.
As Formula 1 is a multi-billion dollar business, material scientists will continue to explore ways to better the existing materials used. The competition is high, as any advances in the structure or materials of an F1 car would mean huge profits for the racing team, as well as the chance of victory.
All photos sourced from www.photos.com