The materials that make a Formula 1 car the fastest and safest machine

At 280 km/h, a Formula 1 driver supports accelerations that exceed the force of gravity several times at times, equivalent to the acceleration experienced by an astronaut when a rocket takes off. At that speed, an accident is not to count. However, accidents in Formula 1 do happen and drivers are saved, like Robert Kubica in the 2007 Canadian GP.

After going off the track at 280 km/h, Kubica’s car was completely destroyed, except for the cockpit, the cabin in which the pilot travels. He got out of a vehicle turned into junk on his own foot and thanked Pope John Paul II for his salvation: “It was John Paul, he saved me.” Kubica did not remember the technology, at the limit of the possible, that converts the cockpit of a Formula 1 on a shield that the Vikings already wanted.

The cockpit as a life jacket

Kubica was able to save his life thanks to composite materials, especially carbon-carbon: the main material used to make single-seater chassis. The Mc Laren team was the pioneer in its use, at the end of the 1990s.

Carbon fiber is a very light material, but individually it can reach mechanical resistance equivalent to that of a good steel. Embedded in a matrix, also carbon, the fiber can absorb much more energy than steel before breaking.

A carbon fiber composite material can have a tensile strength three times higher than a good steel (3.5 GPa vs. 1.3 GPa) but with the advantage of being 6 times less dense (1.75 g /cm³ vs. 7.9 g/cm³). This gives it a specific resistance of 2 GPa against 0.17 GPa for steel.

In a composite material, a network of fibers fills a matrix. With this configuration, when a crack occurs, its propagation is hampered and the material is able to withstand a lot of energy before breaking.

The strongest synthetic fiber

Newer aramid-type fibers such as zylon (also used, for example, in bulletproof vests) sometimes replace carbon fiber. These new materials provide even more capacity to store energy.

Fernando Alonso miraculously saved his life at the Australian Grand Prix after suffering an accident at 310 km/h. If the Asturian pilot can live to tell about it, it is thanks to zylon, a material more resistant than steel that prevented a tragedy in turn 3 of Albert Park because it is capable of absorbing all the energy in a blow despite the fact that it decomposes with the impact. Zylon is considered today the strongest synthetic fiber made in the laboratory.

The brakes are a technological prodigy

When we watch a Formula 1 broadcast, the commentators place a lot of emphasis on the temperature of the brakes: if it is not appropriate, the effectiveness is diminished. This behavior is governed by laws linked to the scientific discipline known as tribology.

A material comes into contact with a counter-material and due to friction braking occurs. We are facing what is called a tribological system, in which the materials that are in contact, the temperature, the humidity and the contact surface matter.

The difference in a few degrees of temperature can cause a brake shoe to wear out in a few seconds or many minutes. And that speed of degradation of the brake, in addition, can be modified depending on the environmental conditions.

The knowledge provided by materials science is essential to be able to foresee the best survival conditions against the extreme operating conditions of a Formula 1 brake (5G accelerations or decelerations), which are also made of carbon-carbon compounds ( like aviation brakes), introduced in the 1980s by the Brabham team). Races can be won or lost because of brake wear.

Tires and tribology

The tire-track system is also a tribological system. Tire wear (directly linked to grip) depends, once again, on the materials from which they are made, but also, and a lot, on the temperature and environmental conditions.

A bad choice of tires has been the reason for great disasters, with never positive consequences, in Formula 1 races.

Here, again, composite materials (or even better, composite structures) rule, where reinforcing steel bands are used on a rubber base (different rubbers).

The hardness of the base rubber is what determines the behavior of the tire and consequently the adherence of the vehicle to the track. Not taking into account the hardness of the track, the temperature or the humidity when choosing the tire can cause accelerated wear and a total loss of grip. And, consequently, the loss of positions in a race.

Aluminum, titanium and steel for the engine

In a Formula 1 engine we find metals from many families: aluminum in the engine block, titanium in the pistons, steel in the crankshaft. In a conventional car engine (except in some high-end vehicles) we never find titanium, due to its high cost and the pernicious effect it can have. It can cause corrosion problems: titanium, being a very “noble” element, acts as a cathode compared to steel or aluminum, causing their degradation.

The short life of a Formula 1 engine makes the needs for reliability and resistance to possible corrosion problems prevail. But in the search to control the weight, we can find magnesium alloys (even lighter than aluminum), or in the completely opposite direction, tungsten to act as a counterweight and to comply with weight regulations.

We can also find ceramic coatings to optimize performance. Ceramic allows higher working temperatures and greater optimization of the thermal cycle.

A Formula 1 engine is a materials testing laboratory, where some replace others based on their fatigue behavior, working temperature, reliability. Laboratory that allows you to export your progress to serial vehicles.

When an engine breaks down and a part must be replaced, no matter how complex it may be, today materials technology allows it to be replaced in a few hours thanks to additive manufacturing (3D printing) of metals. Once again, the materials laboratory exports technology.

If today we think about what are the driving forces that drive the design and development of prototypes of Formula 1 cars, we could say that they are sustainability and safety. We manufacture cars that weigh less, also consume less, but maintaining or improving performance and never forgetting the driver’s safety.

We have already talked about the safety that the new materials confer to the chassis that prevent damage to the pilot when he crashes at high speed. But let’s not forget the advances in the development of flame retardant materials that allow fire to not damage a pilot’s skin for many seconds in the event of a fire. Cars that work at the limit of technology thanks to materials. Fast, sustainable and safe cars.

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