The materials that make the F1 car the fastest and safest machine

renault r25 f1 1

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

file 20230102 14 n6pzt0.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Fernando Alonso during the Formula 1 Grand Prix of the Netherlands in Zanvoort, September 2022. Jay Hirano Photography / Shutterstock
José Manuel Torralba, IMDEA MATERIALS

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

After running off the track at 280 km/h, Kubica's car was completely destroyed, except for the cockpitThe cockpit in which the pilot travels. He climbed out of the wrecked car on his own 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 what is possible, which converts the cockpit of a Formula 1 in a shield that the Vikings would have loved.

He cockpit as a life jacket

Kubica was able to save his life thanks to composite materialsespecially carbon-carbonThe main material from which single-seater chassis are made. The Mc Laren racing team pioneered its use in the late 1990s.

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

A carbon fiber composite material can have three times the tensile strength of 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 strength of 2 GPa compared to 0.17 GPa for steel.

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

The strongest synthetic fiber

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

Fernando Alonso miraculously saved his life at the Australian Grand Prix after a 310 km/h accident. If the Asturian driver can live to tell the tale, it is thanks to zylon, a material more resistant than steel that prevented a tragedy at Albert Park's Turn 3 because it is capable of absorbing all the energy in a crash even though it decomposes on impact. Zylon is currently considered the strongest synthetic fiber made in the laboratory.

Brakes are a technological prodigy

When we watch a Formula 1 broadcast, the commentators put a lot of emphasis on brake temperature: if it is not appropriate, efficiency 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 friction causes braking. We are dealing with what is called a tribological system, in which the materials in contact, the temperature, the humidity and the contact surface are important.

The difference in a few degrees of temperature can cause a brake pad to wear out in a few seconds or in many minutes. And this speed of brake degradation can also be modified according to environmental conditions.

The knowledge provided by materials science is essential to be able to foresee the best conditions for survival under the extreme operating conditions of a Formula 1 brake (accelerations or decelerations of 5G), which are also made of carbon-carbon composites (carbon-carbon composites).as well as aviation brakes), introduced in the 80's by the Brabham team). Races can be won or lost because of brake wear.

Tires and tribology

The pneumatic-track system is also a tribological system. The wear (directly linked to the grip) of the tires depends, once again, on the materials from which they are made, but also, and very much so, on the temperature and environmental conditions.

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

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

The hardness of the base rubber 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 lead to accelerated wear and a total loss of grip. And, consequently, the loss of places in a race.

Aluminum, titanium and steel for the engine

In a Formula 1 engine we find metals of many familiesAluminum in the engine block, titanium in the pistons, steel in the crankshaft. Titanium is never found in a conventional car engine (except in some high-end vehicles), because of 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 against steel or aluminum, causing their degradation.

The short life of a Formula 1 engine makes the need for reliability and resistance take precedence over possible corrosion problems. But in the search for weight control, we can find magnesium alloys (even lighter than aluminum), or in the opposite direction, wolfram to make counterweight and be able to comply with weight regulations.

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

A Formula 1 engine is a materials testing laboratory, where some replace others according to their fatigue behavior, working temperature and reliability. It is a laboratory that allows exporting its advances to series production vehicles.

When a motor breaks down and a part needs to be replaced, however complex it may be, today's materials technology makes it possible to replace it in just a few hours thanks to the additive manufacturing (3D printing) of metals. Once again, the materials laboratory exports technology.

If today we think about the driving forces behind the design and development of Formula 1 prototype racing cars, we could say that they are sustainability and safety. We build cars that weigh less and consume less, while maintaining or improving performance and never forgetting driver safety.

We have already talked about the safety provided by new chassis materials that prevent damage to the rider when crashing at high speed. But let's not forget the advances in the development of fireproof materials that prevent fire from damaging a driver's skin for many seconds in the event of a fire. Cars that operate at the limits of technology thanks to materials. Cars that are fast, sustainable and safe.The Conversation

José Manuel TorralbaProfessor at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, IMDEA MATERIALS

This article was originally published in The Conversation. read the original.