Some of the most impressive supercars in the world are equipped with an all-wheel drive system. So, one might assume that because Formula 1 is widely thought of as the pinnacle of motorsport then Formula 1 cars would also sport an AWD system as well, rather than being rear wheel drive.
F1 cars are rear wheel drive (RWD), although there were a handful of cars that did experiment with all wheel drive during the 1960s and 70s. In the current era of Formula 1 there has never been an AWD car that has lined up on the grid, mainly because they are heavy and expensive.
Although AWD systems are illegal in Formula 1, there are other reasons beyond the rules of the sport that teams don’t want to use AWD. Let’s dive into some of the technical explanations for putting a RWD system into an F1 car instead of AWD.
RWD vs AWD
The main difference between all-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive is that with an AWD system an equal amount of power is being sent to each of the four wheels on the car. With a RWD system an equal amount of power is sent to only the back two wheels of the car. There are a few other distinctions that arise from sending power to four wheels instead of just two though.
A big reason Formula 1 has stuck with rear wheel drive for the time being is due to the amount of extra weight all wheel drive systems add to the car as opposed to RWD systems. F1 cars have been getting heavier and heavier over the years, but teams still don’t want to add unnecessary weight. With rear-wheel drive systems needing to power just two wheels, they can be considerably lighter.
Different Sized Tires
The tires on the front of a Formula 1 car are much smaller than the tires on the back. This variation allows for a Formula 1 car to have better cornering potential. Smaller tires at the front of the car are better for steering. Bigger tires at the back of the car are optimal for transferring power from the engine to the tarmac. This is really only possible with a RWD system.
All-wheel drive systems are optimized when all tires on the car are the same size. This allows for the drive system to give each wheel the same amount of power, which is normally a benefit of AWD. However, if the tire sizes on an F1 car were made to be the same size, then either cornering potential or traction when accelerating will need to suffer.
Theoretically the amount of traction that is produced when using an all-wheel drive system is much higher than with a rear-wheel drive system. With four wheels being powered in unison a car should have much more traction than if only the two back wheels are pushing the two front wheels forwards. Depending on the type of vehicle that is being used though, this theory might not hold true.
When racing in wet conditions an all-wheel drive system will outperform rear-wheel drive. The extra traction the car gains from having all four wheels being powered is very noticeable when track conditions are less than ideal. However, when the weather clears up that advantage will slip away as the excess weight of the car shows itself again.
Are F1 Cars RWD?
F1 cars are RWD. It is illegal for teams to use an all-wheel drive system. The FIA banned them in 1982. However, teams had already concluded that there was no benefit to fitting their cars with AWD or 4WD systems, as they were too heavy and technically complex.
Why Are F1 Cars RWD?
F1 cars are RWD as it is the best system for getting maximum performance and reliability. With different wheel sizes, the need to cut-down weight, and the focus on reliability, RWD vastly outperforms an AWD system on an F1 car. This was established before AWD was banned by the FIA.
Formula 1 cars have been thought of as the embodiment of speed for as long as they have been around. Each year shows us teams bringing new, cutting-edge technological developments to find out if they are better than the year prior. Some of the technological developments are failures and others are incredibly useful for gaining time on opponents.
The changes that don’t work are quickly discarded by the next season. The scientific process is truly at work within Formula 1. Only the developments that are proven to be successful are the ones that are kept. When all-wheel drive systems were experimented with during the 1960s and 1970s, this scientific process showed teams what little benefit they would get from using AWD.
AWD Systems Are Heavy And Less Reliable
All-wheel drive systems are very heavy compared to rear-wheel drive systems. They’re so heavy in fact that any increase in performance that a team might gain from fitting one to their car will quickly be overshadowed by the amount of performance that they will lose from the added weight.
Reliability is one of the most important things to F1 teams. If a car is the fastest around the track but can’t make it to the end of a race without the engine failing, then there won’t be much success. All-wheel drive systems are much more complex than rear-wheel drive – especially when designing a high-performance one. This creates a higher possibility that an AWD system might fail during a race.
F1 Cars Don’t Have Uniform Tire Sizes
All-wheel drive systems require all four wheels on a vehicle to be the same size, so that the same amount of power can be given to each one. Formula 1 cars don’t use a standard size across all four tires. Instead, the back tires are much larger than the front tires. This gives the car higher precision when making turns and more traction in the rear for accelerating.
It could be possible to use the same size tire on the whole F1 car, but again, any benefit that is gained by this would be cancelled out by the loss of the performance boosts that having different sized tires gives the cars already. It would also just require extra research and development costs, which the F1 budget cap tries to keep to a minimum.
Why Are F1 Cars Not AWD?
F1 cars are not AWD as they don’t get the same benefits as other cars from the system. On a lot of non-F1 cars the amount of traction is increased drastically when using an all-wheel drive system. However, the extra weight and loss of cornering performance vastly outweigh this for F1 cars.
When all the complexities of a Formula 1 car are brought into frame, an all-wheel drive system is just not feasible right now. With an estimation of up to 20% of a Formula 1 car’s weight being added if an all-wheel drive system was installed, the drawbacks quickly start to outweigh the benefits.
F1 Cars Need Speed And Handling
Formula 1 already have the best-known setup for a mixture of good speed and handling out there. The small front tires allow the car to be nimble through the corners and the bigger rear tires provide a larger contact patch for the engine to put down its power to the track surface. Changing to AWD would change this dramatically by making all 4 tires the same size.
Has F1 Ever Used All-Wheel-Drive Cars?
There have been F1 teams that have used all-wheel drive cars, though not very many. Almost all of them were a disaster with only one ever winning a race. Most of the experimentation of all-wheel drive Formula 1 cars was done in the 1960s, with some of it spilling into the early 1970s.
All-Wheel Drive Cars Of The 60s
Throughout the experimental phase of all-wheel drive within Formula 1 the teams that tried to perfect it were Lotus, McLaren, Ferguson, BRM, Matra, and Cosworth. There was really only one team that somewhat succeeded in their mission. That team was Ferguson when they won the 1961 Oulton Park Gold Cup with the Ferguson P99.
After seeing the potential that the P99 brought to the racetrack, other teams started to play around with the alternative drive system too. Nobody got close to matching the race result of the P99 though, with most all-wheel drive projects being abandoned due mostly to the amount of weight that the car had to take on.
All-Wheel Drive Cars Of The 70s
There was only one team that wanted to try their skill at creating a competitive all-wheel drive Formula 1 car in the 1970s. Lotus wanted to give it another go after their failure with the Lotus 63. The car that they created, the Lotus 56B, would go on to finish third place in a race with Emerson Fittipaldi behind the wheel. That would be its best F1 finish.
When Dave Walker was given a drive in the car at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1971 the real benefit of AWD was shown. After qualifying 22nd in the car, it started to rain. In just five laps Walker was able to make it all the way up to 10th place. He then proceeded to crash out and the car was retired.
Even so though, the design was left behind at the end of the 1971 championship. No other team has attempted to create an AWD car for Formula 1 since, even though they still technically could before the new rule was implemented in 1982 to outlaw the practice from Formula 1 officially. It was unlikely that a team would attempt it again, but it was decided to make it official anyway.
Could F1 Cars Be AWD In The Future?
There is a chance F1 cars could be AWD in the future. However, it likely wouldn’t be a traditional all wheel drive setup, and would possibly instead utilize some form of hybrid system that uses an electric motor to power the front wheels.
Front Axle Kinetic Energy Recovery System
One possibility for a fix to the energy loss when the MGU-H is removed with the 2026 engine regulation changes would be to incorporate some technology from the Porsche WEC cars. Namely, the front-axle KERS system that it utilizes. The basic function of the system is to store energy from braking at the front axle to deploy later.
This would effectively transform Formula 1 cars into all-wheel drive vehicles. With the KERS electrical motor on the front axle generating power from braking for the front wheels to use on the straights. Meanwhile, the engine is powering the back wheels the whole time. It is a clever way of delivering an all-wheel drive experience without the incredible weight increase of a traditional AWD system.
It is unclear whether a KERS system, if implemented in Formula 1 right now, would be used to provide direct power to the front wheels, in this case making the car effectively AWD. There is a possibility that teams might decide to use the system to send all the extra energy stored from the braking back the main engine to add more power to the back wheels, effectively keeping F1 RWD.
The History Of KERS In F1
KERS was a controversial subject when it was first introduced to F1. Many teams opted not to use it at all, due to their own difficulties with getting it to function safely and correctly. Only 4 teams decided to use the new system throughout the season. With 2 of these teams opting to remove the system before the end of the season.
Despite this, KERS produced much better results than the all-wheel drive systems that had been experimented with before. Over the course of the season, the KERS equipped cars had multiple podium finishes, a pole position, and two race wins. So, this experimentation can be considered much more successful. Though it performed well, due to the controversy, all teams opted not to use one in 2010.
By 2011, with new regulations being implemented increasing the minimum weight of the car and some of the teams that led the refusal of the KERS in 2010 now in favor of it, KERS was set to return. Rear axle KERS has been a mainstay in Formula 1 cars ever since, with a sizeable increase to the maximum kilowatts allowed, from 60 to 120, in 2014. Front axle KERS has never been used in F1 yet though.
The Benefits Of Front Axle KERS In F1
Computer simulations have been run by some outside of F1 with a front axle KERS equipped to the car have yielded promising results. Up to a couple seconds a lap could be saved if it is implemented correctly according to some of these tests – although whether the tests are accurate is obviously unclear.
With rear axle and front axle KERS functioning on a Formula 1 car, the potential for environmental friendliness goes up too. Less fuel would be needed to power the engine because more energy would be getting sent to the engine after braking zones. This is in line with F1’s commitment to becoming carbon neutral.
With the MGU-H on its way out, front axle KERS could be the replacement. Whether or not front axle KERS will be a steppingstone to a future of AWD F1 cars will be determined in time, but for now, F1 cars remain rear wheel drive.
Formula 1 cars are rear wheel drive. Although there have been all wheel drive systems used in F1, they didn’t produce the results needed to compete for the championship title. So, RWD systems have powered F1 cars for most of the sport’s history.