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F1 Car Cooling Systems Explained In Simple Terms

Formula 1 engines are designed with performance in mind. These engines can become extremely hot due to how hard they work inside the car. This means that having adequate cooling is extremely important, and so F1 car cooling systems are fairly complex.

F1 cooling systems are made up of various components, with the main cooling method being the use of heat transfer from the hot components to the cooler air that is guided over or through them. The sidepods, brake ducts and other air intakes all play key roles in cooling an F1 car.

Cooling a Formula 1 car comes at a cost in terms of performance, as cooling components usually means sacrificing some aerodynamics and introducing drag. F1 teams need to carefully consider all the factors that affect the cooling of their car, and below we take a look at exactly how they do it.

How Are F1 Cars Cooled?

F1 cars are cooled using airflow over or through hot internal components. Air is guided towards various inlets, including brake ducts and the sidepod air intakes, and this cool air passes over hot components and radiators to transfer heat away from the brakes, engine, and other hot internal parts.

Formula 1 cars are focused on performance and as such the parts that are used in them can become extremely hot, primarily due to friction forces but also as a result of the high operating temperatures of the parts around them. When these parts become hot there is a risk of them losing performance or even failing altogether if they are not cooled effectively.

Heat Transfer

In order to cool a Formula 1 car, teams need to transfer the heat in the engine or other hot components into something that is cooler. The best way to do so is to channel colder air from outside the car towards these hot components and then release it back out again.

For components like the engine, water/glycol mixtures are pumped through the system to take heat away from the engine and over through radiators where cooler air flows over them to send heat out the back of the car. For parts like the brakes, it’s just airflow that cools them, and no water or liquid is required.

Cooling comes at a cost though, as catching the air using the intakes in the car causes drag. F1 cars are designed to be streamlined to allow them to “cut” through the air at high speed. Having areas of the car specifically designed to catch air clearly goes against this streamlining effect, meaning teams must strike a balance between staying cool and being aerodynamic.

We’ll go into more detail about the specific components that need cooled shortly, but first it’s worth taking a closer look at why F1 cars need to be cooled in the first place.

Why Do Formula 1 Cars Need To Be Cooled?

F1 cars need to be cooled in order to keep the performance and reliability of the car at its maximum. The high-performance components like the engine, brakes and gearbox all produce a lot of heat, and this can accelerate wear through friction and thermal expansion if not properly cooled.

Most of these working parts are covered by bodywork, so the heat has nowhere to escape to. There are lots of mechanical parts inside the car that are moving very fast which creates heat through friction. Car components that heat up too much will begin to change shape, even just slightly, especially metal elements that are susceptible to thermal expansion.

Faster Rates Of Wear

Hot components also just tend to wear faster than cooler components. While the materials used in an F1 car all usually have very high melting points, major increases in temperature can cause some smaller parts to lose some structural integrity, which overall contributes to faster wear.

The components inside Formula 1 cars are packaged tightly together in order to save space and make the car as small and light as possible. As these components begin to expand, they can push against each other and potentially begin to cause damage to one another. This will cause the parts to wear faster as well as affecting the overall performance of the car.

What Parts Of An F1 Car Need Cooling?

There are thousands of individual parts on an F1 car, and many of them are working parts, meaning they move (like those in the engine). The massive amounts of friction caused by these parts working together can generate a huge amount of heat.

In order to prevent these part from being damaged or even losing performance, their temperatures must be regulated by an adequate cooling system. However, the cooling system requires some complex elements that add weight and extra parts to the car, so it is always a balance between performance and reliability.

Engine

The internal combustion engine, or ICE, in an F1 car can become extremely hot due to the fact that it is essentially exploding fuel in order to get the parts moving. The parts inside of a Formula 1 engine move extremely fast, more than twice as fast as those in a standard road car.

With Formula 1 engines running up to 15,000 RPM, the engine produces a lot of heat very quickly. However, for efficiency reasons and to stay within the fuel flow limits set by the FIA, most F1 cars will “max out” at around 12,000 RPM, when the driver will change gear. This is still far higher RPM than you’d ever get your road car to produce!

When the engine gets too hot there is a risk of the engine just blowing up entirely or some components within the engine seizing up or wearing excessively. This means the car would need to retire from the race, and the team will also lose an engine for the rest of the season, which eats into their maximum limit of 3 before penalties start being handed out.

We’ll take a closer look at the cooling inside the engine shortly, as it’s clearly a very important part of the car.

Turbo

The turbocharger is a vital performance component of an F1 car. The turbo, which was reintroduced in the sport in 2014 after a long hiatus, plays an integral role in achieving the 1,000 horsepower mark for most modern Formula 1 cars.

The turbo on a Formula 1 car spins at incredible speeds – often 10x the RPM of the engine itself – which compresses air and sends it into the engine for increased power in the combustion cycle. This spinning movement naturally generates heat, and in order for the turbo work effectively it needs to be cooled sufficiently.

If a turbo fails on a modern Formula 1 car, they tend to lose massive amounts of performance, and you would see a car quickly dropping down the field if they were to have issues with their turbo. Keeping the turbo working properly is key to having a car that can match the grid in terms of performance.

The turbocharger itself isn’t always cooled, but the air coming out of the turbocharger is cooled. This is because, in order for the air sent to the engine to boost its power to do so efficiently, the air can’t be too hot. This is achieved by a device called an intercooler.

What Is An Intercooler In F1?

An F1 car’s intercooler is used in conjunction with the turbo system. In simple terms, the turbo spins extremely fast, which sends more high pressure air into the engine to combust, giving the engine a power boost. The intercooler cools this high pressure air down before it reaches the engine.

However, the problem is that the air going through the turbocharger is at a high temperature, due to the fact the turbocharger is driven by hot exhaust gases from the engine, and the fact that the internals of the car are just hot already as a result of all of the moving parts, and of course the engine itself. But the turbocharger and compressor also increase the pressure of the air.

Higher pressure air is also hotter, and this means it is less dense. Less dense air contains less oxygen, and fuel needs oxygen to burn efficiently. So, the intercooler cools the air from the turbocharger before it reaches the engine, ensuring the air to the engine is cooler, denser, and therefore better able to provide oxygen to the engine for an increase in power output.

The Hybrid System

The MGU-H, MGU-K, and the battery form the hybrid part of the Formula 1 engine. These elements allow the cars to make use of more power than the engine can produce alone, and to do so means they often get very hot.

When these elements overheat, the car tends to begin to have electronical issues and will also experience a lack of hybrid power. Because these are highly complex electrical components, they have lots of wires and other electronics around them that need to be kept cool in order to prevent malfunctioning.

Many people would have experienced a smartphone or a laptop that gets extremely hot when being used intensively, and in some cases, this can make them run slower or fail altogether if they get too hot. The batteries and MGUs on a Formula 1 car react in much the same way as an overheated smartphone would.

These electrical components don’t run as hot as the engine, but they are still usually cooled using either a water-based coolant or oil.

Brakes

It goes without saying that the brakes on a Formula 1 car work extremely hard when slowing the car down from 190 miles an hour to 60 miles per hour or less in just a few seconds. However, Formula 1 cars don’t have standard, everyday brakes fitted to their wheels.

The brakes on Formula 1 cars are some of the strongest and most durable in the world. The temperature of a Formula 1 car’s brakes during a race can reach up to an incredible 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, and they’ll spend a lot of the race at more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

When the brakes on a Formula 1 car overheat, they begin to wear faster, but more importantly they can just seize up, offering no stopping power. We sometimes see cars with smoking brakes, or brakes that are engulfed in flames when they become too hot, usually as a result of being pushed to the limit and then insufficiently cooled.

While the flames don’t necessarily mean terminal damage, it’s clearly not what a driver wants to see. F1 brakes are cooled by allowing air to enter through special brake ducts and pass through the brake discs, using the same heat transfer effect seen elsewhere in an F1 car’s cooling system.

In order for enough air to pass over the brake discs to keep their temperatures within an ideal operating window, the car needs to be travelling very fast. After a heavy braking zone into a tight corner, the brakes will often glow because they are so hot, but then cool down fairly quickly once the car accelerates.

How Are F1 Engines Kept Cool?

F1 engines are cooled by a high pressure mixture of water and glycol that travels around and through the engine, which is then cooled by air flowing over the radiators. The high pressure raises the mixture’s boiling point, offering better cooling properties at higher temperatures.

The air comes in through the air intake above the driver’s head and through the air intakes in the sidepods. The engines also use engine oil, which although primarily used to reduce friction and wear in the parts, because it is a liquid it does have a cooling effect too.

However, even just by reducing friction, the engine oil in an F1 car does contribute to the overall cooling system. You’ll also find oil elsewhere in the car, such as in the gearbox, for these purposes too. But how does the cooling actually occur?

Thermodynamics

The second law of thermodynamics states that, in a closed system, heat is transferred from a hot object into a colder object. In other words, if you have a hot engine in your car, you need to have something cooler next to it to allow the heat to transfer from the hot engine into something else.

However, while the hot engine will be cooling down, the colder object will begin to warm up until they are both the same temperature. In other words, you need the engine to transfer all of its heat into something cold, and then expend that out of the car as it will no longer be taking on more heat. Doing so will remove the heat from the car and keep the engine cool.

The best way to do so is by using a cool liquid. A pump is used to push specialized cooling liquid through several pipes that run through the engine. As this liquid runs through the pipes in the engine, the heat moves from the engine into the liquid, which heats up the liquid and moves heat away from the engine.

Are F1 Cars Water Cooled?

Formula 1 cars are water cooled. Their cooling systems use a water-based coolant, often mixed with glycol, that runs through different pipes in the engine to cool it down. The heat from the engine is transferred into the pipes, which are then cooled by transferring heat to the cooler air.

The liquid will be hot after traveling through the engine, so it is then sent to a radiator to cool down. With the hot liquid in the radiator, cold air is used to transfer the heat once again away from the liquid and into the air.

Radiators are built to have a large surface area in order to maximize cooling capabilities, as the larger the surface that is exposed to the cooler air, the faster the mass of liquid in the pipes can be cooled. Formula 1 cars have radiators in their sidepods and next to the driver.

When F1 cars are travelling at high speeds, lots of airflow goes through these air intakes and radiators, providing lots of cooling. Then, once the cooling liquid has lost some of its heat to the airflow, it flows back through the engine, and the cycle repeats. But where does the hot air go after it passes through the radiators?

The hot air is then dumped out of the car at the rear through the exhaust, as well as various other cooling slats found on the car. These can sometimes be along the floor of the car or even next to the driver on the sides of the cockpit, but they’re often directly above the sidepods, since the 2022 regulation changes brought these gill-like features back after a ban in 2009.

What Temperatures Do F1 Engines Run At?

An F1 engine runs at temperatures of around 100-120 degrees Celsius, or about 210-250 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the temperatures of the gases combusting inside an F1 engine can reach up to 4700 degrees Fahrenheit, which is half as hot as the surface of the sun.

It should be noted that this high temperature is the instantaneous temperature of the gases that are combusting inside the engine, and the actual engine parts won’t reach this temperature. The ideal operating window for F1 engines will be different depending on the manufacturer, but the 120 degrees Celsius/250 degrees Fahrenheit mark is a good estimate.

Air isn’t a very good conductor of heat, but it’s good enough in massive amounts to remove a lot of the heat from the cooling liquid inside an F1 car. But as it’s not a great conductor, it means that, although the exhaust gases from an F1 engine might reach the thousands of degrees, this heat is ejected out the back of the car before it can substantially heat the metal components.

Think about it – if F1 engines are cooled primarily by a water/glycol mixture, even at very high pressures it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to withstand temperatures above a couple of hundred degrees Celsius before boiling (which would be a disaster). While it’s hard to find numbers for the pressure of these liquids, reasonable estimates would keep the boiling points below or around 200°C.

Heating Up An F1 Engine

Plus, F1 engines can’t operate very well when they’re cold, which means that they need to reach their optimum operating temperature before the car can even be driven around the track. While the car is in the pits, the team will be pumping hot water and oil all around the engine in order to keep it warm.

This will likely take the engine to temperatures around 80 degrees Celsius, which again is far below the thousands of degrees of the combusting gases. Once the car is ready to go out on the track, the engine is fired up and needs some time to properly warm up before it is driven in anger.

What Affects Engine Temperatures?

There are a number of different elements that affect the temperature of an F1 engine. It’s important for teams to understand this as it will help them determine whether their cars are going to struggle to stay cool during a race.

The ambient air temperature and humidity plays a role in the engine temperature. Hotter and more humid climates mean that the engine will have less cool, dry air available to use to cool down the liquids in the radiators.

The circuit that the car is driving on can also have an effect, especially when it comes to long straights where the engine is working harder. In slower sections of track the engine might not be working as hard, but there will be less air forced into the air intakes, which limits cooling, and in turn meaning the engine continues to run hotter.

Why Do F1 Cars Struggle To Stay Cool In Traffic?

F1 cars struggle to stay cool in traffic because leading cars expel hot, dirty air out the back of their exhausts, and this hot air isn’t very good at cooling down the engine and other components of the trailing car. This is why you often see cars move out of the slipstream if they are overheating.

The cooling systems in F1 cars are heavy and complex, which adds weight to the car, and their shape means that the chassis needs to be compromised in order to accommodate big radiators and air intakes. In addition, the intakes on the car cause drag which ultimately slows the car down.

For this reason, teams generally try to do as little cooling as they can in order to boost the performance of their car aerodynamically. Minimizing cooling but still keeping it effective enough for the car’s internals to avoid overheating is the balance all teams try to strike.

When a Formula 1 car drives behind another one, there is less cool air available for the following car to use to cool their engines. Since the car ahead is dumping hot air out the back of it, the following car will be scooping up hot, lower pressure air, rather than the cleaner, cooler air it really needs. This leads to less effective cooling overall.

Mercedes Cooling Problems

The Mercedes cars of the late 2010s through 2021 are extreme examples of this phenomenon, as they had fairly ineffective cooling systems on their cars as they didn’t expect to be in a lot of traffic during a race, given that they were usually the leaders. This is why we often saw them struggle when it came to cooling their cars down if their drivers were stuck behind a train of slower cars.

Because they minimized the cooling of the car, they could run a more compact package, helping them aerodynamically. However, this meant that, when they spent a long time behind another car, they would very rapidly overheat as the minimal cooling system couldn’t work effectively enough in the dirty air of the car in front.

Final Thoughts

F1 car cooling systems are complex, and they’re made up of various components like ducts, air intakes and radiators. The basic principle used in F1 cooling systems is to transfer heat from components like the engine into the surrounding air and expel it out the back of the car through the exhaust.