Formula 1 cars are incredibly stable while they’re on track. They seem to speed over bumps and kerbs as if they’re almost non-existent. This might leave you wondering about how the cars’ suspension systems work and whether F1 cars have shock absorbers.
F1 cars do have shock absorbers, but they’re very different to the traditional ones you would find on a road car. Instead of just using springs, F1 cars use a complex system of dampers, rockers, and torsion bars to give the teams fine control over how their cars handle.
Stability is crucial for an F1 car, especially when it’s traveling at high speeds. In order for the aerodynamics of the car to work properly, the car needs to be stable and planted over bumps and kerbs. If you’re wondering how F1 cars do this without traditional shock absorbers, keep reading.
What Are Shock Absorbers On A Car?
Firstly, let’s look into shock absorbers on a standard road car to get a better understanding of what they are, and why they are so important. Every standard road car has shock absorbers installed into the suspension, which is used to absorb any bumps in the road and make the ride of the car more comfortable.
The only point of contact between a car and the road is through the tires. If the car had no suspension system, when you went over a bump, the tires would lift off the ground, and without any contact, you’d be unable to control the car.
In order to maximize grip, you want to have the tires planted on the road or track at all times. The more rubber there is touching the surface of the tarmac, the more grip the car will have. This is when the tires will be generating the most grip, and the driver’s inputs will be the most responsive.
Without Shock Absorbers
Without any shock absorbers, the entire car’s chassis would also lift off the ground violently when going over bumps, because the axles would simply be fixed to the body of the car. This would not only cause discomfort for the driver and passengers, but it would also cause damage to the chassis of the car if the bumps became too violent.
When the wheels are in the air, the driver’s steering inputs will have no effect, which means that the driver will lose control of the car. So, a solution is required that allows the wheels to remain in contact with the ground, even when the track surface is uneven or when they go over kerbs at high speed.
The first solution is to add a spring between the wheel mounting and the chassis. Springs work well because they absorb energy through compression. The spring then reduces the force being put into the chassis by compressing when a force is applied to it. A wheel going over a bump can still be kicked up forcefully, but the chassis will remain stable because of the energy being absorbed by the spring.
But a spring will always want to return back its original shape after the compression is released with the force being taken away. This release of compression can cause the spring to extend with a lot of force. This results in the car’s chassis bouncing up and down as the spring compresses and releases over bumps.
This bouncing can still unsettle the car while driving over bumps, which can make it even more difficult to control. The main problem is that the energy going into the spring is released too violently, and so the goal is to dissipate this energy smoothly to improve the car’s handling.
The solution is to add a hydraulic piston, known as a shock absorber. The top and bottom mounts of the spring are connected through a piston filled with oil. Small holes in the piston and between the inner and outer chambers allow small amounts of oil to pass through them as the piston (and spring) moves up and down.
This hydraulic system makes it much more difficult for the spring to move up and down. This reduces the dramatic compression and release of the spring and reduces the amount of energy that is sent through the chassis when the car goes over bumps. It also makes this part of the suspension more stiff, and therefore less reactive to smaller bumps.
Shock absorbers are velocity sensitive. In other words, the faster you try and force the spring to compress, the harder they will resist. This allows the car to remain stable over more aggressive kerbs and bumps, but also ride smoothly over less aggressive bumps which keeps the car stable and under control.
KEY POINTS• Suspension systems in road cars are designed to make the ride more comfortable
• In race cars, such as F1 cars, the suspension system is designed to improve the car’s handling
• Shock absorbers help achieve this by improving how the car handles over bumps and kerbs
Do F1 Cars Have Shock Absorbers?
When looking at a Formula 1 car you may notice that they don’t have any springs and pistons between the wheels and the chassis of the car. Instead, you’ll see various carbon fiber arms connecting the car to its wheels. There aren’t any springs here, which means that Formula 1 cars don’t have traditional shock absorbers.
In the past, there have been many Formula 1 cars that used springs and pistons to absorb the bumps in the track, but these have disappeared on modern race cars. Instead, modern Formula 1 cars use a complex set of systems to absorb the bumps and kerbs on the track.
These more complex systems are packaged much better inside the car, which protects them from the elements. They work just as well in reducing the energy that is sent through the chassis, but they are more effective because of the position of the wheels alongside the chassis of the car.
The wheels are directly alongside the body of the car. With road cars, the wheels are underneath the car, which makes it easier to use the spring system. But this isn’t the best solution for a Formula 1 car, where keeping a low center of gravity and overall sleek profile is key. Let’s take a closer look at the suspension of an F1 car to make sense of all this.
Anatomy Of F1 Car Suspension
Connecting The Wheels To The Chassis
Formula 1 cars have six carbon fiber arms that join each wheel to the chassis of the car. Four of these arms are the wishbones that structurally connect the wheel to the car. These need to be strong enough to support the wheel and keep it connected to the car in the event of a crash. Loose wheels flying around race tracks are incredibly dangerous!
One of the arms is the steering arm, also known as the track rod. The steering arm runs horizontally across the entire chassis and is responsible for turning the front wheels left and right with the driver’s steering inputs.
The final carbon fiber arm is the push rod or pull rod system, which is what connects to the internal suspension components we’ll discuss in a moment. This system is used on modern Formula 1 cars because it acts in much the same way as a standard shock absorber, but it’s a much lighter design that works well with a Formula 1 car.
Push Rods & Pull Rods
The push rod design is the most common one that you will find at the front of a Formula 1 car. A push rod can be identified by looking at the carbon fiber arm that runs from the bottom of the wheel to the top of the car’s body. A pull rod is the opposite, with the arm running from the bottom of the car’s body to the top of the wheel mounting.
Inside the body of the car, in the nose cone area, hidden from sight and the elements, is a rocker that connects to the push or pull rod. A rocker is simply a mounting that rotates around an axis. When the wheel is raised, the rod that connects the wheel to the chassis pushes or pulls the rocker depending on its orientation (this is where the terms push and pull rod come from).
Usually, teams will build their cars with a push rod at the front of the car and a pull rod at the back of the car. This is simply because of how they need to package their suspension setup in terms of space inside the car. But it’s still possible to swap these two around in some cases, as we saw with McLaren and Red Bull in 2022.
The rocker will translate the linear motion of the rod into a rotational motion for the torsion bar. Dampers are added to the rocker and, as the rocker moves, the dampers will compress and release according to the bumps in the road. The dampers in this case are the pistons you would find on a standard shock absorber.
The “spring” in a Formula 1 car is a torsion bar rather than an actual spring. The torsion bar connects to the rocker on one end, allowing it to move with the rocker. The other end of the torsion bar is connected to the chassis preventing it from moving.
As the rocker moves, the torsion bar will twist, because one end is connected to the rocker (which is moving) and the other end is connected to the chassis (which is stationary). The torsion bar will resist this twisting motion. When the force is released, the torsion bar returns to its original shape.
In other words, the torsion bar serves the exact same purpose of a spring, but it achieves that function in a different way. Torsion bars are used in Formula 1 cars because they are lighter, smaller, and more flexibly packaged into the small space that Formula 1 engineers have to work with.
Everything Working Together
All of these systems work together to dampen the violent bumps and kerbs that Formula 1 cars go over, and they smooth out the ride. This does make the ride a bit more comfortable for the driver, but more importantly it keeps the car stable when going over bumps and kerbs, which allows the driver to control their car better, and ultimately drive faster.
These systems also allow the car’s aerodynamics to work better. Formula 1 cars are designed with smooth airflow in mind, and if a car is bouncing up and down or moving around, the airflow over the car will be disrupted. So, in an ideal world, engineers will aim to prevent the bumps from moving the body of the car as much as possible.
F1 cars do have shock absorbers, but they’re more complex than the spring systems you may find on your standard road car. F1 cars use a variety of suspension components, from push/pull rods to dampers and rockers, to help provide the driver with better handling to allow them to race faster.