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Are F1 Cars Stick Shift Or Automatic?

Formula 1 cars use state-of-the-art technology that has been developed over many years. The cars need to be a challenge to drive, which means they can’t have features that help drivers control their cars. Fans new to the sport might be wondering if this means F1 cars are stick shift or automatic. 

F1 cars are neither stick shift nor automatic. They have had paddle shift gearboxes, which are easier than a stick shift but still require more skill than an automatic, since 1989. Drivers simply need to pull or push on a paddle at the back of the steering wheel to change up or down a gear.

Using a paddle shift gives the driver more control over the car. Formula 1 cars are extremely sensitive machines though, and it’s not as simple as just changing gears whenever you think it’s needed. Below, we’ll discuss the ins and outs of F1 transmissions in more detail.

Are F1 Cars Automatic Or Manual?

F1 cars are not automatic or manual, and instead they have paddle shift transmissions that the driver controls. The cars can’t change gears by themselves as this would take away from the racing. There is no need for automatic transmissions as they would be slower than paddle shift gearboxes too. 

Paddle shift gearboxes have been a part of the sport for decades now, and they have even prompted road car manufacturers to implement the technology into their cars. The paddle shift transmission that you might have in your road car owes a lot of its development to its usage in F1.

Formula 1 cars were manual in the past when the technology to develop paddle shift gearboxes did not yet exist. However, the cars have never been automatic, as this takes too much control away from the driver who needs to be in charge of selecting the gear they want to be in for the upcoming corner.

Modern Formula 1 cars have paddle shift gearboxes that can change gear in the blink of an eye as soon as the driver pulls the lever on the back of the steering wheel. This seamless gear shift helps the car to accelerate and decelerate as fast as possible, and it’s one of the reasons why Formula 1 cars can go from 0 to 120 miles per hour in under four seconds.

When Did F1 Cars Stop Using Stick Shift?

F1 cars stopped using stick shift transmissions in 1989 when the semi-automatic gearbox with paddle shift was brought into the sport by Ferrari. However, some teams opted not to use them right away, and the last manual stick shift F1 car raced as late as 1995.

Stick shift was an important part of Formula 1 in the past, and many of the most iconic onboard shots show how skilled drivers had been at using stick shift transmissions. Some drivers prefer stick shift cars because they are more fun to drive and require much more skill from the driver, especially when it comes to driving fast.

Junior Racing Series

Many of the current generation of drivers spent their junior careers driving stick shift cars. The older generations of Formula Renault, Formula 3, and Formula 2 cars were stick shift. This is where the drivers learned their skills and some might welcome a return to the traditional, purer form of driving.

However, the stick shift is dying out in the world of motorsport. The majority of junior single-seater cars, all the way down to Formula 4, now have paddle shift transmissions. This means that the next generation of drivers never have to drive a car using a stick shift transmission, and it’s a skill that could be lost in the next line of racing drivers.

Seamless Shift Explained

From the driver’s point of view, hitting the perfect gear shift has now become second nature. Drivers have lights on their steering wheel that indicate when the engine is ready to change gear. This makes it easy for them to pull the paddle on the back of the steering wheel to get the car shifted into the next gear.

Drivers also have an audible sound that comes through their earphones that notifies them when their engine is close to the rev limiter and is ready to change gear. This helps the driver to change gears perfectly when they are between other cars and can’t hear the sound of their own engine above the others.

The Sequential Gearbox

Underneath the skin of the car, the process is much more complex though. Formula 1 cars have “sequential” gearboxes, which means that they can only go up or down one gear at a time, and they can’t skip from second gear to fourth gear for example. The gearbox is partly controlled by the car’s computer, which is incredibly advanced.

The computer will actually engage two gears at once when the driver shifts, ensuring there is no loss of power – hence the name seamless shift. To give you an idea of how quickly this happens we can compare the change of a gear to the blink of an eye. Formula 1 transmissions can change gear in just 8 milliseconds, whereas it takes between 100 and 400 milliseconds to blink.

Are Paddle Shift Transmissions Faster?

Paddle shift transmissions are much faster than stick shift and automatic transmissions. In a stick shift, it can take anywhere between 500 milliseconds and 2 seconds to change gears. Paddle shift transmissions on the other hand can change gears in around 8 milliseconds, which is much faster.

On top of that, a manual transmission requires the driver to lift off the throttle and press in the clutch, which adds to the time it takes to change gears. With a paddle shift transmission, the driver can keep their foot on full throttle while changing gears.

Paddle shift transmissions also allow the driver to set faster lap times. The ability to change gears faster gives the car the ability to accelerate faster and therefore hit higher top speeds on the straights. This will naturally make the car faster in a straight line as well as around an entire lap.

Paddle shift gearboxes also allow the driver to choose their preferred gear for a corner, and they can change their gears in the blink of an eye. This means that drivers can decelerate faster by using engine braking, and they can select the perfect gear for the corner that they are heading into as quickly as possible which also contributes to faster lap times.

The Risks Of Paddle Shift Transmissions

Paddle shift transmissions are not all great though. As much as the technology has made the cars faster and helped the drivers to select their gears much quicker than ever before, these transmissions are still incredibly sensitive. Drivers need to be extremely careful with their transmissions in Formula 1 cars.

If a driver changes down too aggressively the engine revs will become too high, and this could cause damage to both the gearbox and the engine, of which the drivers have a limited number due to cost restrictions. Drivers are only allowed to use three engines throughout the season and have a pool of gearbox elements that they are allowed to use.

If the driver uses too many engines or gearbox elements they will have to take a grid penalty. Drivers need to be cautious with the downshifts on their transmissions, especially during the race when the engine and the mechanical elements inside the car become extremely hot and begin to wear out the longer they are used.

These incredibly sensitive gearboxes can also be easily damaged through contact with other cars and with barriers. Despite this downside though, paddle shift gearboxes used in Formula 1 cars are incredible and have advanced the sport ever since they were first introduced.

Do F1 Drivers Still Use A Clutch?

F1 drivers do still use a clutch, despite their gearbox being semi-automatic. The clutch paddles are on the back of the steering wheel, and they are used to move the car from a stationary position, such as at the race start when they select first gear, and to recover when anti-stall engages.

Modern Formula 1 cars still use a clutch despite using paddle shift transmissions. If you have a paddle shift road car you may find this strange because a semi-automatic gearbox does not have a clutch pedal inside the car. Instead, the clutch is operated automatically by the gearbox and the car’s ECU.

Formula 1 cars do still have a clutch paddle (usually two) on the back of the steering wheel. However, this clutch paddle is not used when changing gears. Drivers can change gears without lifting off the throttle or pulling the clutch paddle on the back of the steering wheel. All the driver needs to do to change gear is pull (or push) the gear paddle on the back of the steering wheel.

The clutch paddle on the back of the steering wheel is used to get the car moving from a stationary position. In Formula 1, that would be at the start of the Grand Prix and when the car is leaving its pit box. The driver may also need to engage the clutch to get the car into reverse, and to recover if the car goes into anti-stall.

The clutch paddle on the back of the steering wheel does not control the physical clutch as a clutch pedal would. Instead, the clutch paddles on the back of the steering wheel feeds a signal to the car’s onboard computer, which then in turn controls the hydraulic clutch system that gets the car moving.

F1 Transmissions In The Past

The semi-automatic paddle shift gearbox was first brought into F1 in 1989. Ferrari was the first team to adopt this gearbox in their Formula 1 cars, and eventually, their technology had also been transferred to their road cars.

Before that though, teams were going through hours of research and development to find the best way to help their drivers to change gears faster than ever before. Formula 1 engineers spent endless hours researching new technology and developing it in order to create the fastest car on the grid.

Looking back at something as basic as a gearbox shows just how much Formula 1 has helped technology to develop. The competition between teams means that every team and every engineer is thinking outside of the box to find the next big solution to a problem.

Over the years Formula 1 has used many different transmissions. Before the high-tech paddle shift gearboxes that we have today, the sport has seen many different types of gearboxes being used in the cars, and many of them will be recognizable if you’re an experienced driver.

H-Pattern

The H-pattern is the original manual gearbox. The earlier form of the H-pattern gearbox only featured four gears, which is where the name came from. As cars got faster though, more gears have been added to ensure that the cars can stretch their legs on the straights as much as possible.

H-patten gearboxes are exactly like the standard manual gearboxes you would find in your average road car. You have your first gear in the top left, and shifting straight down vertically changes the gearbox into the second gear.

The driver then has to shift horizontally and up to get the gearbox into third gear and so on. The H-pattern gearbox works with a clutch pedal that the driver has to press down every time they change gears. When the clutch is pressed down the driver also has to lift their foot off the throttle.

The earliest form of the special driving technique heel and toe was first developed with H-pattern gearboxes. However, the technique was closer to double-clutching than the heel and toe technique that we would eventually see with sequential gearboxes.

Final Thoughts

Formula 1 cars are neither stick shift nor automatic and instead have semi-automatic paddle shift gearboxes. The drivers have to change gears by pulling on a paddle at the back of their steering wheel. This transmission is much faster and gives the driver more control over the car.