When speed and accuracy are everything, being able to change gears as quickly as possible can mean the difference between winning or losing an F1 race. This can leave many wondering how F1 gearboxes work, and how the driver changes gears.
F1 cars change gears semi-automatically, seamlessly transitioning from one gear to the next without losing power. There are paddles on the left and right sides of the steering wheel that allow the driver to move up and down the gears, and the onboard computer handles the actual shifting.
At incredible speed, a driver needs to monitor other drivers, corners, tire wear, pit stops, and gear changes. Having so much to control, at up to 210 mph, is almost impossible. In this article, we’ll look at how F1 cars help their drivers change gears, making life a little easier during races.
An F1 car is a phenomenally well-engineered machine, and when a car this powerful is put in the hands of a driver, it is often the driver that can be the weakest link, which is understandable when the speed of these amazing machines is taken into consideration.
Drivers have so much they need to be aware of, so many minute details that can be the difference between success and failure, that they need all the help they can get from the engineers who build their cars. One of the most important jobs during racing is the ability to rapidly change gear.
An F1 car changes gear through the driver-controlled paddles on the steering wheel, and tests have shown that a driver can change gears more than 3,500 times during a single race, depending on the track. Once the driver makes the decision to go up or down a gear and applies pressure to the paddle, the onboard computer takes over and facilitates the change.
The issue is that, at the speed a driver is going, being able to monitor RPM and change gear themselves without damaging the transmission is an almost impossible task. To aid the driver in changing gears, much of the gear changing is done by a computer, allowing the driver to effectively just ‘ask’ for higher or lower gears.
Behind an F1 steering wheel are two paddles that the driver uses to shift up or down the gears. The left paddle shifts down a gear, and the right paddle shifts up the gears. As already stated, once this request reaches the onboard computer, the onboard sensors and hydraulics complete the shift change automatically, leaving the driver free to focus on the track.
Given the thousands of gear changes that happen every race, the onboard computer ensures every change is perfect, something the driver simply wouldn’t be able to do. And because every millisecond counts, making mistakes on gear changes, especially when there are usually over 3,000 per race, taking this action out of driver control saves many seconds per race.
F1 cars have a clutch that is designed to only be used when the car is pulling away from a standing start, and it is not there to help with changing gears when moving. The only times the driver uses the clutch are to move away from a stop, or sometimes to engage reverse.
Unlike road vehicles where there are many different manufacturers, F1 clutches are only made by two manufacturers, AP Racing and Sachs, and the F1 clutch is almost 4 times lighter than a standard clutch due to the immense pressure on F1 cars to be as light as possible. The clutch itself is located between the gearbox and the engine.
An F1 car has a manual clutch paddle situated in the drivers’ cockpit on the steering wheel for use at the start of races, or for exiting a pit stop. It is also used on occasion when a driver needs to engage reverse.
Even though they are rarely needed, an F1 clutch can reach very high temperatures. But because these clutches are made of carbon fiber and titanium, a high strength, and very temperature resistant material, they cope very well with anything an F1 driver can throw at them.
There are often times during a season where a driver has slightly slower starts than they are aiming for. This is sometimes due to them having to get a feel for the bite point of a new clutch. This is similar to the owner of a new road car having to adjust to the nuances of their new vehicle, although due to an F1 car being such a precision machine, the nuances can be infinitesimally small.
As the only way they can get a feel for the bite point is to use the paddles on the steering wheel, drivers that have had a new clutch put in their car sometimes need time and practice in order to get the clutch release perfect. Practice laps are helpful, as is an F1 simulator, but nothing beats race time for really getting to grips with the car.
F1 drivers do drive with both feet. Thanks to only needing to use the clutch when at a standing start, F1 cars do not need a clutch pedal, which means there is the bonus of being able to have only two pedals inside the cockpit for them to use. This also streamlines the nose of the car as less space is required.
Anything that simplifies racing for a driver is a huge asset, and having one pedal for braking (the left pedal) and one for accelerating (the right pedal) allows for drivers to maintain much faster speeds while cornering or powering along a straight during a race.
When braking into a corner using the left foot pedal, a driver can then gauge when during the braking to apply acceleration, allowing for less speed loss as they punch out of a corner already accelerating – it also saves time switching between the pedals. Being able to gently apply the brake into a corner also keeps the temperature high enough for the brakes to keep working.
F1 legend Michael Schumacher was one of the first proponents of left-foot braking, and his ability to maintain high speeds even on the most difficult of corners, and then accelerate out again even quicker than rivals, led to widespread adoption of this method of driving. It was quickly identified as the optimum way to race.
Each F1 car uses a semi-automated sequential gearbox, with 8 forward gears and one reverse gear. An F1 car must be semi-automatic as per the rules, but some automatic systems existed in the past, and F1 cars did used to have manual gearboxes too.
This doesn’t mean that drivers actually perform the gear shift themselves though. Due to the incredible speeds an F1 car reaches, an onboard system completes the gear shift itself through the use of electronic solenoids, sensors, and hydraulic actuators.
F1 gearboxes are incredibly complex pieces of engineering, having to deal with instantaneous gear changes at high speeds while operating under immense heat and stress. With over 400 individual parts per gearbox, precision and quality are vital. As with most things mechanical, the more variables present, the more chance of something going wrong.
Another vital aspect of an F1 gearbox is that, due to it being a sequential gearbox, accidentally upshifting or downshifting past a gear is impossible, so a driver cannot accidentally shift from first to third gear by mistake. The construction of F1 transmissions also provide a key advantage.
Heat dissipation in F1 cars is crucially important. Both the brakes and the gearbox reach incredible temperatures, and so each component must be able to withstand the heat and still perform as expected. An F1 gearbox is made of carbon titanium, an incredibly versatile material that withstands high temperatures, while also having the huge advantage of being extremely lightweight.
F1 gearboxes are smaller and lighter than commercial gearboxes and are designed to be as streamlined as possible in order to maximize heat loss and minimize wind resistance. A bullet shaped F1 car with a wide gearbox at the back of the car slowing it down would be inefficient, so manufacturers and designers are always looking for ways to minimize the surface area of a gearbox.
Due to the incredible cost of an F1 gearbox – they come at around $600,000 each – FIA rules state that any constructor that replaces their car’s gearbox before it has been used in five races receives a penalty. To cut costs, and to avoid the risk of penalties, F1 gearboxes are made to a very high standard, and only a complete gearbox failure will make a constructor put a new one in.
F1 cars became semi-automatic in 1989, when the first paddle shifters appeared on the cars’ steering wheels. F1 cars until 1989 were all manual, and a driver had to change gears using a traditional stick shift.
Ferrari was the first team to move to automatic gearboxes in 1989, pioneering the transition to wheel-mounted paddles to change gear. Realizing the potential for increased performance, reduced driver error, and a reduction in car weight that moving to an automatic gearbox would bring, Ferrari revolutionized F1 forever with the Ferrari 640.
Incredibly, it wasn’t until 1996 that all F1 cars made the move to an automatic gearbox system, a statistic made all the more unbelievable considering the Ferrari 640 won its first race in 1989 under new Ferrari driver Nigel Mansell, and never finished outside the top three in any race it completed in its first season.
Through the early years of semi-automatic gearboxes, there were inevitably issues and failures as designers and manufacturers learned how to improve and refine the process. While a semi-automatic road vehicle may be a fairly standard build, engineering an F1 car to be as near-perfect as possible took trial and error, but once refined, by 1996 every F1 car used the paddle system first pioneered by Ferrari.
An F1 gearbox, and the incredibly powerful computer that works alongside it, are specially designed to help a driver move up or down through the gears as seamlessly as possible. Because the clutch on an F1 car is only used from a complete stop, all the driver needs to focus on is shifting through the gears using the paddles behind the steering wheel.
Once the driver decides to change gear, the gearbox takes over and changes gear in lightning-fast time, within 50ms, while making sure there is zero loss of power between shifts. Unlike a stick shift, where a driver may need to be aware of the RPMs and ensure they don’t do any damage to the gearbox, the onboard computer handles all of this for the driver, ensuring smooth gear changing.
This is why an F1 driver can approach a corner at close to 200 mph, in eighth gear, and brake and downshift to first or second gear in just a second or so. You couldn’t do this in a road car without destroying the gearbox, but F1 gearboxes are designed to work under this kind of strain without losing performance.
But changing the gears so fast requires a very unique solution to ensure the car doesn’t drop any power while the driver shifts. This system is called seamless gear changing.
Seamless gear changing works by using two gears at once, for an infinitely small amount of time, this helps to remove the loss of power during a gear change. If a driver in 4th gear wishes to move to 5th gear, the gearbox engages both gears simultaneously, for a fraction of a second, before disengaging 4th gear.
What this essentially means is that the onboard computer makes sure acceleration is seamless, as rather than individual gears, the whole experience is much more fluid.
The high-pitched drone of the engine doesn’t drop at any stage, as there is no break during a gear change. When changing gear in a road car going at speed, you can hear the audible power decrease as a gear is being changed, and then the power of the sound increases as the next gear is engaged.
F1 gearboxes are semi-automatic, and a driver changes gears using the paddles on the steering wheel. F1 drivers may make more than 3,000 gear changes per race, and they do this by pulling on either of the paddles, before the onboard computer takes care of the actual gear changes.
I created and have been writing on this site since 2019, collaborating with drivers, coaches, engineers and manufacturers to provide you with the most reliable information about motorsport. Find out more about me here.