A great F1 car needs to be strong, robust, fast, and lightweight if it has any chance of competing at the highest levels of motorsport. The right materials and some of the greatest engineering minds ever to build an F1 car have found carbon fiber offers the right balance between safety and speed.
F1 cars are made of up to 60-80% carbon fiber due to the superb strength and durability of the material. Carbon fiber can withstand the high temperatures that F1 cars can reach, and maybe most importantly, it’s around 5 times lighter than steel, making it ideal for racecars.
Speed and safety are two of the primary aims when designing an F1 car, it makes sense to use the strongest, lightest, and most durable materials available. Carbon fiber ticks every box F1 looks for in a building material, and below we look at just how important carbon fiber is for F1 cars.
Without being bogged down in the admittedly impressive science behind carbon fiber, at its very basic level this incredible material is a polymer that is made up of extremely thin crystalline carbon filaments. These filaments are used to strengthen other materials or be coated in resin to become a rigid and extremely durable carbon fiber shape.
If we think of each carbon filament as a long matchstick, breaking one would be easy, but by putting many together in a bundle, it suddenly becomes much harder to break the matches. As carbon fiber can be many times thinner than a strand of hair, by twisting thousands of these together the tensile strength of the fibers becomes exponentially stronger.
The carbon fibers, once intertwined, become extremely tough, but still flexible enough to make a fabric. But to really see carbon fibers come into their own, they can be turned into a rigid shape by laying them over a mold and coating them in resin. This retains the rigidity and strength while keeping the overall weight of the newly created shape down to a minimum.
Things are starting to get technical, but making carbon fiber is a process that isn’t dissimilar to baking a cake, in that there are many steps to follow. Firstly, the fibers need to be chemically altered to alter their molecular composition. This is achieved through air heating the fibers to around 200-300 degrees Celsius (390-570°F) and then allowing them to cool.
Once cooled, the fibers are then carbonized by being heated in a furnace. The furnace is oxygen-free. As this process develops, the non-carbon atoms inside the fibers are removed, and the remaining carbon atoms become very tightly knitted together, forming something that’s beginning to look like carbon fiber as we know it.
The finished carbon fiber then needs treating, as in its current state it doesn’t bond well with any other materials. This is done by slightly oxidizing the surface of the fibers. Every stage so far must be carefully monitored to ensure there are no defects or blemishes in the carbon fiber, to ensure it is structurally sound.
After these treatments, the final stage is to coat the carbon fiber. This process is called sizing, and it’s used to protect the fibers from any damage while making the final product. The coating used depends on the type of final product the fibers will be used for, such as epoxy or urethane.
Carbon fiber is incredibly strong due to the processes involved in bonding the carbon atoms together into a chain, removing almost all other impurities from the carbon. The atoms become denser and this therefore makes the entire composition of the carbon fiber more rigid.
The end result is extremely strong yet flexible carbon fiber that then gets bonded to resin to make it one of the strongest materials available. The heating process during carbonizing basically bakes the carbon fiber, and much like an over-cooked potato, it becomes almost unbreakable.
A carbon fiber filament is a strong material on its own, but due to its size, which is around 100 times thinner than a strand of hair, combining these filaments into a greater number increases its strength exponentially. Once it’s free from impurities and bonded to another strong material such as resin, it becomes one of the hardest materials available.
Carbon fiber is a lot more expensive to use when compared to metal, due to the incredibly complex manufacturing processes involved. Creating quality carbon fiber is a difficult process, and depending on what the carbon fiber is being used for, the processes can vary.
Many manufacturers use their own bespoke equipment and manufacturing techniques, which further increases the cost. The global pandemic in 2020/2021 didn’t help with this industry, and demand outgrew supply, which further increased costs.
As far back as 2012, 55% of global carbon fiber consumption was in the sports industry. But since then, everything from airplanes and wind farms has entered the market, making it a valuable commodity.
As F1 cars need superbly crafted carbon fiber parts, the cost of molding these parts and then testing each one for imperfections, added to the cost of the raw material itself, have all meant a rise in overall costs.
The list of reasons for making a Formula 1 car out of carbon fiber is a long one. It is almost the perfect building material for an F1 car, and pretty much everything a race car designer looks for in a fast car can be provided by carbon fiber. And while it may be expensive, the benefits are just too great to ignore.
Firstly, carbon fiber is ridiculously light, and it’s around 4-5 times lighter than steel. As F1 cars are all about speed, the lighter they are, the faster they go. Carbon fiber is lighter than aluminum too, which puts it head and shoulders above its competitors.
This reason alone would cheer even the gloomiest of F1 designers. Finding ways to shave weight from a car is vital, but there are only so many corners that can be cut before the car becomes unsafe, which is where carbon fiber comes into its own. As well as being incredibly lightweight, carbon fiber is actually stronger than steel when we take into account the strength to weight ratio.
A material that is both strong and lightweight has a better strength to weight ratio than one that is heavy and strong, making carbon fiber a standout winner against steel. This allows F1 cars to be constructed out of a material that is both strong and light without compromising on safety or speed.
Another massive plus of carbon fiber is that it doesn’t conduct heat very well. In fact, it can be heated to very high temperatures without bending or melting, which, given the very high temperatures parts of an F1 car can reach, is incredibly important when finding the right material.
Designers previously had to sacrifice one thing or another. You could have fast, or you could have safe, or you could have heat resistant – now you get all three. Given the incredible properties of carbon fiber, the ultimate question isn’t “why are Formula 1 cars made of carbon fiber?” as it should be “why isn’t everything made of carbon fiber?” such are its uses and protective capabilities.
You can set it on fire and it won’t melt, it won’t conduct heat, and if you crash it will either shatter to absorb the impact or remain in perfect shape to protect the driver. Through the use of molds, a manufacturer can create any shape they desire using computer-aided design software, making carbon fiber one of the most resilient and pliable materials ever created.
Up to 80% of an F1 car is made up of composites, primarily carbon fiber, and a lot of these parts are manufactured when required using computer-aided design to create a pattern that then gets turned into a mold for the final piece to be created from.
The monocoque is almost made entirely out of carbon fiber, with a honeycombed layer of aluminum and carbon fiber covered on both sides by separate layers of carbon fiber to make the driver’s cockpit as impregnable as possible. Each carbon fiber chassis is comprised of multiple panels and multiple layers of carbon fiber to achieve the desired strength and thickness.
A monocoque is built in two parts that are then fitted together to create one of the safest cocoons available for an F1 driver. The rest of the F1 car is then built around the monocoque, mostly out of carbon fiber of varying strengths. This is why, during a crash, certain carbon fiber parts of the car seem to shatter. They are designed to do so to absorb impact and protect the driver from injury.
The driver’s seat is an important part of the monocoque, and this too is made out of a carbon fiber shell. The shell then has a bag placed over it which is filled with either foam or polystyrene granules. Once sealed, the air is removed from the bag to permanently seal the granules inside.
Because a seat is individually shaped and measured for each driver, while this vacuum is setting the driver sits in the seat to mold it to the contours of their body. At the same time, slight modifications are made to the shape of the seat to maximize comfort and stability.
Incredibly, this is simply a model of a fully completed seat, and once fully contoured, this model is scanned in 3D and a fully carbon fiber seat is created. Once completed, the seat is then placed into the monocoque and fitted to the carbon fiber chassis to make the perfect survival cell for an F1 driver.
The nose, or nose cone as it is commonly referred to, is also made of carbon fiber and is designed to be hollow to reduce weight and also to act as a shock absorber in event of crashes. The carbon fiber nose on an F1 car is the first line of defense when a driver hits a wall and will absorb much of the impact, keeping the driver safer from injury.
The front wing of an F1 car is vital in directing airflow over the car, which makes it as aerodynamically efficient as possible. Reducing drag and increasing downforce makes an F1 car faster and less prone to flipping, and a carbon fiber front wing that weighs around 10 kg can create up to 100 times that in downforce.
Lightweight and extremely strong, a front wing can be changed quickly if needed, and is essential in keeping a car on the track and up to speed. As well as the monocoque chassis, wings, seat, and nose cone of an F1 car being made of carbon fiber, the sidepods, floor, and engine cover are all made of carbon fiber too, simply because it is lighter and tougher than anything else on the market.
Almost all of an F1 car’s bodywork is made up of carbon fiber composite materials, as they can be molded perfectly to fit any shape and density. For the parts of an F1 car that require massive strength and security, such as the monocoque, carbon fiber is the best choice available.
With numerous manufacturing techniques used to create carbon fiber of varying strengths, the monocoque is almost indestructible. When it comes to the bodywork of an F1 car, being able to alter the composition of the carbon fiber is invaluable.
Unlike steel, which is far less adjustable, carbon fiber can be chemically and mechanically designed to be robust, or rigid yet brittle, through the way it is heated. This flexibility in manufacture allows bodywork such as a nosecone or wings to be strong enough to withstand huge forces, yet brittle enough to break upon impact.
During a crash, these parts can absorb an incredible amount of kinetic energy that would otherwise potentially harm the driver. A similar part made of steel simply wouldn’t be able to fulfill as many roles while still being light enough or safe enough. Hitting a wall at 150+ mph with a steel nose cone would send the energy from the crash right through the driver’s body.
Apart from the engine and gearbox, almost all of an F1 car is made of some form of carbon fiber, although there is a titanium-plated wooden skid plate situated underneath the car. The plank used to be made of a beechwood called Jabroc, and it was coated with veneers and resin. However, nowadays teams can use various materials, provided they meet F1’s technical regulations.
These titanium blocks also account for the increase in sparks when an F1 car bottoms out when going around a track, which looks spectacular and adds to the excitement of the races for spectators. Rather than being added to look spectacular, the skid plate is there to ensure cars are driving at a minimum ride height.
The same skid plate sits underneath every car to standardize ride height, which prevents cars from running closer to the ground than the rules allow. The skid plate was introduced after the death of F1 legend Ayrton Senna in 1994.
The engine of the F1 car itself is made of cast or wrought aluminum alloy, and the FIA stringently regulates exactly what an engine can and cannot be made of. Aluminum alloy is lightweight like carbon fiber, which is one of the main advantages of using it to build the engine, but due to the FIA looking at cutting the cost of building an F1 car, certain other non-ferrous materials are banned.
Kevlar, most commonly known for its use in protective vests, is another non-carbon fiber material used in F1 cars. An FIA rule stipulates that Kevlar must cover certain parts of the car, such as the wings and other parts of the bodywork. Kevlar is also used in the fuel tank’s construction.
The monocoque also has a Kevlar coating to protect the drivers’ legs in the unlikely event of a crash pushing the front suspension through the cockpit. And as a final layer of protection, the drivers’ helmets are also given the same treatment to decrease the risk of crash debris penetrating the helmet and potentially killing a driver.
F1 cars are made of carbon fiber because the material is very strong but lightweight, and it can aid in shock absorption during a crash. It’s also heat resistant, and so carbon fiber may make up between 60-80% of an F1 car. Carbon fiber is one of many advanced composites used in Formula 1 cars.