Even though they are exceptionally fast, you may have noticed that F1 cars are also very fragile. F1 cars are driven at speeds of 190+ miles per hour, and the racing gets very close at times. So, this can leave fans wondering why F1 cars are so fragile.
F1 cars are fragile because they are built for speed, and the materials used in their construction are exceptionally light and brittle. However, these materials are designed to be both light and efficient, and they’re not designed to collide with obstacles or other cars, making them fragile.
But the fact the cars are so fragile should not then be seen as a negative thing. They are still very safe, as you will see when there’s a big crash and the driver somehow walks away from it. Below, we discuss how fragile F1 cars are, and why this isn’t a bad thing.
F1 cars will break so easily because of the materials used in their construction. They are not built for strength and instead are built for performance, and this then leads to them breaking exceptionally easily when apparently small forces are applied.
But this isn’t due to them being poorly built. Instead, everything is designed for speed and performance, and it’s all to do with striking this balance between speed and making sure the driver is safe inside the car.
It’s important to realize that fragility in terms of an F1 car is not the same as how we would usually imagine it. In fact, fragility with an F1 car is actually a good thing. Yes, they are designed to be like this, to a certain extent.
Crumple and shatter zones are important parts of any car, and F1 cars are no exceptions. These are parts of the car specifically designed to crumple or fall apart in the event of a crash. Put simply, this dissipates the energy of the crash throughout the car, rather than through the driver.
When Robert Kubica was racing for BMW Sauber, he was in a collision during the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. A massive shunt, it saw him hitting a concrete barrier at 299 kph. His car was destroyed, and he suffered a deceleration of 75G. That is massive, and a normal car would have not only been destroyed, but the driver would not have survived.
In this instance, Kubica suffered a broken leg. This was all thanks to the crumple and shatter zones designed into the car. All of that energy went around him rather than through him leading to his survival. However, his broken leg led to further development of the crumple zones at the front of F1 cars, to ensure the drivers’ legs and feet are safe in head-on collisions.
An F1 car needs to be light. Teams try to save weight wherever they can as this can allow them to go faster. That means that items such as the body work needs to be as light as they can get it.
The material of choice for the body is carbon fiber. It offers a balance between strength and weight. Also, there’s the way in which it deals with the energy transfer that occurs when the car suffers any impact.
An F1 car has to contend with a number of different forces that go far beyond what a normal car has to deal with, and at higher speeds. At a greater speed, the energy that cars experience in a collision is greater than we would likely ever experience in our road cars.
But that is why a great deal of care is taken over how the car itself deals with the kinetic energy generated in a collision.The aim is to disperse the energy and to reduce the level of kinetic energy that goes through the driver. That will, in turn, slow the car down in a safe manner.
All of the aerodynamic pieces are designed to break very easily. When they break, they absorb some of the energy of the crash. Each piece might absorb a relatively tiny amount of the overall impact energy, but with lots of pieces comes lots of energy absorption, and that’s all energy that is not going through the driver, keeping them safe.
The greater the speed, the greater the force being applied to the car. That means an F1 car can experience the slightest of bumps with another car, and yet the damage that small bump can cause may lead to parts of the car almost disintegrating.
F1 is a non-contact sport. That means the parts of an F1 car are not built with contact in mind. That changes their structure, and allows the teams to focus more on aerodynamics, downforce production, and overall performance, with the idea simply being that the driver shouldn’t crash.
All of the parts designed to absorb energy in the case of a crash are tested to ensure they can withstand the normal pressures and force that an F1 car has to contend with,like high pressures, temperatures and g-forces.
However, they are not designed to be able to withstand the force applied from any kind of impact. It’s at that point where they will quickly become fragile and break.
These pieces are exceptionally strong, but when the wrong force is applied to them, they will then shatter into literally thousands of pieces as they dissipate that force.
The way in which an F1 car breaks apart has been carefully calculated. The teams pretty much know what will happen should the car hit a barrier, or another car, from a multitude of angles. They understand how it will react and design the different aspects of the car around this knowledge.
F1 teams know the life of the driver is in their hands, winning the race requires the fastest car, so it’s a real balancing act between these two things.
An F1 car has a minimum and maximum weight. However, the teams seek to get as close to the minimum weight as possible. This means there is less weight for the car to try to accelerate, and it also means less inertia to contend with under braking. Ultimately, it makes the car a bit easier to drive, never mind faster.
That is also why they use these ultra-lightweight materials in their construction. They strive to save small amounts of weight wherever they can to then allow them to move faster. But this all makes a difference with how we perceive collisions with F1 cars.
High Speeds = More Damage
At high speeds, a contact might seem quite inconsequential to us, as it looks as if a car has just tapped a barrier or another car, but the actual force of that slight impact can be huge. People then see pieces of a car flying off or shattering into a million pieces, and they then become confused as to how such a slight bit of contact can lead to such a dramatic outcome.
But the force of a small impact at 200 mph will be bigger than if you had an impact in your own car at your average driving speed. This is why many people think F1 cars are fragile. While small bits of contact can send carbon fiber flying all over the track, it’s largely because the high speeds of these cars mean that even the slightest of touches come with a lot of force.
The strongest part of an F1 car is the monocoque within the chassis, and it’s also one of the most important parts as well. It’s often called the survival cell, and it’s designed to remain intact even in the heaviest of crashes, in order to protect the driver.
The monocoque is, by design, supposed to be pretty much indestructible. It provides the driver with as much safety and security as possible, and it saves lives.
This is also known as the shell, and it forms the body of the car, as it all blends in with the overall chassis. It is still manufactured from carbon fiber, and the form they use in an F1 car is around five times as strong as steel, but at a fraction of the weight.
The teams will also use a number of different weave designs of the 12 layers that make up the carbon fiber in different areas of the car. This is due to different parts of the car being required to deal with different loads and pressures.
Between these layers of carbon fiber, there is also a layer of aluminum honeycomb. This provides the chassis and monocoque with even more strength, so it can withstand even greater pressures than you might imagine possible.
Finally, the monocoque is designed to also be non-combustible. It offers the driver an extra layer of protection, even though other parts of the car could be in flames around them. With this safety feature, they have the time to be able to get out of the car safely, even if a high impact crash has engulfed the car in flames, like Romain Grosjean’s crash in Bahrain in 2020.
Another strong part of an F1 car worthy of a mention is the wheel tether. The wheels are designed to come off, but the tethers ensure they remain attached to the car.
These tethers have to be exceptionally strong due to the forces they need to withstand. The tethers have to contend with extreme deceleration, and vast amounts of energy being pushed through them. In a crash, a wheel flying off could clearly pose a danger to the drivers around the crash, so these wheel tethers need to hold the wheel to the car even in the worst crashes.
The weakest parts of an F1 car are the parts on the body designed for aerodynamic and airflow purposes. These parts of the car are only meant to come into contact with air flowing over and around the car, so they’re naturally going to be much weaker and break apart in a crash.
We mentioned earlier the importance of the aerodynamic sections of an F1 car and how they manage to reduce the forces that the driver experiences in a crash by dissipating some of the energy. So, it’s no surprise that they are often some of the weakest parts of an F1 car.
They clearly play an integral role in the stability of the car, and also how well it performs. However, they are only designed to work in this way under specific conditions, and are therefore not designed to remain intact during a crash.
Because these parts are designed to manipulate the airflow over and through the car, they are also some of the most exposed parts of the car. That means they tend to be the first parts that come into contact with anything else, be it in a big shunt or in a small tap with a wall or another car.
The design of the outer shell of the body of an F1 car is carefully controlled to ensure it does not create excess drag. Drag leads to lower speeds, and clearly that’s not a good thing in F1!
The outer shell is not made to handle excessive impacts. It can deal with aerodynamic force being applied to it as the car is being driven around the track. However, anything stronger than the downforce expected will eventually damage the car.
Remember that the outer shell is the first part of the car that has to contend with the forces of an impact. It’s the first line of protection for the driver, so it is made weaker than the core to move the energy away from the driver.
If the outer shell was strong and resistant to breaking under extreme force, then you would have a lot of that energy going through the driver. So, it may be weak, but it needs to be for the driver’s safety.
The problem with our view of F1 cars being unreliable is that we compare them to normal cars, but that’s not entirely fair. After all, F1 cars are designed to do a certain job that is completely different to what you would expect from a normal car.
They deal with speeds and stresses applied to them that our street cars could never cope with. Considering what they do and the forces they withstand, F1 cars are actually pretty reliable.
Look at your current car, and how fast you tend to drive in it. Compare this to what an F1 car has to go through during the course of a single race. They reach speeds in excess of 200 mph, and they’re even cornering at speeds upwards of 190 mph in some cases.
But it’s not a case of reaching speeds in excess of 200 mph once. They do it over and over again. Also, most races in F1 run for around 190 miles in total length. Consider the fact they do this in just an hour and a half on average, and you see how these cars are indeed finely tuned machines.
However, there’s no doubt that all of these pressures, and let’s not forget the g-forces, take their toll on the cars. Your car would be unable to cope with a fraction of what an F1 car has to deal with. When you think about it from that perspective, are they actually as unreliable as you think they are?
Reliability in F1 has improved greatly over the years. If you go back to 1991, there was an average of less than 14 finishers per race. Now, some of them were not due to any reliability issues (think crashes and disqualifications), but lack of reliability certainly played a role.
Move forward to 2011, and this number had jumped to almost 20 finishers per race. So much of that was put down to improved reliability. Once again, when you think about what the engines, and the cars in general, have to go through over the course of a single race, this becomes even more impressive.
Reliability in F1 has improved for a number of reasons. This is thanks to a number of advancements in technology, but improvements in lubrication is actually another major reason.
Better lubricants, and how they act within the engine, has led to less friction between parts. With less friction comes a reduction in the possibility of parts breaking under pressure. Also, it’s harder for various parts to wear down, so they last longer.
Throughout the course of a championship, teams are restricted in the number of gearboxes and engines they can use. Failing to stick to these limits will lead to grid penalties.
That has led to teams working at improving reliability on these key components to ensure they last longer. Go back 20 years, or even less, and you will find numerous examples of engines blowing up in races. This would often be in spectacular fashion with smoke billowing out of the back of the car.
This sort of thing is quite rare nowadays, and it’s all thanks to improved technology and engineering within the engine and gearbox. While there is still the occasional failure that leads to a retirement, they’re far less common than they used to be.
Even just back in the early 2000s, a team would have an engine for qualifying, then change it for a new engine for the race, and then there would be another engine for the next round. That cost them a fortune, but when you are replacing a part as often as this, there’s no need for extreme reliability when you change it on such a regular basis.
Now, each engine has to last for 7 or 8 races. Reliability is a huge deal, and that is why the teams have sought to look at ways to reduce undue pressure and force, or even friction, on different aspects of an engine.
F1 cars are fragile because they’re designed to go as fast as possible, and they’re not designed to come into contact with anything other than air. F1 cars seem fragile during crashes because the cars are designed to break to pieces to dissipate energy away from the driver, keeping them safe.