Formula 1 cars are some of the most complex and advanced machines on the planet, but they can look very similar on the surface. You might therefore be wondering why all F1 cars look the same.
F1 cars look similar across the grid because there are rules that limit the designs and components teams can use. This is similar to NASCAR and IndyCar, where each team needs to abide by the regulations and build cars in a similar style. Most of the differences are small or internal.
Despite every Formula 1 car looking similar, there are some key differences between each of them, which is why there is a big difference in terms of the cars’ performance. Below, we take a closer look at this issue to explain just how different F1 cars are.
Why Do All F1 Cars Look Similar?
You may have noticed that most Formula 1 cars look very similar all across the grid. This is mainly because each team needs to follow a set of rules and regulations that control the way the cars are built. Without these rules, there’s no doubt we’d see some very different looking F1 cars!
These rules exist because the series needs to be restricted and the cars need to be built in a specific way. In the past we have seen massive wings on the front of cars, fans attached to the backs of cars, and even “elephant ears” fitted to the noses of cars. All of these designs have affected the performance of the cars and the quality of the sporting spectacle.
The rules are written in such a way that they can be interpreted differently, but at the end of the day, each team will have a similar design to the next in terms of how the car looks overall. It’s not necessarily the looks that matter in the rulebook, but rather how the cars perform and how safe they are for the drivers, and these rules simply result in designs that look similar.
Every F1 car has:
- Four wheels
- A nosecone
- A front and rear wing (and a smaller beam wing below the rear wing)
- A fixed maximum length, width and height (although some of these are fixed indirectly as a result of other dimension regulations)
- An open cockpit
- Wheel covers and winglets
- Sidepods to send air through the radiators
- A roll hoop
- A halo to protect the driver
Having all of these components on every car naturally makes them all look similar, but when you look closer, you realize that each of these components may look slightly different from car to car. But where are the biggest differences?
Where Do F1 Cars Differ The Most?
While most F1 cars look similar on the outside, there are some major differences underneath the bodywork that most people don’t see. These are the key differences that affect the performance of the cars on the grid.
Sometimes a team will get these factors right and become the fastest on the grid seemingly out of nowhere (like Brawn GP did in 2009), and other times a team can get it horribly wrong and drop down the grid (like Mercedes did in 2022). People often don’t see these differences in the cars because they don’t look deeper into the technical and mechanical aspects of the cars.
For example, the big difference Brawn got right in 2009, and that the other teams largely failed to match until later in the season, was in the diffuser underneath the car (i.e. you wouldn’t normally see it, yet it led to huge performance differences).
As for Mercedes in 2022, a lot of factors contributed to their lack of performance against Ferrari and Red Bull. One of the most visually obvious factors was in their ‘zero pods’ sidepod design, which made their car look very different from some of the others at the start of the season.
But the biggest key difference between Formula 1 cars is in the engines they use. There are currently four engine manufacturers. Each of these engine manufacturers supplies to other teams as well. For example, Mercedes supplies engines to McLaren, Aston Martin, and Williams.
The engine in the car makes a big difference, especially on some circuits like Monza where the engine’s power and the car’s top speed are crucial. The performance of the engine can give a team a massive advantage, which was especially powerful for Mercedes from 2014-2021.
The aerodynamics of the cars is another area where small differences can give a team a huge boost in performance. These are also much easier to spot than differences in the engines, for obvious reasons. The aerodynamics of the car will determine how the air flows over, under, and around it, greatly affecting its performance.
Aerodynamics are critical in Formula 1, and it’s the reason the cars can corner so fast compared to those in other motorsports. So, teams are always trying to squeeze out every little advantage they can with their bodywork, front wings, rear wings, and floors.
Unlike with the engines, you can see many of the car’s aerodynamic components, and this is often the first thing people analyze when the cars launch at the start of the season or when new aero parts are unveiled during the season.
The smallest differences in the aerodynamics department can have huge effects on the performance of the cars, from the angles of the wings to the size of the sidepods and everything in between.
The internal components of each car are unique too, and this is quite a significant element that makes each car different. Every Formula 1 team has its own factory where the cars are built. Every single internal part, down to the nuts and bolts that hold it all together, is built at the team’s factory, which makes all of them unique.
This is important because some teams might build parts that can perform better, or they might have parts that are more durable and reliable, which is why these internal components make such a big difference in the overall performance of the cars. The only parts that are sometimes shared across teams are the gearboxes and the engines.
Every car will also have its own ‘setup’ based on the driver’s preferences. For example, some drivers prefer a car that oversteers while others prefer a car that understeers. This means that the cars will handle differently through the corners, and the teams can tweak the cars in small ways to cater to their drivers’ preferences.
While there may be no major physical changes made to the cars, tiny tweaks can make a car more favorable or less favorable for a particular driver. You normally won’t be able to spot these kinds of differences, but they are there. Sometimes it could even just be a case of the steering wheel button layout being slightly different!
Moreover, the cars can also differ in their engine settings, or even something as simple as their gear ratios. This will change their straight line speed performance. So, even if two cars from the same team are identical in every way on the surface, they can still be very different underneath.
The floor of the cars is one of the biggest areas where the new era of Formula 1 cars are different. The 2022 aerodynamic rule overhaul meant that the cars now use Venturi tunnels and more of the ground effect to produce downforce. They still used the ground effect in the past, but the floors were far less complex than they are now.
This means that the floor of the car has become a critical design element, and it’s something that every team tries to hide from their rivals so they can’t sneak a peek at their design choices. The design of the Venturi tunnels underneath the car has a drastic effect in terms of how the car performs.
While the cars might look similar in their bodywork, each one is completely unique underneath. Each tunnel, shape, and turning vane will be different from one team to another. Of course, this is something that we rarely ever get to see, but keep an eye out next time a driver crashes and their car is lifted onto the back of a flatbed truck!
KEY POINTS• F1 cars naturally look similar as they must be designed within a strict set of rules
• They each contain many of the same components that contribute to this similarity
• However, the cars are actually very different, especially in many areas we can’t normally see
Why The 2022 F1 Cars Looked So Different
2022 brought some big changes to the Formula 1 rulebook. The aim of the rule changes was to allow the cars to follow each other with greater ease, reducing the effects of dirty air. This would, in theory, lead to closer racing and more battles on track where drivers can overtake one another.
In order to achieve this, the aerodynamic rules had to be changed to prevent the cars from producing as much dirty air directly behind them as they did in the past. This dirty air is what causes the car behind to lose grip and become slower when they’re in the leading car’s wake. Minimizing this dirty air would in theory make the cars easier to follow and improve overtaking.
Big Aerodynamic Changes
However, the cars had to undergo drastic changes in their shape for this to happen. This meant many of the complex bargeboards and bits of carbon fiber on the front wings had to go, making for an overall smoother, simpler shape of the cars (at least on the surface).
The floors got a lot more complex, with plenty of Venturi tunnels and turning vanes underneath to produce lots of downforce via the ground effect. However, we rarely see these parts of the car, and the diffusers are designed to smoothly allow the lower pressure air under the car to rejoin the higher pressure air above and behind them, minimizing the amount of dirty air they produce.
Why F1 Cars Begin To Look More Similar As The Season Progresses
As the Formula 1 season progresses, cars start to change in their appearance. Some of them will start to look more similar as the season progresses, while others might start looking even more different as they experiment with new components.
Throughout the season, the cars are constantly being tweaked and upgraded in what is known as the development race. Most teams will constantly be doing research and trying to find new solutions to solve problems that they have with their cars and get the edge over the other teams. The car they launch at the start of the season is simply the beginning, and they evolve from there.
Each team will be looking for the next big innovation that makes their car faster and gives them an advantage over the rest of the grid. Usually, the teams at the top of the standings will be putting in the most work with their research and development because they have a better chance of winning the championship if they get right.
But all of the teams will be moving in a similar direction in terms of research and development because they are all going to try and ‘copy’ what works to an extent. It’s not uncommon for teams to arrive with incredibly similar designs towards the end of the season.
While outright copying is not allowed, teams can “take inspiration” from each other and design similar elements into their cars if a concept is working particularly well for one or more teams.
A recent example of this was with the Aston Martin AMR22 B-Spec, unveiled at the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix, which looked very similar to the design of the Red Bull car. The car was even nicknamed the “Green Red Bull” because of how similar its shape was to the Red Bull’s design.
However, the ‘copying’ didn’t work for Aston Martin because the rest of their car was fundamentally different from the Red Bull. That’s the key thing to remember in Formula 1 – just because it works for one team with their overall design philosophy, does not mean it’s going to work for every other team with their varying designs.
KEY POINTS• F1 cars started looking very different from the start of the 2022 season
• New aerodynamic rules changed the overall shapes of the cars
• Teams will try to improve their cars over the course of a season
• They may even try to ‘copy’ things that work well from other teams
All Formula 1 cars look similar because the teams have to follow the same rules when designing their cars. These rules will guide the engineers in a specific direction, but there is still some room for interpretation, which is why you might see some unique concepts across the different cars on the grid.
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