Watch an F1 race and you will notice the fireworks-like display of sparks that spew from the cars. While it creates a stunning visual show and no doubt adds to the drama of Formula 1, it can leave many viewers wondering why the cars spark and whether these sparks are a sign of damage.
F1 cars spark because of titanium skid blocks fitted onto a wooden plank underneath the car. This was introduced by the FIA to prevent teams running their cars too low to the ground. The effect of downforce pushes cars lower towards the asphalt, and the friction with the titanium produces sparks.
The source of the F1 spark has evolved since the late 1980s when they first started to become commonplace. In this article we will discuss in greater detail why F1 cars spark, whether the sparks are dangerous to the car or the drivers, and the benefits of F1 cars being so low to the ground.
Why Do Formula 1 Cars Spark?
F1 cars spark because the cars have skid plates underneath them that have titanium inserts that spark when they make contact with the ground. These titanium blocks prevent the car’s floor from being damaged, while the plank they’re attached to prevents cars from running with too low a ride height.
The origin of the F1 spark can be traced back to the late 1980s, when Formula 1 teams really started to capitalize on the benefits that running a car as low to the ground as possible had on aerodynamics and downforce. Extra weight added to the car from a full fuel tank resulted in cars being even lower to the ground, causing the cars to scrape along the track producing an array of sparks.
Sparks quickly became popular among F1 fans, and famously lit up battles between Senna and Mansell in the early 1990s. Fast forward to modern F1, and sparks have seen a rejuvenation. Advancements in downforce technology mean cars are very close to the asphalt, and the use of titanium skid blocks to fix a plank to the underside of the cars means that sparks have continued to light up F1.
Sparks In Modern F1
The return of the ground effect in 2022 meant the advantage of running cars low to the ground was now essential to run a competitive car, so the cars produce a lot of sparks when this downforce comes into play on the long straights and in the fast corners. However, sparks have been a talking point for years, long before the ground effect returned.
This is because teams would try to make use of as much of the floor as they legally could, benefitting from the downforce generated by the diffusers at the back of the cars. This meant teams would try to run low ride heights to almost engineer their own ground effect, and the FIA had to crack down on this using what are known as skid plates or planks.
Do Formula 1 Cars Have Wooden Planks Underneath?
Formula 1 cars do have wooden planks underneath them, but the actual material the plank is made from may not be simply wood. The technical regulations allow the teams to choose any material as long as its physical properties are in line with the rules, meaning composites are often used instead.
Following on from the tragic San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, in which both Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were killed, the FIA updated their safety standards, and ordered a 10 mm wooden plank to be fitted underneath each car,to keep cars at a safe ride height.Should this plank wear away by over one millimeter by the end of the race, the driver would be disqualified.
The Legality Plank
MichaelSchumacher was cost a victory in the 1994 Belgian Grand Prix after excessive wear of his wooden plank left him disqualified. Italian driver Jarno Trulli also fell foul of this rule at the 2001 US Grand Prix, but the decision was eventually overturned on appeal.
The plank is known as the ‘legality plank’ and was traditionally made from a material called Jabroc. Jabroc is composite material made from beechwood.Each plank is layered with a mix of Jabroc, resin and veneers, in a way thatmakes each plank pretty much identical with the same wear rate. Nowadays, various composite materials can be used instead as long as their physical properties are legal.
Why Is Titanium Used As Skids On Formula 1 Cars?
Titanium is used on the skid plates of F1 cars to prevent the floors of the cars from being damaged when the massive amount of downforce pushes the car into the ground. Titanium is a strong metal and is favorable over others that wear down faster and could present dangers on track.
To fix the plank on and reduce damage to it that would result from normal racing, metal skid blocks are fitted to the bottom of cars, and at high speeds, the downforce generated by the car causes these blocks to grind across the asphalt, generating sparks. As of a rule change in 2015, the skid blocks must now be made of titanium, as they were back in the 90s.
Safety Or Just For Show?
It was originally thought by many that the FIA mandating the use of titanium for skid blocks was an attempt to try and reintroduce sparks back into F1,as they had become less dramatic through the 2000s. However, the technical positives and safety benefits of using titanium rules this theory out.
Before 2015, teams had been using harder metals to bolt on their plank and had placed them in a certain order, meaning that they could run the cars lower due to the metal taking on most of the wear generated from ‘bottoming out’. While these hard metals may have worn away much slower than a softer option, they were susceptible to fragmenting, leaving cars at risk of a tire puncture.
Titanium wears away a lot quicker than harder metals that had previously been used. This means that teams must make sure they keep their ride height at an acceptable level,as the titanium gives them very little room for manipulate it. Titanium is considerably lighter and safer than most metals, especially tungsten, which was often used pre-2015.
Titanium is known for producing a lot of sparks when cut, or in this case when dragged across asphalt at 200 mph. Because it is a non-ferrous metal (a metal which doesn’t contain iron), the sparks are bright white instead of the warmer hues that other metals produce. This is the reason the sparks are so impressive and appealing to audiences of Formula 1.
Why Is It Beneficial For A Formula 1 Car To Be Close To The Ground?
It’s beneficial for a Formula 1 car to be close to the ground as the closer they are to the ground, the less drag the car has and the more powerful its ground effects can be, leading to higher speeds. A lower center of gravity also allows for better handling and stability in the corners.
Being low to the ground allows for more efficient downforce production.Downforce is what pushes the car down onto the track. It works via the car creating an area of high pressure above it and low pressure below it, causing the car to be essentially ‘pushed’ or ‘sucked’ to the ground. This gives the car more grip and traction, increasing cornering speeds.
Downforce is a huge part of what makes an F1 car what it is. While a supercar could potentially beat an F1 car for top speed down a straight, the way that it is manufactured in terms of shape means it wouldn’t be able to go round corners with anywhere near as much speed as an F1 car. Its higher center of gravity would also leave it vulnerable to rolling if driven too fast around a corner.
Lowering the car also lowers its center of gravity, meaning the car will respond quickly to any maneuvers attempted from the drivers. This helps when navigating tight turns or reacting to on-track situations such as crashes happening in front of the driver, as the car is just more stable.
Why Do Formula 1 Cars Spark On The Straights?
F1 cars spark on the straights because this is when they have the highest amount of downforce due to their higher speeds than when they are in the corners. This means the car is pushed down into the ground more than in the corners, leading to the car bottoming out more often.
The straights are where F1 cars can reach their highest speeds on the track.Essentially, the faster the car is moving, the higher the downforce, and the higher the downforce, the lower the car rides above the track. This means the car will produce massive amounts of downforce, pushing the car further down into the track.
The high downforce is eventually so powerful that the car comes into contact with the asphalt, which leads to lots of sparks. During cornering, the cars will be slower, reducing the amount of downforce and, with that, slightly raising the cars. Sparks can occur when a driver goes over the curb due to its raised surface though, so the cars will still sometimes spark in the corners.
How much an F1 car sparks often also depends on the track surface itself. There are often small bumps along an F1 track, often off the racing line. When the driver goes over these bumps at high speed, perhaps when moving off the racing line to make an overtake, the car often kicks out lots of sparks momentarily.
Are The Sparks From F1 Cars Dangerous?
The sparks from F1 cars are not dangerous. Although the sight of sparks can appear as though the car is being damaged and putting the driver in danger, it is in fact a sign that the car is being protected by the titanium on its underside
The titanium used under the cars reduces damage to the car’s wooden plank and keeps the ride height of the car at a minimum level. The sparks are also not dangerous for the drivers behind, as they ‘fizzle out’ very quickly, meaning they often don’t come into contact with anything other than the air behind the car. They can be distracting though.
Former F1 driver Nigel Mansell revealed that he would seek out the bumpiest parts of the track and deliberately drive over them, launching a spray of sparks into the car behind him, in an attempt to distract the driver. Sparks can also cause slight burn marks on the paintwork of cars as well as drivers’ helmets, but this is not enough to warrant being a danger to drivers.
F1 cars spark because they have titanium blocks attached to the wooden plank under the car. These titanium blocks protect the floor of the car, but when they travel along the ground under high downforce levels they produce sparks. The sparks are not dangerous or a sign of damage.