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F1 in the Future - Materials and Safety

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F1 in the Future - Materials and Safety
Dec 29, 2009, 12:51 PM

So far we have looked at one area which has got to change for society's sake, namely engines and one which has to change for the sake of the show, ...

So far we have looked at one area which has got to change for society's sake, namely engines and one which has to change for the sake of the show, which is aerodynamics.

But both are likely to be refinements of what we have today, evolutions rather than any revolution.

The materials from which F1 cars are made is probably the area where the biggest changes will occur to the sport in the future. Again it will be set by the rules, with some extremely expensive materials likely to be banned in the interests of cost control, but there is likely to be amazing development in the field of materials.

Leading F1 engineers tell me that in 20 years from now, nanomaterials will be prevalent. These will be incredibly light and incredibly stiff, exactly what is needed for a racing car. Carbon fire will look heavy and flexible in comparison. Essentially the cars will be made of fibre filled plastics and there will be very little metal anywhere in the car. All metals have more or less the same stiffness to weight ratio, far inferior to fibre filled plastics. It is not possible today but it will be possible soon.

Rapid prototyping, where a laser cooks resin in a vat, will also transform what is possible in car making. Essentially it will be possible to pour packets of powder into a machine and get an engine out 24 hours later. Laser technology will mean it will be possible to make anything in any shape from a computer model within three or four hours.

“Today you have to cast the engine blocks then spend thousands of hours machining them,” says Lotus F1 technical director Mike Gascoyne. “ You’ll be making them exact within hours from a rapid prototype machine. That technology is probably only ten years away.”

The spread of these new lightweight materials will mean that the weight of the car will probably drop from 600 kilos (including driver) to 300 kilos or less.

The area where F1 has changed the most in the last few decades is safety. It has been 15 years since a driver was killed in an F1 car and nine years since a driver even broke his leg. This year we had a graphic example of F1's safety push; Felipe Massa would have been killed by that flying spring in Budapest without the staggering advances in helmet safety.

The engineers agree that you can never make racing cars and racing circuits 100% safe, but more has been done than remains to be done in terms of protecting the driver in the event of an accident. “When a 600 kilo car flies off the road at 200mph, there’s only so much you can do to protect the driver,” says Gascoyne. “And we’ve done most of it.”

While most safety work has been focussed on this area, a lot has also been done on making the circuits safer and there is still plenty of scope for development there with different barrier technologies and the use of abrasive materials in run-off areas. I was very interested to see in Abu Dhabi that the designers had wanted to put the grandstands as close to the track as possible, which is great for the spectators, by putting the run off areas underneath the stands and building strong, high safety fences.

The area where very little has been done is in avoiding accidents happening in the first place. Perhaps technology will evolve for keeping cars apart, slowing them rapidly in the event of a driver losing control, as Griff mentioned in his comment to yesterday's post about cluster racing.

This will be particularly important if the vision of close, wheel to wheel racing is to be brought to life.

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