Formula 1: How Much Has Changed Since 1950?

Today's Formula 1 cars generate enough g forces to make guys that have "the right stuff" faint.
Marcia Wendorf
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A lot has changed since the first Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix was held at Silverstone in the UK in 1950. Formula 1 is undoubtedly the most technologically advanced motorsport in the world today.

Since 1950, a sort of arms race has been going on, not between the drivers on the track, but among the engineers who design F1 cars and the technicians who build them. Below are just some of the technological developments that have taken place in Formula 1 since 1950:

  1. 1952 - hard-shell helmets for drivers were made mandatory
  2. 1955 - engines were moved behind the driver
  3. 1961 - the first four-wheel-drive car was introduced
  4. 1962 - the first full monocoque vehicle; monocoque is a French term meaning "single shell", and it means a structural skin in which the chassis is integral with the body, and loads are supported by the vehicle's external skin, similar to an eggshell
  5. 1963 - fire-retardant overalls were made mandatory
  6. 1968 - full-face helmets were made mandatory, also integrated aerodynamic wings and separate aerofoil wings were introduced
  7. 1971 - slick tires used for the first time; also known as "racing slicks", these tires have a smooth tread
  8. 1972 - seatbelts were first made mandatory
  9. 1977 - the first turbocharged car and the first ground effect car; a turbocharger is a turbine-driven, forced induction device that increases an internal combustion engine's power output by forcing extra compressed air into the combustion chamber, ground effect refers to increasing downforce
  10. 1981 - first carbon fiber composite monocoque chassis
  11. 1989 - introduction of the semi-automatic gearbox
  12. 1990 -introduction of traction control
  13. 1992 - the active suspension was introduced
  14. 1993 - introduction of anti-lock braking
  15. 1997 - introduction of a wheel-specific second brake pedal
  16. 2003 - introduction of the head and neck support (HANS) device
  17. 2009 - kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) introduced, also the double diffuser
  18. 2010 - F-duct, blown diffuser introduced
  19. 2011 - drag reduction system (DRS) is introduced
  20. 2012 - the innovative Coanda exhaust is introduced, also blown front axles
  21. 2014 - introduction of turbo-hybrid engines
  22. 2018 - the Halo cockpit protection system is introduced
  23. 2020 - introduction of dual-axis steering (DAS)

2011 to 2021

In the last decade alone, there have been enormous changes in Formula 1 cars. In 2011, F1 cars were 189 in (4,800 mm) in length, while today they are over 197 in (5,000 mm) long. The cars have also grown wider. Today's are 79 in (2,000 mm) wide compared to a width 71 in (1,800 mm) in 2011.

Clay Regazzoni driving for Ferrari at the 1976 German Grand Prix
Clay Regazzoni driving for Ferrari at the 1976 German Grand Prix Source: Lothar Spurzem/Wikimedia Commons

2021 Formula 1 cars are heavier than their 2011 counterparts, due in part to the weight of the Hybrid Power Units (HPUs). In 2011, F1 cars weighed a minimum of 1,411 pounds (640 kg), they weighed 1,645 pounds (746 kg) in 2020, and the minimum was increased to 1,658 pounds (752 kg) in 2021, and to a planned 1,741 pounds (790 kg) in 2022 (all weights include the driver but not the fuel). Between 2020 and 2021, the minimum weight of the power unit went up from 320 pounds (145 kg) to 331 pounds (150 kg). This weight stipulation was an attempt to level the playing field, because more well-funded teams had access to expensive weight-saving materials.

In 2014, 1.6 liter V6 turbo-hybrid engines were introduced, replacing the 2.4 liter V8s of the prior decade, the V10s prior to 2006, and the V12s before that. The V6s weigh a minimum regulation weight of 320 pounds (145 kilograms), and they run at an astonishing 15,000 revolutions per minute (RPMs).

The V6 engines use a sophisticated hybrid system comprised of the Energy Store (ES), Control Electronics (CE), and two sources of additional power, the Motor Generator Unit Kinetic (MGU-K), and the Motor Generator Unit Heat (MGU-H). The MGU-K generates power from brake energy, and the MGU-H produces power from the engine's exhaust gases.

2016 Renault
2016 Renault Source: lmankram7/Wikimedia Commons

Another change since 2011 is the number of engines available to the racing teams. Back in 2011, each car had eight engines available to use across the 19 season races. Today, teams are limited to three Internal Combustion Engines, Turbochargers, and MGU-H units, and two MGU-K, ES, and CE units.

As for speed, in 2020, the Mercedes Petronas team's Lewis Hamilton set a record for the fastest lap at Monza, site of the Italian Grand Prix, going an average speed of 164.267 mph (264.362km/h).

Today's cars also produce considerably greater downforce. At 99 mph (160 km/h), the aerodynamically-generated downforce is roughly equal to the weight of the car, giving rise to the claim that Formula 1 cars could "drive on the ceiling."  At full speed, a downforce of more than 2.5 times the car's weight is achieved, which when cornering, creates a lateral force of up to 3.5 g, or 3.5 times the force of gravity. These high lateral forces make breathing difficult for drivers, who have to be in top physical shape in order to cope.

The high downforce means that loads on tires have increased. The front and rear tires on 2021 F1 cars experience around 50 percent more load than they did back in 2011, and to deal with that increased load, tires have changed dramatically from those used in 2011. Today's tires are 25 percent wider than those used in 2011, giving them more contact with the ground, and they generate more grip, leading to faster lap times.

The Drag Reduction System (DRS), first introduced in 2011, is an adjustable rear wing that moves in response to driver commands. It shifts the mushroom-shaped "dirty" air following in the wake of a leading car up and over a following car that is within one car length of the first car. The purpose of the DRS is to reduce aerodynamic drag in order to increase top speed and promote overtaking. The DRS cannot be deployed at all points around a track, but only at designated sections.

2018 Austrian Grand Prix
2018 Austrian Grand Prix Source: pedrik/Wikimedia Commons

Today's F1 drivers are held in by a six-point racing harnesses. In 2003 drivers began wearing a head and neck support system (HANS). Halos were introduced in 2018, and they are the three-pronged bars seen above drivers' heads that are designed to stop or deflect large pieces of debris that may come off trackside barriers or pieces of tires and wheels coming off other cars.

Pit stops back in 1950 were a leisurely affair, with around four people taking between 25 and 30 seconds to service a car. Today's pit crews have up to 20 people, and the stops last less than three seconds. Red Bull Racing holds the current pit stop time record, at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix, the Red Bull pit crew changed all four of Max Verstappen’s tires in a record 1.82 seconds.

Data is king

Probably the biggest change in Formula 1 cars since 2011 is in data acquisition. In 2011, F1 cars were able to log around 500 channels of data, while today's cars have around 1,500 high-rate data channels. This means that on a typical race weekend, a single car collects around 70GB of data, while in 2011, only 18GB of data would have been collected.

2021 F1 cars have hundreds of small, wireless sensor nodes positioned all over the car, each of which acquires data and communicates it back to a central data logger. In 2011, data sensors were bulky and transmitted in the 400MHz range. Today's sensor nodes are tiny, and they transmit at much higher frequencies.

2019 Sebastian Vettel racing for Ferrari
2019 Sebastian Vettel racing for Ferrari Source: Lukas Raich/Wikimedia Commons

Some of these sensors monitor tire pressure and temperature, whereas in 2011, tire temperature was determined by looking through an infrared camera as the car went by. Today's F1 cars come with a warning system that alerts if a crash generates for longer than five milliseconds a lateral force greater than 15 g, or a vertical force greater than 20 g.

The 2021 F1 season

The map below shows in dark green those countries currently hosting F1 Grand Prix.

2021 F1 season Grand Prix sites
2021 F1 season Grand Prix sites Source: Cherkash/Wikimedia Commons

In the 2020 season, a furor was created by Racing Point's RP20 car, which was a very close copy of the Mercedes W10 car. This led to a new rule under which teams are prohibited from using images to reverse engineer large portions of rival cars, although individual components can still be copied. Another rule change was that the use of 3D cameras was prohibited. This was so that teams couldn't reverse engineer another team's car. The new regulations will also forbid teams from sharing their intellectual property with each other, or any information that allows a team to reverse engineer rival parts that are marked as listed parts.  

Back in 1950, Dr. Giuseppe Farina won the first Grand Prix on Pirelli tires. Today's teams also use Pirelli 18-inch tires, but they are comprised of compounds unknown in 1950. During the 2020 season, some of the highest cornering forces in F1 history were measured, and Pirelli said these had played a part in the three tire failures at the 2020 British Grand Prix.

For 2021, a change in the regulations means that for each race weekend, teams will receive: Two sets of hard tires, three sets of mediums, and eight sets of softs.

The biggest change to the 2021 F1 season has got to be a budget cap of $145 million (£103 million) per season. This means teams will be restricted to around 550 employees, which is the number of employees that smaller teams such as McLaren, Williams, and Renault currently have. Larger teams, such as Mercedes, Red Bull, and Ferrari, will have to downsize, losing as much as 40 percent of their workforce.

At the time of this writing, four F1 races have been run so far in the 2021 season, and the battle shaping up between the three front runners: Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, and Red Bull's Max Verstappen looks to be as fierce as anything the sport has seen. Hold on to your hats, the 2021 season is going to be a nail-biter.

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