Formula One: The science, engineering, and innovation behind the speed

Yes, it's super fun to watch. But, how do all the pieces fit together to design such a fast car? Read on to find out.
Tejasri Gururaj
F1 racing cars on track
F1 racing cars on track

Morio/Wikimedia Commons 

Every year, twenty drivers and ten teams race to be crowned the world champion. That is Formula One racing summarized in one line.

Formula One, or F1, is a worldwide sensation. Millions of people from all over the world watch this sport for many reasons. One of the most fascinating things about the sport is the speed and agility of the F1 cars. The race cars can achieve speeds of 220 mph (350 kph)!

While it is fun to watch the drivers compete with each other for the winning position, the science, engineering, and innovation behind the car's builds are equally fascinating (if not more so!).

Here, we try to understand the various engineering factors that contribute to the speed of F1 cars, including aerodynamics, engine power, and other innovative engineering techniques. Each F1 team strives to optimize their cars’ performance in these areas to gain a competitive edge over their rivals.

So let's get stuck in!

Oracle Red Bull Racing via GIPHY

Aerodynamics of an F1 car

Airflow plays a crucial role in the design of F1 cars, given the high speeds they reach. Therefore, the aerodynamics of an F1 car is just as important as the engine (which we will discuss in the next section). 

There are three main things that aerodynamics helps with — reducing drag, generating downforce, and minimizing lift. This is done by controlling the design of the aerodynamic features, such as the front and rear wings, bargeboards, and diffusers.

Drag is a type of air resistance that reduces the speed of the car as it moves. It acts opposite to the relative motion of the vehicle with respect to the air. Think of birds; they have streamlined bodies that reduce drag and allow them to fly more efficiently. It is the same with F1 cars.

The car's body is streamlined by smoothing out the body contours, minimizing sharp edges, and reducing the car's frontal area, all of which help reduce turbulence and drag. 

Formula One: The science, engineering, and innovation behind the speed
Mercedes F1 car

The aerodynamic features also help to minimize the lift, which is the upward force acting on the car as it moves. It measures the difference in pressure above and below the vehicle as it moves through the surrounding air. The amount of lift depends mainly on the shape and orientation of the car's body.

The front and rear wings work in tandem with the diffusers underneath the car to create a low-pressure area, generating downforce. The downforce counteracts the lift to increase the grip and stability of the vehicle, allowing the driver to turn corners at higher speeds without losing control.

The teams use wind tunnels to test various body shapes and designs for minimizing drag while maximizing downforce (although the speed used in wind tunnel testing is limited to a maximum of 180 km/h, which does not allow them to test all aspects of the car’s performance fully and there are limits on how much time can be spent in the wind tunnel, based on where the team placed in the last season).

These wind tunnel tests help teams optimize the car's aerodynamic features to improve performance on the track before each racing season.

Engine power and design

The engines used in F1 are very sophisticated pieces of equipment and obviously play a huge part in the speed and performance of the car.

Formula One: The science, engineering, and innovation behind the speed
A V6 engine

F1 rules set the engine specifications. Since 2014, the F1 engines must be four-stroke, hybrid, V6 engines with a displacement of 1.6 liters and a turbocharger to boost the power output (with an 80mm bore and 53mm stroke). The turbocharger forces more air into the engine, which results in more power. This is achieved by using exhaust gases to spin a turbine, which powers a compressor that forces more air into the engine.

The power produced by an F1 engine depends on its rotational speed, and since 2021, this has been limited to 15,000 rotations per minute (rpm). In comparison, a road car with similar dimensions generally operates at around 6,000 rpm, half that of an F1 car!

The engine of an F1 car produces a power output of nearly 1,000 horsepower! 1 unit of mechanical horsepower (an imperial measurement) is the energy required to lift 250 kg of weight one foot above the ground in 1 second. The engine is one of the most expensive components of an F1 car, and the teams invest heavily in developing and optimizing their engines. 

In addition, the engine's power output is boosted by hybrid technology. Since 2014, according to the FIA (the governing body for auto racing) regulations, F1 teams must use hybrid engines incorporating electric motors and a battery. The hybrid setup has two electric motors, one called the MGU-K, which is powered by a battery and adds power to the crankshaft, and a second called the MGU-H, which manages the turbocharger.

This energy is stored in a battery and can be used to power the electric motor and boost the engine. The hybrid technology also allows the cars to recover energy during braking for later use. This technology is called the kinetic energy recovery system or KERS and is discussed in detail in a later section.

F1 car engines are built to be compact, lightweight, and highly efficient. F1 cars are capable of converting 50% of the fuel's energy into power. In comparison, road cars are only able to convert around 20%! One of the ways they convert additional fuel is by using pre-chamber ignition, in which there is a smaller secondary chamber inside each cylinder that ignites first.

Greater efficiency is also obtained using advanced engineering and materials (discussed in the next section), turbocharging, and hybrid technology.

Fun fact: Not all teams manufacture them due to the high costs of making an F1 engine. Currently, only four teams manufacture engines on the grid, Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes, and Alpine.

Materials used in the construction of an F1 car

Driver safety is of the utmost importance in F1, and the materials used in F1 cars are chosen with extreme care. There are very strict regulations around the type of materials used to ensure the driver's safety. However, the materials used also need to improve the car's performance.

Haas F1 Team via GIPHY

Technological advances in materials have enabled F1 cars to become faster, safer, more durable, and lighter than ever. A less heavy car provides the improved acceleration, speed, and agility while assuring the driver's safety.

The most commonly used material in F1 cars is carbon fiber composites making up around 80 percent of the car. Carbon fiber composites offer several advantages, such as high strength, low weight, and high stiffness. This makes them ideal as materials for constructing the chassis, which is the car's chassis.

During their manufacturing process, increasing the temperature and the application of tension increases the modulus (the ratio of stress (along an axis to strain along that axis) of the carbon fibers, making them more durable. Apart from carbon fibers, ceramic matrix composites are used in the brake system because they have high specific strength, meaning they are relatively strong compared to their weight.

Due to their high strength-to-weight ratio, other materials like titanium are used to construct critical components such as suspension and gearbox. And magnesium is used in the construction of the gearbox casing and wheels due to its lightweight and high strength.

Formula One: The science, engineering, and innovation behind the speed
Carbon fiber composites are used in the chassis of an F1 car

Further, nylon fibers are used to construct the monocoque (the "cell" that protects the Formula 1 car driver), the car's fundamental structural support. The monocoque is extremely strong and rigid to protect the driver in case of an accident. It is also designed to be lightweight to ensure the car's speed isn't affected by it.

Certain materials, such as kevlar and other aramid fibers, are used to construct protective gear, such as helmets and driver suits, to improve safety. These are lightweight materials that protect the driver without adding a lot of weight to the car. This is important because the minimum weight of a Formula 1 car (as of 2023) is 798kg (1,759 lbs), including the driver, but not the fuel. So, every gram over this can make a difference.

Innovative engineering techniques

F1 teams use innovative engineering techniques such as computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis to improve car performance. This is essentially a simulation of the F1 car to assess how gases (which are fluids) will impact the car's performance.

The technique involves using computer algorithms to solve maths and physics aerodynamic equations. CFD simulations help to optimize airflow over and around the vehicle, reducing drag and improving downforce.

Formula One: The science, engineering, and innovation behind the speed
CFD simulation of an F1 car

F1 teams also use data analysis to improve car performance. They collect vast amounts of data during testing and races, including tire wear, fuel consumption, engine performance, and driver behavior. This data is analyzed using machine learning algorithms to identify areas for improvement in car design, setup, and strategy.

There have been several technological advancements in F1 since the sport's inception. However, two have stood out in recent years: KERS (which was touched upon earlier) and energy storage systems (ESS).

KERS is used to harness the energy generated during braking. The car's kinetic energy gets converted into electrical energy using a motor or generator via a process called regenerative braking. This electrical energy is stored in either a battery (electrical KERS) or a flywheel (Flybird system), known as ESS.

Later, the stored energy can power the car's electric motor and provide additional acceleration. The use of ESS in F1 has become increasingly important as teams seek to improve performance while also reducing fuel consumption and emissions. Developing more efficient and lighter ESSs is an ongoing research and development area in the automotive industry.

Formula One: The science, engineering, and innovation behind the speed
KERS (flybird) for an F1 car

Innovations are always happening every season. There's much more to look forward to as Audi announced its plans to join the grid in 2026!


It does take a village to design an F1 car that can travel over 300 kilometers per hour. And in this article, we explored all the different parts of that village.

Every detail of the car affects its speed and performance, from aerodynamics to innovative technologies. As science, maths, engineering, and computer science evolve, so will new technologies pushing the envelope of possibilities in F1.

The possibilities are endless and exciting, as this is cutting-edge motor racing!

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board