Design in Formula 1

Motor racing is all about speed, adrenaline and exotic locations. It’s a growing sport with Formula 1 enjoying the lion’s share when it comes to fans. If you look at the Monaco Grand Prix in particular, it’s easy to see why. It has all the above elements including one of the world’s best street circuits, which only adds to the rush. But have you ever stopped and wondered what part design plays in all the excitement?

The truth is a great deal of money is spent on design as regulators have an increasing amount of conditions these vehicles have to comply with before they can take part in any race. You only have to look at the evolution of motor racing in recent years to see the evidence. If you compare images of the cars from ten or twenty years ago to the modern day racing car, you’ll be forgiven for thinking they belong to a different sport.

One of the first things designers have to consider is the material being used to build the car. It has to be lightweight to improve performance and yet sturdy enough to protect the drivers from collisions at high speed. Currently carbon fibre seems to be the answer and is the material of choice when it comes to constructing formula one cars. Another design element to look at is of course the shape. The shape directly affects the aerodynamics that has two separate facets to it: downforce and drag. As Formula 1 cars can reach speeds of around 300 kph (190 mph) they have to be able to stick to the track and not lift-off like an aeroplane, especially in fast straights like the tunnel section of Monaco’s Grand Prix. The design of the familiar wings that you see on F1 cars keeps them grounded and improves cornering.

Drag is the second element and every single millimetre of the car’s surface has been designed with this in mind, including the driver’s helmet. The car’s performance can drastically be decreased by disrupted air (or drag) which creates turbulence and slows the cars down. Engineers therefore have to come up with advanced designs that improve airflow up and around the car. As mentioned before, there are strict rules imposed by the regulators these days so this has become increasingly difficult.

Apart from the performance of a car, the design also has an aesthetic purpose. Formula One is very much a spectator sport so the cars cannot slack in this area. There are many different kinds of fans that enjoy the sport and although the racing is the main attraction, a large number of spectators enjoy the look and architecture of a car equally as much. It’s a case of functionality versus elegance and designers can’t improve one area without considering the other.

It’s a dangerous and risky sport at the end of the day. Formula One has unfortunately seen some fatalities and live changing accidents in the past. Understandably safety has become a top priority with many of the racing car design modifications coming as a result of vulnerability issues. Apart from performance and looks, this is what designers spend most of their time being concerned with.

It is evident that F1 and design go hand in hand. Next time you see that engineering marvel skid around the corner, spare a thought for the designers who helped to make the sport what it is today!