POSTED 16.01.17

In this Quick Question, we take the task of the changes in priority of Formula 1 (F1) cars from speed to safety. Once infamous for its fatal collisions, F1 has changed its design intentions, whilst also improving vehicle performance. We take a look at this apparent paradox of how cars can get heavier and yet quicker.


Throughout the years in F1, the cars have gotten both faster and heavier, posing what would seem quite a contradiction.

From an engineering stand point, this seems to be quite a contradiction due to the F1 cars increasing. This is called inertia and it is the object’s resistance to change of motion.

All objects have inertia, some objects have low inertia and some objects have high inertia. The higher the mass, the higher the inertia, with the relationship being proportional.
If the only change to an F1 car had been an increase in mass, then they would become slower. Due to the increase in inertia it would force the driver to brake earlier, and the engine would have to work harder to accelerate the car.

In other words the power to weight ratio has reduced. However, the cars have become faster. That is because the cars have undergone many other changes as well.
The power output, aerodynamic performance, and suspension capabilities have all increased over the years in F1, with the cars arguably peaking in 2004.

Since the 2004 season the rules and regulations have been tightened with the purpose of slowing cars down. One of these rule changes, is the increase in the minimum weight. The increased mass not only slows the cars down but also improves driver safety as the taller drivers can now be a healthy weight and not have to go hungry in order to be light.

The increased mass also seems like a contradiction for safety when you think about it in terms of the amount of energy the car has to dissipate in a crash.

The higher the mass, the higher the kinetic energy. The higher mass is also a trade-off of crumple zones and crash structures to dissipate the extra energy. Systems like KERS, the MGU-K (Motor Generator Unit-Kinetic), and the MGU-H (Motor Generator Unit-Heat).

In 1961, the first minimum weight rule was brought in and set to 450kg. In 2016 the minimum weight was 722kg. The 1960’s was the decade in F1 where safety was seen as an afterthought.

When Sir Jackie Stewart crashed in 1966 and was trapped in his car with fuel leaking out, it made him realise how safety in F1 needs to change.

It was this crash that made him race with his own tools taped to the inside of his car so that in a crash he could free himself. Sir Jackie then started campaigning for improved safety even though he faced strong opposition. The way this era is looked back on now is often proved to be accurate by the amount of deaths and the attitude of Colin Chapman.

In the case of Jochen Rindt, in 1970, he crashed because one of the wing supports on his Lotus wasn’t strong enough.

He would later suffer a fatal crash caused by a failed brake shaft.
Over the decades, safety in F1 has improved dramatically. The engineering feats behind the safety in F1 only gets more impressive when big crashes occur. The most recent of note, involving Fernando Alonso at the 2016 Melbourne grand prix. See video below for the crash.

This crash resulted in Alonso suffering nothing but fractured ribs, a relative breeze to the risks of the past. The initial impact speed was 305km/h (189.5mph). If you compare this crash to the similar, but fatal, crash of Gilles Villeneuve in 1982, you really see how much safety has improved over the decades.

Over the last 30 years or so, safety in F1 has been among the top priorities. As such, the improvements made are astounding. Safety has turned crashes from death sentences to a mild inconvenience.


Do you think that safety has improved Formula 1? Is it safe enough? Let us know on twitter @easlstress and take a look at our related services and articles below.

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