Materials in sport: Formula one

Materials World magazine
3 Nov 2015

Rhiannon Garth Jones learns more about the materials technology that goes into this high speed, high risk sport.

Formula One (F1), watched by nearly 10% of the global population, is comfortably the most scientifically advanced sport worldwide. An F1 motor can reach 15,000rpm, whereas the fastest road car doesn’t go higher than 6,000rpm. Its tyres are designed to last 120km, compared with the 100,000km a road car’s would last. When the driver of an F1 car hits the brakes, it feels as though a regular car is driving through a brick wall at the speed of 300km/ph. These are not ordinary cars, as the science behind them shows – it is as advanced as the science in the aerospace industry. 

Each F1 car firm has its own dedicated team of materials scientists constantly working to develop, finalise and improve the cars produced. Luca Marmorini, former Engine Chief at Ferrari, said recently that F1 firms can no longer rely on external labs to do the work for them – to guarantee true quality, it has to be done in-house.


The chassis supports the entire car and driver, and has to be ultra light-weight, and ultra-stiff. It was originally made from steel and then aluminium until, in 1980, McLaren decided to switch to carbon fibre. Since 1984, carbon fibre has become the industry standard because of the huge increase in stiffness and light-weighting the material provides.


Only slightly more complicated than it sounds – a 10mm-thick wooden plank runs along the underside of the car to prevent the cars from running low enough to contact the track surface, which can create downforce without dragging, allowing cars to turn corners faster. If the plank of any car is less than 9mm thick by the end of the race, that car is disqualified.


F1 tyres are not expected to last the duration of a race. Instead, the design focuses on achieving optimum grip, depending on weather conditions and the racetrack itself. Around 220 different materials are used in the tyres, with more than 100 mixed to create a compound, mainly based around carbon, oil and sulphur, for the outer tyre. The skeleton of the tyre is a weave of nylon and polyester, to provide rigidity.


It is the engines that give F1 its claim to be the most technologically advanced sport in the world. Changes introduced in 2014 to turbocharge the engines, making them more energy efficient, also led to a name change – ‘engine’ became too prosaic for these ‘power units’.

The two main aims of an F1 internal combustion engine (ICE), one part of the new seven-part unit, are low weight and high power. Until recently, a beryllium compound was used to achieve these aims, but its poisonous nature led to all non-ferro materials being limited. Aluminium or titanium alloys are now the material of choice, chosen over steel because of their lighter weight. Gold foil is used to insulate carbon fibre body panels and monocoque from the heat generated by the engine. 


Wings were introduced to F1 cars in the 1960s, to create downforce – pushing the car’s tyres towards the track to improve grip, especially for taking corners – and to minimise drag. Like tyres, the wings are adapted to the racetrack (Monaco, for instance, is a famously ‘slow’ course). Carbon fibre is mostly used for the wing components, sometimes alongside Kevlar and Zylon.


These cars take 2.5s to break from around 350km/h to 90km/h. To the driver, that feels like being punched in the stomach by Mike Tyson, so the brakes need to be good. Really, really good. Carbon fibre is used for the discs and pads, both because of the huge amount of braking energy it generates and because it is light weight. The front and rear callipers are made from aluminium alloys, also for weight reasons.


A light but incredibly strong helmet is required for car drivers, to reduce the strain on the neck muscles and protect in an accident. The main substances are carbon fibre, fireproof aramide and polyethylene, alloys of both aluminium and magnesium, and epoxy resin as a binding agent. The visors are made from polycarbonate.