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The Formula - F1 explained


The Formula - Downforce

The Formula - Downforce

Rich in technical jargon which comes thick and fast, Formula 1 can appear complex. But it does not have to be that way.

Here BBC Sport pundit Martin Brundle, a former F1 driver, breaks down what the terms mean so you can understand them better.


Aerodynamics (see video above) relates to the motion of air when it interacts with a moving object - that being the car in F1. Air travelling at speed over the wings and under the floor creates low pressure, forcing the car down to create enormous grip. But it also creates drag which slows the car. Designers must get the balance right.


The fastest way around a racetrack is to reduce the angle of every corner by using the full width of the track. 'Kissing' the apex - usually approximately the middle point of a corner between the entry and exit stages - with the inside wheels is key to achieving this.

Apex - Martin Brundle explains


Each F1 car must meet a minimum weight requirement of 605kg, including the driver. Ballast - a heavy metal alloy called tungsten steel - is fixed at various points low down in the car to make up any deficiency. It also helps tune a car's handling and keep the centre of gravity low.

Ballast - Martin Brundle explains


Brake discs run at up to 1000C, which is why we see them glowing bright red - at much under 500 centigrade they don't work too well. Brakes are cooled using air ducts; water cooling is banned. The dimension of these air ducts is carefully controlled so they can't be used to create extra down force as aerodynamic devices

There's no servo-assistance as in road cars so the drivers need immensely strong legs to apply up to 2000psi of pressure.

Cars are restricted to one brake disc and one aluminium six cylinder caliper per corner, containing no more than two brake pads. The disc can be no thicker than 28 mm, just over an inch. High temperatures generate a heavy wear rate and we see black dust billowing from the wheels in the big break zones.

Brake temperature management is absolutely critical, the teams control their brake duct sizes very closely - they always push to the limit and want to limit aerodynamic drag and maximise top speed. Sometimes, they get it wrong.

Brakes - Martin Brundle explains


As air passes underneath a car and its wings, it is forced to accelerate, creating low pressure areas. The higher pressure above the car creates a downwards force squashing the tyres into the ground for extra grip. This downforce comes at the price of drag which the engineers work very hard to minimise in order to maintain a competitive top speed.


To save money, Formula 1 engines are strictly controlled. They must be 2.4-litre, four-stroke engines in a 90-degree V8 format, limited to four valves per cylinder and limited to 18,000rpm, and the whole thing must weigh at least 95kg, the size of a solid rugby player to stop them using magnesium and other exotic metal composite materials.

Engines - Martin Brundle explains


McLaren pioneered the RW80, or 'F-duct', system which reduces drag and gives their cars a speed advantage, particularly in long straights. Many teams have tried to copy McLaren's ingenious device which relies on dynamic air pressure changes. The system works by scooping air from the top of the chassis and channelling it through the cockpit area towards the back of the car. On the straights the drivers use their left knee to block the flow of air and change the pressure, this diverts air along the top of the engine cover into the rear wing elements. Downward force is generated when air accelerates under these wing surfaces creating a low pressure area, disturbing that air flow cuts downforce and, critically, drag. F1 cars have more than enough downforce in a straight line, and this system gives them an extra three miles per hour in speed. However, F1 teams have decided to ban the controversial aerodynamic device at the end of this season.

F-Duct - Martin Brundle explains


G-force, meaning gravitational force, is an object's acceleration relative to free-fall. The high levels of grip created by an F1 car mean a driver can experience up to 5G - five times the force of gravity - during braking and cornering, putting tremendous strain on their necks.

G-force - Martin Brundle explains


The tyre surface - especially on tyres made of the softer rubber compounds - tend to rip from the friction as they slide across the track, forming balls of rubber on the surface of the tyre. These are hazardous and can drastically reduce grip as they act like a film, or layer, of marbles for the driver. Graining, however, usually stabilises after five or so laps.

Graining - Martin Brundle explains


True aerodynamic and mechanical balance means that the front and rear of an F1 car slide in unison, predictably and consistently. Oversteer is when its back wheels slide more when cornering, meaning the back of the car steps out to point it towards the inside and creating a risk of spinning.

Oversteer - Martin Brundle explains


In its simplest form, overtaking is the act of gaining track position by getting past rival drivers. New measures - such as smoother bodies with less aerodynamic add-ons - have been introduced recently to improve cars' chances of getting past each other, after overtaking had become an increasingly rare sight in Formula 1.

Overtaking - Martin Brundle explains


F1 cars use semi-automatic gearboxes operated from paddles on the steering wheel, and the only time a clutch is needed is when a car is moving away from standstill, either in the pits or at the start. So they have no clutch pedal. Instead, the clutch is operated from two paddles on the steering wheel. There are also two gear shift paddles there, one on the right to change up a gear and one on the left to change down, and two further paddles for which the uses vary from driver to driver.

Paddles - Martin Brundle explains


Parc Ferme literally means a closed park where competition cars can only be worked on in a very controlled way. It was introduced seven years ago to dramatically cut costs and reduce the advantages to be gained by teams that could rebuild their cars after every session. Parc Ferme begins immediately when cars roll out for their first lap of qualifying. From that moment any alterations to the car are closely controlled.

Parc Ferme - Martin Brundle explains


Pit Boards - Martin Brundle explains


The ride height is effectively the distance between the ground and the underside of the chassis of the car. This is a critical factor because, generally speaking, the lower the car, the better its aerodynamic performance.

Ride heights - Martin Brundle explains


Set-up - Martin Brundle explains


A car has to go through several checks three days before each grand prix, and at various points throughout the weekend, to ensure it meets the required specifications. A car is only cleared to race once officials have measured certain dimensions and weights and are duly satisfied the car meets all necessary requirements. Scrutineering - Martin Brundle explains


The F1 tyre regulation changes for 2010 both involve reduction. The front dry tyres are 20mm narrower after it was decided that last year they had to0 much grip compared to the rear. Each driver is limited to 11 sets of dry tyres, down from 14 in 2009. That includes six sets of harder compound - referred to as the prime, and five sets of softer tyres, which are called the option, and painted with a green stripe. For Friday practice each driver is allocated two sets of primes and one set of options, but at the end of the day they must be handed back. This leave eight sets of dry tyres going into Saturday but before qualifying one set of each compound must be handed back, which leaves six sets of dry tyres for qualifying and the race - three of each type. Drivers are also allocated four sets of intermediates and three sets of full wet-weather tyre. Unless it rains during the race, the drivers are obliged to use at least one set of each type of dry compound. Those in the top 10 shoot-out must start the race with the same tyres on which they set their grid time.

Tyres - Martin Brundle explains


When the front tyres slide across the track and away from the corner when the wheels are turned, it means the car doesn't turn as much as desired. 'Power understeer' is when the front slides wide when a driver applies power to accelerate out of a corner. Both make the car relatively easy to drive and drivers' tastes vary - but too much understeer makes a car slow and damages the front tyres.

Understeer - Martin Brundle explains


Why do the wheels sometimes fall off Formula 1 cars? Before the race the mechanics will use a torque wrench and plenty of elbow grease to tighten the wheel nuts a precise amount. Too tight and it's slow to come off during the race, too loose and it will fall off. In a racing pit stop the mechanics use highly tuned pneumatic guns which have the torque of a Porsche Turbo - they can literally break your wrist. The wheel is located using pegs in the hole on the axle and it's all clamped together with one wheel nut. The nuts are left- or right-hand threaded depending on which side of the car they are on; this helps resist the dynamic forces which try to loosen them. Wheel Nut - Martin Brundle explains

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see also
Williams opt against new system
18 Feb 09 |  Formula 1
Hamilton expects tough F1 battle
17 Feb 09 |  Formula 1
F1 to scrap 'bad' pit lane rule
27 Jan 09 |  Formula 1
New rules prompt Ferrari concern
20 Jan 09 |  Formula 1
Formula 1 teams unveil 2009 cars
09 Feb 09 |  Formula 1
Force India happy with F1 changes
16 Dec 08 |  Formula 1
The battle to save Formula One
12 Dec 08 |  Formula 1
F1 unveils cost-cutting blueprint
12 Dec 08 |  Formula 1
Cost-cutting plan agreed for F1
10 Dec 08 |  Formula 1
F1 ready for racing revolution
04 Mar 09 |  Formula 1
F1 on the BBC
18 Feb 11 |  Formula 1

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