The success, recent and past, of Formula 1 has much to do with the appeal of single-seaters and those who drive them. Since time immemorial, these extraordinary technical marvels (and their intrepid leaders) have occupied a prime place in the dreams and fantasies of young and old lovers of speed, engines and all things automotive. It is no coincidence that one of the first adjectives attached to the Circus is“aspirational”-Ferrari, for example, is not considered just a team. “Everyone cheers Ferrari,” to quote four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel.
In this spectacular imagery, well represented by a large copy of posters, figurines, calendars and newspaper pages occupy a special place the trails of sparks that Formula 1 cars leave as they pass by. These glowing tongues that arise from underneath the cars and contribute to the great “aesthetic” appeal of the discipline, actually have a number of reasons-someengineering, some regulatory-that underlie their presence.
As always in the world of Formula 1, nothing happens without a reason. And as much as it may seem like a detail, there is always a story behind every nuance of this incredible sport. In short: there is a definite answer to the question “why do Formula 1s spark?”
The magic of four wheels
As is evident, F1 cars are far removed from ordinary everyday cars. Playing a key role, in addition to engine performance, is the aerodynamic load these cars are able to generate, which allows them extraordinary cornering speeds.
There are many elements that contribute to the aerodynamic load in a Formula 1 car, but in a simplified view, we can say that the main ones are the ailerons and the bottom of the car. It is precisely the latter, thanks to a change in regulations, that has returned to the center of Formula 1’s design interest, due to the reintroduction of the infamous ground effect that has disappeared from the scene for more than twenty years.
It is from the bottom of the car, an area of very high complexity, that the above sparks are generated.
The sparks are caused by the titanium plates that protect the bottom of the car when they rub against the asphalt at high speed. The bottom is composed of a woody material (recognized as Jabroc, to be exact) designed in such a way that it can be both weight-performing and regulation-compliant. In fact, at the end of each race, the bottom is measured to ensure that it has not shrunk more than a millimeter. It is necessary to check that the car does not go too low during the race and that it meets the regulatory parameters. Failure to do so will result in disqualification. Since-unlike wood-the titanium plates that support the bottom do not shrink, the millimeter gap between the bottom and the plates decrees whether or not the set-up is successful in complying with regulations.
The contact of the metal blades with the track creates friction in situations of high aerodynamic load, when the car is “squeezed” to the ground by air pressure.
Throughout the history of F1, this particular “special effect” has been the subject of changes designed to accentuate it even more: in the 2015 season the so-called skidblocks, or “skids” placed on the bottom for the sole purpose of replicating the spectacular light trails of single-seaters from the 1980s and 1990s. Titanium was chosen both for its lightness and strength characteristics and for its spectacularity. F1 in that year realized that those sparks were important to fans, televisions and photographers so technological solutions were adopted to enable them.
The combination of interest chosen by the federation turns out to be interesting: on the one hand for spectacularity and on the other for safety, coming to the happy conclusion that one does not exclude the other. Could they have made a Formula 1 without sparks? Yes. There are technological solutions for which single-seaters could avoid doing them, but a conscious choice has been made that they are good for everyone.
Do sparks damage the car?
The answer is: exactly the opposite. Titanium plates are used to protect the belly of the car from any debris on the track that could damage the internal mechanical parts.
However, with the reintroduction in the 2022 season of the flat bottom with Venturi channels and the aforementioned ground effect, the stables have had to (and still have to) deal with porpoising and bouncing. What are they?
The last time a Formula 1 car took advantage of ground effect was 1983. Air flows are directed under the single-seater, thanks to Venturi channels, to create downforce and crush the car to the ground at high speeds. The famous porpoising occurs when there is no longer any space between the bottom of the car and the asphalt, and the new air pressure zone causes the car to rise. At that point, the Venturi channels intervene again, bringing the machine back to earth (we don’t begrudge more technical readers for these “light” explanations from a scientific point of view). This up-and-down effect benefits neither the car, putting great stress on suspension and chassis, nor the driver
Bouncing, literally translated as “hopping,” is often juxtaposed with porpoising even though it has some different characteristics. In this case, the effect is more likely to occur on tracks that are not particularly flat with many areas that can be defined as “wavy” (such as the case in Baku). The FIA has commented on this, deciding to take steps to protect the health of the drivers. These two effects create some driving discomfort, affecting the athlete’s physical state (as happened mainly to 7-time world champion Lewis Hamilton throughout the first part of the 2022 Formula 1 season).
As already mentioned, the relationship between spectacle and safety finds success in most of the technological solutions adopted in the top four-wheel racing championship. Just think of the lives saved by the introduction of the HALO – to protect the cockpit – to the more adrenaline-fueled DRS (drag reduction system) to increase the number and chances of overtaking during the arc of the race. Innovation has also carved out its space with the hybrid era, and the introduction of theERS (energy recovery system), combined with the performance of the heat engine, is proof of this.
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