How Do Formula One Cars Go So Fast?

Formula 1 is known for precision, skill, and most of all, speed. A modern F1 car can go from 0 to over 60 MPH in under two seconds and hit a top speed of about 240 MPH. It goes so fast that drivers experience 3.5 Gs, which is more than astronauts deal with during a space shuttle launch. (It also means that, in theory, a Formula 1 car could drive upside down if it’s going at top speed.)

But how do they go so fast? Car modification is popular all around the world, but nobody can get their automobiles as fast as a Formula 1 vehicle. These are the five elements that make F1 cars so much speedier than anything you have at home.

The Design is Aerodynamic

This first difference is the most visually obvious one: F1 engineers build cars to be as aerodynamic as possible. They design everything about a Formula 1 car to reduce air resistance and generate downforce to ensure stability and top speed.

Anyone who looks at an F1 vehicle can see that it’s wide, flat, and as low to the ground as possible. In addition, they’re all covered in a variety of wings, splitters, and diffusers. All of that functions to direct air over and around the car, working with the air instead of fighting it.

You can consider each car to be like the automobile version of an airplane wing in the way it manipulates the air to decrease resistance. However, instead of helping anything stay up, it’s all meant to press the vehicle down and closer to the tires. The proximity to the things carrying the car forward gives it a little more speed.

The Tires Have Incredible Grip

Speaking of the tires, they aren’t the same as your typical commercial options. Formula 1 tires are specially designed for Formula 1 cars. Teams can choose between six kinds of FIA-approved tires. There are different types for dry or wet race conditions and can be soft, medium, or hard rubber compounds. (What goes into these compounds is a fiercely guarded industry secret.)

Today, the FIA has rules in place saying that the tires have to be between 12 and 15 inches wide with four grooves running along the entire circumference. Before this regulation, teams used to use slick tires with no treads at all to maximize the contact between the tire and the track, but a rule change reduced speed through the turns and tightened the competition.

Now that treads do exist in Formula 1 tires, wet tires take advantage of them and the design wicks moisture away from the surface of the road, which is part of what differentiates them from dry tires.

While F1 tires have the best possible grip, there is a tradeoff. They typically only last for about 125 miles, which is one of a few reasons why they get changed out in the middle of a race. This is unlike a consumer car’s tires, that can last for thousands of miles.

The Engine Is More Powerful

Formula 1 vehicles have an engine that is roughly the same size as the one in a road car, but it’s much more powerful. That’s because they use short-stroke engines, similar to the ones in motorcycles.

Where a consumer car’s engine cylinder is shaped like a toilet paper tube, an F1 automobile’s cylinder looks like a hockey puck. That shape allows it to take in as much air and fuel but with a “short stroke” for the engine’s pistons, which allows for increased efficiency.

The short-stroke engine, combined with the advanced metals that Formula 1 teams use to make it, allow the car to rev over three times higher and harder than a standard automobile.

They Have Special Gearboxes

Formula 1 cars are semi-automatic. Their gearboxes are automated, but the driver has to use the clutch when starting and engage each gear themselves. That’s where a lot of the skill comes in when racing, instead of letting the car do the work for the drivers.

The gearboxes are mounted on the back of the steering wheel, as opposed to next to the driver’s seat. That lets a driver shift gears with their fingers instead of having to move their hands off of the wheel.

Additionally, the gearboxes are made from carbon alloys and other low-weight materials, making them significantly lighter than any consumer car. The reduction in weight means a reduction in resistance, allowing faster gear changes. In fact, an F1 car can change gears in just 0.005 seconds, 50 times faster than a typical human blink.

The Brakes and KERS

Formula 1 cars get extremely hot when they’re running at top speed mid-race. A typical cockpit temperature is 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and the engine itself is even worse. That’s why the brake pads are made of materials that work at extremely high temperatures without failing.

Those materials also keep the brakes as efficient as possible, allowing the driver to wait to apply them until the very last second before cornering, reducing the amount of time the car has to slow down.

The brakes, like the chassis of the car, are aerodynamic, and they include cooling ducts so there isn’t any brake fade no matter how hot it is. This benefits both the car itself during the race, along with increasing driver safety.

Any kinetic energy that would have simply become heat in a regular road car is instead harnessed by the hybrid kinetic energy recovery system (KERS), which is then funneled to the powertrain for an extra 80 BHP power boost when necessary.

It’s no secret that Formula 1 vehicles are optimized in every possible way. That’s what makes us love them so much that we follow the drivers with enthusiasm, wear Formula 1 team apparel, and learn everything they’ll tell us about building the cars. But, as a general rule, it’s the difference in the chassis design, engine, tires, gearboxes, and brakes that truly show how Formula 1 automobiles are able to go so mind-blowingly fast.