As Formula 1 marked its 1000th race at the Chinese Grand Prix last weekend, it has long ago cemented its place at the very top of the motorsport food chain. There is not one serious racing driver that doesn’t dream of securing one of just 20 competitive seats inside an F1 car. But while these race cars are the absolute pinnacle of modern motor racing, being first and winning championships takes far more than just a fast driver. Formula 1 is the epitome of a team sport.
Having now won five consecutive Formula 1 constructors' championships, Mercedes-AMG remains the team to beat, even though early signs are that Ferrari may have finally produced a real contender for the Silver Arrows team in 2019. Mercedes-AMG has finished a dominant 1-2 in the first three races of the 2019 season (one win for Valtteri Bottas, two for Lewis Hamilton). But that dominance masks the fortune and massive challenges the team faces every single day.
The drivers themselves are elite athletes. They endure extreme levels of g-forces (up to 5g) and have to modify the car’s settings dozens of times over just a single lap - all with the added pressure of being in the world's spotlight.
Consider for a moment, that the drivers sit in the car with their feet elevated. Think of it as sitting in the bath with your feet raised to touch the taps. The idea is to get the driver’s rear as close to the ground as possible for best centre of gravity. This means their backside is mere centimetres away from the ground and on a circuit like Melbourne, which is very bumpy, it bounces around massively.
Hamilton's and Bottas’ cars are identical except for the seat and pedals, which are laser mapped and moulded to their shape, and the steering wheel which is configured differently to meet their needs.
The impact on the driver’s neck is also immense, with corners like turn 11 at Albert Park in Melbourne producing a massive 4.4 times the weight of gravity, which means that for drivers, the weight of their head is amplified almost 4.5 times around that corner, every time, for a solid 90 minutes or more.
We were told that when Lewis Hamilton joined the sport, his collar size was 14 inches. Now, after 12 full seasons, it's 18 inches, built up through the sheer physical stress of racing these cars. His total weight? Just 69kg, although they are allowed to go up to 80kg (any more and it’s just slowing the car down). Those that weigh less are equalised with ballast.
Driving the car is also extremely taxing technically. On an average lap around Melbourne, there are 55 gear changes plus modification to the car’s differential for corner entry, mid-corner, and exit. Add to that the brake balance change from front to rear during the lap as well and you can see the effort required. All of this is done without the driver ever looking down at the steering wheel itself.
There are over 500 settings the driver can choose from, using 25 different buttons. The steering wheel controls are aviation-style switchgear, so pressing something accidentally is almost impossible. The pit crew can guide the drivers to the settings, but they have no control over the car remotely (unless it’s safety related).
The team of about 60 people who are performance-related from Mercedes-AMG travel to every race. The pit crew aims to perform a tyre change in about 2.1 to 2.2 seconds. Although they can do it in 1.96 seconds, we are told they actually aim to be a little bit slower because the risk-to-benefit ratio of going below 2.1s is simply not worth it.
There are plenty of stories about F1 drivers losing a bit of vision mid-corner due to the sheer amount of g-forces they are under (much like a fighter pilot), with Hamilton reporting that tears are being forced out of his tear ducts and on to his visor mid-corner.
Another commonplace story is the amount of fluid drivers lose in a single race, with Bottas reportedly having lost almost 4kg during the Singapore Grand Prix due to the extreme heat and demands on the body. If you believe the science, the human brain loses about 10 per cent of its peak functioning for every 1kg of fluid the body loses.
The drivers do, of course, have access to a specialised electrolyte substance specifically designed just for their body requirements, of which 750ml is kept in the nose of the car, but we were told that it’s not all that popular given how hot it gets.
Perhaps most interestingly, the 40kg lithium ion battery pack is positioned right under the driver's seat, which starts to heat up as it recharges throughout the race. It can get up to 55 degrees Celsius inside the cabin and if you’re thinking that the cockpit will have plenty of fresh air, you’d be mistaken. All the aero around the car is doing its very best to push air away from that area and into the airbox above the driver, creating a near-vacuum inside the cockpit itself, meaning it lacks any form of decent ventilation, which is why you always see a whole bunch of dry ice being used for the drivers.
To illustrate just how little tolerance there is in a modern F1 car, consider that when a driver flat-spots his tyre, the vibration in the car is so extreme that the eye muscles are unable to keep a driver's eyes stable, which means they can’t fully focus on the apex of the corner and lose even more time than just the grip limitations this produces.
There is a common understanding amongst team mechanics that when they radio a driver mid-lap, the performance of the lap is generally down by about 100-200 milliseconds, not much, but still noticeable. The only two drivers that are known not be affected by this are Hamilton and the now-retired Fernando Alonso, both of who return consistent lap times, no matter the chatter on their team radios.
According to Mercedes-Benz sources, Hamilton consistently produces lap times that computer simulations indicate are not possible.
But while the drivers are no doubt the public faces, the heroes and the villains of the sport, there is an entire operation of thousands of people behind each team that makes the sport what it is today.
Formula 1 fans will have heard the ‘overused’ lines from the likes of five-time world champion Hamilton after a race win, thanking the factory and the team behind the car. It sounds like hyperbole and good PR, but it’s only when you come and visit the factory at Brackley in the UK that you begin to realise what he means.
Mercedes-AMG invited us to tour its facility as part of its 125 Years in Motorsport anniversary this year and upon disembarking, our phone cameras were taped up. We agreed to a whole list of other requirements about what we can and can’t report (to avoid other teams gaining some much-needed secrets or an advantage) and then started our tour at the wind tunnel.
Like most aspects of Formula 1, the technical regulations are the primary driver of development, with the best teams able to create the best cars within the rules; and occasionally via exploiting one. The wind tunnel itself is, by FIA regulations, restricted to just 25 hours of operation per week. Furthermore, while this particular one can run a full-size model, another regulation dictates that all wind tunnel testing must be carried out on 60 per cent scale models (so that teams with smaller budgets can compete more fairly).
While in theory this should make no difference to the aerodynamic design of a car, we are told that at the very smallest levels of detail, it doesn’t work exactly like that because while the car is made smaller, the air molecules obviously remain the same size and no amount of smaller scale testing is a substitute for the real thing.
Mercedes’ philosophy is to spend the majority of its time developing the parts of the cars before putting them on the car. The F1 car itself weights about 750kg and this year is making well over 1000hp (745kW) from its 1.6-litre turbocharged hybrid power train.
Around 80 per cent of the car (minus the powertrain) is made out of carbon-fibre and the team builds just five chassis per season at a staggering cost of close to A$2million each. There are roughly 80 layers of carbon-fibre, laid down painstakingly to make the parts as strong and as light as possible. Nothing is made stronger than it needs to be and if that is deemed the case, layers are then painstakingly removed.
The rough total cost of a single Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 car in hardware alone is close to A$5million per car and that’s discounting the literally hundreds of millions of dollars spent per year in R&D.
There are 16,000 metallic components in the car and carbon-fibre is used primarily because it’s twice the strength of steel and half the weight of aluminium. Perhaps most fascinating is the rate of change on an F1 machine. For the Mercedes-AMG team statistically, every 20 mins, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, a part of the car is re-engineered or redesigned.
That means that the race car that starts a race on a Sunday, is already a previous-spec by the time it finishes. The rate of change is extraordinary. So much so that the car that the Mercedes started the season with in Melbourne last year was estimated to be two seconds a lap slower than the one that crossed the finish line at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The parts of the car are built to a tolerance of 8-10 microns (a strand of human hair is around 70 microns) and they take a rather long time to build. The rear axle, as an example, takes a five-axis machine 120 hours to manufacturer out of titanium. The factory has 10 of such machines running 24/7.
There is also an extensive amount of testing that goes on in the factory before the cars ever see the light of day, and every time a new part is fitted, the testing is redone. A vibration stress simulator machine can recreate every corner of every circuit of the calendar in around two hours, allowing for rapid endurance testing of new parts.
While the power units of the cars these days are relatively on par between Mercedes-AMG and Ferrari, the likes of Renault and Honda are still believed to be a little bit behind in terms of outright horsepower. Even so, while Mercedes remains the team to beat, Williams, which uses identical engines from the German brand, is at the very bottom of the list, highlighting how important the aero and chassis development of the car is.
This year’s regulations have seen simplification of the front wings to allow cars to better follow each other to improve overtaking. Interestingly, though, 40 per cent of the drag of a modern Formula 1 car is produced by the exposed tyres. The entire point of the front wing then – which is really an upside-down aeroplane wing – is to push air above those tyres while also creating downforce.
The rear aero is then used to also create downforce and clean the air that is coming off the front of the car. Simply put, create as much downforce with as little drag as possible.
A conundrum if there ever was one.
Today’s Formula 1 cars are as much a giant computer as they are a race car, despite weighing so little and producing so much power. There are almost 50,000 data points being collected from sensors on the car, including infrared sensors on the front and rear to check the tyre temperature which is best operated at about 120 degrees. All of this helps the sport evolve, and it evolves at an insanely rapid pace.
For example, when the regulations changed in 2014 to the current turbo-hybrid engines, the best car in its class at the time, which was indeed the Mercedes, made about 750hp (560kW). Today that figure has improved by more than 33 per cent, all within very similar regulations. In fact, the thermal efficiency of the hybrid engine from day dot, was a massive 44 per cent, which has also since improved.
The entire design of an F1 car is built around not providing cooling to the engine, to reduce aerodynamic drag. F1 engines (which cost about A$2million on average and are meant to last at least seven races) are designed to run at 800 degrees Celsius. It’s only in high altitude environments where cooling is required, that the top of the engine bay is left slightly open.
Being hybrid, the F1 cars make use of a 161-horsepower (120kW) electric motor that can be deployed when required. The battery itself is supplied by McLaren Technologies and the ECU is standardised across the sport. Nonetheless, as Ferrari found last year, performance can be gained by the placement of batteries in unique ways.
In fact, our sources told us that last year Ferrari seemingly managed to up the power of its battery pack by almost 20hp (15kW) with what some believed was unconventional battery utilisation techniques. Mercedes-AMG brought this to the attention of the FIA and the performance of the prancing horse was, coincidentally, reduced by mid-season. Simply, the German team could use GPS data to track the performance of its rivals and calculate the effective horsepower of the car out of corners using that data when the electric system was deployed.
The most interesting part of our tour was without doubt the control room. The NASA-like centre at the team's HQ in Brackley, houses close to 30 people, each with at least three screens in addition to the other dozen or so screens on the walls, is the hub of operations during the race. The team gathers enormous amounts of data from the car’s built in WiFi system each time it passes pit lane, no matter where in the world, and that is sent to the control room with a lag of no more than 300 milliseconds, all during the race.
The Formula 1 cars use a Qualcomm Snapdraggon processor (like many Android phones) and the teams are experimenting with 5G bandwidth, allowing for massive data transfers speeds.
The control room can monitor everything from the car’s vital health to tyre pressures and other aspects. There is even a steering wheel for engineers to know exactly what settings they need to maximise the car's performance. This information is then relayed back to the team in pit lane for the race engineers to communicate to the drivers mid-race.
The idea is that while only 60 performance-related personal can come to each race from each team (Mercedes brings an additional 40 for other duties), the team back in the factory is not limited and can exploit the company’s greater resources for maximum data analyses.
In fact, we were told that in one instance, back in last race of 2012 someone in that room spotted a Williams repeatedly cutting track limits and quickly put together a video of the offences and had it forwarded to the FIA, which then handed that driver a penalty, which consequently led to a better points finish for the Mercedes team and third place in the championship, rather then fourth (a difference in prize money at the end of the year in the millions of dollars).
It’s here you can see why teams like Mercedes-Benz, Red Bull and Ferrari (which undoubtedly have similar facilities) have the means to go that extra step, not just in terms of their design and engineering, but in all aspects of the sport. It’s also a case in point of why Formula 1 is such an expensive sport, with estimates of budgets close to one billion Australian dollars per year for championship-contending teams.
On the other hand, Formula 1 has always been about pushing the boundaries of what is possible in racing. It’s unfortunately hindered by ever tightening restrictions and technical guidelines. It also lives under the somewhat contradictory pretence of being energy efficient and promoting green technologies.
As an example of Formula 1 hypocrisy, during the Australia Grand Prix in Melbourne in March, the RAAF F-18 fighter jet that performed flyovers used significantly more fuel than all the F1 cars were allowed to use for the entire weekend, combined. Some insanely ironic and in some cases just ridiculous regulations. One can only wonder what a budget of this magnitude could produce if the formula was simply to make the fastest open-wheeler race car.
Put back in context though, Formula 1 is Formula 1 regardless of its regulations. It’s a feat of engineering unlike any other. To win a grand prix, let alone a championship, is an often insurmountable task for many drivers and teams, to do it five times in a row in the hybrid era? Well, that’s just a Mercedes thing.
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