Insider’s guide: How is an F1 car made?

Do you know what is used to construct an F1 car, how long it takes to make one and how many people are involved? Find out this and more here…

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How many parts is an F1 car made from?

Each Formula 1 car is made up of around 14,500 individual components*, and every item is bespoke, with Computer Aided Design (CAD) used to develop the parts and Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM) or hand processing to build them.

Unlike many racing series, cars are completely unique to each team – as opposed to F2, which has a standard car, or even Formula E, which has a standard chassis – but there has been a trend towards some parts standardisation.


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From 2022, cars must run certain ‘standard’ parts and ‘prescribed’ parts such as wheel aerodynamics, wheel hubs and the front floor tea tray, which teams must build to a set design. There are also ‘transferable parts’ such as gearboxes and clutches, which can be bought and sold between teams.

The technical regulations define ‘rule boxes’ that limit the teams’ designs. That includes setting specific dimensions for wings and bargeboards, defining no-go aerodynamic areas and banning certain high-cost alloys in engines.

A new car is produced every year, but unlike a road car, which typically stays the same once it’s rolled out the factory, an F1 car is continually developed, with new parts being introduced on a race-by-race basis.

A Formula 1 car on track

A Formula 1 car on track

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

When does the process start?

Designing an F1 car takes much longer than you might think. Top teams actually start work on new cars more than a season before they are due to be raced – for example, work on a 2021 car would have started in the closing months of 2019.

The process begins with the engine and chassis team leaders discussing an overall approach and responding to feedback from the drivers about the current car. Early work then involves a concept team evaluating any new approaches.

As the year prior to the car’s launch progresses, the design becomes more involved and more detailed, and the team’s focus slowly moves away from developing the current car to producing the future one.

During the season, more and more design personnel are moved across to work on the new car, but it’s only in winter that things come together physically, with externally manufactured items tested and designs turned into actual parts.

Design and development

Car development begins in the design office, where teams of people sit behind CAD (computer aided design) computers producing complex 3D drawings of new parts, which can number in the hundreds every day at their peak.

Different sub-groups take care of different areas or aspects of the car – such as transmission, electronics, mechanical design and aerodynamics, as well as composite design, which involves planning the way parts are manufactured.

Aerodynamics is one of the most important areas and teams typically have 3-4 separate groups, each with a different focus area. They create designs to test in CFD (computational fluid dynamics) to decide which go into wind tunnel testing.

In the past, some teams actually ran full-scale cars in wind tunnels but now the maximum is set at 60 per cent to reduce costs (as parts cost far more to build at full scale than at 60 per cent).

Most model parts are now made with rapid prototyping and 3D printing, with the wings made of metal. In the tunnel, the car is bolted to a central spine and a fan blows air over it with a belt under it running at a matching speed.

The model is filled with sensors to record speed and pressure and the spine is attached to a sensitive weighing scale to measure the downforce. The car is dynamically moved to change ride-height and pitch as it does on track.

Teams are now limited to one tunnel – in the past, Ferrari has been known to run 24-7 in three locations! – and the speed is limited to a maximum of 180 km/h, which means they cannot fully test all aspects of the car’s performance.

There are also limits on the amount of time that can be spent on CFD and in the wind tunnel, depending on where a team finished the previous season. The last placed gets 25 percent more time in the tunnel than the reigning champions.

A Formula 1 wind tunnel model

A Formula 1 wind tunnel model

Photo by: Manor Racing

Manufacturing

Around 80 per cent of the car is made from composites and ‘pre-preg’ carbon fibre is the mainstay material. This woven matting of carbon strands pre-coated with resin is supplied on giant rolls and stored in freezers to keep it fresh.

Carbon fibre parts begin life with a pattern, typically made out of epoxy using five-axis milling machines that use CAD data to cut to an accuracy of 0.05mm. The patterns are then used to manufacture a female mould out of carbon fibre, which is then used to make the final part.

The composite manufacturing areas of an F1 factory are clinical environments, with air pressure, humidity and temperature tightly controlled and workers all wearing clean protective overalls and shoe protectors at all times. This is because any impurities that get into the part could cause catastrophic failure.

As an example of numbers, McLaren reportedly has 130 people working on composite parts at any one time, in the clean room, trim and assembly, pattern shop and machine shops. Smaller teams outsource this manufacturing process.

The carbon fibre matting is precision cut into specific shapes – defined by the composite design department – and these are laid up in a very precise way, as different strand directions deliver different strength properties and directions.

Part layup is still done by hand, assisted by a computer-guided laser placement system. More plies are used in parts that will take more stress, and some parts – like the chassis – have different thicknesses in different areas depending on the stiffness requirements.

In fact, the complex nature of carbon fibre manufacture has allowed teams to bend the rules – quite literally – by creating wings that are weaker in certain areas and can flex under load, passing static load tests but moving out on track. Mercedes’ rear wing was alleged to be doing this in late 2021.

Once the carbon is laid up in the mould it is put into a vacuum bag, placed into an autoclave (a large oven) and put under pressure. It is then cured at a controlled temperature and pressure for hours.

The high temperatures in the autoclave melt the resin in between the carbon strands so that it spreads and then sets, creating a solid part. The number of vacuum treatments and thermal curing processes can also affect the final part.

Many parts are made in two or more sections - the moncoque chassis for example is two halves (top and bottom) that are glued together; the front and rear wings are hollow, bonded together to create the final construction.

Alongside the carbon fibre process, there is also a large amount of metal manufacturing, much using ‘exotic’ metals. Alpine, for example, runs 16 machines to process all these parts and replaces them every three years.

Andrew Scrowther, CNC Machinist, McLaren

Andrew Scrowther, CNC Machinist, McLaren

Photo by: McLaren

Parts testing

Remember those 14,500 parts mentioned at the start? Well, all of them must be inspected and signed off before they make it onto the car itself – and there’s not just one of each part either.

Huge amounts of testing is done before the car ever turns a wheel, to make sure there is as much certainty in reliability as possible – and the numbers of finishers in modern races compared to even 10 years ago shows that this works.

Materials are put under the microscope (literally) and every part on the car will have undergone non-destructive testing (NDT) with x-ray or ultrasound techniques to evaluate joint bonding and laminate condition, firmness checks, visual checks and a thorough cleaning.

Computer-based coordinate measuring machines (CMMs) and hand-held laser devices are also used to check dimensions, measuring to an accuracy of microns to ensure perfect fit and legality.

A nosecone, for example, will go through a composite inspection, hexagon laser scanning, composite NDT for crack checking using an ultrasonic couplant, fluorescent penetrant to check cracks and physical stress testing.

All sub-assemblies and assemblies are then put together and run on dynamic test rigs that put the parts through their paces, matching the temperatures and motion cycles they would expect to see in action on the track.

Every part is given a mileage or time-based ‘life’ after which it must be removed and replaced, and components, particularly safety critical ones, are often tested to three or four times the life they are required to last, just to be sure.

Teams must also include an increasing number of crash structures around the car and FIA crash tests must be passed before the car is certified. These include front, rear and side impact and rollover tests, and they are extremely destructive.

First fire-up

This is when everything becomes very real. In the factory, the power unit, fuel system, hydraulics, transmission and cooling system are all attached to the chassis and connected up to be tested.

At that point the design process is about halfway through, so there is still a long way to go. The car is yet to have all its bodywork fitted, so visually it has been described as looking like ‘Robocop when he takes all his skin off.’

Once all the parts are manufactured and ready to put together, the first actual car build takes about a week, with the car assembled in the race bay. The chassis monocoque is the central section, and all sub-assemblies are bolted onto it.

A scenic view of the Barcelona pit straight

A scenic view of the Barcelona pit straight

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Shakedown and testing

This is when the car rolls out of the garage at a track for the first time. Teams must give the car a ‘shakedown’ simply to make sure it has been bolted together correctly and can drive, at speed, without any problems.

Teams often run this on a designated ‘filming day’ with running limited to less than 100km. This ensures the car is working well so that the team can focus its limited pre-season testing time on car set-up before the first race.

How much does a Formula 1 car cost?

Spending is capped at $140 million (£106m) per season in 2022, reducing to $135m (£102m) from 2023. This covers all car performance costs and excludes marketing and salaries of drivers and the three most expensive team members.

The cost of the actual car itself is debatable – as it is hard to determine what that cost includes and what it does not. However, guesstimates suggest it is around £6 million.

Engines are the most expensive part, costing around £12 million per year – although for that the teams get a number of units. It is estimated that to build one unit alone is around £3.5 million.

The chassis reportedly costs around £1 million, with the gearbox £750,000 and a front wing £150,000 each (and they need a lot of them!). Even the steering wheel – thanks to its complex electronics – comes in at an estimated £50,000.

Tyres are a comparative bargain at about £1,500 per set – although when you consider a team has 20 sets at every Grand Prix (13 drys, 4 intermediates and 3 full wets) that’s suddenly £30,000 per car each race weekend.

NOTES

* according to a report by the former Renault team

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