Creative Engineering in Formula 1

Many mechanical engineers regard being part of a Formula 1 team as one of the most exciting jobs in the world. Engineers working within this sport play an extremely important role and the technical capabilities of a vehicle are often seen to hold as much influence as the skill of the driver in winning a race.

However, the engineers behind Formula 1 vehicles must ensure that their designs fall within the boundaries of numerous technical regulations set out by the FIA in order for the team to qualify. These regulations shift from year to year, as rule-makers strive to ensure that certain teams do not give themselves an unfair advantage or place their drivers in vehicles which are unsafe.

Such restrictions have resulted in engineers devising particularly creative solutions to increase the speed of their vehicles, whilst exploiting any loopholes which they might find within the FIA’s rulebook. With the 2013 season having kicked off in Melbourne on 15th March, racing fans will have eagerly anticipated the unveiling of the latest engineering innovations which may hold the key to each team’s success.

In recent years, instructions have become increasingly specific regarding what can and can’t be done to enhance the performance of engines, transmissions and other internal aspects of the vehicle. As such, engineers have regularly turned to aerodynamics in order to make their improvements. For example, the a Drag Reduction System (DRS) is now a regular feature in many Formula 1 vehicles, minimising drag with the touch of a button and giving drivers more opportunity to overtake during the race. 

For the 2012 races, however, the double DRS introduced by the Mercedes team sought to bend rules which stated that only the rear wing could be used in reducing drag, by making reduced drag on the front wing a byproduct of the rear DRS system. This year, such manoeuvres will not be allowed.

Teams that chose not to include a DRS system often opted for a flexible front wing, which reduced drag by twisting and bending under the pressure of the wind. This feature managed to side-step a rule stating that transformer-like shape-changing would not be allowed, as it failed to mention whether or not components could be made flexible enough to change shape under pressure from the natural forces encountered on the track. Once again, this is something about which the rule-makers have decided to be much more specific for the 2013 season.

In the past, racing engineers’ more creative methods of skirting around the rules have included using a vehicle’s exhaust to make aerodynamic improvements, as well as using the driver’s knee to operate a function in which using a mechanical device had been banned. With racing regulations becoming stricter each year, the creative challenges facing engineers are also increasing. As the FIA continue in their attempts to regulate clearly and fairly, Formula 1 is likely to remain a hotspot for mechanical innovation within the engineering industry.

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