The Australian Grand Prix has brought the world’s fastest hybrid cars – and the engineers who make them possible – back to Melbourne.
With an estimated price tag close to $1 million for each of the 20 cars on the starting grid, the latest F1 racers rival jet fighters for technology and innovation.
The raw numbers are impressive: 745kW in total, 0-100km/h in 2.5 seconds, a top speed of 320km/h and the ability to race flat-out for 300km on just 110kg of fuel.
Their petrol-electric powertrains – no-one in F1 talks about engines these days – use a 1.6-litre V6 running 10 per cent ethanol with 18:1 compression and a 15,000rpm rev limit, combined with motor generators that harvest energy from exhaust gases and braking.
But it’s the physical ability of the cars – braking at five times the force of gravity and cornering at more than 3Gs – that generates the real speed. An F1 car could easily run upside down at 200km/h thanks to the downforce from its wings and the aerodynamic shape of the floor beneath the bodywork.
“The only problem would be keeping the engine going. Running upside-down would starve the oil supply,” says former F1 race winner David Coulthard, who drove for the Williams, McLaren and Red Bull teams.
The latest F1 racers are the result of a total re-think and revamp ahead of the 2022 F1 season, with only very minor tweaks this year. The weight limit is up fractionally to 798kg, rear-vision mirrors are 50mm wider for better safety, and the titanium roll-bar halo over the driver is stronger – after Alfa Romeo driver Zhou Guanyu skidded upside-down at more than 200km/h at last year’s British GP.
The rule changes in 2022 made the cars bigger than before, with smoother bodywork shorn of aerodynamic bits and pieces to promote closer racing and more overtaking.
At the back there is still the DRS – the Drag Reduction System – in the rear wing that opens a flap on the straight when a challenger is within one second of his quarry, providing a 20km/h speed advantage to the attacker.
F1’s hybrid era began in 2014 and, since then Mercedes-AMG has been the most successful team, claiming eight world titles. But Red Bull Racing bounced back in 2022, its car delivering both the manufacturers’ title and drivers’ championship for Max Verstappen.
“It’s an engineering challenge, and the fastest car wins,” says Jeromy Moore, the most highly credentialled engineer currently working in Australian motorsport.
Moore, a 43-year-old veteran who began with a Bachelor of Engineering degree from the University of Queensland, led Porsche to victory in the World Endurance Championship as race engineer for its 919-series hybrid, and most recently headed the engineering work on Supercars’ Gen3 racer.
“It’s interesting to see the battle and the developments through the season. The team with the fastest car at the first test might not be on top at the last race at the end of the year,” he says.
“As an engineer, I like watching Formula One. Sporting-wise, it’s not the most exciting thing.”
Race for talent
The races are just the tip of a massive engineering iceberg that lures thousands of highly qualified personnel working at race bases in England, Italy, the USA and – for the Sauber-Alfa Romeo team – Switzerland.
They have the very newest and best tools, from artificial intelligence and rapid prototyping machines to F1-specific computational fluid dynamics programs, full-scale wind tunnels and simulators to train and prepare drivers.
Scratch the surface of Formula One and you find many surprises. For instance, most of this year’s cars are racing with large areas of raw carbon fibre bodywork – the AMG-Benzes are entirely black – to save the three-kilogram penalty from paint. The three-pointed star on the nose of the Benzes is also painted on, because using a road-car badge would upset the aerodynamics. Even the driving suits have been on a diet for 2023, with one brand replacing metal zipper pulls with fabric – worth two grams.
For a time, big teams led by Ferrari had as many as 1000 engineers, but cost caps have necessitated staff cuts. Some teams have found a way around this by deploying people to other jobs – for Ferrari it’s endurance racing at Le Mans, Aston Martin has its road car program, and Mercedes-AMG is involved with America’s Cup yacht racing – ensuring the engineering talent is still available and able to be drawn back for individual F1 projects.
Visit a grand prix team and the behind-the-scenes work is staggering, from the big banks of CFD computers to 5-axis milling machines working 24/7 as every single component is created individually. The Sauber squad in Switzerland was the first with a supercomputer and a wind tunnel which could set the car in ‘yaw,’ not just straight-ahead, and test two cars running nose-to-tail.
Even the braking systems on the cars are entirely bespoke, although a marketing tie-up with Brembo means they are all badged by the Italian brake company.
The only thing shared by every team is their Pirelli racing tyres. F1 moved to 18-inch wheels for 2022 and that means much lower-profile racing rubber, a new challenge for the performance engineers.
“We provide a finite element model to the teams, as well as a thermo-mechanical model,” says Mario Isola, head of F1 and Car Racing for Pirelli.
The teams then got to work with their simulation tools, including their seven-post ‘shaker rigs’ – which can run virtual laps of any circuit, applying identical forces through the suspension and chassis – before heading to on-track testing.
But as advanced as the digital models get, there is no substitute for the track.
“Like all tools, you have to correlate the virtual tool to the real world,” Moore says.
“It’s like any sort of calculation. If rubbish goes in, rubbish comes out. It’s about having a big enough data set to get the right result.”
In the end, though, it’s easy to calculate the result.
“The stopwatch doesn’t lie.”