Formula One finds vroom for improvement

20 April 2001

Tough new tests for Formula One racing cars mean that advanced composite materials are playing an ever more crucial role in keeping the cars racing. Following a variety of serious accidents in the last couple of years, the sport's governing body, the FIA (Federation Internationale Automobile) has for 2001 specified some big increases in the loads that cars must withstand in both static and crashworthiness tests, as Steve Foster, head of composite design at Jaguar Racing described at the Institute of Physics Congress 2001.

Meeting these improved standards is achieved mostly by using new advanced types of composite materials. Composite materials offer high strength and stiffness combined with lightness, and materials like carbon fibre, Kevlar and glass fibre, laminated with modern toughened thermoset and thermoplastic resins, will be tested by each racing team until they find their best solution.

All new chassis designs have to undergo such tests in the interests of driver safety and the setting of more stringent standards can be the result of a fatal or near-fatal accident. The roll hoop behind the driver, for example, has an air intake that has always been tested with a static load above it. Last year the load limit was 9 tonnes. This year, following an incident when a roll hoop parted company with the car, the static load has been increased to 12 tonnes - but applied via a compound angle so that it acts from the rear, downwards and sideways at the same time.

Cars also have to undergo frontal, rear and sideways tests and for 2001 the side impact energy criterion has been doubled. A 780 kilogram striker plate of area 0.5 x 0.5 square metres is driven at the side of the car, which has to absorb the energy through sacrificial structures without damage to the underlying chassis. Last year the striker speed was 7 metres per second; this year it strikes at 10 metres per second - imparting, at 39 kilojoules, double the previous energy.

In previous years, manufacturers generally chose to support these impact stresses through a bulkhead situated behind the driver which transmitted the stress into the chassis. This year, the striker has also been split into four parts and each has to achieve a minimum load - in other words, each quadrant has to have some form of energy absorbing structure.

More of the load is now taken by the cockpit rim, providing better protection for the driver's torso. (There is an aerodynamic penalty here, however. The change has meant moving the side pods of the chassis further forwards, but all competitors are equally disadvantaged.) Generally, tube or box-shaped carbon fibre structures are used to absorb energy in tests like this. The carbon fibres break progressively as the structure crushes, absorbing much more energy than a single snap.

A completely new test has also been introduced this year, following an incident in Formula 3000 when the nose cone of one car hit and punctured the side of another. Racing teams now have to provide a representative panel of the chassis side, constructed from the laminate being used. A striker of diameter 120 millimetres is slowly driven through the panel, which has to achieve a peak load of 15 tonnes and absorb 6 kilojoules of energy - no mean feat. It seems that however tough the racing regulations get, composites are meeting the challenge.

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