Formula One cars are fast. Very fast. In fact if you ever go jogging for half an hour, consider that a Grand Prix machine could have travelled the same distance in just 80 seconds. In theory a modern F1 car could make it from the Tower Bridge in London to Buckingham Palace on the other side of the city in around two minutes.
Anyone who has stood trackside at a Grand Prix will know exactly what a Formula One car is capable of. There is no other four wheeled machine on the planet that comes close to the same level of performance.
Or is there?
At the end of 2005 Volkswagen introduced the Bugatti Veyron which became the world’s fastest road car.
The company will only build 300 of the model and will not make a profit from their sale. The Veyron project was simply an engineering exercise to find out if it was possible to manufacture a road vehicle with 1000 horsepower and a top speed exceeding 400kph.
It is. The Bugatti Veyron produces 1001bhp and can reach 408kph.
The regular top speed of a Formula One car is 350kph and sounds a little shabby in comparison. Don’t be fooled however, because a Grand Prix challenger is by far and away the quickest car on earth.
First of all, a Formula One car is actually capable of over 400kph. At the end of 2005 Honda took a race legal chassis to NASA’s Space Shuttle runway in California. The landing strip is three kilometres long so it gave the team plenty of room to evaluate the maximum potential of an F1 car with minimal downforce. Test driver, Alan Van Der Merwe, reached a top speed of 413kph in a vehicle that would have been allowed to race in any Grand Prix during the 2005 season.
The reason that Formula One cars don’t regularly reach those speeds is because they are designed to go around corners. If they were designed to race up and down runways in a straight line they would no doubt go much faster, so the fact they are already capable of 400kph is quite special.
Ignoring this, you could still argue that 350kph from an F1 car is more impressive than 400kph from the Veyron.
The Bugatti can only reach its top speed by using an 8 litre W16 engine (essentially two V8s bolted together) with four turbochargers. Even then it takes almost a minute of acceleration to exceed 400kph.
By comparison, a Formula One car only has a normally aspirated 2.4 litre V8 engine. It has no turbos, no superchargers, and actually has a smaller engine than most sports cars. There are Vauxhall sedans with larger powerplants. The F1 car uses its horsepower far more efficiently and creates and extra 13,000 revolutions per minute than the Veyron.
A Formula One engine is a unique and amazing piece of equipment.
The Bugatti Veyron is still mighty impressive, and perhaps its strongest feature is the acceleration. It is reportedly the fastest accelerating road vehicle in the world and can reach 100kph in just 2.5 seconds.
However, that is still 25% slower than a Formula One car and as the speed continues to rise the F1 car pulls further ahead. Amazingly a Grand Prix machine will reach 300kph in only eight seconds. Only a dragster can beat that and the Veyron cannot come close.
If you ever get a chance to look at the first moments of a Grand Prix from the grandstands, or YouTube, you may notice how quickly cars at the back of the grid are travelling as they reach the start line. Within only a hundred metres they are screaming along with huge momentum.
This performance is possible due to the F1 car’s weight. A Grand Prix vehicle tops the scales at only 605kg which is set in the regulations. That is not a lot and is about the same as a standard box trailer. If you removed the engine and performance enhancing ballast, it would weigh half that of a Mini Cooper. The end result is a car with a massive amount of power per kilogram.
More impressive than the acceleration of an F1 car is the grip it can generate.
In fact, the cornering ability of a Formula One car is probably the most exceptional aspect of its performance. For example, an F1 machine will corner so quickly around Silverstone that it will drop below 100kph for only one or two seconds in the whole lap.
This is because Grand Prix cars produce a lot of downforce. The front and rear wings are in effect aircraft wings turned upside down and they push the car into the tarmac. At 300kph an F1 car produces almost two tonnes of downforce, which is the same as having two adult cows sitting on the front of the car and another one sitting on the back. It has often been said that a Formula One car creates so much downforce that it could be driven upside down on a ceiling. That is correct in theory, although not possible in practice as the engines are built with the centre of gravity in mind and would not function when inverted.
To put the cornering speed into perspective, a Formula One driver can experience forces of up to 5G. That means the centrifugal force pushing him into his seat is five times stronger than the Earth’s gravity. Under that strain a driver’s body weighs five times as much as normal making it very difficult to simply hang onto the steering wheel. It is worth noting that you black out at 8G.
A fighter jet creates way more Gs than an F1 car but does so without any friction from the ground. A Grand Prix car is producing these enormous forces despite relying on friction with the track surface to achieve them, which is quite amazing.
This is all the more remarkable considering that Formula One cars have flat bottoms. This might not sound like a big deal but it is. In the seventies Grand Prix teams started to build cars with scooped floors, meaning the air travelling beneath the chassis had to expand. This sucked the car to the ground and the cornering speeds shot up dramatically. This was called ‘ground effect’ aerodynamics and was banned from F1 in 1983. Many other forms of motorsport still use it, such as Champ Cars, so the fact that F1 cars can still corner so quickly with smooth floors is incredible.
Something else that helps a Formula One car handle so well is the braking force. When a driver hits the brakes the deceleration can be so strong that it will suck tears out of his eyes and splatter them onto his visor. Under braking the drivers pull 6G meaning their heads weigh up to twenty kilograms. Try strapping twenty kilograms of weight onto your head and you’ll find that it isn’t very nice. From certain onboard cameras you can watch the drivers sink into their seat under the braking forces, which are five times stronger than what you’ll find on the Veyron.
The Bugatti is one of the world’s most powerful road cars but does not go anywhere near Grand Prix levels of performance. More telling is that neither does any other form of motorsport.
The closest comparison to Formula One is the Champ Car World Series. From 2002 to 2006 the Champ Cars raced in Montreal at Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve which is used for the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix. The F1 cars were on average six seconds quicker. That might not sound like a lot but Champ Cars have scooped floors, slick tyres, and turbo powered engines. If they raced during the Formula One Grand Prix the Champ Cars would be lapped six times and they’d have to make at least one extra pitstop due to fuel consumption. Out of interest, NASCAR has also run at the circuit and was almost half a minute slower than F1 (despite averaging well over 300kph on oval circuits).
MotoGP is another worthy comparison. A Grand Prix bike weighs only 160kg of which almost all is the engine. However, they still produce 240bhp which means their power to weight ratio easily beats that of an F1 car. Despite this a Formula One vehicle will still accelerate at a reasonably equal level to that of a MotoGP bike, although it will be beaten off the line.
The performance level of a Formula One car is a step above everything else, and that is what makes it such a special sport. It might be worth thinking about that next time you go jogging.