What makes a modern Formula 1 car? The old days of cars built with everyday materials are long gone, with Panasonic Toyota Racing using space-age technology to optimise every part of its TF107.
To succeed in Formula 1, every element of the car and the team must be at the very highest level, and that applies to the materials which make up the car. Materials are chosen for their lightness, strength and durability, with careful consideration given not just to performance but also to reliability.
A perfect compromise is the key, with materials ideally being as light as possible to minimise the weight of the car, but also being durable and strong to ensure all parts perform to the limit without failure.
The technology of materials in Formula 1 has advanced at a fierce pace over the last decade, with specialist technicians required to truly design and manufacture a competitive Formula 1 car. Progress has been such that the sport’s rules have been amended to restrict the use of certain alloys in order to keep costs at an acceptable level.
But even given the rule restrictions, there is plenty of work to do for those at Panasonic Toyota Racing who are living in a material world. With over 100 different alloys available at the team’s factory in Cologne, Germany, the materials store is full of high-tech building blocks.
Of course, quality control is vital to ensure everything works as planned and the team demands high standards from every component, as Senior General Manager Engine Luca Marmorini explains: "We are using more than 100 different alloys, typically aluminium, titanium, copper, cobalt, tungsten are used. There is a standard, that is the aerospace standard but a lot of materials are developed with some suppliers and we can develop our own standards. Typically, if you have to mention a standard, it is aerospace standard."
The materials store has 360 square metres of space but stock levels are continually monitored and adjusted according to the Toyota Way principal of Just In Time, which means supply is closely linked to demand to eliminate excess stock.
Of course, with the variety of materials used by Panasonic Toyota Racing, the materials store is more than your traditional store room. Some of the materials require special storage, for example carbon fibres must be stored at -20°C.
Carbon fibre first appeared in Formula 1 in the 1980s and soon became the key to a successful car due to its lightness combined with great strength, as well as new possibilities to build different shaped components than previously possible. Carbon fibre has become so widespread in Formula 1 now that around 75% of a car is built from that material, including the safety cell which surrounds the driver.
The fabrication department is where the materials are transformed from basic elements to high-tech components for a Formula 1 car. Luca adds: "In the fabrication department, some very experienced, trained technicians are able to weld very difficult parts like the exhaust, and also apply some welding panels on a casted component.
"Together with this we have a lot of composite parts in the car and for this we are using carbon fibre compounds."
While new materials have been developed and added over the past few years, some have fallen out of use. For example, it is hard to imagine now that a wooden board was ever an essential component of a Formula 1 car, but when the ‘plank’ on the floor of the car was first introduced in 1994, to enforce a minimum ride height, wood was the chosen material.
The primary purpose of the ‘plank’ is to show when a car has run too low, which can be seen by wearing on the ‘plank’ itself. Wood was a good initial choice but the materials soon became more advanced says Luca: "In the past the ‘plank’ under the car was made of wood, now it is made from a composite material that is very light. The ‘plank’ of the car touches the ground so it has to be made from something that can be deformed."
Such major changes in materials are unusual in modern Formula 1 but gradual changes are regularly implemented as the team pursues its kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement. "We are not changing materials a lot, but we are developing them during the season. It is a continuous evolution, we are constantly developing materials to improve performance of future parts," adds Luca.
Formula 1 may now be focused on an evolution of materials, but a revolution has taken place in material usage since the first World Championship Formula 1 race in 1950.
As car design has advanced at pace, so too have the materials used to construct them – to the point now that a modern team needs a dedicated team of staff focused solely on material technology.
"The approach has completely changed," Luca says. "Fifty years ago no Formula 1 team had its own materials department but now we have a very advanced materials department and we can perform analysis in our own buildings. In the past every Formula 1 team relied on external labs to do mechanical calculations of material consistency. Now everything is done in house - you have to do it in house to have true quality standards."
And high standards are what Panasonic Toyota Racing is dedicated to achieving, not only in materials but in every aspect of the team.