As time has rolled along, so has the quantity of in-car technologies and controls in production cars. In the 1950s, you’d be lucky if you could control which gear you were in, let alone a tube-amplified AM radio. As you might have noticed, however, times have changed for road-going cars. So, too, have the technologies inside Formula One racecars.
In the early days, and up through the 1990s, Formula One (F1) drivers needed to shift gears with one hand and steer with the other. That didn’t leave much room or, well, appendages to fiddle with vehicle controls. With the introduction of semi-automatic transmissions, however, which are controlled with paddles located behind the steering wheel, the room for possibilities opened up wide in the F1 world.
F1 teams began placing all sorts of digital readouts and dials on the steering wheels, all in the hope of gaining that competitive edge.
The first thing you might notice about the steering wheel in an F1 car is that it isn’t circular like in a passenger vehicle. Instead, they’re more of a yolk, like in a plane. This is because the steering ratio is so extreme in an F1 car – requiring only three quarters of a turn to lock to lock – a driver needn’t shuffle his hands around to steer.
On these high-tech steering wheels, F1 teams have added a number of driver-controlled functions, including; a push-to-talk radio button for team communication; a neutral button used in case of a spin-out; a pit-lane speed limiter, so a car doesn’t enter the pits too quickly; traction control settings; fuel to air mixture; the brake force ratio from front to rear; a DRS control; and a KERS boost button. Don’t worry; those last two acronyms will be detailed shortly. All of these functions allow the driver to adjust – on the fly – how the vehicle behaves based upon track and race conditions.
DRS and KERS are the most recent developments in F1. DRS stands for Drag Reduction System. The DRS is a rear wing that can be opened up in the rear spoiler. When the wing is opened, the car is able to travel much more quickly as the wind resistance is lowered. Down force on the rear wheels is also diminished by the opening of the DRS, subsequently traction drops significantly during its use. The Formula One governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), has strict rules on when the use of DRS is allowed, as the speeds it allows for could alter the race hugely if used often and also prove dangerous.
DRS is essentially used as an extra boost for passing another car during a race. A driver may not activate the DRS unless he is a maximum of one second behind the car in front. Nor may he use it unless he is in an overtaking zone. A driver may also not activate the DRS in the first two laps of the race. Also, if conditions are deemed dangerous, the DRS may not be used at all.
When watching an F1 race it is rather remarkable to see how much of a speed difference the activation of the DRS has. For vehicles traveling above 200 MPH, one would generally assume little could be done to accelerate even further. DRS, however, can allow for enough speed to pass another car whose throttle is wide open.
The last acronym mentioned above is KERS, which stands for Kinetic Energy Recovery System. KERS is virtually brand-new to F1. KERS was first developed in 2009 and outlawed in 2010 and then brought back for the 2011 season. Essentially, KERS is a system that recovers a vehicle’s moving energy during braking. In F1, this recovery is done either with a mechanical flywheel or by way of electrical energy. Both examples are in use today in F1.
What’s clever about the KERS system is not only does it help slow the car down, it also allows for the reimplementation of that energy in a quick burst of acceleration later. F1 races are often one by a few seconds or less. It’s these kinds of technologies that allow drivers to get that split second edge over one another. Excitingly, KERS technologies are already finding their way into road-going production cars, including a capacitor-based system from Mazda called i-ELOOP for use in vehicles like the all-new Mazda6. Additionally, F1 powerhouse Ferrari has announced its next supercar, the F150, will have an electronic KERS hybrid system.
Formula One technology is an exciting topic because it is constantly changing. For 2014, for example, the engine displacement size will drop from the current 2.4-liter V8s to 1.6-liter V6s. This displacement change will bring hybrid technology to the forefront of F1 racing and, undoubtedly, more exciting new technological advances that we every day automotive consumers will benefit from in the following years.