5 Technical Innovations in F1 from the Past Decade

The genius technologies and regulation loopholes that lead to a faster Formula 1 race car.

Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Red Bull Racing speaks with a mechanic during final practice ahead of qualifying for the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix at Marina Bay Street Circuit in Singapore, Singapore  on September 21st, 2013
© Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Technology and Formula 1 go hand in hand. Millions of dollars are spent on research and development so that creative interpretations of the rules can be found and applied. Here are five recent innovations that made an F1 car go faster.

1. The Mass Damper (2005 Renault R25)
A car is only as good as its tires, and the contact patches are all that keep a car from spinning out of control. In F1, soft tires fight against stiff suspension in order to keep the car flat enough for all the aerodynamics to work, while keeping the contact patch shape consistent. In order to blend large and low frequency impacts like those experienced while going over curbs, a weight was suspended in the nose of the car. Unlike a normal car, where the suspension and tire package release the shock from the bump while juggling a bucking race car, the Renault R25’s mass damper continued moving, absorbing some of the shock and sending it back into the chassis well after the bump was passed.

Of course, this technology was banned shortly thereafter. But a new, better device, called the inerter, or J-damper sprung forth to replace it. While it does basically the same thing as a mass damper, it’s much more compact and tunable. Two things F1 engineers love.

2. Aerodynamics (2008 Ferrari F2008, 2004 Williams FW26)
These two cars are highlighted for the same reason, but with vastly differing implementations.

The FW26 has what is arguably the most distinctive nose seen on a modern F1 car. Rather than a normal, pointy nose, the FW26 had a wide and flat nose, and the front wing pylons extended beyond the tip of the nose. This allowed a larger space in between the pylons for air flow to engage the lower splitter located under the driver. While it looked radical, the principle was sound. In the end, they still went back to a standard nose, proving that function and form can co-exist together.

The F2008 Ferrari, meanwhile, represented what most teams were doing in 2008. By this point, aerodynamic regulations were well understood, so aerodynamicists were comfortable with what they could get away with. In the quest for every pound of downforce, all the cars sported flip-ups, wings, vents, boards, flaps, and all other manner of aerodynamic contraptions. They looked like rolling shredding machines. The upcoming 2009 regulations would put an end to all of that.

3. Diffusers (Renault and others)
Most rear diffusers on an F1 car are not visible, even if it’s one of the most important piece of aerodynamics when it comes to generating downforce. Regulations dictated that all cars have a flat floor between the two axles, with the rear diffuser starting near the rear axle centerline. Due to a vague regulation regarding a hole in the diffuser that could be used for an external starter motor to engage the engine, teams built another diffuser on top of the regular one. High-speed air would energize the second diffuser through this hole, and help generate extra rear grip with no penalty of drag. It took a year for the stewards to fix the loop hole.

4 & 5. KERS and DRS (All modern F1 cars)
Instituted when the organizers didn’t feel that F1 cars did enough passing, two pieces of technology, or more specifically drivers’ aids, would remedy that problem.

Essentially a hybrid powertrain tacked onto the engine or transmission, the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) was designed to make passing easier by boosting power by approximately 80 hp for about six seconds per lap. An FIA-sealed computer tracked usage, and the amount reset every time the car crosses the finish line. Drivers and engineers would spend a portion of practice determining where and when to activate KERS to extract the most benefit.

DRS (Drag Reduction System) on the other hand, is an aerodynamic system designed to increase passing. At two or three points per track, a computer allows the driver to raise the rear wing element, thus reducing drag (and downforce) provided the car was following another car by a certain amount of time. During qualifying, the driver could activate DRS at will.

While neither KERS or DRS are loopholes, they connect F1 to the street. Both of these technologies are starting to creep into supercars now, and it’ll only be a matter of time until “regular” sports cars will get this sort of capability.

To watch the latest F1 technology being used at the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, tune into NBC this weekend. The race starts this Sunday at 1 p.m. Central.

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