Chemicals in Formula One racing

alonso British Grand Prix 2009 IMG_5896.JPGThe Blog traded free tickets to the Goodwood Festival of Speed with Max Kingsley Jones, editor of  Commercial Aviation, in return for this posting on chemicals in Formula One racing …


It may be a surprise to hear that among the many varied roles found within a Formula 1 Grand Prix racing team, there is one for a fully qualified doctorate of polymers and plastics.


At Renault F1 – based in Enstone near Oxford – that person’s name is Dr Gary Hall and he is the Team’s “composites scientist”, says the team’s operations director John Mardle.


With Formula 1 racing car designers having to obey three masters – regulation, weight and aerodynamics – it is not surprising that carbonfibre – thanks to its high strength and low weight properties – has long been a fundamental of car construction. It is used for everything from brakes and suspension parts to bodywork and heatshields.  

Renault F1′s origins can be traced back two generations through Benetton to Toleman Motorsport, which entered Formula 1 in 1981. Back then, when Mardle was chief mechanic, Toleman employed around 60 people. Today Enstone alone has over 500 staff. Annual budgets, which were less than £10 million 30 years ago, today are measured in the hundreds of millions.


Formula 1 teams look to technical partnerships with suppliers whereby they promote the company in return for reduced or free use of components or services. For RenaultF1 this extends to areas such as fuel and lubricants (Total Fina Elf), wheels/brakes (OZ/HITCO Carbon Composites), paint (Standox) and clothing (Puma).


However in parallel with these high-tech giants, the team works with small specialist suppliers in areas such as wiring looms (Tony James Component Wiring) or painting (Brick Kiln Racing Group). “The cottage industries are the ones that make Formula 1 happen,” says Mardle.



paint shop at Brick Kiln.jpg 

One of the biggest issues with a race car is the tremendous amount of heat soak that can be generated,” says Mardle. “If the car has a problem and stops out on the circuit just after the driver’s hit the brakes from 200mph and has not been able to go down the next straight to them cool down, you can end up with a meltdown or a fire.”

To mitigate this there is extensive use of heatshields made of a high temperature phenolic carbon – a material originally developed for the rocket nozzles.


The only component in contact with the ground are the four tyres – but apart from being black and round have little in common with those on a road car. For example, as they generally reach around 100° C when operating, a nitrogen-rich, moisture-free gas is usually used for inflation as this minimises pressure changes with temperature variations.


(photos Max Kingsley Jones: Alonso at British Grand Prix 2009; Paint Shop at Brick Kiln.)


, , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply