How Fast is an F1 Car?

The average top speed of an F1 car is almost 93 miles faster than a cheetah

Table of Contents

Often referred to as the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula 1 is the most prestigious racing series in the world. Every year, for 23 weeks, races (known as Grand Prix ) take place all over the world, spanning as many as six continents.

 

The competition, now branded Formula 1, first began in 1950, but its roots trace back even further to pre-World War II times when it was simply known as Grand Prix racing.

 

When Fernand Charron made history as the world’s first Grand Prix winner in 1899, he raced the entire distance from Paris to Bordeaux. He not only won the race but achieved an impressive top speed of 29 miles per hour, making his revolutionary F1 car a true marvel for its time.

F1 Car
F1 cars have come a long way since the 1950s. Credit: Chris Peeters

(For scale, present-day electric cycles can pedal at a top speed of 28 miles per hour.)

 

Motorsport racing has come a long way since then. In 2022, F1 teams had to adhere to a new set of regulations for their cars. The new 2022 cars can reach amazing speeds of around 223 miles per hour—that’s almost 93 miles faster than a cheetah’s top speed!

 

Surprisingly enough, this current generation of 2022 regulations-bound F1 cars isn’t even the fastest F1 cars ever made.

 

To isolate the greatest-ever speed achieved by an F1 car during a race, we have to rewind all the way back to the Mexican Grand Prix of the 2016 season. In that season, Valtteri Bottas steered his Williams car to the best speeds ever recorded by an F1 driver. At the wheel of his Williams, he managed to reach an incredible 231.4 mph—the fastest ever recorded in any Grand Prix!

 

The cool thing about F1 cars isn’t just the speeds they reach, but the consistency with which they reach such speeds. This all comes down to engineering.

 

Essentially, in terms of engineering, F1 engineers have to consider three main factors when building F1 cars. Namely, body or chassis design, engine design, and fuel.

The body of an F1 car

Look at any F1 car on the current grid. It looks more like a rocket or a jet than it does like a car. This isn’t just a coincidence.

 

Aerodynamics plays a massive part in terms of design philosophy for F1 cars.

 

Engineers generally consider three aerodynamic factors when they’re designing F1 cars: downforce, drag, and side forces.

A diagram illustrates the two components of an aerodynamic force, lift and drag.
A diagram illustrates the two components of an aerodynamic force, lift and drag. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

  • Downforce: Think of it like this—when a jet or plane is in mid-flight, air passes over the plane’s wing and creates a large pocket of highly pressurized air underneath the wing. This pressure differential between the air over the wing and the air under the wing gives rise to something known as lift. Lift essentially pushes the wing upwards.

Downforce works in the exact opposite way. Instead of lifting the car upwards, engineers design F1 cars specifically to minimize lift and instead push the car closer to the ground.

F1 cars
Blink and you’ll miss them! Credit: Jenda Kubeš.

Observe the F1 car in the picture above. Notice that the rear wings on the back of the car sort of look like the wing of an airplane, except upside down? (Airplane wings are angled downwards while F1 rear wings are angled upward)

 

That’s because the wings have been designed to direct incoming airflow downwards, towards the ground. Engineers do this so that their cars are more stable and stick to the ground rather than lifting off the ground.

 

Downforce is also an important concept in terms of chassis design as it can increase the stability of a car without ever needing to increase actual car weight. Is weight important? Simply put—very. If you had to bottle up a formula to build fast cars, light weight coupled with a powerful engine and an efficient fuel is basically it.

  • Drag: We’ve already explained how F1 cars maximize downforce by integrating components designed to counter lift in their wing design philosophy. However, by increasing downforce, cars inadvertently increase drag. Drag can essentially be explained as an aerodynamic force that acts in the direction of air but against the direction of a body (for example, a race car) in motion.
Notice how air passes over the body of an F1 car. If The car is opposite to the direction of airflow, the car has to work extra hard to counter the drag generated by the surrounding air. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Drag can easily be explained as the interaction between a surrounding fluid (air or water) and the solid body (boat, jet, or car) in contact with the fluid.

 

In F1, engineers work hard to minimize drag as much as possible, as drag always acts against or counters the motion of the car.

 

To counter drag, F1 cars are equipped with something known as a Drag Reduction System. When DRS is activated (there’s a button on the steering wheel), a flap in the rear wing is allowed to move horizontally as air passes around it rather than on it. This increases speed and reduces drag. In fact, the DRS is so effective at reducing drag that drivers cannot activate the system whenever they want. Rather, they need to wait to enter certain “DRS Zones” or “Overtake zones” on the track and can only open them when the car in question is within a certain margin (usually 1 second or half a second) to the car ahead of it.

 

There are many other fine margins to consider when it comes to aerodynamics, like side forces, ground effect, and even traction . However, these are tiny margins that separate victors from participants. To even contemplate building a chassis based on aerodynamics, you need to first build a behemoth of an engine.

How does an F1 engine work?

F1 engines (or power units—PU, as they’re known) are incredible machines. Contrary to popular belief, PUs prioritize efficiency rather than size in F1 (remember: excess weight is the enemy) and are actually just about 1/6th of the total weight of the car. For example, the 2005 Honda engines (V10 engines) were only 88.6 kgs! That’s one of the lightest and most compact F1 engines ever made.

Although they look large, F1 engines actually have to fit into quite a small space. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In terms of the components, PUs have quite a few parts to them, like internal combustion engines, turbochargers, energy stores, and motor generator units. However, the most important thing to remember about these power units is the internal combustion engine or ICE. It forms the very heart of the PU and is the site of fuel ignition.

 

It is in the ICE that air and fuel mix. This is accomplished by the work of the turbocharger, which forces a lot of air into the ICE to power fuel combustion. F1 engines also have direct fuel injection systems that streamline fuel delivery directly into the ICE.

 

Essentially, the combustion processes in an ICE work on the same principle as engines in regular road-use cars but they are optimized for efficiency. For example, these engines are also equipped with Energy Recovery Systems (ERS). These systems recover energy from the exhaust vents and brakes and convert it into electricity. The cars then use this electricity to power the electric motors directly or store it in batteries. They then use this stored energy if and when they need an extra power boost in races.

What fuel do F1 cars use?

Current F1 cars run on E10 fuel, which is a blend of regular fuel and ethanol. The blend is 90:10. The 10% ethanol is green ethanol; it is 100% sustainable.

 

Fuel type is essential for one major reason: to unleash or exploit the full power of an F1 power unit, the type of fuel used must burn and vaporize quickly and reliably.

 

Therefore, F1 fuels must be finely tuned thermally.

 

All F1 fuels are remarkably similar to regular fuels. In fact, they contain almost all the same components as regular fuel; however, the main difference is that they are optimized for speed.

Mobil_1_motor_oil
F1 fuel is remarkably and surprisingly similar to regular road use fuel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you had to classify the fuel, you could classify F1 fuel as a premium type of unleaded petrol fuel. F1 cars can run on regular fuel as well, but it is much slower, in terms of acceleration, than F1 formulated fuels.

 

In 2011, Shell conducted an experiment to prove this point. A Ferrari driver, Fernando Alonso, drove eight laps in his 2009 Ferrari car. He drove the first four laps using F1 fuel and the remaining four using commercial fuel. When using F1 fuel, Alonso clocked 1:03.950. The same four laps with commercial fuel, however, were 9-tenths slower!

 

Researchers noticed that F1 fuel was specifically optimized for better acceleration. This means that when you press the throttle, the initial speed of getting off the line, or the initial moving speed, is highly optimized and greater than in road-use cars.

 

This optimization is handled by each team’s own in-house experts. For example, to give the engines the power they require, they run on an E10 fuel formulated by experts at ExxonMobil, known as Esso Fuel.

Glossary

Formula 1: An elite car racing series.

 

Grand prix: Every individual race is known as a grand prix. Each grand prix is distinguished from others by its location. For example, the Monaco Grand Prix is conducted in Monaco while the Australian Grand Prix is conducted in Australia.

 

Drag: Any horizontal aerodynamic forces that act against a car as it moves through air.

 

Traction: Refers to the grip that a tire can exert against the surface it is moving on.

 

Chassis: The frame of a car or the load-bearing horizontal section of the car.

 

Downforce: Any vertical aerodynamic forces that act against a car as it moves through air.

 

Aerodynamics: The field of study that relates to how an object’s movement is affected when it passes through air.

 

Engine: A machine that can convert energy into motion.

 

Combustion: The process of ignition or burning.

 

Fuel: A flammable material or substance that can act as a source of energy.

Readability: 66.1

 

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 8

Duxbury, Anna. How fast is an F1 car? Top speeds of F1, IndyCar, MotoGP and more. November 23, 2022.
https://www.autosport.com/f1/news/how-fast-is-an-f1-car-top-speeds-of-f1-indycar-motogp-and-more-4980734/4980734/#:~:text=The%20fastest%20speed%20measured%20in,the%202016%20Mexican%20Grand%20Prix.

 

Bellingham, Tom. BOTTAS BROKE THE ALL-TIME F1 SPEED RECORD IN MEXICO… MAYBE. https://wtf1.com/post/bottas-speed-record-mexico/

 

Giriyapur, Vanchan. Valtteri Bottas holds the record for highest speed recorded at a Grand Prix with 231.4 MPH. October 19, 2022.
https://thesportsrush.com/f1-news-372-4-kmph-finnish-driver-holds-the-record-for-fastest-speed-at-a-grand-prix/

 

Stuart, Greg. 10 things you need to know about the all-new 2022 F1 car. 15 July, 2021.
https://www.formula1.com/en/latest/article.10-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-all-new-2022-f1-car.4OLg8DrXyzHzdoGrbqp6ye.html

 

Partridge, Jarrod. Formula 1 Fuel: What Fuel Do F1 Cars Use? July 23, 2020.
https://f1chronicle.com/what-fuel-do-formula-1-cars-use/#F1-Fuel

 

Barretto, Lawrence. Formula 1 on course to deliver 100% sustainable fuels for 2026. July 26, 2022. https://www.formula1.com/en/latest/article.formula-1-on-course-to-deliver-100-sustainable-fuels-for-2026.1szcnS0ehW3I0HJeelwPam.html#:~:text=The%20fuel%20revolution%20has%20already,entirely%20sustainable%2C%E2%80%9D%20says%20Symonds.

 

Motorsport.com. Insider’s guide: F1’s engine rules. March 21, 2022. https://www.motorsport.com/f1/news/insiders-guide-f1-engine-rules/7221310/

 

Kondo, Kiyoshi. Technical Description of Formula One Engine Structural Design. http://f1-forecast.com/pdf/F1-Files/Honda/F1-SP2_07e.pdf

 

Vig, Pankaj. What makes an F1 car go so fast? November 4, 2015. https://autoportal.com/articles/what-makes-an-f1-car-go-so-fast-4758.html

Contributors

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.


Join 20,000+ parents and educators
To get the FREE science newsletter in your inbox!