Safety has always been a top priority for motorsport. In 1981 McLaren revolutionised Formula One by creating the first race car out of carbon fibre: the MP 4/1. Thanks to its lightweight design, it would go on to win at the British Grand Prix. This new design also helped save the life of driver John Watson during a crash at the Italian Grand Prix. The car was ripped in half, abut he emerged relatively unscathed.
The rest of the industry took notice, and within the space of a single season carbon fibre monocoques became the standard. Nowadays roughly 75% of the car will be made with carbon fibre.
Carbon fibre is made up of tiny strands of carbon atoms 5-10 microns in diameter. It can be woven together into a fabric, or a solid structure.
Besides being a staple material in motorsport, it is also used to create airplane parts, bike frames, tennis rackets, and propeller blades.
Carbon fibre is strong, durable, and lightweight, making it a perfect material to construct vehicles out of. It’s five times stronger than steel, making it perfect for use in the motorsport industry.
Vehicles in motorsport generally need to be as light as possible to ensure optimal fuel efficiency. Carbon fibre is perfect for this, it’s stronger than most metals while being considerably lighter.
Most materials in motorsport are polymeric. This means they’re made of polymers, molecules that have many repeating links. We can design and manufacture polymers to fulfil specific criteria. The first manufactured polymer was Bakelite, created in 1907. Since then we’ve gone on to create many more polymers that can be used for anything from textiles to space travel.
Artificial polymers are often designed for maximum strength. They can also be resistant to chemicals, handle heat very well, and be moulded to fit almost any shape. Some polymeric materials used in motorsport are Zylon, aramids, and polyethylene filaments.
Zylon is the world’s strongest man-made fibre, 1.6 times tougher than Kevlar. It’s made of chains of rigid molecules.
In Formula 1, Zylon tethers connect the wheels to the chassis, and Zylon panels protect the cockpit in the event of a crash.
Aramids are heat-resistant synthetic fibres. The most well-known aramid is Kevlar which is used to create body armour.
Aramids can be used in the construction of the suits the drivers have to wear, which must be as tough as the car itself. Racing suits are lightweight and heat-resistant to ensure safety in the event of a fire. The suits are tested in a laboratory in temperatures ranging from 400 to 800 degrees Celsius.
Dyneema and Spectra are two polyethylene filaments that can be woven with carbon fibre to make highly resistant materials.
Dyneema is fifteen times stronger than steel, yet is light enough to float on water. It’s used in the safety belts, ensuring the highest level of protection for the drivers.
Material scientists look at all available materials to ensure the car is not just efficient, but as safe as possible for the driver.
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