Over the course of the last four decades, metal in Formula One racecars has been slowly but surely replaced by composite materials. And in this fast-paced, highly demanding industry, racing teams universally turn to Solvay for their high-performance composites…
Formula One has been swapping metal for lighter materials for a long time. After having been tested in the 1970s, the use of carbon fiber on racecars reached a turning point in 1981, with the first monocoque entirely manufactured from carbon fiber and epoxy resin.
To this day, carbon fiber remains the most commonly used composite material in racecars, and it’s combined with epoxy resins that are in their vast majority produced by Solvay. These products and many others such as high-performance thermoplastics have led the Group to become the leading supplier to the Formula One business, significantly increasing the performance and safety of racecars over the years. Today, basically all the Formula One teams in the world use Solvay products to build their cars.
Lightweighting is of course the major reason for choosing composites over metal when building a racecar. In fact, composite parts get lighter every year as both material technology and design capability advance, and Solvay is constantly working with customers to identify the best fiber-resin combinations.
But it’s not just about the weight; composites offer other advantages as well. “Formula One is a continuous prototyping process, and it’s easier to make prototypes with composites,” explains Jon Kennerley, Technical Services Manager Europe at Composite Materials. “So even though the cost of the material is higher, it’s more efficient to use composites than metal. Furthermore, certain complex shapes are more easily achieved with composites.” In fact, certain molds used to shape the parts are made of composites themselves.
Little metal left…
A rough estimate would say that about three quarters of a racecar today are made of composites, a proportion that has been constantly increasing as the performance of composite parts has progressed, mainly in terms of resistance to impact (for the parts that make up the front and back of the cars, for example) and high temperatures (for parts near the engine and in the braking system). “But because of regulations, we can’t replace metal everywhere,” explains Adrian Hughes, Market Segment Manager, Motorsport and High Performance Automotive at Solvay. “Most of the parts for which metal could be replaced by composites have already been replaced. Now teams are working on optimization, on saving those few extra grams. That being said, the rules change every few years, which means there’s always a lot of redesign going on, so new opportunities could emerge for composites in the future.”
Trying new things
In this rather unique industry, a great number of parts are manufactured and tested but never actually make onto the racetrack, because a new design or new specifications have been decided upon in the meantime. Because of this, and due to the fact Solvay has progressively evolved from a simple supplier of materials to an application-engineering specialist, its teams have contributed to build over 1,000 chassis to date.
On top of having to always adapt to changing regulations, Formula One is a business that’s constantly trying new things. These particularities have shaped a specific state of mind for the teams at the Composites Materials GBU that work with this business. “They will try any new material we can provide them with and are willing to try new things like no other industry,” says Jon. “This has led us to understand our materials extremely well, as we’re constantly creating new materials to meet new needs. Working with such a demanding and fast-paced industry has encouraged us to be the same way. And though the materials are different, we can certainly apply the lessons learned for our customers in the automotive industry.”