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The Seven Stages of Developing an F1 Car

A continuous and combined effort over many months to deliver improvements on track

The aim of the game in Formula One is constant improvement. Every race weekend, every lap on track, every day in the factory.

The collective sum of that progress - across every single department in the Team - is focused on delivering improved performance on the circuit. Directly or indirectly, every piece of work completed in the factories makes a difference.

Developing an F1 car, and ultimately bringing that performance to the track, is a complex process. But we've broken it down and made it as straightforward to understand in these seven main steps.

1. Evaluation

Throughout the season, our car, along with our understanding of it, is constantly evolving. This is down to the work done both in the factory and at the track, as you will see in this article. It's a continuous, cyclical process and we start it by evaluating ways we can improve the car, with the data and tools we have available. Simply speaking, this can be done by two different routes.

The first part is looking at the aerodynamics, meaning the 'wetted' surfaces of the car that you can see from the outside; the external bodywork and downforce generating parts of the car.

The second part is the chassis development, which is the underlying parts beneath the bodywork such as the suspension, steering, cooling, and brakes. Chassis development and aerodynamics have a knock-on effect on each other too, with a compromise needed to optimise both.

Alongside the underlying development rate of the car, we look at event specific improvements such as low downforce rear wings for tracks like Spa-Francorchamps and Monza. The development direction of the car can also change but we're always aiming for maximum performance.

We must work within two notable constraints too: time and budget. We need to optimise our resources to ensure we focus on areas that will bring the most efficient gains. With the cost cap, we also can't afford to explore every avenue or item that suggests it may bring performance. For the purposes of this article, we'll choose to focus on what it looks like when we bring aerodynamic updates through the process.

2. Aerodynamics

For the Aero department, the first step is to identify how we want to improve the airflow around the car. Once we've decided what areas we want to explore, the team investigates ways of delivering those improvements within the regulations we have.

Then it's all about testing the different options to understand if we can manipulate the flow field in the way we want to. If it's successful from the Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) tests, it'll then go to the Wind Tunnel, where it will be added to our 60% scale model car and put through its paces. This is where we can get a much better idea over whether it has delivered improved performance or not. As part of the drive to bring the performance delta across the grid closer together, there is a sliding scale of wind tunnel time that teams are allowed to use based on their recent on-track success.

That is where the next step comes in handy...

3. Simulations

An area of growth in recent years: computer simulations.

We can model the impact of updates we bring to the car, as changes both internally and externally have a bearing on how it performs. We wouldn't want to give away too many secrets at this stage, but there are numerous ways we can do this and numerous data points we can evaluate.

Some of the most important or promising changes will also be tested in our Driver-in-Loop simulator, where we can gain more real-time feedback and delve into the data to see if the upgrade is working as expected. You possibly have seen videos from inside our simulator, with drivers hard at work putting in virtual laps to add to our understanding of updates before we head to the next stage of the process.

4. Sign Off and Manufacturing

Many of the components on our F1 car are made in-house. The work to manufacture these is extensive. Some can be turned around quickly, within a day in some cases, while others can take weeks to finalise.

For an aerodynamic component, if the data we have collected suggests that it will bring a performance gain, and that it is an efficient way of bringing lap time, then it will be signed off. The surfaces are released from Aero to the Design team, who then produce a model or a drawing that can go to the manufacturing department. Patterns and moulds are then created for the part before it moves into Composites.

They then laminate the carbon fibre component, cure it in the autoclaves, machine into the final shape and test across either Test & Development or Non-Destructive Testing, depending on the part. They are trimmed, assembled (if they are made of multiple components), taken to inspection for final sign-off and from there, it's onto the Build department to be prepped for the track.

For non-carbon fibre parts, they go through similar stages of design, manufacture (in our Machine Shop for example), test and final assembly. All checked to very small tolerances and with incredible accuracy to ensure they deliver the required performance and durability.

It's a huge team effort across departments to get the parts to the track. We can be reactive in case parts are damaged or we need to bring forward a performance item, with the duration it takes to turn the part around depending on its size and complexity.

But for a larger update, many months will be spent designing, testing, manufacturing, and building the upgrade package before it even flies to its destination: the track. The work doesn't stop there, though.

5. On-Track Analysis: Data

Once the update has hit the track, we need to understand if it is performing as we expected. We have hundreds of sensors all over the car to aid with this. A group of aerodynamic engineers based at the track and in the Race Support Room in Brackley will be poring through the data in real-time as the car is on track, reviewing whether its performing as it should. Especially for smaller components or a single new part.

When we're working with larger upgrade packages, it's more challenging to analyse its performance across a single race weekend. We also need to make sure we are collecting data at the previous races to be able to compare back to.

We're also looking at any characteristic changes like improvements at particular corners or phases of the corner. And engineers also compare the results with the Wind Tunnel data to see if it matches up.

6. On-Track Analysis: Drivers

Often described as the most important sensor in the car, the drivers play a critical role in helping us understand the car and any updates we bring.

The trackside engineers work closely with them to optimise the set-up of the car, which is impacted by new upgrades. But perhaps more crucially for a large upgrade package, driver feedback is vital in understanding the changes in car behaviour and if it is delivering the performance and handling characteristics expected.

Drivers need to pin-point specific events around the lap that indicate how the car is behaving and will feed those observations back to the engineers during and after the sessions. Fortunately, we have two handy pedallers who are adept at this task!

7. Debrief and Progress

The factors found by the drivers and the engineers are then debriefed across the weekend to determine if the upgrade is delivering.

This work continues back at the factories both across the weekend and the days that follow. It takes many departments to analyse the data, deliver the findings and determine how to progress from there.

And we're back to step one! The process continues throughout the season as we battle both on track and back at base too to out-develop our competition.