Carbon fiber does not offer the necessary impact strength for safe use in Formula 1 cars

Formula 1 is the epitome of advanced technologies in automotive sports. Featuring the full range of development from the chassis to engine as well as aerodynamic and mechanical grip specification and optimization, Formula 1 is the test bed for many technologies that eventually find its way into common road cars.

 

Amongst many of the technologies introduced into Formula 1 chassis design and construction is the proliferation of carbon fiber in many parts, both critical to mechanical function and aerodynamic performance, to enhance speed, impact resistance and reliability in racing cars. Why carbon fiber? The key attribute of carbon fiber is its low weight and ability to be functionalized with other additives for added functionalities to the component parts. Another important characteristic enabling the widespread adoption of carbon fiber as a de facto standard for manufacturing car parts or prototypes for design purposes is its inherent shapeability. Specifically, manufacturing through an additive layering concept, where layers upon layers of carbon fiber sheets are laid on each other before being cured in an autoclave at high temperatures and pressures for enmeshing the different layers into a collective whole, carbon fiber possess unique strength in a flexible layout. Finally, high strength is another important feature of carbon fiber that affords its use in high impact scenarios given its high compressive strength.

 

Application of carbon fiber in building parts for gaining Formula 1 cars’ aerodynamic efficiency and effectiveness, especially in turbulent or “dirty” air, is increasingly prevalent, but careful analysis of crash footage from the ongoing Formula 1 2017 season raised serious doubts about the safety of the material in high impact applications. Specifically, crashes in the first few races of the new season features the complete destruction of the car parts into shards that could puncture the monoque of other cars as well as the crash helmets of drivers. More importantly, single impact on the parts resulted in multitude of car shards that could easily become projectiles flying into the spectators’’ stands around the circuit; thus, increasing safety concerns of the material in Formula 1 racing.

 

Known for its high impact resistance, why does carbon fiber material suffer from catastrophic failure during severe car crashes such as those in motor racing? The reason may lie in the way the carbon fiber parts are manufactured. Specifically, in Formula 1 design and manufacturing, most of the car parts are fabricated using materials crafted using layers of carbon fiber layered in parallel, where the microscopic fibers are aligned in the same direction. Such construction of carbon fiber parts meant that it lacks impact resistance to vertical load directed perpendicular to the car part. Nonetheless, such material retains extraordinary strength to tensile loading (i.e., parallel to the car part), which is not the design or critical requirement needed to afford safety to Formula 1 cars.

 

Hence, in enhancing the crash and impact resistance of carbon fiber parts in Formula 1 cars, carbon fiber mesh must be layered perpendicular to each other to allow the formation of a tight mesh of grid style carbon fiber strands able to absorb significantly more vertical loading compared to that available from those layered in parallel. In general, carbon fiber is a high strength material with flexibility for shaping into various shapes and contours, the latter an enabling factor that afford in use in diverse applications. However, poor construction such as layering of carbon fiber mesh in a parallel direction would result in a material not effective in absorbing high impact from vertical loading. Resulting destruction of car parts in Formula 1 cars into numerous sharp end shards would endanger both the lives of drivers and spectators as well as leading to other accidents if not properly cleared after a racing incident. Overall, carbon fiber still hold promise for use as a light weight material for high impact applications such as Formula 1 racing, but careful construction of parts using perpendicular layering of carbon fiber mesh on top of each layer would help deliver a high impact strength part with intertwined carbon fiber mesh.

 

Category: materials engineering,

Tags: Formula 1, carbon fiber, aerodynamics, tensile strength, compressive strength, vertical loading, intertwined mesh,

 

Acknowledgement: Ng Wenfa thank Seah Kwi Shan for co-authoring this blog post.

 

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