How carbon fiber technology is shaping the new era of F1

In fact, like every other area of ​​current grand prize mechanics, teams are constantly looking for marginal improvements to help them win.

In its most basic form, this means making things lighter and stronger, and ensuring that every part is perfectly suited for its intended use.

Teams are also always on the lookout for any breakthrough technology that could help them get ahead of their rivals.

Advances in the raw materials used to manufacture the cars do not just come from the factories of F1 competitors, as they depend on outside suppliers who have a much better understanding of the composites industry.

And no one stands out on the current F1 grid more than Belgian science multinational Solvay. It helps provide every F1 team, to a greater or lesser extent, with its carbon fiber products, which are then shaped and turned into the car parts we see on the track.

Solvay has seen dramatic changes in the technology and understanding of carbon fiber since its appearance in F1, as teams have consistently pushed the boundaries.

As Gerald Perrin, Global Automotive Program Manager at Solvay, told Autosport: “In the past 20 years, every car that has won the F1 championship has been made with Solvay materials.

“We have been instrumental in working with the teams to improve car safety. But the type of materials used today are completely different from what was designed in the 80s.

“There’s an optimization of the fiber and the resin, and how you combine and interact those two materials.

“Everything has been completely optimized, whereas in the 80s there was probably a unique solution: it’s lighter than metal so it’s already looked great! “.

Whereas a few decades ago a car could use two or three different types of carbon fiber for various purposes, today it’s a whole different story with about 40 types.

Mark Steele, Customer Engineering Manager for Automotive Composites at Solvay, says: “When I think back to the 1980s, you used one or two or even three different types of epoxy resins to translate performance into the fiber.

“Cars today don’t use one or two resins, but multiple resins. These are very, very custom resins for very specific applications: whether it’s a suspension arm, which is ultimately driven by stiffness, or a side intrusion nacelle, which is designed to protect the driver.

“If you look at the selection of fibers that are out there, I wouldn’t say there are hundreds, but there is a huge choice.

“You have to pick a fiber for the type of property you want and then try to match it to the chemistry of the resin, because you can’t use every chemistry with every fiber. I think that’s where the benefits come from.

“The consistency has also improved a lot. This allows teams to really stress their parts to the ultimate limit, knowing that they are going to fail very regularly. This means they can pull all the performance out of the room. »

The challenges of the new rules

Solvay has seen many rule changes over the years and has had to meet the growing demand for stronger materials to withstand ever stricter crash tests.

But F1’s new regulations for 2022 have posed specific challenges as teams have had to fight to meet the weight limit.

Such was the desire to shed the extra kilograms that some teams had to tackle their livery to remove any excess paint, leaving the carbon fiber bare. Steele explains that Solvay also had to play its part by producing materials that could help on this front.

“We developed a very specific product for some of the car’s bodies, which needed micron levels of paint,” he explains. “So the finish of the surface had to be almost perfect before painting it.

“Then when they abrade the paint, because they often have to remove it or clean the car, we had to come up with super abrasion resistant formulations.

“That means when they abrade it, it doesn’t eat away at the carbon. It is these small details that allow them to reduce the weight. »

What is the next step ?

F1 teams and companies like Solvay are always looking to the future and to the next improvements to be made. But it is important to clarify that the end goals change for all competitors.

Where previously they only cared about performance, teams now have to juggle a multitude of competing factors.

There is the issue of cost caps, which means that good value for money is essential. But durability is also becoming crucial and the materials used by cars also depend on it.

Steele adds: “It is very difficult to predict how they will evolve, but from a materials point of view they now use the most exotic fibers and exotic resins.

“But the thing that plays a role is the budget cap for the teams. Large teams are more affected than others because they will certainly have less money to spend on some of these very exotic products.

“So that’s probably the most important thing: trying to make the materials more cost-effective while trying to maintain performance.

“There are also discussions around the use of bio-sustainable raw materials”. [materials]because the rule could encourage teams to consider using less petroleum-derived materials in their cars.

“It’s those sorts of regulations that will move the F1 market in a certain direction. »

But that doesn’t mean teams will ultimately turn their backs on progress that improves lap times. Perrin sees two paths of intense development over the next few years.

“Solvay plays with additive manufacturing,” he explains. “Like 3D printing, additive manufacturing is something in which we are already quite present and advanced.

“It’s a different way of making a part, and it’s something we see as appealing for F1 and for multiple markets.”

“Then I would say that apart from composites, we are a massive player for electrification. We play a lot on battery technology and even on increasing the performance of electric motors. »

Solvay believes it is possible to use more carbon fiber parts in electric motors. These can help reduce inertia and increase the rotational speed of internal components to allow them to spin and slow down much faster.

But there are also hints of revolutions to come in global battery technology, which could be key when F1 moves into the era of its new engine rules from 2026.

Perrin adds: “We are also working on the chemistry of the battery itself. Today, most people use conventional batteries, but there are new battery technologies that we can predict for 2025.

“It will completely change things in terms of energy density, so the capacity of the battery, and also the overall weight you have to carry for the same amount of energy, will be drastically reduced.

“It’s not ready yet, but it’s something we see coming on the horizon.”

Carbon fiber helped usher in a new era for F1 in the 1980s and looks set to play a key role in shaping its long-term future.

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