Why Do Formula 1 Cars Spark?

Editorial credit: cristiano barni / Shutterstock.com

There are very few things as exhilarating as watching an F1 car fly past at high speed with red-hot metal sparks spewing out the back.  These beautiful glowing sparks can create a fantastic spectacle for all the fans sitting trackside or watching from their home.  But why do F1 cars spark?

Formula 1 cars spark when the titanium skid blocks fitted underneath the cars to prevent the wooden ride height plank from wearing away prematurely, scrape against the track surface.  The FIA uses the wooden plank to ensure the car’s ride height is within the set parameters.

Read on to discover how these fantastic F1 cars must abide by strict FIA rules, what they can do to get a slight edge over the other teams and why the cars spark.

Why Does An F1 Car Spark?

An F1 car is fitted with a 10 mm thick wooden plank that is situated underneath the car.  The plank has metal skid blocks to prevent it from wearing down from the scrapping when it contacts the asphalt.  The metal skid blocks scrape on the asphalt and throw out the red hot sparks from the rear of the car.

Why Is There A Wooden Plank Underneath An F1 Car?

The FIA introduced the plank as a way to measure if the cars were not running too low to the ground and to prevent under-body (ground effect) aerodynamics on the car.  The plank is 10mm thick and is made by layering pieces of Beachwood, veneers, and resins together; this product is called Jabroc.

If the F1 car runs too low to the ground, the wooden plank will wear down as it scrapes on the track surface.  The FIA only allows a maximum of 1mm of the plank to be worn down during a race.

The plank’s thickness is measured after the race by the scrutineering team.  After the race, the plank may not be less than 9mm in thickness.  If there is excessive wear, the car will be disqualified.  The metal skid blocks are installed as sacrificial pieces to prevent the wood from wearing away.

What Are The Skid Blocks Made From?

The FIA banned the use of Tungsten Skid blocks from the 2015 F1 race season and made Titanium the mandatory metal for the skid blocks.  The older Tungsten blocks had a tendency to crack and shatter, throwing metal shards on the track.  These metal shards would cause punchers or, worse, hit cars that were behind the flying debris.

The New Titanium skid block has a much higher wear rate than the outgoing Tungsten.  The benefit of the Titanium is that it produces much more crowed pleasing sparks, and it does not leave any metal shards on the track, making it a safe option.

What Are The Skid Block FIA Rules For F1?

The FIA has set up the following regulations for the skid blocks as per rule 3.5.9 (2022).  These rules can be found on the FIA Website.

Rule 3.5.9 Formula 1 Sporting Regulations

The surface of the plank may be fixed with flush-mounted metal skids which:

  • May only be mounted in place of plank material.
  • Have a total size no bigger than 20000mm² when viewed directly from underneath the car.
  • Are no larger than 4000mm² in area when viewed directly beneath the car.
  • They are fitted so that their entire lower surfaces are visible from directly beneath the car.
  • Must have a minimal cross-section depth of 15mm across its external borders.  The minimal wall depth between an internal mounting hole and the exterior edges of the skid must be no less than 7.5mm.
  • Must have a top surface 3mm below the reference plane.
  • Must be secured to the car using the rules’ recommended fasteners described in items t) to w).  When viewed from beneath the car, no part of the skid block may be more than 50mm from the centerline of a fastener that passes through that skid.
  • Must be made from Titanium alloy.

Do F1 Cars Get Damaged By The Sparks?

The sparks that fly out the rear of the car prove that the skid blocks are doing what they are intended to, by protecting the car’s underside.  The sparks do not touch any other part of the car except the underside.  So no damage is incurred from the sparks that fly off.

The older Tungsten skid blocks would often produce enough sparks so that the driver behind the sparking car could feel them hitting their helmet.  In the 80s and 90s, Nigel Mansell stated that he often looked for the bumpy area on the track and drove over them deliberately to distract fellow drivers behind him.  A tactic that was used by most drivers back in the day. 

Why Do F1 Cars Spark So Much On The Straight Track Sections?

The new 2022 cars, with their ground effect underbody and high aerodynamic downforce from the wings and body, are pushed into the ground at high speeds.  The cars reach their highest speeds on the straight; thus, this is where they have the most downforce pushing into the track.  This is when skid blocks contact the asphalt and produce sparks.

The same can be seen when the cars start porpoising in the high-speed sections.  The plank would be worn down after only a few laps if it were not for the Titanium skid block.

Do F1 Cars Spark At All Race Tracks?

The F1 cars will produce sparks at any circuit where the skid blocks come into contact with the track.  The Sparks are clearly visible in night races such as Abu Dhabi due to the lower light conditions.  The F1 cars spark in the day races, but it is just harder to see.  A fun fact is that the cars will even produce sparks in wet track conditions.

How Does The Newly Designed F1 Underbody Affect The Plank?

The 2022 F1 cars are now allowed to use ground effect aerodynamics again since it was banned in the 1980s.  The new floors of the cars have Venturi veils that will suck the car to the track surface.  The Venturi veils are vertical wings under the car that start off wide in the front on the chassis and narrow towards the car’s rear.

The plank is positioned on the centerline of the F1 car’s chassis between the Venturi veins.  The plank is glued and bolted to the floor of the car.  This ensures that no air can pass between the plank and the car’s floor.

The ground effect veins and the planks are all set for the minimum ride height of the cars, thus allowing the plank to be measured by the scrutineers after the race.

How Are The Skid Blocks Mounted To The Car?

The Titanium skid block is designed to fit into cutouts in the plank.  These are typically on top of the mounting bolts for the plank.  The skid block may not protrude more than 3mm from the plank, and most Formula 1 cars will have 6 – 7 skids blocks mounted under the car.  The more skid blocks used, the higher the added weight to the car.  An F1 team will use between 50 to 80 skid blocks for a season.

Does The 2022 F1 Car Spark More Than Older F1 Cars?

The older flat bottom F1 cars have produced their fair share of sparks since 2015.  These cars would usually spark when they drove over the small bumps on the tracks and when there were any significant elevation changes on the track.

With the reintroduction of the ground effect rule, the 2022 F1 car has a completely redesigned underfloor. The ground effect sucks the car down onto the track, thus lowering the car’s ride height. This places the Titanium skid blocks in the firing line and produces more sparks than in previous cars.

All of this, much to the delight of the fans.

Editorial credit: Michael Cola / Shutterstock.com

What Does The Ride Height Of An F1 Car Mean?

The ride height is the measurement from the bottom of the car to the road or track.  The ride height has a major impact on the car’s center of gravity, influencing how the car corners, accelerates, and brakes.

A substantial amount of the aerodynamic package of an F1 car is due to the underbody or floor of the car, and this is related to the amount of grip that the car can produce.  The underbody aerodynamics of an F1 car is very sensitive to ride height.

The main reason for reducing the ride height is to lower the car’s center of gravity, in turn reducing the car’s body roll.  Raising the ride height will have the opposite effect on the car and significantly reduce the car’s cornering, acceleration, and braking.

Tuning or over-tuning the F1 car ride height can have a major drawback.  A lower ride height in the front of the car will impact the weight transfer under braking, thus making the rear lighter and more agile.  The suspension setting will also be influenced by the ride height.  The spring rate must be set correctly to prevent the cars from bottoming(scraping) out on the skid blocks.

The easiest solution is to lower the ride height as much as possible, then adjust the suspension to deliver the maximum grip and aerodynamics.  The F1 teams will always try and reduce the car’s height to gain a slight advantage.

In 2017 the FIA clamped down on F1 teams using a high steering angle to gain an aerodynamic advantage.  This was done by using advanced suspension geometric systems to make the nose of the car lower when it was entering the corners, improving grip.  This system could lower the front ride height of the car by more than 5mm when the steering wheel is turned (lock to lock).

There are many unique ways the F1 engineers can influence the F1 car to have an advantage over their rivals.  With the plank and skid blocks, the FIA can monitor and scrutinize the teams to identify if they are using any advanced technology to get the upper hand.

Formula 1 Driver Violations For A Worn Plank

In 1994 Michael Schumacher was disqualified from the Belgian Grand Prix for having an excessively worn plank on his Benetton.  Schumacher had a spin at the Pouhon corner during the race and drove over the curbstones.

The Curbs stones imprinted a pattern into the plank due to the impact.  Unfortunately, The FIA did not deem the curb imprint as the main cause for the wear but concluded that a lowered ride height was the cause.

At the 2001 United States Grand Prix, Jordan driver Jarno Trulli was disqualified for an overly worn plank.  He later appealed the FIA decision and managed to win the appeal as the Scrutinizing Stewarts were not present in the court.  Jarno Trulli’s 4th place finish was reinstated, and the Championship points were awarded.   

Conclusion

The sparks that are produced from the back of an F1 car are due to the Titanium skid block that is mounted underneath the car.  The skid block prevents the wooden plank underneath the car from wearing away.  The FIA uses the wooden plank to ensure that the cars use a ride height that is not too low, as this can give them an advantage over rival teams.

To prevent the wooden plank from wearing away, the Titanium skid blocks may protrude no more than 3mm past the plank.  When the skid block scrapes against the track surface, it creates picturesque sparks behind the cars.  The skid block is made from Titanium as this metal wears away faster and sparks more, pleasing the fans.

There are many ways that the F1 engineers can manipulate the ride height of an F1 car.  A lower ride height will have a lower center of gravity which will aid the car’s aerodynamics.  With the plank, the teams are restricted and thus can not lower the ride high too low.  So when the sparks are flying out the back of the cars, it indicates that the driver is pushing the car’s limits.

References

https://f1chronicle.com/why-do-sparks-come-out-of-f1-cars/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skid_block

https://www.fia.com/regulation/category/110

https://f1experiences.com/blog/f1-questions-you-always-had-but-were-afraid-to-ask

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