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We’ve all seen that image of an F1 car creating a shower of sparks behind it, both in the 80s and 90s and now. It’s a beautiful image as well as an intriguing one, so it makes me wonder, why do F1 cars spark?
F1 cars often spark due to the interaction between their titanium skid blocks and the racing track. As these high-performance vehicles speed along, the downward force they generate causes the underbody to graze the surface, resulting in a striking light show.
This is why it is common to see F1 cars sparking on the straights, and this becomes more noticeable on night circuits as they are more visible. Let’s see below everything related to sparks and F1 cars.
Why Do Formula 1 Cars Spark?
Sparks in F1 are caused by a plank under the car, which runs from the rear of the car up to just before the front wheels. Made out of a wood material called Jabroc, this plank is embedded with titanium skid blocks, which prevent the plank from being damaged and protruding no more than 3mm.
Because F1 cars are so low, when “bottoming out,” these titanium skid blocks often hit the ground, creating a shower of sparks behind the car. The plank was introduced by F1 to try to reduce under-body aerodynamics and prevent the car from bottoming out on the straights and thus keep ride-heights within safe margins.
The more the car is pushed towards the ground, the more downforce is produced, the more sparks are created, usually on high-speed corners, straights, and elevation changes.
The ’80s and ’90s were when cars created the most sparks, as this was when these titanium skids were initially used. However, the sparks returned in 2015 when titanium became mandatory, giving us back one of the most mythical elements of Formula 1.
Sparks And F1: History
Sparks became a regular feature of F1 in the late 1980s as teams began to innovate more and more with aerodynamics, running their cars as low to the ground as possible to maximize downforce. The sparks were especially noticeable early in the race when the cars were full of fuel. Also, the tracks were bumpier back then, so there were almost always sparks.
Because of this, starting in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the light show created by sparks became commonplace, creating some of F1’s most iconic moments, such as the battle between Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna during the 1991 Spanish GP. Mansell once even said that he would deliberately seek bumps to create sparks in his car and distract the drivers behind him.
After Ayrton Senna’s mysterious fatal accident at the 1994 Imola GP, the FIA mandated that the floor of all cars had to be fitted with a 10mm thick skid block or plank to prevent teams from running the cars too low, and do so at a safe height.
If the plank were worn by more than 1mm, the driver would be disqualified from the race as he would have run the car too low.
This happened to Michael Schumacher at the 1994 Belgian Grand Prix, who, after winning the race, was disqualified for running the car too low. The same thing happened to Jarno Trulli at the 2001 United States Grand Prix, but his team successfully appealed the result.
During the 2000s, the sparks decreased noticeably. Until 2015 skid blocks made of Kevlar were used to mount the plank until the FIA mandated that it be titanium for safety and bring more sparks and more spectacle.
Before 2015, teams began using hard-wearing metals to strategically place on the plank so they could lower the cars so that when they bottomed out, they would hit the metal instead of the plank. The downside of this is that it was a safety risk, as the pieces of metal could fragment and cause punctures.
That is why the FIA decided to change them to titanium since apart from being lighter and safer, it wears out much faster, so the teams would not risk as much by lowering the cars, and a lot of sparks would still be produced.
Why Is Titanium Used As Skids On Formula 1 Cars?
In 2015 the FIA decided to ban tungsten and replace it with titanium. They did so for three reasons, which are:
- It is safer.
- It wears quicker.
- It produces more sparks.
It Is Safer:
When titanium wears down, it does so much more evenly than tungsten. This means that it does not break off in chunks, making it much safer to use than tungsten. As previously mentioned, these tungsten pieces can pose a danger to drivers, especially at the high speeds Formula 1 cars travel at, so the shift to titanium removes this risk.
It Wears Quicker:
Titanium wears much quicker than tungsten does. As a result, teams have to be careful about how low they run their cars, as the titanium will not last the entire race. Therefore, the protection will not always be there, which means that the wooden plank could wear down below the legal limit if teams are not careful.
It Produces More Sparks:
A big part of F1 is about the spectacle of it all. Be it on life or tv, it is meant to be entertaining and exhilarating. Having sparks flying out the back of the car is part of this and can look spectacular, especially at night races like those in Bahrain, the UAE, and Singapore.
Therefore, part of the decision to switch from tungsten skids to titanium skids was due to the way it looks. Titanium produces more sparks than tungsten which makes it more pleasurable for viewing.
So, with that and the other aforementioned benefits, the move to titanium just made sense.
Do Sparks Damage F1 Cars?
The sparks that F1 cars create are truly spectacular, and when a car makes a wave of them, it looks like it has a serious problem or the car is getting damaged. However, although it may seem so, sparks do not cause damage to cars, quite the opposite.
The sparks mean that the titanium is doing its job of protecting the wood plank and the general underbody of the car. The plank is precisely there to prevent the teams from lowering the height of the cars too much and thus carrying an extra danger.
What can cause sparks are minor burn marks on the visors or the bodywork, but it is not something to worry about.
Why Are F1 Cars So Low To The Ground?
So sparks are created because F1 cars run so low, but why are they so low to the ground?
F1 cars are so low to lower the center of gravity. Having such a low center of gravity means that they can respond quickly to any maneuvering command from the drivers and, therefore, can make much faster lap times. The lower center of gravity, along with the wings, keeps an F1 car off the ground, creating an aerodynamic effect called downforce.
Unlike an airplane, which uses its wings to fly, an F1 car uses its elements to stick more to the asphalt. The wings, floor, diffuser, and bodywork must generate downforce, which is a downward vertical force that can load weight onto the car. A greater grip is achieved with this, and the cornering speed is drastically increased, although a great deal of power is needed.
In other words, think of an off-road car. These cars are very tall, as they are not made to go around a circuit. If you were to drive an off-road car at full speed on a race track, it is very likely to roll over due to its high center of gravity than an F1 car, as the tires do not grip as much when cornering.
Why Do F1 Cars Spark More On The Straights?
As we have seen before, the downforce generated by the cars through the wings, the floor, the diffuser, and the bodywork make the car stick to the asphalt and go much faster.
On the straights, the cars reach much higher speeds than in the corners, so much more downforce is created, and therefore the car sticks more to the ground, making it more likely that the car will come into contact with asphalt, especially when there are bumps in the track, which means more sparks are created.
In the same way, during cornering, the cars slow down, so the car rises slightly, making the plank not pass as close to the track and making it more difficult for them to come into contact. Sparks may come out when a car goes over a curb since it “scratches” the car’s underbody, thus creating a shower of sparks.
Why Do F1 Cars Spark More At Night?
At night Grands Prix like Bahrain or Singapore, F1 cars spark more than ever, right? Well, not exactly.
F1 cars spark the same both day and night, no matter what time it is, since, as we have seen before, the sparks are created by the contact between the ground of the car and the track due to the downforce generated.
At night, the sparks become more noticeable since there is less outside light, so there is more contrast between the light generated by the sparks and the natural light of the place. During the night Grands Prix of Bahrain, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, or Qatar, we can constantly see a show of sparks behind the cars, creating a very nice visual image and thus increasing the spectacle on the track.
Tracks And Sections Where F1 Cars Spark The Most
As we saw earlier, F1 cars especially spark on the straights, so on any circuit with long straights, and even more so if they are a bit bumpy, there will be a spectacle of sparks.
F1 cars also produce a lot of sparks at elevation changes, as the ground rubs more against the track, such as at Eau Rouge at Spa Francorchamps, in many sections of the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace, or the first sector at Suzuka. All these places are ideal to see the sparks left by cars.
Spielberg Circuit in Austria is also a great place to see sparks from F1 cars due to its elevation changes and sharp curbs, especially during the third sector. Monaco is also a very sparky circuit due to the constant elevation changes of its streets and because they are full of bumps.
Where without a doubt the sparks are most clearly seen, as we said before, it is in the night circuits. By 2022 we will have 4 night circuits: Shakir, Jeddah, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi.
As for bumpy street circuits, we will have Melbourne, Monaco, Baku, Montreal, and Sinpagur. For circuits with many elevation changes, we will have Imola, Spielberg, Spa-Francorchamps, Zandvoort, Suzuka, Austin, and Sao Paulo. A season full of sparks!
Do F1 Cars Of 2023 Spark?
Aerodynamic changes for the 2022 season made cars very different from previous seasons. One of the concepts that changed the most is the floor. The flat floor, which has been regulated since 1983, has been changed for a floor featuring two big channels running from front to rear on either side of the central plank.
This enhances the downforce created by the underbody, resulting in a much higher proportion of the total downforce created coming from the underbody.
The total downforce generated is roughly comparable. Still, the proportion of underbody/overbody downforce is crucial for better racing as the air moves faster. Therefore the greater the pressure difference between the underfloor and that outside, the harder the car is sucked into the track.
With all these changes in 2022, F1 cars today create the same sparks as the cars we have seen in recent years, but they do so to a greater extent since the greater downforce they create is causing them to produce more friction between the floors of the cars and the asphalt.
The sparks created by F1 cars have become one of the most striking visual elements in the sport due to their great visual impact and their spectacular nature on the track. Although it may seem that it is not a good thing or that the cars are being damaged, in reality, it is not.
The sparks are created simply by the friction of a Jabroc plank, which runs from the rear of the car to just before the front wheels and is embedded with titanium skid blocks to protect the overall underbody of the car. It is a safety element introduced in 1994 and has created one of the most iconic elements in Formula 1.
If you want a short summary and history of why F1 cars spark, check out this video by WTF1 titled ‘Why Do F1 Cars Spark?’