Since its invention in the early 19th century, the clutch has been a key component of all motor vehicles. But do race cars like those in Formula One (F1) still need them?
The answer is yes, but they are different from the ones you would find in your manual cars. Nowadays, F1 cars have only 2 pedals: one for the accelerator and one for the brake. The “clutch pedal” was changed into a “clutch paddle” attached to the steering wheel.
Let’s see how and why they are different.
What is a clutch?
A clutch transfers the engine’s power to the gearbox. It allows you to change gears and to stop the car without the engine stopping. In order to let the engine keep on running while you stop or change gears, the engine and the gearbox must be disconnected.
That’s where the clutch comes in. As you already know, manual cars have a clutch pedal so that the driver can engage or disengage the clutch when needed.
In F1 cars, drivers only directly control the accelerator and brake, changing gears is done automatically. The only times they use the clutch manually are when the car start and pit.
The F1 clutch is mounted behind the engine and in front of the gearbox.
Why F1 cars don’t have clutch pedals?
F1 cars used to have 3 pedals, the accelerator, brake, and clutch pedal. According to Motor Biscuit, this was changed in 1989 when the Ferrari 640 introduced a paddle-shifted transmission to F1, which means drivers don’t have to use the clutch when changing gears. So they remove the clutch pedal as drivers rarely use it in a race.
With only 2 pedals left, it’s easier for drivers to control the car. “The paddle shift makes it very easy to change between gears, so there’s less chance of a mistake being made.” says former F1 driver David Coulthard. Moreover, 1 less pedal also means less weight.
As mentioned above, the “clutch pedal” was changed into “clutch paddles” attached to the steering wheel. Since 2008, automated launch control was banned, and drivers must now control their own starts by using these paddles.
There are 2 clutch paddles behind the steering wheel, and they share the same function of engaging/disengaging the clutch. Before the cars start, F1 drivers preset clutch paddle #1 (exactly at the bite point) and fully depress clutch paddle #2. When the right light goes out, they just release clutch paddle #2 as quickly as they can and keep clutch paddle #1 pressed until the cars gain traction. Finally, they release paddle #1 to get the throttle control.
Still don’t get it, you can watch the short video below.
F1 clutch vs road car clutch
An F1 clutch is 20 times more expensive than a regular clutch, around 6000 pounds. It’s not surprising because F1 cars produce up to 1000 horsepower, whiles road cars produce less than 200 horsepower.
Therefore, the clutch in an F1 car works much, much harder. It’s also smaller (about 150mm) and lighter (less than 1.5 kg) as less weight means more speed.
The materials used for a road car clutch are usually cast iron and high carbon steel. But the F1 one needs to be much stronger as it can reach speeds up to 240mph and the temperature can exceed 500°C (900+ °F). For those reasons, they are made of carbon fiber and titanium.
Another difference is the number of friction plates. A regular clutch has only one plate while the F1 one usually has 7. More plates mean that the diameter is smaller, making the design more compact.
These friction plates must be replaced very often as they are subject to huge stress, while a clutch found in manual cars can last over 100,000 km (over 60,000 miles) before needing replacement.
F1 Clutch – make or break a race
Even though it’s a tiny part, the clutch is incredibly important for F1 race cars.
For example, in 2015, Lewis Hamilton was unlucky to have a malfunctioning clutch during the start of the Austrian Grand Prix. “I let the clutch out and it just underperformed. It’s something that I’ve been having since Barcelona and before that, I was having better starts.”, he said.
Technical problems with the clutch causing bad starts in F1 races are still reported nowadays and it seems like they will not go away any time soon.
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