Certain tracks on the calendar such as Bahrain are notorious for making Formula 1 cars produce showers of sparks on their underside as they race into the distance at top speeds. But what exactly is causing this bright and fiery spectacle to unfold in front of our very eyes? It almost seems counter-intuitive to the idea of making an F1 car go as fast as possible, as if it is a hindrance to the agility and structural stability of the vehicle. But this is certainly not the case.
To cut to the chase, the sparks are caused by the friction and wearing away of titanium skid blocks against the surface of the race track. The scraping of the metal against the tarmac generates incredible amounts of heat energy which shaves off little bits of the titanium at temperatures of up to 3000 Celsius, causing the element to glow white hot and produce the sparking effect.
Titanium on the underbody of vehicles was used extensively in Formula 1 in the 1980s and 90s. Former F1 pilot Nigel Mansell used to purposefully drive over bumpy sections of a given track to produce more sparks which would confuse and irritate the driver behind him. They were soon banned however, as it was found that the hot bits of metal burn or melt through rivals’ visors and risk injury to the eyes and face. It is widely believed that a mark on Ayrton Senna’s face was caused by a stray spark tunnelling through the Brazilian’s visor and hitting his cheek.
The skids nowadays are located on the so-called “legality plank”. This seemingly out-of-place bit of wood or resin was introduced in 1994 following the deaths of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, after it was found that the undercarriage of their cars were touching the road surface and reducing grip through corners (called bottoming) when they each had their fatal accidents at the San Marino Grand Prix.
So the role of the long piece of wood was to check whether minimum ride height regulations were being abided by all the teams. If the cars were going round the racetrack too low off the ground, the material would wear away more than a specified amount (1 millimetre) and the driver/team would be subsequently disqualified.
In fact such disqualifications have occurred in the past. For example at the 1994 Belgian Grand Prix, Benetton’s Michael Schumacher was excluded from the race results after scrutineering showed that the plank had been worn out by more than 1mm. This may have been due to a spin during the event on the kerb at Pouhon.
Titanium skid blocks were reintroduced for the 2015 World Championship for 2 main reasons. First of all, titanium is a softer metal than the tungsten that was being used up until the end of the 2014 campaign. Chips of tungsten would sometimes shear off from the plank and damage vehicle behind the perpetrator. For example, this was the cause of two separate punctures at the 2014 Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps. Secondly, sparks just look really cool, especially at night races such as Singapore where they illuminate the surroundings and inspire awe whenever they happen.
Titanium skid blocks and planks are going to remain for the foreseeable future; their importance in safety and generating excitement for the sport makes them a staple in F1 technology.
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