A Formula 1 Car as a Carbon Fiber Cake

Recipe for Success is in the Design and Cooking Up of Carbon Fiber

Industry Carbon Fiber Rolls
Steve Allen/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Racing cars used to be made of the same sort of materials as road cars, that is steel, aluminum, and other metals. In the early 1980s, however, Formula 1 underwent the beginnings of a revolution that has become its hallmark: the use of carbon composite materials to build the chassis.

Today, most of the racing car chassis - the monocoque, suspension, wings and engine cover - is built with carbon fiber. This material has four advantages over every other kind of material for racing car construction:

  • It is super lightweight.
  • It is super strong.
  • It is super stiff.
  • It can be easily molded into all kinds of different shapes.

Carbon Fiber Sheets

The first step along the way to making a carbon fiber car looks more like a clothing factory than a car factory. In each Formula 1 team factory is a room with large tables on which vast sheets of what looks like cloth are laid out and cut to size. Taken from large textile-like rolls, these sheets are highly pliable, flexible, and unlike textiles, will end up looking nothing like their original form.

Carbon Fiber Molds

Once the material is cut out from the cloth-like roll, it is taken to a design room and placed into molds. The position of the cloth within the mold is important, as it affects the strength of the final component.

Many of the carbon fiber components are built with a light aluminum honeycomb interior, around which the cloth is wrapped, to strengthen the final component.

Big Ovens Cook the Carbon Fiber

So how does the carbon fiber go from its cloth-like state in a mold into becoming one of the most solid materials fabricated by man? John Howett, the president of the Toyota F1 team, explains. From the design room the carbon fiber moves into another room where it will spend many hours transforming into that rock hard substance:

"It looks a bit like a bank vault but it is actually an autoclave,” John said. "After the parts are completed in the lay-out room they are placed in a bag, the bag is placed under vacuum and they are then baked under high pressure and temperature in an oven. These ovens work 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

That's right, it is a little bit like baking a cake - except that the carbon composite components that emerge are so hard that while they may be quite inedible, for an F1 team serve a much better purpose: they are almost unbreakable. There is little better to ensure the safety of the drivers.