Formula 1: engineering the future

April, 2024
Asya Morozov

The world of motorsports reaches far — audiences from all over the world tune in to popular competitions like IndyCars, MotoGP, NASCAR, Esports racing, and the Formula championships. The Formula championships in particular are incredibly popular, with the top Formula competition, Formula 1 (F1), garnering one to two million viewers per race. Although F1 world championship winners like Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, and Fernando Alonso and their impressively fast cars are the emblems of the competition, the sport could not exist without its extremely advanced engineering and mechanic teams. Their ability to both completely rework existing car models and make quick, performance-optimizing changes during race weekends is a big part of what keeps racing relevant and interesting every year.

As some of the fastest vehicles on the planet, F1 cars are constructed in a unique way, with low floors, lightweight carbon fiber chassis, aerodynamic front wings, and Drag Reduction Systems. According to the Engineering Institute of Technology, these elements work together to minimize cars’ drag and increase their downforce, allowing them to go as fast as possible in straight-line sectors and remain close to the ground in corners to avoid spinning out and damaging the car or crashing and endangering the driver.

However, as the basic elements of every F1 car are the same, specific aspects of their construction are what decide the car’s endurance, speed, and overtaking ability. Handling a complicated combination of sports, science, and statistics, F1 engineers and drivers must work together to understand their team’s car and figure out what to change to give the driver the few tenths of a second they need to win a race. This relationship, one not frequently seen in the sports industry, is an inspiration to many racing fans and engineers who are able to understand the hard work that these engineers do every day, both on and off-screen.

This admiration is evident in several of PHS’s motorsports and engineering clubs, who, though they partake in different activities, unite in their respect for how innovation in the field has both helped revolutionize many sports and allowed technology to progress at unimaginable speeds. Ben Gitai ’25, co-leader of the Sim Racing and Motorsports Club and long-time car and racing fan, believes that many of the events he watches are able to stay relevant and exciting because of advances in engineering.

“Engineering is one of ... the most important parts of motorsports. I think the best place to see this is in the [World Endurance Championship], which events like the 24 hours of Le Mans and others are a part of. The new cars in the Le Mans Prototype 2 class are a great example of this, as they just keep getting faster and more reliable each year,” Gitai said.

The Aston Martin F1 team is another example of this, as they, before the Japanese Grand Prix, made several changes to their cars’ sidepods and floor. These adjustments made their car more competitive, and driver Fernando Alonso noted that the changes had improved the car’s performance — his qualifying time went from 1.5 seconds slower than the top teams in 2023 to just 0.4 seconds slower in 2024.

Such engineering victories throughout the field of motorsports and sports in general have not only impressed racing fans like Gitai, but also PHS’s own engineering clubs. One club with a particular focus on sports engineering is the Princeton Soccer Robotics Club. Leaders Jieruei Chang ’24 and Shrey Khetan ’24 spend their time building autonomous robots, with their club’s current main project being a team of small robots that can be programmed to play soccer against other robots. Khetan himself has a strong interest in sports, and although he plans to pursue robotics rather than sports engineering, he still appreciates the growth the field has seen recently and looks forward to its future.

“I see technology, and especially artificial intelligence, playing a major role in the future, and not only [in] sports, like soccer, but almost every sport, because [it] can [help] capture moments, faster than the human eye,” Khetan said.

Khetan has also been paying attention to Formula 1, and observes that some advancements in the field beyond just racecar engineering are overlooked, describing innovations in F1 camerawork, another important technical aspect for fans worldwide who tune in to live coverage every grand prix weekend.

“When there’s more groundbreaking discoveries in STEM and teams making really interesting devices, [I think they should get more attention]. Recently, I saw a team that made a drone for following F1 cars ... where they could just go, and their acceleration was as fast as an F1 car ... they’ll add a new aspect for F1 fans where you can actually see the car from a bird’s eye view,” Khetan said.

Chang agrees with Khetan, but also believes that even lesser-known inventions like the car-tracking drone are frequently prioritized over other innovations due to their flashiness, leading to an image of engineering as solely an exciting and active profession rather than one that is mostly based on necessity and effort.

For example, according to Weil College Advising, robotics, aerospace, and software engineering, three fields that frequently work on big, acclaimed projects like space rovers or planes, are the most desirable engineering majors. Meanwhile, there is a lack of field service engineers and manufacturing engineers, who have to do much more physical work but are just as necessary to their fields.

“There’s a lot of engineering that doesn’t sound very glamorous, very flashy, but [is] necessary,” said Chang. “They’ve got every company in the world trying to make an electric car, or [they’ve] got virtual reality ... but what about everything else that’s going on?”

Although engineering produces beautiful results, it takes months of trial-and-error just to put out a finished product. As the field becomes more prominent across the world, its origins may be overshadowed by its success, just as F1 race-winning engineering marvels overshadow the long hours of failure that brought them about. According to Chang, this real human effort is a part of engineering that cannot easily be replicated and deserves its own acknowledgement.

“It’s a real thing that you’re building. It’s a real tangible thing. And that’s ... what separates engineering from more theoretical fields, or even computer science,” Chang said.