If you have ever been to a Formula 1 race you will know that they are fast (and loud). They navigate miles of track and tens of corners all under a minute or two. You can tell just by looking at them that they are engineered to perfection. No extra weight. All the downforce they can find. Engines with an estimated 1000 horsepower. All these observations lead you to ask: How Fast Do Formula 1 Cars Go?
It’s an interesting question and one that brings an answer that takes a little bit of context to get your head around. It’s all well and good throwing numbers at you, but if you have nothing to compare that to then it will make no sense. In this article, we are going to look into how fast Formula 1 cars go, how they achieve that speed, and how that compares to other cars and motorsports.
The Speed Of Formula 1, And How Fast Do Formula 1 Cars Go?
Formula 1 is often regarded as the elite level of motorsport. Founded in 1950, it has been the top level of racing ever since. Drivers compete in karting from a young age and even the best struggle to break into the sport. It’s not for the faint-hearted either, with multiple crashes per season while drivers push their limits.
The sport, in its current form, consists of 20 drivers all fighting for the World Driver’s Title. Each race has a maximum of 26 points on offer per driver with a total of 23 races (known as Grand Prix) in the latest season. Most points are on offer for your final race position, however, a single point is rewarded to the driver with the fastest lap of the race, as long as they finish 10th or higher.
Racing in specially engineered cars designed to reach breakneck speeds both on the straights and in the corners, Formula has captured the attention of millions around the world over the last 70 years. People love speed, and you can bet that these viewers are asking how fast do Formula 1 cars really go?
How Fast Can A Formula 1 Car Go?
Formula 1 cars are fast. Really fast. When you watch it on the TV, you know they are going fast but it’s hard to put it into perspective. For some quick comparisons, they travel at:
- just under 1/3 of the speed of sound
- over 3x the interstate highway speed limit
- nearly 50% faster than a commercial plane takes off
This is hard to get your head around. When you are next heading on vacation, and the plane is just about to take off, just remember that a Formula 1 car could overtake you like you were an old beater on a freeway. They wouldn’t even struggle.
So what are the numbers? Typically, when people talk about how fast something is, they focus on the top speed. While the Formula 1 car’s top speed is still impressive, it’s some of the other stats that are just as staggering. It’s 0-100km/h times, 0-200km/h times, its cornering speed, its braking speed. I could go on, and I will, later in the post. Let’s take a look at the most common two and how the Formula 1 car stacks up.
How Fast Can Formula 1 Cars Go: The Numbers
First, we will look at the top speed. You may know the top speed of some supercars, or perhaps even your own car. However, when you get to the top speeds of Formula 1 cars, they are eye-watering numbers.
Top Speed: 360km/h / 223mph
Formula 1 cars reach up to 223 mph in races and have been known to reach a top speed of 246.6 mph in testing. For some context of the earlier stats, a commercial plane takes off anywhere between 150 and 180 mph and the speed of sound is 750 mph. The fastest speed ever reached in an F1 race was by Valterri Bottas in the 2016 Grand Prix. The Mercedes car topped 231.4 mph in the speed trap. At this speed, you would get from New York to San Francisco in just over 11 hours.
However, the top speed isn’t the only impressive thing with a Formula 1 car’s speed. Their acceleration is just as baffling.
Acceleration: 0-62mph (100km/h) in ~2.6 seconds
Getting from 0-62mph in just over two and a half seconds is quite the stat. But when you look closer, the stats get even better. To get to 124mph (200km/h), the Formula 1 car takes 4.2 seconds and to 186mph it takes just over 8 seconds. In just a shade over the time it takes my trusty Cooper S to reach 100km/h, a Formula 1 car would already be well on its way to 300.
When you look at this in a bit more detail it becomes even more fascinating. Notice that it takes less time to get from 100-200 km/h than the initial 0-100km/h. Because, at low speeds, Formula 1 cars struggle to get their power onto the road. The wheels spin and lose traction but after about 100km/h downforce starts coming into play and the car can put all of its power down on the track.
Formula 1 cars lose traction due to the high amount of power they have, and the little weight they have. This is called the power-to-weight ratio, and we will look into this more as we look into how these cars are made to go so fast.
How Do Formula 1 Cars Go So Fast?
Formula 1 cars are designed with one thing in mind: speed. Now, this isn’t only speed in a straight line Teams spend millions upon millions of dollars on designing and testing these cars many years before they will hit the track. They will work on many aspects of the car individually and then continue to fine-tune this as the car comes together as one. However, when it comes to the speed of an F1 car, it is not just how fast they go in a straight line but also how fast they go around corners.
There are many parts of a Formula 1 car that help it go so quickly. Much more than I can dream of getting into a single article. However, I am going to cover some of the main components that make a Formula 1 car so fast. Let’s start with their engine.
One of the most impressive things about a Formula 1 car is the engine. An engine that, from a glance, would look at home in any mid-range family sedan. But when you look into the numbers, it is far ahead of any supercar.
The engines that are currently used in Formula 1 cars are 1.6 liter turbocharged V6s. However, unlike some of the V6s of old that were a bit clunky, the V6s in a Formula 1 car are quite the opposite. They produce 800 hp, rev up to 15,000 RPM, and connect up to an 8-speed semi-automatic transmission.
How do they get so much power out of such a small engine, I hear you ask. Well, they combine a clever bit of engineering with a bit of compromise. The intelligent engineering in this case is the short-stroke nature of the cylinders. Much like a motorcycle’s engine, a Formula 1 car’s cylinders are a lot shorter than a standard car. This allows the engine to take in a lot more air and fuel in a shorter amount of time. Maximizing efficiency.
The compromise is efficiency. Whilst a standard road car engine can last hundreds of thousands of miles, a Formula 1 team can go through multiple engines per season per driver. All of which adds to the cost.
Formula 1’s KERS System
The KERS system in an F1 car is a system that was introduced in 2009 by the FIA. It was a bold move that was designed to promote the use of greener technologies in the sport. KERS stands for Kinetic Energy Recovery System and is used as a way to regather energy when braking to be used later in a lap. The system is normally powered through braking which in turn charges a small battery of around 400kJ or 60kW.
This essentially means that later in the lap (or race) the driver has an extra 60kW (around 80 hp) to release to speed his car up. This is often used while exiting corners, especially when being closely followed by a rival driver. The systems weigh around 50kg and have been known to improve lap times by up to half a second. However, as with everything in Formula 1, weight is precious. For this reason, each team keeps its KERS system, and its relative weight, a secret.
Formula 1 gearboxes are just as exceptionally designed and as fit for purpose as the rest of the car. As mentioned earlier, these are semi-automatic 8-speed mechanisms that can change gear in around 5 milliseconds. This is mounted just behind the driver and is operated via flappy paddles on the back of the steering wheel. This differs from the standard shifter next to a driver, allowing the racer to shift gears without taking his hands off the wheel.
F1 gearboxes, much like the rest of the car, are made out of specialist materials in order to save as much weight as possible. Due to the reduction in weight, there is much less resistance. This allows for the speed of the gear changes mentioned above. All these small changes allow for Formula 1 cars to go so fast.
Formula 1 teams spend endless hours in the wind tunnel, perfecting the way that wind flows over their car. This may seem like something only a perfectionist would do, but not when you are traveling at speeds in excess of 200 mph. Every piece of air that flows over your car is essentially going at hurricane speeds and a slight adjustment can make or break how a car will perform in the next corner.
In light of this, different teams do still come to different conclusions about what is best. In recent years, Red Bull Racing has taken a different approach to its aerodynamics when compared to the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari. This hasn’t stopped them from still being competitive in races. This is because while some setups favor low downforce for speed on the straights, others compromise straight-line speeds to take more speed into the corners, making overtakes easier.
Whichever design is chosen by a team, you can be sure they have spent hundreds of hours in a wind tunnel and millions of dollars in the design lab, perfecting their idea of the best aerodynamics.
The Pirelli® Tires
Over the years, many manufacturers have been their tire sponsors for Formula 1. However, since 2011 Formula 1 has had Pirelli as the tire sponsor. The tires that Pirelli produces are specifically made for Formula 1 and are very, very different from what you would find on a standard road car.
These tires are immensely grippy and can handle cornering speeds of upward of 150 mph. However, due to the amount of grip they have, they wear very quickly. While a standard road car might not need its tires changing much more often than once or twice a year, Formula 1 teams use 6 or 7 sets of tires over a race weekend.
For the 2021 season, Pirelli has designed and manufactured a choice of 7 tires that are assigned by Pirelli for each race. These consist of 2 sets of wet tires, the “intermediate” and the “wets” and 5 sets of dry tires. Both wet variations are available to every team all year round, just in case the heavens open. While Pirelli themselves offer 3 of the remaining 5 compounds for each race day depending on the track.
The difference in these dry tires is the compound. They range from hard to soft, and more durable to least durable. The softer the tire, the more grip it has in the corners allowing you to carry more speed, but this also means the tire will wear out quicker meaning you will need to come in for a pit stop sooner. They are pros and cons to each compound. Teams will use them selectively throughout a race to produce the best strategy.
How Fast Do Formula 1 Cars Go Compared To Other Motorsports?
Now we have looked into some of the reasons that an F1 car is so fast. Let’s take a look at how this compares to some other motorsports. At this point, it is easy to assume that F1 may blow all other competitors out of the water. However, while Formula 1 cars are the ultimate racing machines focused on acceleration, braking, cornering, and top speed, other specialist machines can be better in individual aspects.
NASCAR is the most popular motorsport in the United States. And it’s no surprise. The cars involved are truly American muscle cars capable of just under 200 mph. However, speeds in NASCAR were capped back in the 1980s due to safety concerns. Following a few accidents that injured race participants, and spectators, it was decided that it is best to put in some restrictions. Regardless of this, these cars are still no slouch, as you can see from the stats below:
Top Speed: 321km/h / 199mph
Acceleration: 0-60mph (96km/h) in 3.4 seconds
IndyCar is often hailed the fastest motorsport, simply because of the top speeds that some cars hit at the end of some straights. With speeds in excess of 230 mph, it is faster than anything seen in F1 races, however, it can take IndyCar cars a bit longer to get there.
These speeds are usually hit at the largest ovals, where teams take the risk of lowering their downforce in a bid to get a few more miles per hour. Last year, famous Indy 500 driver, Marco Andretti, secured a pole with an average speed of 231 mph (327 km/h) over 4 laps. However, this is 5 mph short of the all-time record of Dutch-American driver Arie Luyendyk in 1996.
These high speeds are only seen on oval circuits, average speeds for street circuits and road courses are more around the 100 mph mark. That doesn’t disregard the true engineering prowess of hitting the speeds below:
Top Speed: 380km/h / 236mph
Acceleration: 0-62mph (100km/h) in ~3 seconds
The second league of Formula cars tends to lap around 20% slower than their high-profile counterparts. This Formula is the last step that drivers head to before jumping into the world of Formula 1. It gives them a chance to show their skills to prospective teams and to develop their presence in the sport without the media spotlight.
However, this shouldn’t distract from some of the ridiculous speed these cars still achieve. These 3.4-liter V6 engines still surpass the crucial 200mph barrier and can get to 100 km/h and 200km/h in under 3 and 7 seconds respectively. These are still numbers that would compete with the very best supercars out there. Quite impressive really, when you account for the fact they are designed with a fraction of the funding of Formula 1.
Top Speed: 335km/h / 208mph
Acceleration: 0-62mph (100km/h) in 2.9 seconds
Whilst we are on the top of the ladder up to Formula 1, it would be rude not to mention Formula 3. These cars are again slower than the Formula above but can still produce top speeds of over 300 km/h (180mph). These cars are designed with less of a budget and with more of a focus on wheel-to-wheel racing than flat-out top speeds. Similarly powered by 3.4-liter six-cylinder engines, these cars produce around 380hp.
However, the figures that follow the “slowest” of the bunch are nothing to be slept on. With 0-60 speeds of just over 3 seconds and top speeds of around 180mph, they can compete with just about any supercar out there. Not to mention how much they would outperform these cars whenever the road becomes a little less straight.
Top Speed: 300km/h / 180mph
Acceleration: 0-62mph (100km/h) in 3.1 seconds
Formula 1’s electronic counterpart is nothing to scoff at. While the cars miss out on the top-level power that an internal combustion engine might produce, they are still capable of the mighty acceleration that we are becoming used to with electric cars. It is worth noting that these cars mainly compete within tight street circuits. Therefore, it would not be feasible or competitive for these cars to be designed to go to speeds they cannot achieve in racing conditions.
Top Speed: 280km/h / 174mph
Acceleration: 0-62mph (100km/h) in 2.8 seconds
Moving onto their two-wheeled associates, the Moto GP speeds are very similar to Formula 1. The ultra-lightweight of the motorbikes allow them to accelerate at a similar pace to that of the Formula 1 and Formula E car, despite an engine that produces less power. The top speeds aren’t to be overshadowed by Formula 1 either. The record, performed last year by Johann Zarco, is a little over 225mph in an official race weekend.
Like F1, Moto GP has 2 classes below it that are slightly slower but still impressive. With the Moto2 and Moto3 bikes hitting top speeds of over 180 mph and 150 mph respectively. Although the 0-60 times are similar in Moto GP and F1, it can take an increased amount of time to reach the speeds above this in Moto GP. This is mostly due to the reduced aerodynamic capability of a bike compared to that of a Formula 1 car.
Top Speed: 362.4km/h / 225.5mph
Acceleration: 0-62mph (100km/h) in ~2.6 seconds
The National Hot Rod Association has a habit of making cars go very fast, and they get to that speed very quickly. When the association was first founded, their fastest modified cars would be comfortably beaten by modern-day production sports cars. However, in 2019 a new record was set when Brittany Force and her Advance Auto Parts Top Fuel machine recorded a run of 3.6 seconds. At the end of this run, she crossed the line at just under 340 mph.
This truly shows that depending on the purpose a car can achieve incredible things.
Top Speed: 544km/h / 338mph
Acceleration: 0-338mph (544km/h) in 3.6 seconds
How Fast Do Formula 1 Cars Go – Conclusion
Formula 1 cars can reach ridiculous speeds. This is something that you already knew. And it’s not really that surprising when you consider the amount of money that goes into the design and manufacturing process each year. Previous estimates have had this cost at well over $300 million, however, a cap of $145 million is now in place, with looks to reducing this in the coming years. This will, hopefully, produce a more level playing field for teams that don’t have as much money to spend.
We can see that these speeds are justified when you look at all the components that work together to achieve these speeds. Whether that be the engine, with its green-inspired KERS system, the highly intricate gearbox it is attached to, the tires that lay all the power onto the track, or the aerodynamic body that allows the car to cut through the air effortlessly. Each of these performs an essential part in the car’s minute or so around a race track.
We can also see that compared to most motorsports it has the edge. Some other sports can also be quick off the mark or get good speed in a straight line. But none of them have the versatility of the Formula 1 cars of the 21st century. So, the next time one of your friends or colleagues asks how fast do Formula 1 cars go, you can answer with confidence and even give them some comparisons to other motorsports.
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