Introduction: The Role of Composite Materials in the Motorsport and Automotive Industries
In motorsport, a tenth of a second can be the difference between the top step on the podium or a defeat. Behind the scenes, there are some incredible minds constantly looking for innovative solutions to improve performance as much as they can.
The materials they select to build these incredible cars can provide the competitive edge needed to stay at the front of the pack. For the automotive industry, these materials can make their cars stand out and deliver incredible performance and safety. One of these materials commonly used by both industries is Composites.
In this article, we’ll explore
- the evolution of composites in racing,
- their transformative role in automotive design,
- manufacturing processes involved,
- and the future of sustainable materials in high-performing vehicles.
A Brief History of Composites
Composites have become one of the most important materials used in motorsports since first being used by McLaren Racing for the MP4/1 in 1981. The MP4/1 was the first race car to implement a composite carbon fibre monocoque to cut weight, improve performance, and improve driver safety. This changed the way Formula 1 cars are built; it is difficult to imagine how different the industry landscape would be without it.
This wasn’t the first time composites have been used to build car monocoques, this was first done in 1957 with the Lotus Elite but this was made of glass fibres instead of carbon fibres. Since then, composites have been used mostly by high-end automotive manufacturers for high performance cars.
Revolutionizing Race Cars: The Journey of Composites in Motorsport
Composites are materials produced from two or more materials to further enhance the properties to be more desirable than them individually – think of wood, cement, and carbon fibre. In motorsport, Carbon Fibre Reinforced Polymers (CFRP) are most popularly used. It is made from carbon fibres and resins (usually epoxy).
The carbon fibres provide an exceptional strength-to-weight ratio (the carbon fibres are stronger and lighter than steel). This is why it is advantageous for motorsport applications – it contributes to improving performance through lightweight materials.
The epoxy resin acts as the glue holding the carbon fibres together. Resins provide the flexibility to be able to mould the material into complex shapes. It also absorbs and distributes impact energy during collisions to reduce potential damage.
In Motorsport Engineer’s course Composite Engineering in F1, course leader Pablo Romero comprehensively covers different types of composite materials. He goes into detail about combinations of fibres and resins used in F1 to create parts such as wishbones and wing components, depending on strength requirements.
What Are Composites? Exploring Their Composition and Benefits
Generally, composite parts are designed using 3D modelling software for example CATIA or Siemens NX, like any other part but for composite parts moulds and patterns need to be designed as well (patterns are the moulds for the mould). Depending on the complexity of the shape, the assembly will be split into different components to be manufactured separately and then assembled.
Patterns can be made at little cost from carbon, but can also be made from aluminium moulds or CNC-machined from epoxy blocks. These tend to have low durability so they will be able to make about three moulds from the same pattern before a new pattern has to be manufactured.
The moulds can also be made from aluminium, but using aluminium increases manufacturing time. Simple mould sets save more time in manufacturing and each race team manufactures them according to their standards. For complex parts, the mould is broken down into smaller moulds allowing for ease of manufacturing. For example, the endplate of the front wing would require two or three moulds to manufacture.
Check out this YouTube video about manufacturing moulds below:
In Motorsport Engineer’s Composite Engineering in F1 course, students get tips from the course leader about the design process and will get hands-on experience in designing patterns and moulds for specific components as part of the course.
Below you can see a mould I designed for my final task in Motorsport Engineer’s Composite Design Engineering in F1 course.
CAD screenshot provided by the author
The Art of Creating Composite Components for High-Performance Racing
Composites have become one of the most significant materials in motorsports because they are used to manufacture all kinds of parts for race cars. It is used to manufacture safety, drivability and aerodynamic performance parts. Some examples of components that are commonly manufactured from composites are:
- Driver seat
- Front and Rear Wing components
Composites in F1
How Composites Are Transforming the Automotive Sector?
Recently, composites have become widely used in the automotive industry. This is because EV batteries are heavy and significantly increase the weight of the car and composites help reduce weight.
Using composite materials helps automotive manufacturers reach their sustainability goals, as lower weight means lower power consumption. Some examples of components that are commonly manufactured from composites in the automotive industry are:
- Side mirrors
- Interior components
The Sustainable Future of Composite Materials: Environmental Impact
CFRP composites, while incredible for performance and weight saving, are not environmentally friendly because they are not biodegradable and relatively difficult to recycle.
This leads to significant amounts of unusable debris that is usually thrown away if it breaks away during collisions. One potential solution is the use of biodegradable biocomposites which are more sustainable. This is done by using organic fibres such as hemp, leaf or bamboo and resins such as polyethylene, polypropylene or other biodegradable resins.
McLaren once again stepped up to push innovation boundaries to develop a bio-flax fibre as an alternative to carbon fibre in 2020 (flax is a natural fibre from the stem of the linseed plant). According to McLaren, it has been used in Lando’s seat since then. More recently, they collaborated with V Carbon to develop recycled carbon fibre which they tried in the USGP, edging closer to their net zero target.
Cars are about to become faster, safer and more aesthetically appealing – all while opening doors for manufacturers to meet sustainability goals for both industries (everyone wins!). The only barrier to this are the high manufacturing costs.
The Potential And Challenges of Composites In Automotive And Motorsport
The next step in composite development is to find a way to reduce manufacturing costs and to reduce emissions from the manufacturing process. If you want to get involved to get us there and want to learn more about composites I highly recommend registering for the ‘Composite Design Engineering in F1’ course on the Motorsport Engineer website.
Meet the Author – Dheer Varsani
Dheer is currently pursuing an MSc in Automotive Engineering at Cranfield University after completing his bachelors in Mechanical Engineering in the US. He has built his experience through not only his studies but by investing in his passion for high performance vehicles through courses and hands-on opportunities as well. Outside engineering, he enjoys following F1 and other sports (like golf and football to name a few).