If you’ve ever driven a car with shitty suspension, you know how important a decent quality ride is for doing things like, not hating your life. And if you think it’s important in your road car when you’re driving your kids to school, you know it’s crucial in a race car. That’s why we’re going to be breaking down suspension in Formula One today.
(Welcome to Motorsport Explained, the series where we break down racing rules and concepts in easily digestible ways for all the beginners out there. If there’s something you’ve always wondered about or something that has never made sense, leave your topic in the comments or email me at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)
In theory, Formula One suspension isn’t all that different from the suspension in your road car, where your tires are the only thing holding you to the asphalt which therefore means you want to optimize that grip as best you can. It’s still designed to do the same things: provide solid handling and a comfortable ride. But there are three components to F1 suspension you need to know about: inboard suspension, outboard suspension, and the suspension bits that are in the air flow. It’s that aerodynamic component that makes F1 so different from road cars—or even other race cars where suspension parts aren’t critical to air flow.
Basically, the suspension regulates weight distribution across all four wheels, which in turn will determine whether or not it stays stable. For a very fast car, you can imagine suspension is absolutely crucial to, y’know, maintaining reliable and comfortable handling.
The inboard suspension elements are those that are hidden under the car, the ones you can’t see. The inboard suspension components are the springs, dampers, rockers, torsion bars, and anti-roll bars.
We’ll start with the dampers. These often come in the form of a hydraulic piston absorbs energy from the suspension. After all, when you go over a bump, you want to minimize the energy that’s being translated into the chassis and, therefore, the amount of bumpiness that you feel. Dampers absorb all that excess energy because of how hard it is to move the hydraulic piston, making for a smoother ride and thus better handling.
The rockers are mountings that can rotate around an axis, which in turn facilitate steering.
The torsion bar features one end that turns with the rocker and one end that is rigidly fixed to the chassis. The torsion bar is made of materials that can be twisted—so, as the rocker turns, the torsion bar twists. That comes with a lot of resistance, since this metal bar does not want to twist. When you release the torsion bar, it’ll pop right back where it belongs. So, it functions in the same way a spring does, but it’s a much more efficient part.
The square U-shaped anti-roll bar is both an in- and outboard suspension component; it connects one wheel to the other so that, if one wheel lifts up, the the other one does as well. It prevents the car from rolling when one wheel is forced up higher than the other.
The outboard suspension components are those that are built onto the exterior of the car but that are still tucked away from the direct flow of air. Outboard suspension includes the uprights, axles, and wheel bearings.
An upright serves to connect the wheel, brake rotor, hub, brake caliber, and steering arm together. It allows the front wheels to turn. In F1, the upright also has to house three wheel tethers, which are designed to keep the tire connected to the chassis in the event of an accident.
Axles are fairly self-explanatory: it’s a rod that connects and rotates the wheels and supports the weight of your car.
And wheel bearings fit tightly inside the wheel hub; they reduce friction while the wheel spins.
There are some bits of the suspension that are kind of in-between; they’re not under the car, but they’re also not hidden behind the tires. Which means they’re getting the full brunt of the airflow. Therefore, they need to be both effective when it comes to making for a smoother ride, but they also need to kind of be designed in such a way that air can easily pass over them. These bits are the wishbones, pull rods, push rods, and track rods. These are, in large part, the six arms that you see connecting an F1 wheel to the chassis.
The wishbones are four structural components that connect the wheel to the chassis. That is the sole job of the wishbone: to hold one piece onto the other.
The track rod, or steering arm, is a single arm that moves horizontally through the chassis, which pushes and pulls the wheel mount around a pivot point supported by the wishbones. That’s how you steer.
The push rod and pull rod are the same, final arm—but it all depends on your setup. Most folks prefer the push rod system at the front of the car, which connects to the wheel mount, enters the chassis, and connects to the rocker that we mentioned before. If you lift the wheel up, the rod pushes against the rocker (see where it gets its name?). The rocker is connected to the dampers, which will absorb all that excess energy. The benefit here is that it translates lateral, back-and-forth motion into rotational motion, which makes it a hell of a lot easier to package up in a small space.
The pull rod system is the same, but in this case, if you lift the wheel, the rod pulls against the rocker.
While all of those components are complex separately, shit really starts to get real when you connect them all together. How this suspension is set up depends on the driver, the car, the team, the track, the temperature, and the race length. So, on a grid of 20 cars, every single one will have a very different suspension setup.
A ‘softer’ suspension setup is designed to have more give, which means you’ll have a smoother ride because the suspension will absorb a lot of the energy from the track before it hits the chassis. But you run the risk of having less receptive handling; you’ll feel the outside forces that push your car to the side when you turn or push you forward when you brake hard.
A ‘stiffer’ setup will feel more stable and give drivers a sense of confidence in its responsive handling. That being said, you’re sacrificing comfort.
If you’re part of an endurance race at a bumpy track on a really hot day, you may want a smoother setup, since it’ll take less physical effort for you to control. If you’re doing a qualifying sprint, you might prefer a stiffer setup that can jar you around a little bit more but will respond to rapid steering input.