Designing a revolution
Racecar Engineering|Design of a Racecar
The process of creating a racecar has moved on from the drawing board and pencil, but coming up with a competitive car is still as skilful as it ever was
Andrew Cotton

There is much complaining in the modern world about how similar racecars look, with aerodynamics playing such a key role in optimising chassis and bodywork design to the point there is little other than the colour and stickers to differentiate them. It’s a far cry from the pre-wind tunnel days when cars were designed according to what the creator considered attractive. That led to individual, and in some cases iconic, designs that have been loved by fans ever since.

Yet the design of the car is primarily about finding the most efficient balance between downforce and drag, while also meeting stringent safety requirements, and therefore time is spent in the design phase trying to find the best of all worlds.

So how do modern racecar designers go about taking a blank sheet of paper and turning it into a race-winning design?

Read the rules

The first step is to look at the championship, and what will be the requirements of the car to compete. For example, Formula 1 allows for open development for all teams. There are some parts that can be shared with the engine supplier but, other than that, the chassis, suspension, gearbox and cooling are all in the hands of the teams’ designers, and are vital elements when it comes to designing a car. Formula 1 cars can be evolved mid-season, adapted according to whichever track the cars are racing, and they can be improved throughout the year.

For other categories, particularly endurance racing, a base design may be required to take multiple options for engines, gearboxes and aerodynamic kits, and so must be adaptable. Mid-season development is not possible as the governing bodies try to double-down on expenditure with long periods of stable rules, homologated parts that cannot be developed for performance and restrictions on testing, either in the real or virtual world.

With some series adopting performance balancing, it could be argued that the design of a racecar should not be so critical, and that whatever is brought to the track will be given more or less performance, but the base car has to be right for that to work.

Parallel process

The process of designing a car starts long before pen is put to paper. ‘Generally, in most categories we have been involved with recently, you are involved in the regulation process and start designing the car before you have the final version of the regulations,’ says David Floury, technical director at ORECA, which provides cars at all levels of endurance prototype racing. ‘There is not one stage where you read the regulations, and then another when you design the car. It is all done in parallel.

‘Working with the regulations is a continuous process. Every day you re-read them and make sure you understand them, and cross check your understanding of the rules, and cross reference with the FIA and ACO, or whoever, to get clarification to ensure your understanding of the rules is the same as theirs.’

The regulations are where the basic parameters of a car are laid out, including maximum length, width and height. Minimum weight is also set, and in some cases maximum and minimum wheelbase.

At the heart of the regulations is safety, and so from the start aerodynamic stability is crucial, as is the design of the safety cell in which the driver sits.

‘The general starting point has to be what freedoms are allowed to you,’ says Julian Sole, chief designer at Multimatic, which has developed cars for sprint racing and endurance, from production-based cars to prototypes competing for overall victory at Le Mans.

‘Most of those are based around the safety regulations, and there are some fairly broad topics, such as the fuel cell, which is likely to be behind the driver and not going to wrap around them.’

Building blocks

‘You need to get your big blocks in place, so what is the minimum wheelbase and maximum? What is the engine length? Does the championship have multiple engine options? Nowadays, because you have championships with multiple engines, [they] tend to fix a minimum range of volume so you know you are going to have an engine that fits into a hole.

‘To start off with, driver position is normally dictated by safety regulations, which means the feet can’t be ahead of the centreline of the front wheels. With the wheelbase, you then know the starting point of where the driver will sit. Then you need to know what are the power levels, what race distance are you going to end up with and that pushes the decision on the fuel volume. From there, you know what you are trying to get in the centre of the car.

‘That then positions the back of the chassis. Then you need to know the engine volume growth, and then you know what space you have for the gearbox and the amount [of space] needed for the rear axle.’

Once these parameters are laid out and agreed, the designers can start to fine tune their creations. For teams that have the budget and expertise, they can then begin to design and build core components, but many teams will rely on external suppliers for items such as the composite work, suspension, brakes and radiators. Some are able to specify to their partner teams the design and have it built bespoke for them, others have to adapt their design to available parts.

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