Quite often, the only time we hear Formula 1 teams talk about suspension is when they are arguing the legality of their clever designs with the FIA and the rest of the paddock in the latest regulation row. So why can’t teams leave their suspensions alone? In short, because suspension is arguably the most important tool for gaining track performance.
The main purpose of the suspension is to absorb the oscillations between the vehicle body and the wheel, generated by undulations in the track surface. Also, maximum contact between the tyres and the track is needed for the most time to achieve optimum grip. Suspension also plays a role in maximising cornering stability, braking distances and acceleration. So you can see why motorsport engineers invest so much time, resources and money into manipulating suspension characteristics in their continued quest for that optimum set-up. And much of the work is centred specifically on dampers.
‘The main damping concept of flow architecture, and how the pressure is built up in the damper, is the same for all our dampers in high-level motorsport,’ says Claes Hesling, project manager, racing, at Öhlins. ‘Our damping technology ensures that the damper responds properly under all conditions without experiencing cavitation. This helps minimise the variation in contact patch load, which in turn optimises grip and control.
'Another aspect is the versatility, which is achieved with flexible valving systems to ensure powerful and precise adjusters.
‘Of course, the main differences between the dampers for different motorsport categories is the size and weight demands,’ Hesling adds. ‘In all forms of motorsport you want to achieve the lightest and most efficient packaging possible, but it cannot be at the expense of durability. A damper failure would be catastrophic, so you try to be as close to the limit as possible without going over it.’
Formula 1 dampers
In Formula 1, suspension design is extremely aero driven because the main source of grip comes from the downforce generated by the aerodynamic package, as opposed to pure mechanical grip. Therefore, F1 engineers are continuously hunting for ways to use suspension behaviour to influence ride height and other parameters to increase downforce.
Of course, these types of active systems have been banned since the 1990s, with current regulations dictating the only method in which suspension design can result in an aerodynamic gain is when it is ‘wholly incidental’ to the primary purpose of the suspension itself. Not that this stops teams trying, as past experience has proven. Collapsible heave systems have been used at the rear to reduce ride height, with teams optimising front suspensions to increase ride height at the end of straights, as well as altering pushrods and uprights to lower front ride height at the corner apex.
It is not only the behaviour of the suspension that is aero driven, but also the geometry. For example, in Formula 1 the lower front wishbones are in line with the axle because this ensures they do not disrupt the airflow coming off the front wing, minimising any potential turbulence and consequent drag. This may not be the most mechanically effective design, but the desires of the mechanical engineers are some way down the pecking order in F1.
‘The main target of the dampers, or shock absorbers, in Formula 1 is to control the aerodynamic platform of the car because this is where you get the most gain in grip,’ confirms Olivier Lardon, manager of motorsport dampers at ZF Race Engineering. ‘However, the suspension is also linked to the tyres, so you can also use dampers to adjust tyre temperature and therefore bring the tyres into the best working range to achieve optimum grip. For example, if you have larger or stiff er tyres, you may need to increase your damping coefficient to get more energy into the tyre.’
The characteristics of rubber ensure tyres naturally contribute to the damping of the unsprung mass and must therefore not be forgotten. This behaviour can be utilised by the suspension set-up to try and control bulk tyre temperatures and grip. At high speed, the high-frequency inputs of the track help generate that bulk tyre temperature, so modifying the high-speed damper settings will have minimal eff ect on tyre temperature, but may compromise other areas of handling.
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