This Tech Draft reflects on some aspects of the 2022 Austrian Grand Prix, but mainly a sustainability-related issue sparked by the scene of Sebastian Vettel covered in brake carbon dust.
There has been plenty going on in the world of Formula 1 in recent weeks. Racist and homophobic comments by past World Champions have been exposed, the Cancel Culture is condemning crowd booing, some poorly behaved crowd members have sexually and physically assaulted other crowd members, and the value of the We Race As One initiative has been questioned.
But fear not, because in this Tech Draft I want to leave peripheral issues to be resolved by the powers that be and put the focus fairly and squarely back on F1 with some issues that really need to be looked at.
Ashes to Ashes
I have some concerns about poor Carlos Sainz’s retirement in flames on Sunday, not because of the fire itself, it wasn’t the first this year, but the time taken for the marshals to attend and extinguish it, and that when Sainz exited his F1-75 it was rolling backwards towards the circuit.
Given that Sainz exited the circuit on a run-off road and parked it at a marshal point it seemed surprising that fire marshals weren’t necessarily manning the post but were rather with their vehicles another 30-40 metres away from where I would have expected them to be, and the time from when Sainz pulled up until the time the first extinguisher was triggered was in the 30 second range.
While I am confident that Sainz was never in any real danger from the fire, we are indeed in an era of budget cap restrictions and every second that the fire was burning was costing Ferrari more and more money to repair the damage, and I just wonder whether the FIA and the event organisers could have done a bit better with the placement and organisation of the marshals so that the fire was attended to the very moment Sainz pulled up.
The other concerning thing for me was the fact that not only was the burning car rolling backwards towards the circuit as Sainz was attempting to exit the cockpit, but it was stilling rolling backwards when the first fire marshal arrived.
The thought of a car engulfed in such a fire as this one rolling back onto the circuit and into the path of oncoming traffic is simply one we should not even consider possible.
I wonder whether the sports regulators need to look at this and think about a better way of immobilising the cars in such situations.
Dust to Dust
The image of Sebastian Vettel covered in carbon dust alongside an FOM sign promoting the hybrid engine as the world’s most efficient was a juxtaposition Stefano Domenicali and his team should look long and hard at.
Carbon/carbon braking systems have unparalleled performance, are light, they operate at much higher temperatures and cool well, are almost immune to thermal shock, they are very rigid at high temperature and so the pads don’t wedge and knock, and critically they wear in a linear manner which means the rate at which the pad wears in comparison to the rotor is completely predictable.
Nevertheless, carbon/carbon braking systems are very dirty, as we know from those images of Vettel after Sunday’s race, the by-products of their use isn’t just black burnt carbon dust, which is a known carcinogen, but there are other nasties in the composite matrix that become toxic and carcinogenic when they burn, such as the binding resins.
If all of that isn’t good for us as humans, one can only wonder how good all that carbon dust is for the environment.
The contradiction, though, is much deeper than just the by-products of carbon/carbon braking systems use and degradation, it is the energy trade-off to manufacture them.
Carbon rotors and pads require extreme temperatures and pressure over long periods of time to manufacture, and it is an iterative process as the laminate lay-up progresses. All of this takes vast amounts of energy.
It’s time F1 becomes more environmentally responsible with composites
The environmental/sustainability issue I’ve discussed above, though, is not isolated to just carbon/carbon braking systems.
As far as I know, every current F1 team manufactures a degree of composite components in-house, and many of the materials and methods used are quite out of date and not in keeping with the times from an environmental point of view.
In fact, in the year 2022 it is a myth that F1 is at the cutting edge of composites manufacturing technology.
Today F1 still uses the same epoxy resin infused pre-preg carbon weave cloth that it used 35 years ago, and it still bakes them in large scale autoclaves full of vacuum and pressure pumps that use vast amounts of energy to run.
If F1 is indeed serious about its environmental/sustainability branding, then it needs to be serious about the materials and techniques used.
Many other industry sectors are now using composite material matrices using recycled materials, and other just as structurally effective but much more energy efficient out of clave manufacturing methods such as resin infusion and resin transfer.
Ultimately, for a person such as myself, who has an awareness and experience in composites, the image of a burnt carbon dust black faced Seb Vettel was the wakeup call I personally think F1 needs to heed.