Inside F1 Cars: Does a Formula 1 Car Have a Clutch, and How Does It Work?

Scott Mitchell

Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport and at the cutting edge of automotive technology.

You only need to see pictures of a Formula 1 steering wheel, listen to a driver's engineer or a formation lap or read technical analysis on dedicated websites to understand the remarkable level of engineering and design that goes into the sport.

That might go without saying, of course. But one aspect of a Formula 1 car that is underrated and misunderstood is the clutch.

Internet message boards can easily be found, with the proper search engine nous, littered with F1 fans asking questions about clutches: Are they even used? Why don't cars have a clutch pedal? Is it used to changed gear?

A quick thanks to the articles which proved superb in researching this piece:

So, dissecting the clutch (not literally, as that would be expensive, time-consuming and quite frankly mighty confusing) we look at one of F1's greatest technical marvels. Just how important is the clutch to F1? And how does it work?

What Is the Clutch?

A Formula 1 clutch is located between the engine and the gearbox and is the crucial final piece in transmitting the monstrous amounts of power from the powertrain to the gearbox.

It is small, very small, and built by two manufacturers—AP Racing and Sachsuses carbon-carbon plates and is electro-hydraulically operated, which means a computer matches the revs and gears when a driver chooses to change gear.

Each clutch weighs less than 1.5kg, and usually deals with temperatures up to 500 degrees, though clutch slip (which creates friction on the plates) can see these rise significantly higher.

It is made up of only a small number of components; the basket, the inner and outer clutch plates, springs, the hub and the closing plate.

How Unique Is It?

A Formula 1 clutch is different to your road car and even to racing clutches. As it is paramount in aiding the transmission of several hundred horsepower from the engine to the gearbox, it's put through a great deal of strain.

Therefore the design of the tiny, one-and-a-bit kilogram component is totally unique. It's still made up of relatively few components, but it is less than half the size of ordinary clutches, is a special carbon-carbon design and can be subject (at times) to almost 1,000 degrees of heat.

There's also the unique positioning of the clutch "pedal." Of course, for "pedal" read "paddle," because when a driver has to (rarely) manually use the clutch, he does so with the dual paddle setup on the back of the steering wheel.

Trick computers used to engage and release the clutch complete a technical specification which renders all other kinds of clutch obsolete.

How Does It Work?

The clutch is manually operated only when the driver needs to pull away from a standstill. The following slide dictates the exact procedure at a start.

Allow Craig Scarborough to explain in the video above, from 48 minutes onwards.

Just as with a road car clutch it breaks the drive from the engine to the gearbox and you need it whenever the car comes to a stop. This really tiny piece of equipment has to transmit the power of the engine and the KERS as well.

Of course, the following slides will go into separate areas of the operations of the clutch—we're not quite palming off the explanation to the talented Scarbs!

When Is It Used?

Race Starts

Two clutch paddles are present on the steering wheel, one on either side. One has a pre-set position, the other is full depressed.

That is then fully released as quickly as possible, while the other is gradually released until the driver feels there is significant traction to take control properly with his right foot (unlike the rudimental "boy racer" approach of clutch off, throttle on).

On the warm-up lap, engineers often ask drivers to perform a bite point find. When you are driving your road car, you'll gradually release the clutch until you feel it "bite" and then you'll apply some revs and continually release the clutch until you pull away.

That naturally becomes an automatic process, and a BPF is a way to utilise the trick F1 computer to absolutely nail a launch sequence.

A BPF records the bite point for the clutch, so that the launch sequence can be as fast as possible. The same process is applied when a driver leaves from a standstill in a pitstop or after a spin.

Changing Gear

When a driver changes gear, he does not operate the clutch himself. 

The driver flicks the paddle, and the ECU cuts the ignition. The clutch is depressed electronically and switches ratios. Since the introduction of seamless-shift gearboxes, that all happens in 0.005s...

How Important Is It?

The clutch is essential to the performance of a Formula 1 car. That's not because of a generic, "every component is valuable" reason—the clutch can be the difference between winning and losing, or qualifying on pole or 10th. 

First, the multi-plate design, which is small and lightweight. This gives it minimal resistance, allowing faster gear changes. Because of its diminutive size, it is minimally intrusive on the design of the car.

Obviously, its key function is the start. That's where it makes the most difference.

If the bite point is set up perfectly, the electronics behave themselves and the driver's reflexes are absolutely on point, even a driver fifth or sixth on the grid can challenge for the lead into Turn 1. Fernando Alonso's proven rather adept at exemplifying that.

It goes through an almost incomprehensible amount of torture at the start and is the result of incredible brainpower and technical ingenuity. A Formula 1 clutch is a vitally underrated part of the sport's technical makeup. 

   
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