When we think about sports cars and performance driving, we often imagine the traditional manual transmission setup, giving the driver control over the vehicle via three pedals and a shifter. While rowing through the gears yourself connects driver to machine, this is not how F1 cars are designed.
So are F1 cars automatic? Technically, yes! They use semi-automatic transmissions.
You might have driven an automatic transmission car that features two paddles on either side of the steering wheel, which you use to gear up or down yourself. There is no clutch pedal, so you shift gears by setting the car in the proper mode, then use the paddles to initiate a downshift or upshift.
F1 cars work in a similar fashion, but are of course much more finely tuned and sophisticated to handle the intense demands of the motorsport.
In an F1 car, there is a sequential automatic transmission. What this means is that there is a clutch, but no clutch pedal. Instead, the clutch can be operated via the many buttons you see on F1 steering wheels.
However, F1 drivers are not pressing a button for clutch every single time they need to up or down shift. Instead, the clutch is usually only activated by the driver for things like warming up the tires by manually locating the clutch's "bite" point.
For those unfamiliar with manual transmissions, the bite point is just a term used to describe the point at which at clutch starts to "grab", and the driver normally applies throttle while continuing to let the clutch out in a traditional 3 pedal vehicle.
As noted above, F1 cars are automatic, but not in the traditional sense of an automatic economy car. They use the best of automotive technology, and their gearboxes are obviously much more powerful and able to withstand abuse than the ones put in the cars at your local dealership.
Moreover, they are not just automatics, as the drivers are able to select gears using the paddles mounted on the steering wheel. Plus, there is an internal clutch mechanism, making this technically a sequential automatic transmission, rather than a standard automatic.
The driver, as mentioned, can also operate the clutch themselves using buttons on the steering wheel when needed. This is not something you see on today's passenger vehicles, even sportier cars that use dual-clutch technology like the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
The simplest answer as to why F1 cars are automatic is due to efficiency. It is easier to shift gears via the steering wheel only, not having to move your hand off the wheel to grab the shifter or use your foot to operate a clutch pedal.
Not only this, but these transmissions can shift gears faster than humanly possible. No one is able to actuate a gear faster on their own, meaning that F1 cars can go faster, provided the driver selects gears at the right time.
You might have noticed that in many manual transmission vehicles used in motorsports, such as rally racing, the gear shifter is extended greatly. That way the driver has to make minimal movement in order to actually shift gears. This means they are able to drive faster overall, so an F1 car is sort of like a more extreme version of an extended shifting mechanism.
In other words, sequential automatic transmissions are faster than manual ones, which explains why F1 drivers use them. They are also much easier to manage at high speeds, as the driver can keep his or her hands on the steering wheel.
F1 cars used to employ manual transmissions in their vehicles. However, they have been using automatics since 1989. The first manufacturer to use the semi-automatic transmission was Ferrari.
Once the technology was there, in other words, Formula One moved to the automatic platform.
As noted, the paddles on the steering wheel are used for up and downshifting. The driver simply presses one and the gear will go up or down. F1 cars come equipped with 8 speed transmissions, so the driver obviously wants to select the most optimal gear for their current speed and track conditions.
F1 cars used to be able to use fully automatic gearboxes that would shift for the driver. However, these are now illegal, along with advanced forms of launch control. This means the driver is responsible for selecting gears and adds the element of skill to the sport.
While it might sound simple because all they have to do is flick a paddle, the driver still has to decide the best time to up or downshift while maintaining very high speeds, monitoring other drivers and their behavior, deciding the best time to brake for corners, etc.
In other words, there is still a lot of skill behind using paddle shifters, even if they are much easier to engage than a clutch pedal and stick shift in the center console.
Are F1 cars automatic? Yes, but not fully automatic. Instead they employ semi-automatic transmissions. These transmissions have a total of 8 gears and the driver shifts up and down via paddle shifters.
The move to automatic transmissions happened in 1989. Before that, F1 cars were equipped with standard manual transmissions. The use of a semi-automatic transmission reduces the burden of operating a clutch pedal and shifter assembly, freeing the driver to focus more on the driving itself.
Their 8 speed gearboxes do have a clutch, though. The driver can even control it themselves via buttons on the steering wheel. This is not usually done during racing, though. Instead, the clutch might be manually operated by a driver when needing to warm up tires.
The semi-automatic transmissions represent the current best technology for vehicles. They can shift faster than a human could ever hope to by using a clutch pedal and shift knob, making them the ideal choice for the demands of F1.