Formula 1 cars are jam-packed with all sorts of cool technology to make them as fast as possible. Everything in a Formula 1 car is meticulously designed and engineered for this purpose. This includes the engine, the chassis, the aerodynamic components, and of course, the gearbox.
All Formula 1 cars use the same gearbox, which is an 8-speed semi-automatic sequential unit. This gearbox has been used since 2014 when it replaced the outgoing 7-speed gearbox.
Today, we'll be talking all about the gearboxes used in Formula 1 cars, including how they work and what the rules concerning them are.
First, we should probably address a couple of the terms we used when describing this gearbox: "semi-automatic", and "sequential". If you're not familiar with what these terms mean, you might have a bit of a hard time understanding how a Formula 1 gearbox works, so let's talk about them here.
A semi-automatic transmission is essentially the midway point between an automatic gearbox and a true manual. Basically, what this means is that some parts of the gear-changing process are automated, but the driver still has to initiate the gear change themself.
In pretty every semi-automatic transmission, the clutch is the component that's automated. To change gears, drivers use two paddles on either side of the steering wheel to shift up and down through the gears. This means that drivers still have to use their skills and experience to change gears at the right time, but the actual act of changing gears is a lot easier.
Now, as for what "sequential" means. In a car with a normal manual transmission, you could potentially go through the gears in whatever order you want and skip some if you choose; for example, it's possible to shift from 1st to 3rd with a traditional manual transmission.
In a sequential gearbox, however, it's only possible to shift up or down one gear at a time. In a Formula 1 car, as we mentioned, this is done through the use of paddles on the steering wheel, but in some other cars, this is done with a lever that is moved forward or back to advance through the gears one at a time.
We won't bore you with a bunch of technical jargon for this section, but there are some aspects of how Formula 1 gearboxes are made that are pretty interesting. For one, Formula 1 gearboxes are made primarily from carbon titanium, which offers two main benefits; it helps the gearbox dissipate heat more easily, and it makes it extremely light.
In fact, a Formula 1 gearbox is lighter than the gearbox you'll find in pretty much any other car. On average, the gearbox in a normal commuter car usually weighs somewhere in the range of 100-400 lbs, but the gearbox in a Formula 1 car weighs only about 88 pounds.
Interestingly, while Formula 1 gearboxes are built to handle several hundred horsepower, they aren't able to handle all that much torque. Take the old Xtrac P1044 7-speed gearbox, for example; it only has a peak torque capacity of 413 lb/ft, and a maximum continuous torque capacity of only 250 lb/ft.
The reason for this is that Formula 1 engines don't actually make that much torque. Formula 1 engines have a huge bore/stroke ratio, meaning that the width of each cylinder is significantly wider than the distance the piston travels inside it.
By having a shorter stroke, this enables the engine to rev insanely high, which helps produce more power from a smaller displacement. However, having a short stroke is not what you want if you want to your engine to produce a lot of low-end torque.
Luckily, Formula 1 cars don't need a lot of torque because they don't weigh very much. Even after being loaded up with a driver and a full tank of fuel, a Formula 1 car only weighs a little over 900 kg. Considering that the average car weighs twice that much and usually makes less torque, it's easy to see how Formula 1 cars are still very fast off the line.
The clutch in a Formula 1 gearbox is also worth mentioning. A Formula 1 clutch weighs less than a kilogram, but can still handle over 700 horsepower. Formula 1 gearboxes only use one clutch, in contrast with a lot of other high-end sports cars that use dual-clutch transmissions.
Because of how the sequential transmission is constructed in a Formula 1 car, it's able to shift a lot faster with just one clutch than the average dual-clutch gearbox. Granted, the way a Formula 1 gearbox is made also makes it a lot rougher and louder to use, as well as more prone to wearing out.
Of course, all this performance comes at a high price, quite literally. The average cost of just the gearbox in a Formula 1 car is somewhere around $600,000. For comparison, that's almost $150,000 more than the starting price of an entire brand-new Rolls-Royce Phantom.
As you probably already know, Formula 1 is chock-a-block full of various rules and regulations concerning how the cars can be designed and built. The gearbox is no exception to this, so let's now talk about some of the rules that apply to Formula 1 gearboxes.
As of 2014, all Formula 1 cars have to use the same transmission, which is, as we've mentioned, a semi-automatic sequential unit with 8 forward speeds and one reverse speed. Prior to 2014, constructors were able to use anywhere from 4 to 7 forward speeds in their transmission.
Fully-automatic gearboxes used to be allowed until 2004, at which point they were banned from the sport because organizers felt they made driving the cars too easy and diminished driver involvement. In addition, as of 2015, teams have to used fixed gear ratios for the whole season; no changing of the gear ratios is allowed.
In 1993, the Williams F1 team experimented with continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) during testing, but they were banned before they could ever be used in a race because they offered too much of a competitive advantage.
At the time, many of the constructors didn't really know how to design belts for a CVT that would be capable of withstanding the stress placed on them in a Formula 1 application. As such, the race organizers didn't think it would be fair to let one team have access to significantly better technology than the other teams.
In addition to the rules concerning how Formula 1 gearboxes can be made, there are also rules about how the gearboxes can actually be used during a Formula 1 season. In particular, there are rules in place concerning how many gearboxes each team is allowed to use per season.
Prior to 2022, teams were allowed to use six gearboxes per season. However, with this year's season, this limit has been lowered to four.
Also, each team has to use each gearbox for a certain number of races before swapping it out with another. If a team happens to exchange their old gearbox for a new one before it's time to do so, they'll be hit with a grid penalty.
(Cover photo: David Precious from Stevenage, Herts, England, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)