By Stefan Kristensen
October 17, 2021

F1 Top Speed: In Race Trim and Unrestricted?

Formula 1 cars are among the fastest race cars in the world, although there are a lot of metrics to measure this by. You could look at it in terms of 0-60 acceleration, cornering speed, braking speed, or top speed. Often, top speed is the main thing people consider when trying to find out what's fastest.

So, what exactly is the top speed of an F1 car?

This is actually a bit of a tricky question to answer:

The fastest ever in-race top speed was 372.5km/h (231.4mph) by Bottas at the 2016 Mexican Grand Prix. In a typical Grand Prix, the maximum speed the cars can reach is usually around 210-220 mph (337-354 kph), but F1 cars have done 246 mph (397 kph) in special test setups.

Today, we'll be talking about everything you wanted to know about F1 cars and their top speeds, including how they can achieve these speeds and how F1 cars stack up against other types of race cars in this regard.

What's the Actual Top Speed of an F1 Car?

As we've mentioned, the fastest speed you'll usually see in a Grand Prix is about 220 mph. However, there have been instances where F1 cars have been driven considerably quicker than this.

The highest top speed ever recorded during a race was in 2016 when Valtteri Bottas hit 231 mph (372 kph) while driving for Williams. However, the actual highest recorded top speed for an F1 car is 246 mph (397 kph). The Honda F1 team did this at the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in 2006.

The F1 top speed record attempt at Bonneville Salt Flats

It's up for debate whether the Honda record counts; the Honda RA106 used to set the record was modified in several ways that would have prevented it from competing in an actual Grand Prix.

The engine in the record-breaking RA106 was de-restricted to produce as much power as possible. The normal rear wing was replaced with a stabilizer fin to create far less drag. And the regular race tires were swapped out for special tires more suited for the terrain the car was driven on.

The modifications to the car made it faster in a straight line than a standard F1 car but also a lot more unstable. The Honda used in the record attempt had only a fraction of the downforce that a standard F1 car would have had; any less, and the car would have literally taken flight during the record attempt.

In addition to all of the performance modifications, the team that broke the record in the Honda also took the car to the Bonneville Salt Flats, giving them a 12-mile long straightaway to attempt the record. This top speed would have never been possible during normal driving circumstances with an F1 car set up for normal racing conditions.

In any case, top speed generally isn't the main metric that decides which F1 car is the "fastest"; usually, cars are deemed faster or slower based on their average lap times, which are more relevant to the actual racing success of the car anyways.

How Do F1 Cars Go So Fast?

As you can imagine, a lot goes into engineering an F1 car and making it go fast around a track. F1 cars routinely feature cutting-edge technology designed to make them both faster and more fuel-efficient, and this technology often finds its way eventually into passenger vehicles.

A large part of how an F1 can hit the speeds that it does is, of course, its engine. Modern F1 cars actually have pretty small engines compared to other race cars (and even all other cars in general). Since 2014, all F1 cars have used a 1.6-liter turbocharged V6; despite their small size, these engines can make over 1,000 hp depending on their setup. 

So how can such a small engine make so much power?

It's all about the dimensions and the design of the engine. F1 engines have a very large bore/stroke ratio, meaning the width of the cylinder is wider than the distance the piston has to travel within it.

Put simply; this means that the pistons in an F1 engine don't have to travel as far to complete a stroke, which means that F1 engines can rev way faster than other race car engines. The downside to this is that F1 engines can't really produce that much torque, but since the cars are already so light, this isn't a big deal. The newer hybrid cars do, however, have more torque than the old naturally aspirated cars of the pre-2014 era.

F1 cars also use special tires that give them way more grip than regular tires. This improves traction during acceleration and cornering, although the tires sacrifice their durability as a result. F1 tires are usually completely worn out before a single race is finished, which is why pit stops to swap out tires are so necessary.

Lastly, modern F1 cars are equipped with KERS and DRS. KERS stands for kinetic energy recovery system and is basically a type of hybrid system that saves the car's kinetic energy during braking and can release it at a point of the driver's choosing. This can help give the car a boost of speed on the straightaways.

DRS stands for drag reduction system and is basically just a flap on the rear wing that can be moved up or down to create more or less drag, depending on the situation.

Are F1 Cars the Fastest Race Cars? 

At this point, you may be wondering how exactly F1 cars stack up against other race cars in terms of speed. Once again, this depends on how you measure it. Formula one cars are faster in some situations and slower in other aspects.

In terms of top speed and acceleration, F1 cars are actually slower than many other cars. For example, the fastest an F1 car has ever gone on a race track is 231 mph, but Indycars regularly hit speeds of 236 mph on the straights.

Nothing beats a top-fuel dragster when talking about simple straight-line acceleration and top speed. Dragsters can accelerate from 0-100 mph in about 0.8 seconds, and the fastest top speed recorded for a dragster at the end of a quarter-mile is 338 mph. 

Other types of race cars also have F1 cars easily beat in acceleration. F1 cars generally take about 2.6 seconds to hit 60 mph; compare that to LMP1 cars and rally cars, which can both reach 60 mph in less than 2 seconds.

However, it is difficult to beat F1 cars when it comes to cornering speed. F1 cars simply have more mechanical and aerodynamic grip than racing cars in other racing series. If you were to have an F1 car, an LMP1 car, and a rally car do laps of the same circuit, the F1 car would almost certainly set the fastest laps every time.  

Written by Stefan Kristensen
I have been passionate about motorsports ever since I was a little boy. Back then, I cheered on the racing cars simply based on their colors. Later I fell in love with the many technical features, strategic plays, humans and their stories that all together drives this amazing sport to make it as interesting as it is.
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