“Zircotec” is a term you’re most likely unfamiliar with, but Badger’s here to explain exactly what it’s all about, but first here’s why we’re bothering –
Formula One is a hugely technical sport where engineers are mad busy trying to save a tenth of a second in terms of lap time in every single part of a car’s design. Most of us are familiar with aerodynamics – making cars as ‘slippy’ as possible going through the air, while at the same time creating downforce (the reverse of a aeroplane’s wing) to push the cars down onto the race circuit.
Most of you will also have figured out what a diffuser is – in short, it’s a clever arrangement of mini-wings at the rear of the car that can effect how the air traveling from over and the under car behaves and if done well, can create additional downforce at the back, which provides a great benefit (just ask Jenson Button back in 2009). In 2010, a new term of ‘blown diffusers’ became commonplace – and it follows a similar principle, except we were also talking about the exhaust gases and how they are channeled and used to create yet more downforce. All very clever stuff.
Here, now ahead of the 2011 season, the Lotus Renault’s intriguing front facing exhausts are creating yet more discussion and they aren’t the only team to have looked into the idea. Whether this ambitious approach (or ‘aggressive approach’ if you ask McLaren’s Jonathan Neale) works to a great advantage or not isn’t clear yet, we’ll have to wait and see.
One thing links all these different areas car engineering wizardry though, and that’s “Zircotec coatings” which in short, is a way of coating carbon fibre in a manner that’s as aerodynamically sound, light and as practical as possible. Sounds challenging and it is, but it’s also bloomin’ impressive stuff and highlights the lengths at which engineers go to save that crucial tenth…
The engineer’s problem…
Another engineer and design team has suggested using the exhaust gases in such a way that they draw an increased amount of down force by having these gases running over parts of the car in addition to the air flow. All good, now how would carbon fibre handle these gases rushing over them at insanely high temperatures? Answer – not well at all, the structure could be weakened or even worse, melt. Now, if this carbon fibre is an important part of your rear suspension setup, you’ll be in trouble, and here lies the problem.
The engineer’s task…
This additional downforce could be massively beneficial so something is going to have to be done to, essentially ‘heat proof’ the carbon fibre, without weakening it or detrimentally effecting it in any way, shape of form (remember the suspension arms themselves are also aerodynamically shaped) – oh and without making it much heavier either.
The engineer’s solution…
By making use of ceramic coatings by a specialist engineering firm called Zircotec, all of this is achievable, yep that’s right, carbon fibre can be strengthened to withstand the heat, without effecting it’s shape, form or weight (well, not by too much) and here’s how these coatings work – it’s the science bit:
You have sophisticated, perfectly crafted carbon fibre suspension arm at the rear of the car. Extremely hot exhaust gases are flowing over and under it to maximise downforce, but the carbon fibre wouldn’t survive this the any period of time, so it needs a coating. Zircotec technology allows ceramic coatings to be liquefied at 10,000oC and then propelled at the carbon fibre and there the molten ceramic droplets flatten, cool and then solidify to weld themselves in place.
Now, here’s the even more impressive bit, at almost a nano-molecular level, the particles size and flow rate can the tweaked to achieve different results in the surface of the coating. In 2010, the finished product was fairly rough, analogous to the finest sand-paper you could find at your local B&Q – i.e. not that rough, but now in 2011, Zircotec have fine tuned this process to make the coating even smoother, which in turn could potentially deliver enough downforce that could add up to an additional tenth of a second of a car’s lap time – again it all comes down to that ‘critical tenth’ of a second.
All this technology is quite out of this world – or rather is used to be, the same technology is now being used on performance road cars such as latest Jaguar supercar. For loads more details and explanation of this incredible technology, have a look through the case studies on the Zircotec website.
The Critical Tenth
We hope you’ve enjoyed our first piece on the more technical side of F1 – we have a few more pieces of this nature where we’ll be bringing you the latest on the technology in our favourite sport and aiming to do so in plain-English, jargon free manner. At this year’s Autosport show we got to get our hands on the latest simulation technology used by a number of F1 teams so watch out for that next week. Let us know what you think of this new regular feature on Badger in the comments below.