Inside an F1 Gearbox

Formula 1 race cars have the biggest performance envelope of any form of motorsports. There are tracks that have 10 mph hairpin turns and 175 mph straights on the same course. The cornering forces are incredible and the braking could throw an unrestrained person out of the car. The gearboxes on these incredible machines are just as impressive as every other part. Amazingly light, massively strong and highly technical, they add both strength and performance to the overall package.

These gearboxes are semi-automatic, meaning the driver never has to operate the clutch unless he’s just starting off. Once underway, the driver can make the shift without his hands leaving the wheel or touching the clutch or accelerator. To shift gears, the driver flips a paddle on the steering wheel, operating a pair of hydraulic or pneumatic solenoids in the transmission that kick internal levers to select the next gear. Electronic sensors keep the engine from overspeeding if the driver selects the wrong gear or shifts without the clutch.

Physically, these transmissions operate on the same principles as any other. A power shaft, called a lay shaft, transmits power from the engine to the drive gears. The main shaft holds the gears that transmit power. An idler shaft allows running in neutral and engaging gears that run the opposite direction to engage reverse. A couple of forks select which gear to run, and rotating dogs slide along the shaft to engage and disengage specific gears.

Although these cars are extremely high tech, they share some of the same ideas found on heavy equipment and tractors. For one thing, the powertrain components form the actual frame of the vehicle. The rear suspension bolts directly to the transmission housing, which also holds the rear differential and the half-shafts that drive the rear wheels.

Formula 1 rules require eight gears and reverse. This wide range of gear ratios allows teams to use the same transmission no matter which course they might be running. In the past, different engines, transmissions and suspension components were commonly changed for each different course. Now the rules require no more than three transmissions or engines in a season, a rules change made to bring the astronomical costs down.