How Many Gears Does a Formula 1 Car Have?

Formula 1 cars come packed with cool technology that makes them go as fast as possible. Formula 1 cars are meticulously engineered and designed for this purpose. This includes the engine, chassis and aerodynamic components as well as the gearbox.

Formula 1 cars use the exact same gearbox. It’s an 8-speed semi-automatic sequential device. This gearbox replaced the previous 7-speed unit in 2014. It has been in use since 2014. 

Today’s topic is all about gearboxes, how they work, and the rules surrounding them.

How does a Formula 1 Gearbox work?

Let’s start by defining a few terms we used in describing this gearbox. “Semi-automatic” and “sequential.” These terms can be confusing if you don’t know what they mean. Let’s discuss them here.

A semi-automatic transmission acts as a compromise between an auto gearbox or a true manual. This means that although some of the gear-changing processes are automated, the driver still needs to change the gear. 

The clutch is an automated component in almost every semi-automatic transmission. Two paddles are located on each side of the steering wheel and can be used to change gears. Although drivers will still need to use their experience and skills to change the gears at the correct time, it is much easier to do so.

What does “sequential” mean? You can shift the gears in any order with a standard manual transmission.

A sequential gearbox only allows you to shift one gear at a given time. As we have already mentioned, in Formula 1 cars this is done using paddles on the steering wheel. In other cars however, this is done with a lever which can be moved forward or back to advance through each gear. 

Technical Trivia

This section won’t be filled with technical jargon, but there are interesting aspects to how Formula 1 gearboxes work. Formula 1 gearboxes are primarily made from carbon titan, which has two main advantages: it helps the gearbox dissipate more heat and makes it very light.

A Formula 1 gearbox actually weighs less than any other type of gearbox. The average gearbox for a commuter car is between 100-400 lbs. But the Formula 1 gearbox weighs in at around 88 pounds.

Although Formula 1 gearboxes can handle hundreds of horsepower, they don’t have the ability to handle that much torque. The Xtrac P1044 7speed gearbox is an example. It has a peak torque of 413 lb/ft but only 250 lb/ft. 

This is because Formula 1 engines don’t make as much torque. Formula 1 engines have an extremely high bore/stroke ratio. This is because the cylinders are significantly larger than the pistons. 

A shorter stroke makes it possible for the engine’s revs to rise extremely quickly, which allows it to produce more power with a smaller displacement. A short stroke will not be good if your engine is to produce high-end torque.

Formula 1 cars don’t require much torque as they are lightweight. A Formula 1 car weighs just over 900kg even after it has been loaded with a driver, fuel tank, and all the other stuff. It’s easy to see why Formula 1 cars can still be very fast considering that they weigh twice as much and produce less torque than the average car.

It is worth noting the clutch of a Formula 1 gearbox. Although the clutch in Formula 1 is lighter than most other gearboxes, it can still produce over 700 horsepower. Formula 1 uses only one clutch, while many other high-end sports cars use dual-clutch transmissions.

The sequential transmission in Formula 1 cars is able to shift much faster using just one clutch than a dual-clutch. The Formula 1 gearbox is more noisy and difficult to use due to its unique construction. It also has a higher likelihood of wearing out.

All this performance comes with a steep price. The average price of a Formula 1 gearbox is around $600,000. This is almost $150,000 more than what it costs to buy a brand new Rolls-Royce Phantom.  

Formula 1 Gearbox Rules

You probably know that Formula 1 has many rules and regulations regarding how cars can be built and designed. The same applies to the gearbox. So let’s talk about some rules for Formula 1 gearboxes.

Gearbox Design

Since 2014, Formula 1 cars must use one transmission. It is a semiautomatic sequential unit with eight forward speeds and one backward speed. Prior to 2014 constructors had the option to use between 4 and 7 forward speeds for their transmission.

Fully-automatic gearboxes were allowed up until 2004. However, organizers banned them from the sport as they made driving too easy and reduced driver involvement. As of 2015, all teams are required to use the same fixed gear ratios for the entire season.

Williams F1 team tested continuously variable transmissions in 1993. However, they were banned before they could be used in any race. They offered too great a competitive advantage.

Many of the constructors at the time didn’t know how to design belts that could withstand the stresses of Formula 1 applications. Therefore, race organizers decided it wouldn’t be fair for one team to have access more technology than the other.   

Gearbox Use

There are rules that govern how Formula 1 gearboxes should be constructed. However, there are rules regarding how gearboxes may be used during a Formula 1 race season. There are also rules about how many gearboxes each team can use in a season.

Prior to 2022 teams could use six gearboxes each season. With this season’s season, however, that limit has been dropped to four. 

Each team must also use their gearbox for at least one race before switching to another. A grid penalty will be applied to any team that exchanges their gearbox for a different one before the time is up. 

(Cover photo: David Precious is from Stevenage in Herts, England. CC BY 2.0via Wikimedia Commons)