Carbon fiber is a dream material for quickly making strong, lightweight auto parts from computer designs. There is no other material that really compares in terms of workmanship, speed and cost, which also has the properties to make itself really useful.
But as the world seeks to reduce its carbon dependence and production, is there an alternative to it for racing purposes?
Plastic could never be a substitute – it’s too heavy and not stiff enough. Although graphene mixed with carbon fiber can create a stronger composite, it doesn’t really present an effective option on its own. A strong, lightweight, and relatively cheap to manufacture (compared to metal forming) material like carbon fiber is basically unbeatable when it comes to making a race car body.
Even so, carbon fiber has some disadvantages when on the car. When it breaks, it produces a shower of shards which create a significant debris problem, with each shard presenting a puncture hazard.
In series like F1, where teams are keen to keep their designs secret, spraying bits of your race car onto the track is undesirable. In a specific chassis championship like IndyCar, Formula E or the vast majority of junior series, the availability of carbon fiber parts means huge piles of parts are produced most weekends.
In real terms, carbon fiber waste has nothing to do with the main carbon cost of racing – it will always be international logistics and trackside installation, followed by energy consumption and computing in the factory. But it’s not good optics, especially for an eco-marketed series like Formula E, to throw chunks of carbon it says it tries to offset or negate into a trash can every weekend.
Teams have no reasonable motivation for wanting to salvage pieces of their broken Formula E chassis most of the time, as most of the items likely to come off – the car’s front wing, hubcaps and diffuser Gen2” – are fully specified and only differentiated by the livery wrap on them. Anyone who’s been to an Eprix will know that it’s incredibly easy to collect even very large racing car parts if you fancy an awesome souvenir; a friend of mine has the front wing that Lucas di Grassi nudged title rival Sebastien Buemi with in the 2016 final. I admit I have a bunch of interesting shards that I have brought home in the pocket of my hand luggage.
In environmental terms, however, carbon fiber collecting is quite a toxic hobby. So, after seven seasons, Formula E began collecting and recycling its stock of broken car parts. Through a partnership he formed in 2021 with Gen2 Carbon, he now handles parts collected and stored since the series began in 2014. Although I’ve seen elated Mexican fans bring memorabilia home from the front wing in the last race, in theory these could now be recycled into new forms of carbon fiber and non-woven fabrics.
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Outside of racing, carbon fiber is (rightly) considered an expensive material. The regular destruction of such expensive material – not just in Formula 1 but up to relatively small GT racing – would surprise other, more conventional industries.
A cheaper, more durable alternative to carbon fiber with similar properties would be a desirable option for teams and manufacturers. Although there is not yet one suitable for F1 bodywork, progress is being made.
For manufacturers, particularly keen to present a cleaner image, the development of composites that are durable under race conditions both promotes the idea of the road’s relevance to their racing programs and reassures customers that they are not not passed on to a product that puts hippie credentials ahead of rigorous safety standards.
The Swiss company BComp initially aimed to offer an alternative to carbon fiber for skis. With no motorsport experience, they had no intention of doing anything that would be useful for the bodywork but gradually moved into space. I first saw their flax composite, which uses natural fibers rather than carbon fibers, on the roof of the random race-tuned Tesla that was trying to spark interest in Electric GT in 2017. The company then entered into an agreement with Porsche to supply the complete body and interior of a GT4 car.
In addition to its environmental benefits, BComp’s composite has a major advantage for motorsport applications: it tears on impact, rather than shattering, reducing the risk of sharp edges scattered around the track.
For high-contact GT racing, that means more bodywork can potentially be saved after an impact using Ginetta’s classic method of stitching it back together with cable ties like some sort of Frankenstein’s sports car. It also reduces the risk of a puncture and means that debris doesn’t cause such long warning periods or red flags to clear.
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Prior to BMW’s withdrawal from Formula E, its car used flax composite for its cooling shaft, which is one of the parts manufacturers are allowed to form themselves. BComp is supplying the bodywork for Extreme E’s huge electric SUV and Prodrive has used it on the Aston Martin Vantages it uses.
The material has even made its way into Formula 1 as part of racing seats for McLaren drivers. When the partnership was formed in 2020, the lineup of McLaren drivers of Carlos Sainz Jnr and Lando Norris were well below the minimum weight, which meant that using a slightly heavier composite to form their seats did not put them at a disadvantage. not (with a normal seat more ballast would have been placed in the seat area anyway). Although Sainz’s seat was never used before he left for Ferrari, Norris used his in the latter part of the 2021 season.
The flax alternative works in a setting where there’s no need for weight savings – or less needed, with heavy GT cars and electric SUVs – but currently can’t stand up pound-for-pound to fiberglass. carbon for the F1 body. Until this weight imbalance can be resolved, F1 is unlikely to set up a common trash can like Formula E, where rivals would also have far too many opportunities to check each other’s work. But encouraging teams to research their own options for recycling carbon fiber could at least provide an opportunity to showcase the technologies available, as F1 continues to try to be at the forefront of sustainability.
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