Skip to main content

Why do Formula 1 cars spark? (It’s a feature, not a bug)

The sparks save the plank that saves drivers' lives

F1 race - Ricciardo sparking past Grosjean for 4th in 2016.
"F1 race - Ricciardo sparking past Grosjean for 4th" by JaffaPix +6 million views-wow / thanks... is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. / Flickr

The first time you watch an F1 race, you may be surprised by the sparks. Sure, you expected the race to be loud, fast, and exciting, but who knew that sparks would fly from the back of the race cars? Note that the sparks are not dangerous to the cars, the drivers, or the spectators. The sparks from F1 cars may be harmless, but they also indicate that optional titanium skids are doing their part to help keep F1 drivers safe.

Why F1 car sparks matter

Lewis Hamilton driving a Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 race car.
Sandor Foszto / Pixabay

Sparks shoot from under F1 race cars when their undersides touch the asphalt. What’s actually happening is that titanium alloy skids attached to a plank on the bottom of F1 race cars hit the ground, and the friction causes the sparks. But it’s not just for show. The skids are important in protecting the plank from losing too much surface. Since 1994, FIA F1 Technical Regulations require that all F1 race cars have the plank, also called a skid block, installed. The titanium alloy skids are allowed but not required.

The plank serves as a crucial safety feature, preventing the creation of excessive downforce in racing cars. While downforce enhances traction—generally a positive attribute—in this context, it can lead to hazardous, even lethal, situations. Before the plank’s mandatory implementation in 1994, the motorsport world witnessed tragic losses, including those of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna during the Imola races, where their accidents were partly attributed to the negative effects of extreme downforce. Senna’s incident, specifically, involved stalled airflow due to excessive downforce. Such fatal accidents often occur as drivers lose control while navigating corners at high speeds, with too much downforce causing the cars to bottom out on the track. This sudden loss of downforce could result in vehicles uncontrollably colliding with barriers.

How the FIA can disqualify an F1 car with a plank

Charles Leclerc driving a Ferrari F1 race car.
Michael Kastelic / Pixabay

When the FIA began requiring planks installed on the bottom centerline of F1 cars, it didn’t only mandate the installation. The FIA added teeth to the regulation to ensure drivers didn’t defeat the purpose of the plank by grinding them down during races to go faster. F1 race cars are inspected before and after races. At the beginning of a race, the plank is required to measure 10mm thick. The car is disqualified if the plank measures less than 9mm during the post-race inspection.

Such disqualifications are rare, but Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc were surprised to be disqualified for excessive plank wear after the 2023 United States Grand Prix in Austin, TX. Lewis finished second, and Leclerc finished sixth during the race, but they were disqualified for violating the plank technical rule. It doesn’t matter if the titanium alloy skids wear down, but if a driver continues to bottom out the car with excessive downforce and the plank itself wears away past the threshold, that’s when the penalty is applied.

So the sparks from F1 cars aren’t a danger or a problem. They merely indicate they are doing their job to protect the plank, which is there to protect the driver.

Editors' Recommendations

Bruce Brown
Digital Trends Contributing Editor Bruce Brown is a member of the Smart Homes and Cars teams. He also writes technology news…
How much do F1 drivers make?
Verstappen and Hamilton each likely earn more than $100 million
Max Verstappen driving a Red Bull F1 race car.

Do you mean they get money, too? During the Formula 1 racing season, F1 drivers travel to exotic locations, get treated like superstars, and drive incredibly fast cars to compete with some of the world's top drivers. They also get paid salaries estimated to start at $1 million per season and may earn a lot more in bonuses, prizes, endorsements, and sponsorships.

From the live event spectators' and TV viewers' perspectives, it may appear that F1 race car drivers lead glamorous lives, but the reality for even the best drivers is a relatively short career training, practicing, and performing under constant pressure. Aspiring F1 drivers start young, usually under 10, and focus on racing, hoping that by the time they reach the minimum F1 driving age of 18, an F1 team will want them. If a driver succeeds in getting a seat in an F1 race car, then the scrutiny of the intensely data-centric F1 world commences. F1 driver performance is measured in many ways, including salaries and overall income.
Why F1 driver salaries matter

Read more
How much horsepower does a Formula 1 car have?
Drivers win the races, but how much horsepower does a Formula 1 cars have?
Red Bull's Max Verstappen driving a victory circle.

Formula 1 cars produce an incredible amount of horsepower. Watching them buzz around the track makes it easy to forget that each is an engineering marvel. F1 race car engines, or, to use the correct term, power units, produce prodigious amounts of energy, following specific and strictly enforced FIA F1 Regulations for technical, sporting, and financial matters.

F1 cars get the most possible from every element in their design and construction. Still, the first question fans often ask is, "How much horsepower do F1 engines have?" The simple answer for the 2024 F1 season is approximately 1,000 horsepower, but there's much more to it.
Why  F1 engine horsepower matters

Read more
Hennessey’s Venom F5 breaks COTA lap record — CEO tells us why it’s ‘America’s hypercar’
It turns out 1,817 horsepower is hard to beat
hennessey venom f5 breaks lap record at cota venomf5 06

Hennessey’s Venom F5 has set a speed record, though it isn’t quite the record the company is hoping will be the highlight of its year. The hypercar, which may be recognized as the world’s fastest at some point in the near future, now holds the production car lap record at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA). The track is globally significant, having hosted the U.S. Grand Prix for several years now, but also holds a special place in Hennessey’s heart. It’s the Texas-based company’s home circuit, so it’s fitting that it has gone out and established itself as the biggest dog in its own backyard before setting off to take on the world.

Speaking to The Manual, CEO and Founder John Hennessey explained what a significant milestone this is. He says: "I kicked off 2024 by saying that the Venom F5 will deliver on its potential this year. With 22 customer cars delivered and a newly expanded engineering team in place, we refocused our team on fine-tuning our hypercar to achieve significant speed milestones. The first we went after was a track record - and where better to set a fastest lap than our home circuit - COTA!"

Read more