F1 clamps down on clutch systems

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Formula 1 leaves no stone unturned as it heads into a new technical regulation in 2017. As only one, but important change, the sport is set to take a step back regarding the clutch system next year in a bid to make starts more unpredictable.

The pinnacle of motorsport is looking forward to its renaissance next year as new technical regulations are about to be introduced. New tyres and a more aggressive look with wider chassis and wings are expected to lure more fans and pose a bigger physical challenge to drivers with the increased speed.

Next to the more spectacular regulation changes, there will be a modification regarding the clutch system in a bid to make driver’s life more difficult at starts and increase the percentage of unsuccessful starts.

Before 2016, starts were almost always perfect thanks to the complex clutch systems. Cars were equipped with double clutch paddles. Both paddles had different functions, with one of them the clutch could be completely opened while with the other the ‘bite point’ could be found. During free practices, engineers searched for the perfect clutch setting. In fact, it has always been hard to find as the ideal clutch position, the bite point changes with the clutch temperature which depends on a series of factors. At starts, drivers activated one of the paddles fully, while the other one was on the bite point. As the lights went out, the former was released as the other was gradually released.

This year, clutch system was simplified. The double-paddle system remained, but both paddles had to serve the same function. It meant a bigger challenge in finding the bite point. However, teams found ways to improve the consistency of the clutch. Teams marked on the steering the reference point which they worked out during practices. This helped the driver to find the bite point.

For 2017, much stricter rules are foreseen. Marking of reference points will be forbidden as of next year. The double-paddle clutch will be replaced by a single-paddle clutch which ends the help of the secondary paddle which functioned as an assurance. As a further restriction, the paddle will be responsible for the rpm of the engine and not for the clutch position.

That means, drivers have to feel with the hands and feet how many rpm they want to release at the start. A software will be developed which defines the clutch position in relation to the driver’s rpm demands via the paddle.

To give drivers a bigger feel for the clutch position and rpm need, bigger paddles will be introduced which help to sense smaller differences.

Paddles on the steering wheels have a long history in Formula 1 and they found their way to the road car industry which shows the relevance of the pinnacle of the motorsport to the road car production. In 1989, Ferrari were the first ever team in the history to mount paddles on the steering wheel when the Italian team introduced its semi-automatic paddle-shift gearbox as the first team. The first ever team to mount clutch paddles on the steering wheel was McLaren which introcuded the then innovative system in 1994.