Are you sitting comfortably? The science of F1 seat fitting

Many of us may have experienced the feeling of excitement after taking delivery of a brand-new chair or sofa. It looked great in the store and felt perfect at the time. Yet it often takes weeks until it truly feels a part of yourself and your home.

The same applies to Formula 1 seats, with the exception that there is much more science involved in the process and a little more at stake than being comfortable watching your favorite television programme!

All F1 drivers, whether seasoned campaigners such as Felipe Massa or his young replacement at the Acronis-backed WilliamsF1 team, Sergey Sirotkin, will have a seat fitting before every new season. Sometimes more.

Much as F1 rules and regulations change radically on a yearly basis, the insides of the cockpit are quite tightly regulated, and the basic dimensions do not alter from year to year. But even minor changes to chassis design, as well as slight changes in human body shape, must be taken into account.

Therefore, the role of seat fitting is a complex task which represents an intriguing technical science in itself. So how is it all done?

Back in the factory, usually prior to pre-season testing, the driver will jump into in the car chassis dressed in his overalls, gloves, race shoes and helmet. Everything is replicated just as he will sit in the car during any race. He sits on plastic bags filled with expanding foam which will exactly fit the contours of his body and internal shape of the tub.

Using expanding foam to get the shape of the driver’s body. © Craig Scarborough.

This ‘foam buck’ that has molded around the driver’s body is then electronically scanned into 3D CAD software, and the data from that 3D model goes to the tooling block where the seat mold is cut from the tooling block in precise layers – used to build the lightweight (3kg) carbon fibre seat which is then cured in the large autoclave ovens. It’s then ready for the final touches, including holes cut to accommodate the safety straps and HANS (Head and Neck Support) device.

Electronic scan to create a digital model of the seat. © Craig Scarborough.

The entire procedure can take a few hours but this process is crucial in relation to the driver’s comfort and feel regarding his pedal travel and steering wheel position. Some drivers prefer a stiffer set up with minimal travel and others a softer, longer give for both brake and throttle. Then comes the steering wheel, which, to the casual viewer, may look more like the control panel of a complex jet fighter aircraft than a racing car. With all the dials and knobs combined, there are around 20 buttons and dials to get to grips with – far more than that of any lower formula car.

Carbon fiber seat. © Craig Scarborough.

From adjusting front and rear brake balance, fuel and load settings (to compensate for oversteer or understeer), to selecting tire compounds and talking to the pits and even the sometimes-tricky job of getting a drink, there’s a lot for the driver to think about whilst driving around an F1 circuit at 180mph and experiencing up to 4g of lateral forces. Being as comfortable as possible in this most extreme of working environments is of the utmost importance to every driver.

Image: Robert Kubica, Williams FW41 Formula 1 car in the garage.  © Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1.

Fraser Masefield

Fraser Masefield

Son of a knight, relative of a poet laureate, sports editor and published author.

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