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post #1 of 4 (permalink) Old 11-09-2005, 06:39 PM Thread Starter
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From "Car and Driver" December 2005

Just read this article in December's Car and Driver, about the spark plugs in F1 engines. Interesting read, just thought I'd share.

Technical secrets of an F1 engine- learned in Toledo!

December 2005

What are the chances that a zillion-dollar Formula 1 car would rely on a tiny part from Corporal Klinger's hometown of Toledo, Ohio? You—like I—would answer slim to none, but slim just went out the door.

We'd be wrong because spark plugs used by the Renault, Williams, Minardi, and Red Bull F1 teams are made by a Toledo-based brand of Federal-Mogul's called Champion.

You might be asking, "So what?"

Well, the modern Formula 1 engine is an incredible beast with a spec sheet that makes car geeks like me queasy. The basics are out-of-this-world incredible. From just 3.0 liters and 10 cylinders—without horsepower-enhancing turbocharging or supercharging—an F1 engine makes about 900 horsepower. It does this by revving to an incredible 19,000 rpm, or more than double what a rev-happy Honda S2000 engine spins to.

To keep the pistons and connecting rods from flying apart at those revolutions, an F1 piston travels only about 1.6 inches compared with the four-inch stroke of the Corvette Z06 V-8. The bore is roughly 3.80 inches, comparable to the 4.13-inch bore of the Vette's 7.0-liter mill.

Those are estimated dimensions of an F1 engine gleaned from Peter Wright's fantastic book, Ferrari Formula 1: Under the Skin of the Championship-Winning F1-2000. The book was written about the 2000 Ferrari F1 racer, and it's impossible to acquire the specifics of current engines because those are well-guarded secrets within each team.

Car nerds are curious beings, though, and I wondered what kind of interesting technical details are housed in the usually not-so-glamorous spark plug. I called the Champion folks and asked if they'd show me an F1 plug.

Apparently, F1 spark plugs aren't all that secret because Federal-Mogul's global director of ignition technology, Richard Keller, generously agreed to show me the F1 plug and Federal-Mogul's research facility in Toledo. On the appointed day, I met with Keller and Mark McMurray, the product development manager who meets with F1 teams and designs the plugs to their satisfaction.

Spark-plug sizes vary, but a basic one used in a current production car is about 3.5 inches long, with a maximum diameter of roughly three-quarters of an inch. The bottom third of a plug's length is covered by a sleeve of steel threads, there's a metal stud on the top, and the white part is called the insulator, and it's ceramic. If you cut a plug in half down the length, you'll see an internal metal rod that extends from the top to a point near the bottom of the steel threads. A small piece of metal that looks like a J-hook extends from the bottom of the threads and comes close to—but doesn't touch—the lower end of the internal metal rod. That space is called the "gap," and it's across this area that the sparks occur to ignite the fuel-and-air mixture in the cylinder. (By the way, the metal surfaces on either side of the gap are "electrodes," and the J-hook is commonly referred to as the "ground electrode.")

Champion's basic Formula 1 plug that was used in the 1990s was similar in length to the one described above, but half the diameter. Then in 1999, one of the teams told McMurray that for the amount of space the spark plug inhabited, it was the heaviest part on the car (that plug weighed only 25.9 grams, or less than one-tenth of a pound). Unless Champion could reduce the weight of the plug by 20 percent every year until the team told them to stop, Champion was going to be out.

The plug McMurray and crew produced in response is smaller than your pinky. It's only 1.5 inches long, and the diameter of its threads is about 0.3 inch, or roughly half the diameter of a conventional plug. It also requires a special tool for installation so that the spark-plug hole in the cylinder head can be made as small as possible. Real estate in an F1 combustion chamber is a precious commodity because any space taken by the spark plug leaves less room for the valves, and as we all know, the larger the valves, the greater the airflow, and the greater the potential power output. As a final point, the plug weighs 10.7 grams, or a scant 0.024 pound. "Since we came out with that plug in 1999, they haven't asked us for any more weight reductions," said McMurray, beaming.

Besides its tiny size, another interesting feature of the F1 plug is that there's no protruding J-hook on the bottom. That's because there simply isn't room for one. "A normal ground electrode doesn't have a chance of surviving in an F1 motor," commented McMurray. "It would get crushed by the piston or simply shaken loose by the intense vibration." When an F1 piston is at the top of its stroke, it just about touches the cylinder head. The combustion-chamber volume is mostly made up of the recessed divots in the piston tops that are there to provide room for the valves. Without that hook, the ground electrode is simply the bottom edge of the threads. This design is known as a surface-gap spark plug.

To get an idea of the precision of the components of an F1 engine, McMurray told me that when Champion builds its F1 spark plugs, the length varies minutely from plug to plug. This is known as manufacturing tolerance; for the F1 plugs, the difference from the longest to the shortest plug is only 0.002 inch, or about the same as the thickness of the paper you're holding in your hands. If a spark plug is on the long side, the piston might hit it, so teams machine a divot in the piston or shim the spark plugs with washers.

Over the course of a year, Champion produces about 10,000 of these special units, and they're not cheap. Whereas you or I might pay two bucks for a spark plug, an F1 team coughs up between $35 and $50 each, or as much as $500 per engine. We all know the old racing adage: "Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?"

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post #2 of 4 (permalink) Old 11-13-2005, 02:32 PM
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Holy Toledo!

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post #3 of 4 (permalink) Old 11-13-2005, 02:57 PM
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woah, that's cool.

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post #4 of 4 (permalink) Old 11-13-2005, 11:15 PM
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yeah i like how close things are. and precice they have to be

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