The suspension of a modern Formula One car forms the critical interface between the different elements that work together to produce its performance. Suspension is what harnesses the power of the engine, the downforce created by the wings and aerodynamic pack and the grip of the tyres, and allows them all to be combined effectively and translated into a fast on-track package.
Unlike road cars, occupant comfort does not enter the equation - spring and damper rates are very firm to ensure the impact of hitting bumps and kerbs is defused as quickly as possible. The spring absorbs the energy of the impact, the shock absorber releases it on the return stroke, and prevents an oscillating force from building up. Think in terms of catching a ball rather than letting it bounce.
Following the ban on computer-controlled 'active' suspension in the 1990s, all of the Formula One car's suspension functions must be carried out without electronic intervention. The cars feature 'multi-link' suspension front and rear, broadly equivalent to the double wishbone layout of some road cars, with unequal length suspension arms top and bottom to allow the best possible control of the camber angle the wheel takes during cornering. As centrifugal force causes the body to roll, the longer effective radius of the lower suspension arms means that the bottom of the tyre (viewed from ahead) slants out further than the top, vital for maximising the grip yielded by the tyre.
Unlike road cars, Formula One springs are no longer mounted directly to the suspension arms, instead being operated remotely via push-rods and bell cranks which (like the lobes of a camshaft) allow for variable rate springing - softer initial compliance becoming stronger as the spring is compressed further. The suspension links themselves are now made out of carbon fibre to add strength and save weight. This is vital to reduce 'unsprung mass' - the weight of components between the springs and the surface of the track.
Modern Formula One suspension is minutely adjustable. Initial set-up for a track will be made according to weather conditions (wet weather settings are far softer) and experience from previous years, which will determine basic spring and damper settings. These rates can then be altered according to driver preference and tyre performance, as can the suspension geometry under specific circumstances. Set-up depends on the aerodynamic requirements of the track, weather conditions and driver preference for understeer or oversteer - this being nothing more complicated than whether the front or back of the car loses grip first at the limits of adhesion.